MAMUJU, West Sulawesi ~ A fisherman has found part of the tail of a missing Adam Air jet in the first concrete breakthrough since it vanished on New Yearâ€™s Day with 102 people on board, officials said.
Reports on Thursday said other debris, including parts of plane seats, were being washed ashore, while a local official said a woman’s body had been found some distance away, although it was unclear if she had been on board.
However, officials said they still did not know why the plane went down.
For anguished relatives, the news came as a relief after the frustration of waiting for news of loved ones since the jet disappeared off radar screens on January 1.
Air Marshal Eddy Suyanto, who has led the long search operation, said part of the plane’s right tailfin had been found by a fisherman 300 meters off the west coast of Sulawesi.
He said a partial serial number matched numbers for the Adam Air plane.
“The finding is part of the Adam Air airplane. It is the right horizontal tail stabilizer,” he told reporters in Makassar, capital of South Sulawesi province.
The Boeing 737 had 96 passengers, including three Americans, and six crew when it went missing halfway through its flight from Surabaya to the North Sulawesi capital of Manado.
The tailfin debris was caught in a fisherman’s net eight kilometers south of Pare-Pare late on Wednesday afternoon and taken to the search and rescue centre in Makassar.
“Up until now, it cannot yet be ascertained whether the Adam Air plane had crashed at sea or on land and therefore the search will continue from the air, in the sea and on land, but the focus would be at sea,” Suyanto said.
The piece of debris, shown to journalists, was about one meter long, 50 centimeters wide and white with part of a number on it.
“I am happy but at the same time sad,” said Hilda, one of dozens of family members who have been waiting at Makassar.
“I am happy with this breakthrough,” Rosmala Dewi, the mother of stewardess Dina, told ElShinta radio.
Search efforts had been focused in recent days on the waters off Sulawesi, with a US Navy ship equipped with sonar scanning the ocean floor more than 100 kilometers northwest of where the tailfin was spotted, after reports of large metal objects around 1,000 meters down.
ElShinta reported that parts of airline seats had washed up near where the tailfin was found. One was the back of a seat with safety instructions written on.
Fishermen had also found a woman’s body, but it was not clear if she might have been on the plane.
“Fishermen found the body of a woman, around 40 years old, wearing a blue dress, floating around the waters near Pare-Pare,” local police chief Genot Hariyanto told ElShinta.
“It is far from where they found the tail stabilizer, so we cannot confirm yet whether this woman was a passenger of the plane. It was estimated that she died seven days ago.”
Suyanto said officials were also awaiting the findings from two Indonesian ships, KRI Fatahillah and KRI Ajak, and the US ship Mary Sears, which had all detected metal objects in the waters off Mamuju, some 200 kilometers north of Pare-Pare.
KRI Fatahillah’s commander Lieutenant Colonel Maman Firmansyah said that, given the strong ocean currents, “it makes sense” that the debris could have drifted that far.
“All three (ships) have now left for the south toward Pare-Pare to join the search there,” Major Maman, a search and rescue official, said.
National Committee for Transport Safety chief Setyo Raharjo said questions remained about what happened to the aircraft.
“We need to study it thoroughly to determine what had happened,” Raharjo said, adding that the debris could have separated from the body of the plane by the impact of a crash on water or an explosion, or as it was being dragged by currents.
The search for the plane has been hampered by bad weather and problems in scouring such a huge area of rugged terrain and open sea, and was marred by an embarrassing mix-up when officials wrongly reported wreckage had been found a day after it went missing. (BT/AG)