Divers searching for the wreckage of Indonesian Lion Air Flight 610 have found the main fuselage and claim they can now hear a signal from the aircraft’s missing cockpit voice recorder, the head of Indonesia’s Search and Rescue Agency said Saturday.
Diving teams are working to locate the device, commonly known as a black box, which could help investigators piece together the final moments of the brand-new Boeing 737 before it crashed, killing all 189 people on board.
The plane’s flight data recorder was located Thursday, but investigators say they have not yet been able to extract any information from it.
Muhammad Syaugi, head of Indonesia’s Search and Rescue Agency, Basarnas, told reporters in Jakarta on Saturday that divers had now heard a “ping” from the second black box.
“Although the sound is quite weak, it came from the spot not far from the ship ‘Victory,'” he added, referring to one of the vessels involved in the search effort.
Syaugi said he had “received information that we found the fuselage” from the team on location, although he had not yet seen it himself. More than 100 divers are currently working in different zones conducting various searches, he added.
The fast-moving currents and muddy waters of the crash site in the Java Sea have hindered recovery efforts since the plane came down Monday shortly after taking off from Jakarta.
News of progress in the search effort followed confirmation earlier Saturday that one of the divers involved in the search for victims and wreckage from the flight had died.
Syahrul Anto, 48, was found unconscious Friday after his diving partner noticed he had disappeared, said Syaugi. He was immediately brought back to shore and was attended by doctors but Syaugi said that “God had a different plan.”
Anto was a qualified, senior diver “who devoted his life for our country,” Syaugi said.
Syaugi, who is responsible for the diving team, said those involved “are very qualified divers, outstanding divers, with long experience. They are come from Navy special task forces, from the police, from the Basarnas team, and some are volunteers from diving clubs.”
‘Broken parts’ in flight data recorder
Efforts to extract information from the flight data recorder, which should contain valuable information on how the plane’s systems were performing in the moments before the crash, continued Saturday.
Investigators were in the process of cleaning the salt residue from its memory card so they can download the data, Nurcahyo Utomo, of the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Commission (KNKT), said.
There was no other damage to the memory card and investigators hope to begin downloading data Sunday, with the help of an Australian team, he said.
“We really need to do this process carefully,” Utomo said.
Earlier Saturday, investigators had not yet been able to download anything from the recorder because “there are some broken parts” in the device, the KNKT said.
Boeing and the US National Transportation Safety Board are flying special equipment to Indonesia to help local authorities extract information from it, agency official Haryo Satmiko said.
An aviation official with knowledge of the crash investigation told CNN on Friday that the recorder was so deeply submerged in water that it was hard to get the data off it.
What is believed to be a rear landing gear wheel from the doomed plane was delivered to the KNKT on Saturday, Utomo said. Divers are still trying to locate the cockpit voice recorder, he told CNN.
Analysts say finding the cockpit voice recorder is imperative if investigators are to determine whether the crash has implications for other airlines collectively operating thousands of Boeing 737 flights around the world each day.
“We need to know whether there is a Lion Air problem, a specific problem to this plane, or whether it is a general wider problem for 737s,” said Geoffrey Thomas, editor-in-chief of airline rating agency, Airlineratings.com.
It’s not yet clear what condition the main fuselage is in. Most of the plane’s wreckage remains deep in the water and it’s so shattered that analysts say much of the recovery is likely to be done by hand or with nets.
David Soucie, an aviation safety analyst for CNN, said a big challenge for divers would be to identify and separate any body parts from other debris.
“You look at the insulation and the seat backs, the seat cushions can easily be mistaken for body parts and vice versa,” Soucie said.
Only one victim identified
Flight 610 was supposed to take its passengers on a one-hour journey from Jakarta to Pangkal Pinang on the island of Bangka. Instead it crashed 13 minutes after takeoff. The pilots had asked to turn around but didn’t transmit an emergency call.
At least 65 body bags have been gathered since the start of the search-and-rescue operation, though each bag could contain remains of more than one person.
Investigators will have to rely on DNA samples to identify victims because of the condition and size of the remains found. Police have 181 DNA samples from victims’ families and are working to match them to 272 human tissue samples.
Lisda Cancer, head of Disaster Victim Identification, told reporters Friday that just one person has been identified so far, a female, through a fingerprint.
On Wednesday, authorities started bringing relatives to the port to identify victims’ personal belongings, which lay piled up next to cushions and other debris that appeared to be from the aircraft.
Epi Syamsul Qomar, whose 24-year-old son was on the flight, broke down in tears when he recognized his son’s shoe.
“I saw my son’s black sneaker,” he told CNN. “I also saw his bank checkbook.”
Pilot reported plane issues
The jetliner had experienced technical issues the day before on another route, passengers aboard that flight revealed to CNN.
On Sunday the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft — a new plane, which had only around 800 flying hours on the clock — had flown Lion Air’s Bali-Jakarta route and had experienced a significant drop in altitude, passenger Robbi Gaharu said.
“After 10 minutes in the air the plane dropped as if it was losing power. People panicked. It dropped about 400 feet,” said Gaharu, adding that he had confirmed the height of the drop on a flight-tracking website. He said the drop felt like falling into “a really, really deep hole.”
Lion Air confirmed to CNN that the aircraft that crashed on Monday had been used to fly the JT43 Bali-Jakarta route the day before, and Indonesian authorities confirmed that the pilot on Sunday’s flight reported a problem with one of the plane’s instruments.
Capt. Daniel Putut Kuncoro Adi, managing director of Lion Group, said that all information had been handed over to Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Commission and he could not answer any questions about the fault because of a nondisclosure agreement signed to accommodate the investigation.