Jakarta: Indonesian authorities have predicted there will be no surivivors after a passenger plane carrying 189 people, operated by Indonesian budget carrier Lion Air, crashed into the ocean on Monday morning.
The Boeing 737 MAX 8, flying from the capital, Jakarta, to Pangkal Pinang in Bangka Belitung province, took off about 6.20am Jakarta time (10.20am AEDT) but lost contact with air traffic control at 6.33am.
At a press conference late on Monday afternoon, Basarnas (Indonesian’s search and rescue agency) director of rescue operations Bambang Suryo Aji said “my prediction is nobody saved. All dead”.
“We found human body parts such as arms, legs, ears. We have brought them to the police hospital in Jakarta.”
Mr Bambang added it was likely that the bodies of at least some of the passengers were still trapped, dead, in the fuselage of the plane and underwater. It was likely, he added, that many passengers had died when the plane hit the water, rather than from drowning.
Debris from the tail section of the aircraft had been found not far from where authorities believed the plane was believed to have crashed, Mr Bambang said, and a remotely operated underwater vehicle was on its way to the crash site to locate the main section of the plane, which was still under water.
Tanjung Karawang, where the plane is believed to have gone down, is about 34 nautical miles north-west of Jakarta.
Basarnas initially reported 189 people were on board, but a statement from Lion Air said there were 188 people, including 181 passengers; 124 men, 54 women, one child and two babies. A spokesperson for Lion later confirmed that 189 is the correct figure.
A spokesman for the Indonesian Finance Ministry said 20 of its employees were on the plane.
The Australian government announced on Monday night that it had banned all government officials and contractors from flying with Lion until the findings of the crash investigation were clear.
Basarnas has sent out boats and helicopters to search for the plane and has found wreckage and lifejackets. About 150 rescuers, including 40 divers from Basarnas and the Marines, have been sent to the scene.
Basarnas’ deputy head of operations Nigroho Budi Wiryanto had indicated at a second press conference on Monday afternoon that it was unlikely any survivors would be found.
"We are waiting for the miracles from God Almighty," he said.
The depth of the water where the plane is believed to have crash landed is 30 to 35 metres. Search and rescue workers have still not found the black box or the main body of the plane.
However, rescuers have turned up ID cards, BPJS (goverment insurance) cards, driving licences and other personal effects.
The weather at the time of the crash was clear, and Lion Air said the plane’s pilot, Captain Bhavye Suneja, had more than 6000 flying hours of experience. His co-pilot Harvino had more than 5000 hours of flying experience.
The Boeing plane was new, having been manufactured in 2018 and operated by Lion Air since August 15. It had clocked up just 800 hours of flying time.
It’s believed the emergency locator transmitter (ELT) on the plane was inactive.
Basarnas chief Muhammad Syaugi said early on Monday, soon after the crash was reported, that Indonesia had checked with Australian authorities to see if any signal from the ELT had been intercepted, but it had not.
In a statement, Boeing said it is "deeply saddened by the loss of Flight JT 610".
"We express our concern for those on board, and extend heartfelt sympathies to their families and loved ones. Boeing stands ready to provide technical assistance to the accident investigation."
Families of passengers on the plane flocked to the airport at Pangkal Pinang, where the plane was supposed to land. Distraught friends and relatives prayed and hugged each other as they waited for news.
At the National Search and Rescue Agency headquarters in Jakarta, family members turned up, hoping desperately for news.
Feni, who uses a single name, said her soon to be married sister was on the flight, planning to meet relatives in Pangkal Pinang.
"We are here to find any information about my younger sister, her fiance, her in-law to be and a friend of them," Feni said.
"We don't have any information," she said, as her father wiped tears from reddened eyes. "No one provided us with any information that we need. We're confused. We hope that our family is still alive."
It's not known if any Australians were on board the flight. A spokesman for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said "the Australian embassy in Jakarta is making urgent inquiries with local authorities to determine if any Australians were affected".
Poor safety record
Lion Air, which flies to 126 destinations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and China, is the second largest low-cost carrier in south-east Asia (after Malaysia's AirAsia), and is growing fast.
The low-cost carrier had a poor safety record for many years. It was banned by the EU from flying over European airspace along with other Indonesian airlines in 2007, and the ban was only lifted in 2016.
Since 2002, Lion Air has had more than a dozen major incidents or accidents. The most deadly was in 2004 when a plane overshot the runway and crashed into a cemetery in Surakarta, killing 31 people.
In 2013, a Lion Air flight with more than 100 people on board crashed into the water off Bali’s Ngurah Rai airport. All on board survived, despite the fuselage breaking in half, but 46 people were injured, four seriously. That crash was blamed on pilot error.
Lion pilots have tested positive to methamphetamine on a number of occasions since 2011, leading to concern of a culture of drug use among Indonesian pilots. The most recent case was in December 2017 when a senior pilot was arrested for crystal meth possession after a hotel room raid, and tested positive for the drug a day before he was due to fly.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the International Civil Aviation Organisation had given Lion Air a top safety ranking. The ICAO audits national civil aviation authorities, not airlines. It also incorrectly stated there was another serious Lion Air crash in 2014.
with Fergus Hunter and AAP
More to come