Indonesian rescuers on Friday found the bodies of 12 of the people killed when their Russian jet crashed into the face of a mountain during a sales flight.
Questions mounted over how the twin-engine Sukhoi Superjet 100, a new passenger plane with a veteran pilot at the controls, crashed into Mount Salak, a dormant volcano well-known to pilots as a peril.
Rescuers struggled to reach the jungly site on the face of the mountain, using climbing equipment to ascend the near-vertical slope where bodies and debris were scattered.
“Today we reached the crash site… and we found 12 victims and they were all dead. We will continue the evacuation process,” said Daryatmo, head of the national search and rescue agency, who goes by one name.
“I still don’t know the condition of the bodies, but we haven’t been able to evacuate them. The bodies are still in body bags,” he told reporters in Jakarta.
Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oni Junianto, who was helping to oversee the rescue effort, told AFP that the bodies were identifiable.
“There are no signs they were burnt,” he said.
A rescuer returning from the site said he witnessed haunting scenes of torn bodies and limbs that were put inside body bags.
Relatives gathered at Jakarta’s Halim Perdanakusuma military airport, where the flight took off, and shrieked as they watched rescuers live on TV carry body bags. Two women fainted upon hearing all aboard had died.
Rescue officials postponed the evacuation operation in the evening as the weather worsened, saying they would try and fly the bodies in by helicopter Saturday morning.
“If not, we will evacuate by land,” Colonel Anton Mukti Putranto, who is helping lead the evacuation, said in Cijeruk village.
Authorities in Jakarta have conducted DNA tests on relatives to proceed with the identification process.
The difficult terrain, which most days is shrouded in thick fog, has been an extreme challenge to the searchers and stopped helicopters from getting close to the crash site, which is at an elevation of 5,900 feet (1,800 metres).
All aboard the aircraft were killed, authorities said Thursday, a day after the plane disappeared from radar screens during a promotional flight that was meant to spur international sales of Russia’s first post-Soviet civilian jet.
The company representing Sukhoi in Indonesia, Trimarga Rekatama, originally said 50 passengers were on board but revised the number down to 45. Local rescue officials said the plane was carrying 46 people.
The passenger aircraft descended from 10,000 feet to 6,000 feet before slamming into Mount Salak, which juts 7,200 feet into the sky south of Jakarta, authorities said.
Controversy swirled over why the 57-year-old, vastly experienced Russian captain descended so low over mountainous terrain.
“Why did the Sukhoi descend, and who cleared it?” said a headline in the English-language Jakarta Globe. Authorities have only confirmed the plane descended, without saying whether it was cleared by air traffic control.
Fifteen Russian officials arrived in Jakarta on Thursday night and by Friday began an investigation, Trimarga Rekatama consultant Sunaryo said, and 37 were due by Saturday morning.
“The team will stay in Indonesia until the investigation is complete and the cause of the accident becomes clear,” Russian ambassador to Indonesia Alexander Ivanov said.
Wednesday’s calamity came 50 minutes into a brief flight that was part of an Asian sales tour to promote the aircraft, a joint venture between Sukhoi and Italy’s Alenia Aeronautica, which made its first commercial flight last year.
Despite the fatal accident, a Russian official said there was still a possibility Sukhoi will continue with the roadshow, originally scheduled to travel to Laos and Vietnam after Indonesia.
“It’s 50-50. We are still not sure,” Russian embassy press attache Dimitry Solodov said.
Gerry Soejatman, an aviation consultant and amateur pilot who is familiar with the airspace around Mount Salak, said it was not the place for an exhibition flight.
“I don’t recommend the area around Mount Salak for a low-level flight, especially for someone who’s never flown in the area,” he told AFP.
“Very few pilots would actually fly around there without any particular purpose, because of the pass between the mountains, which is open to fast-changing weather conditions,” he said.
In Moscow, investigators have opened a criminal probe to look into possible misconduct during preparations for the flight.
The loss of the Superjet is a heavy blow to the Russian aviation industry, which was hoping that the new plane would improve its image.
Those aboard were mostly Indonesian aviation representatives, but there were also eight Russians – four of them crew and four Sukhoi employees – plus an American and a Frenchman, officials said. -By Arlina Arshad