Rescuers recover 21 more air crash bodies

After nearly a week of searching for the victims of AirAsia Flight 8501, rescue teams battling monsoon rains have more than tripled the number of bodies pulled from the Java Sea, some still strapped to their seats.

Of the 30 bodies recovered so far, 21 were found today, many of them by a US Navy ship, according to officials.

The Airbus A320 carrying 162 passengers and crew went down on Sunday, halfway into a flight from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, to Singapore.

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Minutes before losing contact, the pilot told air traffic control he was approaching threatening clouds, but was denied permission to climb to a higher altitude because of heavy air traffic.

It remains unclear what caused the plane to plunge into the sea. The accident was AirAsia’s first since it began operations in 2001, becoming one of the region’s most popular low-cost carriers.

In addition to looking for victims, Search and Rescue Agency chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo said ships from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the US are scouring the ocean floor as they try to pinpoint wreckage and the all-important black boxes.

The data recorder contains crucial information like engine temperature and vertical and horizontal speed. The voice recorder saves conversations between pilots and other sounds coming from the cockpit.

Toos Saniotoso, an Indonesian air safety investigator, said investigators “are looking at every aspect” as they try to determine why the plane crashed.

“From the operational side, the human factor, the technical side, the ATC (air traffic control) – everything is valuable to us.”

Bad weather, which has hindered the search for the past several days, remained a worry.

A drizzle and light clouds covered the area this morning, and rain, strong winds and high waves up to 13ft were forecast until Sunday. Strong sea currents have also kept debris moving.

That has severely slowed recovery efforts as bodies drift further away.

Colonel Yayan Sofiyan, commander of the warship Bung Tomo, told MetroTV his vessel pulled seven bodies from the choppy waters today, five still fastened in their seats.

Mr Soelistyo, who was only able to confirm two victims in their seats, said a total of 30 bodies had been recovered. More than a third have been pulled out by a US Navy ship, the USS Sampson. Mr Soelistyo pledged to recover bodies of “our brothers and sisters ... whatever conditions we face”.

Four crash victims have been identified and returned to their families, including a flight attendant and a 12-year-old boy.

Some investigators are reported to believe that the plane may have gone into an aerodynamic stall as the pilot climbed steeply to avoid a storm.

Officials have said the plane was travelling at 32,000ft when it requested to climb to 38,000ft to avoid bad weather.

When air traffic controllers consented to allow it to climb to 34,000ft a few minutes later, they got no reply.

A source quoted by Reuters said that radar data appeared to show that the aircraft’s “unbelievably” steep climb may have been beyond the Airbus A320’s limits.