BEIJING — With the discovery of floating wreckage and bodies Tuesday in waters off Indonesia, the massive search-and-rescue effort for a missing AirAsia jet now turns into a recovery operation.
Crews mobilized Wednesday morning to pull more bodies from the Java Sea and to comb underwater for the main fuselage and flight recorders, which represent their best chance of figuring out why the plane crashed.
After an intense three-day search, the discovery of the debris and some bodies Tuesday was a source of relief and sharp anguish. For families — who had been awaiting word ever since the jet lost radar contact Sunday — it was grim confirmation of their worst fears: that the plane and its 162 passengers had plunged from the storm-laced skies.
Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, rushed to the scene and thanked the international teams that mobilized for the search. Then he addressed the grieving families.
“I feel your loss,” he said, adding prayers that they would be “given strength to face this tragedy.”
At the Surabaya airport, about 400 miles southeast of Jakarta, relatives of those on the flight broke down in tears as television images showed the recovery of a body, bloated by the sun and sea. Some hugged or collapsed in anguish. One man was carried out on a stretcher.
The TV images drew strong condemnation online. The station, TV One, quickly apologized and subsequently blurred out video of the corpse at sea.
Nearly all the passengers and crew members were Indonesians — some making year-end holiday trips to Singapore.
“Words cannot express how sorry I am,” AirAsia’s chief executive, Tony Fernandes, wrote in a tweet.
The top goal, authorities said, was to recover more bodies when operations resumed at first light Wednesday — an effort that was complicated by strong winds and waves up to 10 feet high.
Indonesia’s rescue operations chief, Bambang Soelistyo, said that at least six bodies were seen and that three were recovered and placed on an Indonesian warship Tuesday. Three more bodies, including a flight attendant still wearing her AirAsia uniform, were recovered early Wednesday, he said. A spokesman for the country’s navy, Manahan Simorangkir, initially said that more than 40 bodies were recovered but later told reporters that number was an error based on“miscommunication” by his staff.
The small number of bodies recovered suggests that many may remain in the underwater wreckage. In the 2009 Air France Flight 447 crash, to which many experts have compared the AirAsia situation, the majority of bodies were not recovered until authorities found the submerged fuselage.
Meanwhile, an array of debris was carried Tuesday to Indonesian ports: a portable oxygen tank, a light-blue wheeled suitcase, a portion of the inner layer of the aircraft cabin.
The debris field was spotted about 60 miles from the flight’s last known coordinates and roughly 100 miles southeast of the coast of Borneo.
It was discovered by a fisherman, who hadn’t heard of the missing plane and had no clue what the debris signified until he returned to his village, local news outlet Tempo reported.
In a cruel twist, some rescuers initially thought they saw people waving for help. It turned out to be sea swells tossing lifeless arms.
“When we approached closer [we saw] they were already dead,” said Lt. Tri Wibowo, co-pilot of a C-130 Hercules involved in the search effort, according to the Indonesian newspaper Kompas.
The spotters on the plane also saw what looked like a shadow on the seabed in the shape of a plane, which search officials believe could be the main wreckage.
Even as they pull more bodies and debris Wednesday from the Java Sea, investigators are preparing for the next step: trying to reach what is left of the Airbus A320-200 in relatively shallow waters up to 100 feet deep.
Indonesian authorities have sent divers and sonar-equipped ships to the site.
The USS Sampson, a guided-missile destroyer, joined the search late Tuesday and has launched helicopters to help. U.S. defense officials said the USS Fort Worth is also ready to assist from its port in Singapore.
A former accident investigator, John Cox, said the plane’s voice and flight data recorders — if found — would have to be sent for analysis by other countries, such as the United States or Australia, that have more advanced decoding technology. It could take up to three days to fully study the data, he added.
“In those boxes,” said Cox, a former captain for US Airways, “will be the story of what brought down the AirAsia flight.”
Among the critical questions is whether the plane broke up during flight or hit the water intact.
“It’s important to know because that tells you whether it was a force like a storm that destroyed the airplane in air or if it was a matter of the pilots losing control and never able to recover from it,” said Australia-based aviation security expert Desmond Ross.
One possible advantage for investigators is the relatively shallow seabed and its proximity to shipping lanes. Merchant seamen and others have extensive knowledge of currents that could have carried the wreckage and the orange-colored flight recorders, which are waterproof and fitted with an electronic tracking signal.
“My guess is we’ll know what happened within a week,” said David Gallo, an American oceanographer and co-expedition leader in the investigation of the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447.
Deane reported from London and Murphy from Washington. Liu Liu and Gu Jinglu in Beijing contributed to this report.