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Update: Indonesian divers struggle to reach AirAsia wreckage
[ABOARD THE KRI BANDA ACEH WARSHIP, Indonesia] Elite Indonesian military divers battled powerful currents on Thursday to reach the submerged tail of crashed AirAsia Flight 8501, in hopes of finding its crucial black box data recorders.
The plane crashed on December 28 during stormy weather as it flew from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore, claiming the lives of all 162 people on board.
Bad weather and huge waves have plagued multinational efforts to find the wreckage of the plane in the Java Sea, as well as all of the bodies and the black boxes that should contain the pilots' last words.
The biggest breakthrough came on Wednesday with the discovery of the tail, which is where the black boxes are kept, buried into the seabed 30 metres (100 feet) underwater.
However powerful currents stymied efforts on Thursday by divers from the Indonesian Marines' elite diving unit to penetrate into the tail, search and rescue agency chief Bambang Soelistyo told reporters in Jakarta.
"Today's search was really hampered by strong currents," Mr Soelistyo told reporters in Jakarta after a day of repeated but fruitless probes to the tail.
Divers travelled by rubber boat from the KRI Banda Aceh warship that was being stationed close to the site of tail wreckage.
Mr Soelistyo said, if weather allowed, retrieval experts would try to lift the tail off the seabed on Friday, which would give divers access into the wreckage and search for the black boxes.
He said the lifting could be done with special airbags or a crane, all of which would be brought to the Banda Aceh and another naval ship in the area on Friday.
Mr Soelistyo said the other top priority was the search for bodies, with just 43 found so far.
Many of the others are believed to be inside the wreckage of the plane's main cabin, which has not been found.
All but seven of those on board were Indonesian.
The search - involving US, Russian, Chinese and other foreign military assets - is being conducted from Pangkalan Bun, a town on the island of Borneo which has the closest airstrip to the crash site.
The Indonesian meteorological agency has said weather was the "triggering factor" of the crash, with ice likely damaging the engines of the Airbus A320-200.
But a clearer explanation is not possible without the black boxes.
Indonesian authorities also said the plane was flying on an unauthorised schedule when it crashed, and AirAsia has since been suspended from flying the Surabaya-Singapore route.
Indonesia's transport ministry said on Wednesday that it had fired one transport official and disciplined several others in a crackdown following the crash.
It was expected to announce on Friday the results of a deeper investigation into how the flight was able to depart without permission.
Indonesia's air travel industry is booming, with domestic passengers growing nearly five-fold over the past decade and airlines scoring billion-dollar deals with foreign plane makers.
But it has a dismal air safety record.
In 2007, an Adam Air plane plunged into the sea off Sulawesi island on New Year's Day, killing all 102 people on board. That airline was later banned from flying.
A few months later, a jet with flag carrier Garuda Indonesia burst into flames on landing in the province of Central Java, killing 21 people.
Authorities have sought to tighten regulations on the aviation sector since the darkest days of 2007, but have conceded the fact AirAsia was flying on an unscheduled day showed more needed to be done.
AirAsia Indonesia has declined to comment on allegations it violated its permits. Singapore authorities say the Sunday flight schedule had been cleared at their end.
The airline is a joint venture involving Malaysia-based budget carrier AirAsia, which previously had a solid safety record.