Main body of plane found lodged in river bed


THE main body of the SilkAir MI185 plane that crashed into the murky waters of the River Musi in southern Sumatra was found yesterday.

The wreckage was lodged deep in the river bed, with the bodies of the victims believed to be trapped inside. Rescuers spent futile hours trying to pry open the craft’s doors before poor visibility forced them to stop at nightfall.

Hauling operations to lift the plane using cranes will begin today, and relatives of the 104 people who were on board will be kept informed of findings.

The long day of rescue and search operations for survivors – or remains – of the ill-fated flight that crashed on Friday evening en route to Singapore from Jakarta began at dawn yesterday.

A team of over 300 Indonesian rescuers were involved in the mission, together with over 180 officials from Singapore.

Naval divers and soldiers trawled the waters of the river in the coastal area of Banyuasin in police boats and rubber launches, backed by hundreds of helpful villagers who gave up a day of fishing to help in their humble sampans.

All battled high tide, strong current and murky waters.

Senior manager of public relations for SilkAir Rick Clements said the efforts involved both air and sea searches. He added that the mission was being led by Indonesia, which had been very helpful in retrieving the wreckage found. But he could not say for how long the search would continue, he added.

Yesterday’s operations began at 5 am on the river and stopped at nightfall.

The first signs of wreckage were fished out of the river at about 7 am. Bits of the plane, clothing scraps, water-logged single shoes, tattered passports and human remains were dredged up throughout the day.

An AFP report described one police diver as holding up a plastic bag filled with human remains.

Another police diver from Palembang told the news agency: “We have so far found a flight manual, a Japanese-English dictionary, children’s sport shoes, a torn-up book with a red plastic cover, and a medical journal from the Tow Yung Clinic in Singapore.”

The main find of the day was a large piece of wreckage, believed to be the body of the plane with the bodies of the victims trapped inside, took place in the morning.

Transport Minister Hariyanto Dhanutirto spent six hours at the crash site. He was closeted in the VIP lounge of Palembang airport for about 30 minutes at 3 pm, where he briefed officials from the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, SilkAir and the Singapore Armed Forces on progress of the search and rescue mission.

Speaking to reporters later, he said: “I have just come back from the site, and it was established that the plane is deeply embedded in the river. We are leasing two heavy duty cranes from Palembang. They left at 1 pm and are expected to arrive at 5.30 pm. They will be used to lift the plane from the mud.”

Hauling operations are expected to begin today.

He declined comment on what could have caused the crash, saying he was leaving this to the investigating team.

Singapore’s ambassador to Indonesia, Mr Edward Lee, also flew to Palembang yesterday.

He said last night that many relatives of the victims, who were now waiting in the town for news of their loved ones, wanted to go to the remote crash site. The site was difficult to access, but “we are hoping to make arrangements for some form of transport there,” he said in a television interview.

Over 130 relatives of the victims, including non-Singaporeans, left Singapore on board three SilkAir planes for Palembang yesterday. They were put up in four hotels. A team of SilkAir “buddies” and Health Ministry counsellors are accompanying them on their vigil.

The Boeing 737-300, with 97 passengers and seven crew, is said to have crashed in the waters of the coastal area of Banyuasin, 65 km north of Palembang.

The 500-km long River Musi passes through this fishing enclave, which has a population of about 5,000 people.

The 97 passengers included 40 Singaporeans, 23 Indonesians, 10 Malaysians, five Americans, five French, four Germans, three British, two Japanese, one Australian, one Austrian, one Bosnian, one Indian and one Taiwanese.

The commander of the craft was Captain Tsu Way Ming, 41, and the First Officer was New Zealander Duncan Maurice Ward, 23. The Singaporean cabin crew comprised flight stewardesses Ho Soo Phong, 29, Lai Mui Chui, 25, Pong Geetah Kristine, 22, Claudia Teo Buay Hong, 25, and Syaibani binte Shaik Massan, 19.

Indonesian naval diver Amir Syariffudin, who had been combing the three km-wide river since dawn, said: “It is very dark and deep down there. We can’t see anything.”

He saw no signs of survivors and added that anyone who might have survived the crash would have drowned by then.

His colleague, Mr Roestamil, said they had found small pieces of the aircraft in the water, and clothing items, shoes, documents, as well as human body parts, including a foot and intestine.

Police deputy chief Hariadi, who was overseeing operations, said that the Indonesian armed forces (Abri) had deployed more than 100 soldiers, four patrol boats and rubber launches in the rescue operations.

Two Super Pumas, two C130s and one Fokker 50 from the Republic of Singapore Air Force are also helping in the mission.

Among the villagers helping was fisherman Ujung Saleh, 38.

He said: “I heard that a lot of orang asing (foreigners) died. I feel so sorry for them, which is I why I stopped my fishing activity for today to help.”

He said he and other fishermen lowered their fishing nets into the waters with the help of naval divers. He said: “They go down into the water and ask us to pull up our nets. We don’t see fish but twisted metal and some body parts. I never saw anything so horrible in my life.”

Most of the houses in the village, which is surrounded by thick mangrove swamps, are seven metres above water level and held by wooden stilts.

Most villagers, including many children, were out in full force in the rescue effort or just standing by the river side as curious bystanders.

Workers at a lighthouse nearby told of hearing two explosions, a crash as the plane plunged into the river, and a third explosion minutes later.

“Bang! Bang! and Bang! We never heard anything like this in the kampung before,” lighthouse worker Mohamed Adli said.

Most people in the village had just finished their afternoon solat (prayers) and were taking an afternoon nap when the explosions occurred, he said, adding: “They all rushed out to the river bank to see what happened.”

His friend Sofjan said that a few seconds after the plane hit the water, there was a huge explosion and water just spouted upwards.

He added: “We then saw parts of the wreckage and other stuff floating on the water.”

Together with two friends, he alerted the police quickly and within half an hour police boats were out on the river.

Head of the Sungsang village Haji Nafian Ham was playing badminton with his 10-year-old son when he heard the series of explosions and cries from villagers that a plane had crashed into the river.

He got to the river in five minutes. “I expected to see bodies rising to the top but instead saw pieces of the plane’s wreckage.”

Referring to the hundreds of people milling on the river bank, police deputy chief, Captain Hariadi said: “There are lots of people out here now, but no bodies and survivors at the bottom of this river.”

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