Seven bodies have so far been retrieved from the Airbus A320-200 carrying 162 people, which crashed during a storm Sunday in the sea near the island of Borneo en route from Indonesia’s second city of Surabaya to Singapore.
Two of the dead — one male and one female — have been identified and would be handed over to relatives after formal confirmation Thursday, police said.
Rough weather Wednesday had hampered efforts to locate and retrieve more bodies but conditions had since improved.
“The weather is clear today. We’re making an all-out effort to search for bodies and locate the fuselage,” search and rescue official Sunarbowo Sandi told AFP from Pangkalan Bun, a town on Borneo with the nearest airstrip to the crash site.
He said foreign experts would join Indonesian transport safety investigators in the search to locate the wreckage and retrieve the black boxes, which are key to determining the cause of the crash.
“Ten investigators from the national transport safety committee (KNKT) along with two French and two Singapore investigators will join the search today to locate the fuselage,” he said.
“We hope that an underwater beacon will be able to detect the weak signal transmitted by the ELT (emergency locator transmitter),” he added.
The transmitter sends a signal that helps rescuers to find a plane in the event of an accident.
Dozens of navy frogmen and search-and-rescue divers were in the area and ready to go once the fuselage is located, Sandi told AFP.
The plane is believed to be in relatively shallow waters of around 25-32 metres (82-105 feet).
FIRST BODIES IDENTIFIED
An official with the US state department said Washington would continue to work closely “with technical experts in Indonesia and US Defense Department officials to see how else we can help”.
Washington has deployed the destroyer USS Sampson to help with the search, with a second vessel due to join ships and planes from Australia, Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia helping Indonesia with the search for bodies and wreckage.
National Search and Rescue Agency chief Bambang Soelistyo said Wednesday the fuselage had not yet been found, denying reports that sonar imagery showed the aircraft on the seabed.
During searches Tuesday, which retrieved wreckage giving the first confirmation that Flight QZ8501 had crashed, an air force plane had seen a “shadow” on the seabed believed to be the missing plane, where all search efforts are now being concentrated.
Debris found so far from the aircraft included an exit door, emergency slide and several suitcases.
Four bodies have been transferred to land from warships with three more set to be moved Thursday.
“Three helicopters are getting ready to hoist three remaining bodies from the navy ship to Pangkalan Bun,” Sandi said, adding that rescuers managed to bring two bodies to Pangkalan Bun late Wednesday.
Two other bodies have already been transferred to Surabaya where there are examination and identification facilities for 150 bodies.
Police have taken DNA samples and medical data from dozens of relatives of the victims to aid in identification of the bodies, one of which was a woman wearing a cabin crew uniform.
President Joko Widodo has promised “a massive search” effort, with priority given to recovering bodies.
Before take-off the pilot had asked for permission to fly at a higher altitude to avoid a storm, but his request was not approved due to other planes above him on the popular route, according to AirNav, Indonesia’s air traffic control.
In his last communication, the pilot said he wanted to change course to avoid the menacing storm system. Then all contact was lost, about 40 minutes after the plane had taken off.
The missing plane was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysia-based AirAsia, which had previously earned a solid safety record.
Of the 162 passengers and crew on board Flight QZ8501, 155 were Indonesian.
The crash came at the end of a disastrous year for Malaysian air travel.
After the disappearance of Flight MH370 in March, en route from from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew, another Malaysia Airlines flight — MH17 — was shot down over Ukraine in July, killing all 298 on board. (AFP)