[PANGKALAN BUN] Recovery teams expanded their search in the Java Sea on Monday as they raced to find bodies and wreckage from AirAsia Flight 8501, which they fear have drifted in rough weather that has hampered operations over the past week.
As the massive relief operation entered its ninth day, officials were hopeful for a break in poor conditions to send divers down to the area where large parts of the crashed Airbus A320-200 have been found.
Only 34 bodies have so far been recovered from the disaster scene. A total of 162 people were onboard when the plane crashed into the sea during on a storm on December 28, en route from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore.
"Hopefully the weather is good today so that the ROVs (remotely-operated underwater vehicles) and other instruments can be used and our divers can go to the seabed again," search and rescue official S.B. Supriyadi told AFP.
He said he was hopeful they would find "all the parts" of the aircraft Monday and get its exact coordinates underwater.
"Yesterday when our divers went down, the visibility was very bad," Supriyadi added.
Recovery crews nonetheless made some progress on Sunday, retrieving four more bodies and locating a fifth large chunk of the plane.
The discoveries came after Indonesia's meterological agency said ice likely caused the plane's engine to stall, and as the pilot's daughter urged the public not to blame her father.
Searchers are hunting for the "black box" flight data recorders to determine the cause of the crash.
Supriyadi said the search, which is being assisted by several countries including the United States and Russia, would expand eastwards Monday on suspicions that strong currents have caused parts of the plane to drift.
Several aircraft were making their way from Pangkalan Bun, a town on the island of Borneo with the nearest airstrip to the wreckage, to scour the sea's surface. Speed boats were sweeping the coastline for signs of bodies that may have drifted to shore.
Supriyadi said the team was assessing whether to lift the discovered plane parts off the seabed or just find the "black box" flight data recorders.
"We hope to find the black boxes as soon as possible," he said.
"If the tail is upside down and the door to the black box is in the mud, we need to dig the seafloor and that's difficult. We are hoping the door to the black box is facing upwards so it is easier for us to fetch it." An initial report by Indonesia's meteorological agency BMKG suggested the weather was the "triggering factor" behind the accident.
The report referred to infra-red satellite pictures that showed the plane was passing through cloud top temperatures of minus 80 to minus 85 degrees Celsius.
But it remained unclear why other planes on similar routes were unaffected by the weather, and other analysts said there was not enough information to explain the disaster until the flight recorders were recovered.
The operation has prioritised finding the bodies of the victims, of whom 155 were Indonesian, with three South Koreans, one Singaporean, one Malaysian, one Briton and a Frenchman - co-pilot Remi Plesel.
Some of the bodies have been found still strapped into their seats.
The daughter of the plane's pilot, Captain Iriyanto, made a televised plea late Sunday urging people not to blame her father.
"He is just a victim and has not been found yet. My family is now mourning," said Angela Anggi Ranastianis.
"As a daughter, I cannot accept it. No pilot will harm his passengers," she told TV One.
In his last communication, experienced former air force pilot Iriyanto said he wanted to change course to avoid the menacing storm system. Then all contact was lost, about 40 minutes after take-off.
Many of the victims' relatives have gathered to wait for news and prepare funerals in Surabaya, where a crisis centre has been set up for identifying bodies.
Indonesia has pledged to investigate alleged flight violations by AirAsia, saying the aircraft had been flying on an unauthorised schedule when it crashed. The airline has now been suspended from flying the Surabaya-Singapore route.