An Indonesian official confirmed debris found floating in the Java Sea on Tuesday is from the missing AirAsia jet, presumed to have crashed in shallow waters off the Indonesian coast. Local media reported the sighting of what is thought to be bodies floating in the water.
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An Indonesian warship has retrieved 40 bodies so far, a navy spokesman said, local media reported.
The plane has yet to be found and there was no word on the possibility of any survivors. A shadow of what is believed to be the fuselage of the missing AirAsia plane has been spotted from the air, Indonesia's search and rescue chief says.
Pictures of floating bodies were broadcast on television and relatives of the missing gathered at a crisis center in Surabaya wept with heads in their hands. Several people collapsed in grief and were helped away, a Reuters reporter said.
Indonesian TV showed two relatively large objects, one orange and one grey or brown, floating on the surface. The largest appeared to be several meters in length.
Indonesian officials coming off a helicopter in Pangkalan Bun say they spotted several bodies floating in waters near where the missing AirAsia flight was last seen.
"As we approached, the body seemed bloated," said First Lieutenant Tri Wibowo, who was on board a Hercules during the search operation, was quoted by the Kompas.com website as saying.
An Airbus A320-200 carrying 162 people and operated by Indonesia AirAsia disappeared in poor weather on Sunday morning during a flight from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore.
Tony Fernandes, global CEO of AirAsia, tweeted that he is heading to Surbaya.
My heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved in QZ 8501. On behalf of AirAsia my condolences ... http://t.co/OJGobL93cR
About 30 ships and 21 aircraft from Indonesia, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea were searching up to 10,000 square nautical miles on Tuesday, officials said.
The U.S. military said the USS Sampson, a guided missile destroyer, would be on the scene later in he day.
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Three airline disasters involving Malaysian-affiliated carriers in less than a year have dented confidence in the country's aviation industry and spooked travellers across the region.
Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 went missing on March 8 on a trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew on board and has not been found. On July 17, the same airline's Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.
On board Flight QZ8501 were 155 Indonesians, three South Koreans, and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia and Britain. The co-pilot was French.
The Indonesian pilot was experienced and the plane last underwent maintenance in mid-November, the airline said. The aircraft had accumulated about 23,000 flight hours in some 13,600 flights, according to Airbus.
U.S. law enforcement and security officials said passenger and crew lists were being examined but nothing significant had turned up and the incident was regarded as an unexplained accident.
Indonesia AirAsia is 49 percent owned by Malaysia-based budget carrier AirAsia.
The AirAsia group, including affiliates in Thailand, the Philippines and India, had not suffered a crash since its Malaysian budget operations began in 2002.
India is waiting to know what went wrong with the missing plane and will investigate if AirAsia India is following all safety procedures, a senior Indian aviation ministry official told Reuters. AirAsia India, a joint venture of the Malaysian carrier, started flying this year and is expanding operations.
The plane's disappearance comes at a sensitive time for Indonesia's aviation authorities, as they strive to improve the country's safety reputation to match its status as one of the airline industry's fastest growing markets.