Jan 4, 2015 6:17 AM

Prayers held as divers thwarted from AirAsia site

The Associated Press

SURABAYA, Indonesia (AP) Around 100 family members of AirAsia Flight 8501 crash victims sought strength Sunday, one week after the disaster, while bad weather again prevented searchers from reaching a large object on the ocean floor that is believed to be the fuselage.

Emotionally exhausted relatives sang and cried at a tiny chapel in Surabaya, the city where the plane departed from last Sunday with 162 crew members and passengers. The Rev. Philip Mantofa, who heads the congregation at the city's Mawar Sharon Church where more than a quarter of the crash victims were members urged those gathered to find comfort in their faith while embracing the reality that no one survived the disaster.

"If God has called your child, allow me to say this: Your child is not to be pitied," Mantofa told one Indonesian man seated in the front row. "Your child is already in God's arms. One day, your family will be reunited in heaven."

It is not clear what caused the Singapore-bound plane to crash into the Java Sea 42 minutes after taking off on what was supposed to be a two-hour flight. Minutes before losing contact, the pilot told air traffic control that he was approaching threatening clouds, but was denied permission to climb to a higher altitude because of heavy air traffic.

Despite an intensive international search-and-recovery operation, only 31 bodies have been found so far, in large part because of bad weather. But after detecting what appears to be a massive part of the fuselage on Saturday, officials said it was possible that many passengers and crew will be found inside the wreckage.

Divers waited for breaks in the weather Sunday to reach the site, but rolling seas stirred up silt and mud, leaving them with zero visibility, said Henry Bambang Soelistyo, chief of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Agency. They were forced to turn back because conditions were so bad.

"At this moment, it's impossible to send any divers," he said. "We'll wait until the weather gets better."

Twenty planes and helicopters were deployed Sunday together with 27 ships from Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States. All were desperately searching for any sign of the all-important black boxes and pieces of the Airbus A320.

The investigation got a huge boost this weekend when sonar equipment identified five large objects on the seabed in the search area, but no images have been captured confirming they are part of the AirAsia plane.

The biggest piece of debris, measuring 18 meters (59 feet) long and 5.4 meters (18 feet) wide, appeared to be part of the fuselage, Soelistyo said. Four other chunks were found in the same area, including one detected on Sunday.

Suspected plane parts also were seen scattered on beaches during an aerial survey.

Indonesian authorities have announced the grounding of AirAsia flights from Surabaya to Singapore, with the Transport Ministry saying the airline did not have a permit to fly on Sundays. However, Singapore's Civil Aviation Authority said Saturday that from its end, the airline had been approved to fly the route daily.

AirAsia, which began operations in 2001 and quickly became one of the region's most popular low-cost carriers, said it was reviewing the suspension. The crash was the airline's first.

While Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, many of the passengers were Christians of Chinese descent. Mantofa's congregation was hit particularly hard, with more than a quarter of the victims coming from 13 families belonging to his large Penecostal church.

Following Sunday's chapel service, Edo Anggradinata, 52, said he was finally starting to let go of the hope that his sister and her two children had survived.

"My mind is still in a daze," he said. "If there is a miracle, I hope they are alive, but I know this is tough. I just pray that we find their bodies."


Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini, Ali Kotarumalos, Margie Mason and Robin McDowell in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.


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