JAKARTA, Indonesia (CBSNewYork/AP) — As the search expands for an AirAsia plane carrying 162 people that disappeared over stormy Indonesian waters, the National Search and Rescue chief offered a grim development for families waiting for news Sunday night.
National Search and Rescue chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo said investigators analyzing the flight’s last radar contact believe the plane is likely at the bottom of the sea.
“Based on the coordinates that we know, the evaluation would be that any estimated crash position is in the sea, and that the hypothesis is the plane is at the bottom of the sea,” Soelistyo said.
Naval Aviation Center Commander at the Surabaya air force base First Admiral Sigit Setiayana said 12 navy ships, five planes, three helicopters and a number of warships were searching an area of east and southeast Belitung island and nearby waters.
AirAsia Flight 8501 vanished in airspace possibly thick with dense storm clouds, strong winds and lightning on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore. Searchers had to fight against heavy rain. The Malaysia-based carrier’s loss comes on top of the still-unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July over Ukraine.
At the Surabaya airport, shocked family members pored over the plane’s manifest, crying and embracing when they learned the news. Nias Adityas, a housewife from Surabaya, was overcome with grief when she found the name of her husband, Nanang Priowidodo, on the list.
The 43-year-old tour agent had been taking a family of four on a trip to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia’s Lombok island, and had been happy to get the work.
“He just told me, ‘Praise God, this new year brings a lot of good fortune,'” Adityas recalled, holding her grandson tight while weeping uncontrollably. “He apologized because he could not join us for the new year celebration.”
Nearly all the passengers and crew are Indonesians, who are frequent visitors to Singapore, particularly on holidays.
The Airbus A320 took off Sunday morning from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, and was about halfway to Singapore when it vanished from radar. Djoko Murjatmodjo, Indonesia’s acting director general of transportation, said there was no distress signal from the cockpit of the twin-engine, single-aisle plane.
The last communication between the pilot and air traffic control was at 6:13 a.m., when the pilot “asked to avoid clouds by turning left and going higher to 34,000 feet,” Murjatmodjo said. It was last seen on radar at 6:16 a.m., and a minute later was no longer there, he told reporters.
Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia launched a search and rescue operation for Flight 8501 near Belitung island in the Java Sea, the area where the jetliner lost contact with ground traffic control about 42 minutes after taking off from Surabaya.
“We hope we can find the location of the plane as soon as possible, and we hope that God will give us guidance to find it,” Murjatmodjo said.
AirAsia group CEO Tony Fernandes flew to Surabaya and said at a news conference that the focus should be on the search and the families rather than the cause of the incident.
“We have no idea at the moment what went wrong,” said Fernandes, a Malaysian businessman who founded the regional low-cost carrier in 2001. “Let’s not speculate at the moment.”
At Grace Indonesian Baptist Church in Woodside, Queens, prayers are being sent across the ocean for the passengers and crew aboard the missing plane, CBS2’s Hazel Sanchez reported.
“Lord, we still hoping that all the passengers are safe,” said one church member.
“This year, two planes — Malaysian and this one. So yea, our hearts go out to the family and we’re really sad to hear about it,” said church member Arisa Siagian.
“I’m feeling very sad when I heard about the story,” said church member Yohanna Putero. “And I hope the plane can be found quickly and will be found safe.”
Malaysia-based AirAsia has a good safety record and had never lost a plane before. “This is my worst nightmare,” Fernandes tweeted.
But Malaysia itself had already had a catastrophic year, with 239 people still missing from Flight 370 and all 298 people aboard Flight 17 killed when it was shot down over rebel-held territory in Ukraine.
Back in the United States, travelers at Newark Liberty International Airport were not letting news of the missing plane disrupt their plans.
“I don’t know, I just don’t want it to stop my life from going on,” one man who had flown in from Tel Aviv told 1010 WINS’ Kevin Rincon. “That would be the best reason.”