One black box of SilkAir jet found

* 3-5 months needed to analyse contents
* Second black box yet to be found
* Mass burial at crash site or Palembang
* Search to go on for one more week

RESCUERS achieved a breakthrough in search operations yesterday when they found the flight recorder of the SilkAir jetliner which crashed into the Musi River last week.

Communications Minister Mah Bow Tan and Indonesian Transportation Minister Haryanto Dhanutirto announced the discovery of one of the two vital black boxes at a joint press conference here.

Mr Mah said that the black box, which gives information such as flight path, altitude, speed and direction of the plane, would shed light on what happened to flight MI 185 before it plunged from 35,000 ft.

All 104 people on board the plane, which was headed towards Singapore, died.

“This is a very important discovery. We are a very big step closer to finding out what happened to the plane,” said Mr Mah. “Obviously, all of us involved are extremely relieved that we have achieved some result as a small reward for all the effort and resources that have been put in.”

However, the cockpit voice recorder, which records sounds in the cockpit such as the crew’s voices and engine noises, is still missing.

Mr Haryanto said: “We are hopeful of finding the second black box component soon.”

He added that Professor Diran Oetarjo, chief of Indonesia’s airline investigation team, would leave for the United States today to study the flight recorder with the US National Transportation and Safety Bureau.

“We have to be patient because it could take three to five months to analyse its contents,” he said.

The flight recorder was dug up by navy divers yesterday morning, eight days after search operations began in the chocolate-coloured Musi, about 125 km from here.

Mr Mah, who visited the crash site with his Indonesian counterpart and Singapore Airlines chairman S. Dhanabalan yesterday, said there would be a mass burial for the 97 passengers and seven crew, either at the crash site or in Palembang city.

“We are coming to the conclusion that finding bodies is less and less likely. So we’ll have to take a decision soon on a mass burial.”

He said that a small team from Singapore would fly to Palembang to study possible sites for the burial.

The team would discuss with SilkAir and families of those who died before deciding on a location.

He did not say when the burial would take place but added that it could take some time, given that search efforts would be continuing for another week.

Most of the plane’s wreckage and body parts of the victims are believed to be in and around a crater, measuring 60 m by 25 m by 4 m, at the bottom of the Musi.

Mr Dhanabalan, who was also at the news conference, said that most of the debris were likely to be concentrated in one area.

“It is very, very unlikely that we will discover any big part of the plane, including its fuselage, anywhere else,” he said.

Mr Mah said that Indonesia and Singapore were sending dredges to help in excavating the wreckage from the river bed.

Mr Haryanto said that, so far, 10 per cent of the plane’s wreckage had been found. He said that recovery operations would continue until Friday.

IN SINGAPORE, at a press conference at Changi Airport last night on his return from Indonesia, Mr Mah cautioned that the discovery of one of the black boxes did not mean the cause of the crash would be pinpointed. He said there had been instances where black boxes had yielded insufficient data to identify the cause.

Mr Dhanabalan said an expert from the US National Transportation and Safety Bureau, who had been involved in similar incidents, told him that the search and recovery team had made remarkable progress, considering the difficult terrain and conditions.

“He was very surprised that so much had been recovered in such a short time, especially taking into account the difficult site conditions.”

He added that such progress could not have been achieved without the cooperation among the various agencies involved, as well as the deployment of massive manpower and equipment resources.

The expert explained to Mr Dhanabalan why no big pieces of the plane had been found. “He said that when an aircraft like this hits water, it shatters like a bulb, and that’s why we have so little evidence of big pieces,” he said.

On the next phase of the search and recovery operations, Mr Mah said: “We are now talking about wreckage buried much deeper in the mud.”

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