Bad weather hinders search for AirAsia victims

Aerial missions were suspended as heavy rain and low visibility made it difficult to recover bodies.

This handout photo made available on December 31, 2014 by Malaysias Ministry of Defence shows Royal Malaysian Navy search and rescue crews retrieving a victim from AirAsia flight QZ8501 during their search and rescue operations in Indonesias Java Sea. Picture: AFP/Malaysian Royal Navy.

INDONESIA - Rescue planes and helicopters sat grounded near the coast of the Indonesian island of Borneo on Wednesday as bad weather hampered the search for victims in the crashed AirAsia jet.

Officials were forced to suspend aerial missions as heavy rain and low visibility made it difficult to recover bodies four days after the Airbus A320-200 disappeared from the radar en route from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore.

"I went to the search area this morning and saw there was no way we could do a search," said Dwi Putranto, a senior air force official.

"Now we are standing by in case remains can be evacuated," he said, adding that over 100 divers and rescue workers were "ready to search".

Search and rescue official Sunarbowo Sandi said bodies and debris were being scattered by strong currents and monsoon weather conditions.

"All the wreckage and bodies have drifted around 50 kilometres and we're expecting all the bodies will end up on the beaches around here," Sandi said.

"That is why we are searching all the beaches, because the current is moving."

Seven bodies have been pulled from the sea so far, including one wearing a life jacket, an official said. Two of those bodies have been flown to Surabaya for identification.

The search area was narrowed to 120 square nautical miles and 22 ships continued to hunt for the remaining victims and for the plane's black box, said Putranto.

But the agonizing wait could be a long one for family members and rescue workers.

"The clouds are very low in the target area," Sandi said. "Everyone is praying for more friendly weather."

VICTIM WITH LIFE JACKET RAISES QUESTIONS

A body recovered from the crashed AirAsia plane was wearing a life jacket, an official with Indonesia's search and rescue agency said, raising questions about how the disaster unfolded.

Rescuers believe they have found the plane on the ocean floor off Borneo, after sonar detected a large, dark object beneath waters near where debris and bodies were found on the surface.

The fact that one person put on a life jacket would appear to indicate those on board had at least some time before the aircraft hit the water, or after it hit the water and before it sank.

And yet the pilots did not issue a distress signal. The plane disappeared after it failed to get permission to fly higher to avoid bad weather because of heavy air traffic.

"This morning, we recovered a total of four bodies and one of them was wearing a life jacket," Tatang Zaenudin, an official with the search and rescue agency, told Reuters.

He declined to speculate on what the find might mean.

Hernanto, head of the search and rescue agency in Surabaya, said rescuers believed they had found the plane on the sea bed with a sonar scan in water about 30 to 50 metres deep. The black box flight data and cockpit voice recorder has yet to be found.

Authorities in Surabaya were making preparations to receive and identify bodies, including arranging 130 ambulances to take victims to a police hospital and collecting DNA from relatives.

"We are praying it is the plane so the evacuation can be done quickly," Hernanto said.

Most of the people on board were Indonesians. No survivors have been found.

Officials said waves two to three metres high and winds were hampering the hunt for wreckage and preventing divers from searching the crash zone.

"The fact that the debris appears fairly contained suggests the aircraft broke up when it hit the water, rather than in the air," said Neil Hansford, a former pilot and chairman of consultancy firm Strategic Aviation Solutions.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said his priority was retrieving the bodies.

Widodo, speaking in Surabaya on Tuesday after grim images of the scene in the Java Sea were broadcast on television, said AirAsia would pay an immediate advance of money to relatives, many of whom collapsed in grief when they saw the television pictures from the search.

AirAsia Chief Executive Tony Fernandes has described the crash as his "worst nightmare".

About 30 ships and 21 aircraft from Indonesia, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and the United States have been involved in the search.

Singapore said it was sending two underwater beacon detectors to try to pick up pings from the black boxes, which contain cockpit voice and flight data recorders.

2014 has been a deadly year in aviation. View a special feature from Eyewitness News.