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All 189 onboard feared dead after Indonesian plane crashes into sea

A Lion Air flight, carrying more than 180 people, crashed into the Java Sea on Oct. 29, shortly after it took off from an airport in Jakarta. (Video: Reuters)
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JAKARTA, Indonesia — Rescuers pulled mangled body parts out of the Java Sea on Monday as officials here scrambled to uncover what went wrong on a nearly brand-new Boeing jet operated by Lion Air that crashed, likely killing all 189 onboard.

No clear explanation has emerged about what had caused the crash, which occurred shortly after takeoff. Skies were clear. The Boeing 737 Max 8 had been in service for two months and had flown just 800 hours. 

The aircraft’s pilot had asked to return to Jakarta’s airport shortly after takeoff, and his request was cleared by air traffic controllers. The plane then lost contact with controllers and plunged into the sea from 3,000 feet.

Authorities quickly launched a search-and-rescue mission but later said they did not expect to find any survivors. Throughout the day Monday, rescuers pulled debris out of the sea, including parts of the aircraft’s fuselage, ID cards and bags belonging to the passengers. Bodies and body parts were being recovered and sent to a hospital for identification.

The scene in Indonesia after a plane crashed into the sea with more than 180 on board

An Indonesian police officer holds wreckage from Lion Air Flight 610 at Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta. (Willy Kurniawan)

People at an offshore refining facility nearby also found remnants of the aircraft, including plane seats, in the water. Officials said they have received no confirmation that anyone survived. 

“My prediction is that no one has survived, because none of the victims have been found” intact, said Bambang Suryo Aji, the national search-and-rescue agency’s director of operations. Nine body bags, filled with parts of the victims’ bodies, were taken to the hospital.

Fifteen ships are looking for the plane’s main section and the victims, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said at an evening news conference Monday at Jakarta’s airport. More than 300 rescuers have been deployed from the search-and-rescue agency. Among them are 30 divers plunging deep into the water to find the remaining parts of the fuselage, the bodies and the plane’s black box, with the aid of underwater robots and sonar technology.

Indonesia is one of the region’s fastest-growing aviation markets — air travel is a necessity to dart across the large archipelago — but the country has long had a mixed record on airline safety.

Its airlines were banned from flying to the United States in 2007 because they were “deficient in one or more areas, such as technical expertise, trained personnel, record-keeping, or inspection procedures.” The Federal Aviation Administration lifted the ban in 2016 after the country’s airlines showed signs of improvement. The European Union similarly barred Indonesian carriers from flying into European airspace from 2007 until June.

Lion Air, Indonesia’s largest budget airline, controls over 50 percent of the market share, according to the Center for Aviation, an aviation market intelligence firm. 

Lion Air Flight 610 lost contact with air traffic officials and fell about 13 minutes after takeoff, officials said. People on a nearby tugboat watched the plane descend. The air traffic websites FlightAware and Flightradar24 showed the plane climbing erratically, barely reaching above 5,000 feet, before quickly dropping and disappearing from radar. 

In a news conference, Lion Air Group’s chief executive, Edward Sirait, said the plane, a new model from Boeing, had a technical issue on a previous flight that was resolved “according to procedure.” He did not give details.

“Let the authorities investigate what happened to it,” he added, refusing to speculate on the cause. “But I made sure that this plane was released to fly by our engineers.”  

Among those onboard were two pilots, six flight attendants and two babies, as well as 20 employees from Indonesia’s Finance Ministry. One of the passengers was Italian, and the rest were Indonesian nationals. The pilot, Captain Bhavye Suneja, was from India and had more than 6,000 flight hours, and his co-pilot had more than 5,000 hours.

In New Delhi, the pilot’s grieving relatives gathered in the living room of his parents’ house on a narrow street in Mayur Vihar, a middle-class residential neighborhood in the eastern part of the city. Family members declined to speak to reporters. 

Anil Gupta, a neighbor, said Suneja had moved abroad several years earlier but returned each fall to spend the Hindu festival of Diwali with his family. Suneja had “wanted to be a pilot since he was a child,” Gupta said. “There was so much love for him on this street.” 

By Monday afternoon, distraught family members had begun streaming into a crisis center set up in Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. Another was established at the plane’s never-reached destination at Depati Amir Airport in Pangkal Pinang, a tin-mining region. 

Many relatives had heard the news of the crash and rushed to the airport, the reality of the improbable search for survivors slowly sinking in. 

Among them was Fitri Sagala, 47, whose brother-in-law, Mangatur Sihombing, boarded Flight 610 that morning. She was at the crisis center with her sister, Mangatur’s wife. 

“I’m at a loss,” she said, explaining that she was a widow and that her brother-in-law was her main provider. “I lost my husband, so he was caring for me and my children.” 

James Sianturi, 57, fought back tears as he spoke about his son, 26-year-old Jandri, who was also on the flight. He was on his way back to Pangkal Pinang, where he worked at a bank. Jandri moved his flight to Monday morning from Sunday to spend an extra day in the city with his fiancee, who works in Jakarta. They were due to marry in May 2019. 

“Only God knows what his condition is, and hopefully, God grants a miracle to my son,” he said.

How multiple disasters stunned experts and ravaged a corner of Indonesia

The aircraft, a Boeing 737 MAX 8, was purchased this year by Lion Air, Southeast Asia’s second-largest low-cost airline. The plane is one of Boeing’s newest and had flown several hundred hours since Lion Air started operating it on Aug. 15. It departed at 6:21 a.m. local time and was scheduled to arrive about 7:20 a.m. at Pangkal Pinang, the largest city on the Indonesian island of Bangka.

“The Boeing Company is deeply saddened by the loss of Flight JT 610. We express our concern for those on board, and extend heartfelt sympathies to their families and loved ones,” the company said in a statement. “Boeing stands ready to provide technical assistance to the accident investigation.”

Investors reacted sharply to the news: Boeing’s share price dropped nearly 7 percent Monday after the crash.

Lion Air has emerged as an important international customer for the aerospace giant. According to records maintained by the aerospace consulting firm Boyd Group International, Lion has 205 open orders for Boeing 737 models, though that pipeline includes only one MAX 8 model that hasn’t yet been delivered. Earlier this year, Lion announced it would buy 50 new MAX 10 models.

Lion Air has been involved in a number of incidents in the past few years, but none with fatalities. One of its jets collided with a plane from another carrier, Wings Air, on the island of Sumatra last year, but no one was injured. In 2013, a Lion Air flight crashed into the sea after landing on the resort island of Bali. Several were injured, but no one was killed. 

In 2004, a Lion Air plane skidded off the runway in heavy rains when it landed in the city of Solo, killing 31.

If all the passengers and crew on the aircraft have died, it would be the country’s second-worst disaster since 1997, when a Garuda airlines plane crashed close to the city of Medan, killing all 234 people onboard. 

Mahtani reported from Hong Kong. Timothy McLaughlin in Hong Kong, Vidhi Doshi in New Delhi, and Ashley Halsey and Aaron Gregg in Washington contributed to this report.

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