Relatives of Garuda crash victims blame govt

THE BIG HAZE

AIR DISASTER

VETERAN pilot captain Hance Rahmowiyogo, who was at the controls of the ill-fated Garuda plane which crashed on Friday, had complained several times recently about the haze, his wife revealed.

“Actually, he was reluctant to go today and said the haze had become more serious, but he went and now will never return,” Mrs Rahmowiyogo said in an interview late on Friday night with a private television station.

Some distraught relatives of the victims yesterday blamed the government for allowing the Airbus A-300 with 222 passengers and 12 crew to fly in heavy haze caused by forest fires.

Garuda officials said visibility at the time of the crash was 600 metres which was “still quite sufficient” for landing. But others put the visibility at about 400 metres.

Hours after the aircraft ploughed into a hillside and burst into flames 45 km south of Medan, north Sumatra, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement assuring neighbouring countries that Jakarta was doing everything possible to deal with the fires and the resulting haze enveloping the region.

While the statement made no reference to the crash, it said the government did not underestimate “the seriousness of this disaster. It is hoped that the measures we are taking will bring a rapid end to this terrible tragedy”.

A ministry source told The Sunday Times that the statement had “no link with the plane clash” and was aimed instead at clarifying international uncertainty over what the government was doing to tackle the fires and haze.

There has been widespread speculation here that the plane, flying from Jakarta to Medan, went down near the village of Buah Nabar, because of poor visibility brought on by the haze.

As investigations got underway in the country’s worst air disaster to determine if there indeed was such a link, search and rescue teams struggled in rough and muddy terrain to carry away the remains of victims.

Rescuers, who said their efforts were being hampered by poor visibility, which was below 200-metres, had by late yesterday recovered 150 bodies but identified only 20 of them.

Many bodies were badly mutilated and some burnt beyond recognition. Body parts were strewn over a wide area of the crash site. The plane’s black box with its flight data and voice recorder are yet to be recovered.

Some trees in the area were flattened suggesting that the aircraft had smashed into them before crashing.

Grieving relatives trying to make their way to Medan’s Polonia airport from Jakarta were left stranded as the special flight to the north Sumatran provincial capital was cancelled – because of the haze.

Others who were from the province flocked to the Adam Malik Hospital in Medan where the remains of victims were being taken.

Antara reported that the victims included six Japanese, four Germans, two Americans and a Belgian. The British embassy said two Britons also died.

North Sumatra Governor Raja Inal Siregar said that victims who could not be identified would be buried in a mass grave.

A task force comprising officials from Garuda and the Transport Ministry arrived in Medan yesterday and the carrier’s chief executive, Mr Supandi, said the airline accepted responsibility for the crash.

Newspaper reports here said that Polonia airport had been closed intermittently over the past week because of the haze. At least three other airports in Sumatra were also closed to air traffic.

A diplomat in Medan told The Sunday Times that the haze was worsening in the city – a development symptomatic of the rest of Sumatra and Kalimantan where thick smog was wreaking havoc – and more tragedy.

Reports here yesterday said two more people had died from respiratory illness, bringing the Indonesian death toll to four so far.

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