Anguish, Anger in Race to Find Plane

POLEWALI, West Sulawesi ~ Rescue teams mounted a massive air, land and sea search Wednesday for a missing airliner as anguished families and the media slammed authorities over false reports of survivors.

Distraught relatives flew to Makassar on Sulawesi island to be close to the search as military aircraft, navy ships and police and civilian teams focused efforts on the waters just west of the island and an area inland.

The Adam Air Boeing 737-400 with 96 passengers, including three Americans, and six crew vanished from radar screens Monday halfway through a flight from Surabaya, on central Java island, to Manado on Sulawesi’s northeast tip.

Reports by officials Tuesday that the wreckage and some survivors had been found on a jungle-covered mountain near Polewali in the west turned out to be false after rescue teams combed the area.

Aircraft accidents are not uncommon in Indonesia, a vast archipelago nation stretching over 5,000 kilometres (3,100 miles), but the unusual circumstances in this case have stunned the country.

Adri Mamoto, whose parents were on board the flight, said he had travelled from Manado to Makassar only to be told there was no news after all.

“After all that effort, we decided to just go back home to Manado and wait for more news from Adam Air, what else can we do?” he told ElShinta radio.

Mila, sister of air hostess Nining Iryani, said the reports had devastated her family.

“This is a question of life,” she told the Warta Kota daily. “Do not fool around when disseminating information. Our whole family has had no peace since we heard of the crash.”

The latest search was concentrated on the sea off Majene, 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of Polewali, as well as areas inland.

Navy ships had late Monday started searching off Majene after locals reported seeing something floating in the sea that looked like a jet, MetroTV said.

That search was abandoned after reports the wreckage had been located, but navy ships Wednesday resumed their sweep while military aircraft also scoured the forests and hills of West Sulawesi.

“Based on the search and rescue team’s information, there were two sets of coordinates found in the beginning,” Polewali police chief Sukria Gaus told MetroTV, referring to a signal picked up by a Singapore satellite.

One was at Matanga, a village west of Polewali, and the second was in the sea off Majene, he added.

“We are concentrating on these two locations. We will try to find them.”

MetroTV showed rescue workers inland on motorbikes struggling through deep mud along forest tracks.

Some 2,000 police have joined the search, national police spokesman Anton Bachrul Alam told reporters in Jakarta.

“Three helicopters have been deployed by the army and we are searching in the Tana Toraja regency (northeast of Polewali) and Majene. That is where our focus is,” Alam said.

“Air force units have also been mobilised from both South and West Sulawesi to help in the search efforts.”

Singapore said it had deployed an air force Fokker-50 aircraft to help.

Reports throughout Tuesday from police, the military and rescue officials, some citing aerial photographs and others quoting villagers, all said wreckage had been found along with 12 survivors.

But hopes were later dashed when regional military commander Major General Arif Budi Sampurno said there was nothing.

Furious media accused authorities of lying. “The people have been lied to,” said the Pikiran Umum daily.

“More embarrassingly, this news has been spread not just locally but all over the world,” the newspaper said, adding that the way the reports spread reflected the weaknesses in the country’s communication system.

Air Commodore Eddy Suyanto, head of Hasanuddin Air Force Base at Makassar, apologised for erroneously reporting the finds after a local resident claimed to have seen the wreckage and survivors.

“We apologize to the people,” Suyanto said simply.

The air force said he would not be punished.

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