Distraught family members struggled to comprehend the sudden loss of loved ones after the crash involving a two-month-old Lion Air plane with experienced pilots at the controls amid fine weather.
They gathered at crisis centres set up by the authorities at airports, hoping desperately for a miracle. But a top search official has said that no survivors are expected.
The disaster is a setback for Indonesia’s airline industry, which just emerged from decade-long bans by the European Union and the US over safety concerns.
President Joko Widodo ordered an investigation and urged Indonesians to “keep on praying”.
The crash of the Boeing 737 Max 8 on Monday is the latest in a series of tragedies that have struck Indonesia this year, including earthquakes and a tsunami that killed several thousand people.
An air transport official, Novie Riyanto, said the flight was cleared to return to Jakarta after the pilot made a “return to base” request two to three minutes after taking off.
The plane plunged into the sea about 10 minutes later. Weather conditions were normal but the plane, which Lion Air received in August, had experienced an unspecified technical issue on its previous flight.
Relatives and friends wept, prayed and hugged each other as they waited at Jakarta’s airport and at Pangkal Pinang’s airport on Bangka island off Sumatra, where the flight was heading.
Some, including Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani, headed to the search and rescue agency’s headquarters in Jakarta for information. About 20 ministry staff were on the flight.
More than 300 people including soldiers, police and fishermen are involved in the grim search, retrieving aircraft debris and personal items such as a crumpled mobile phone, ID cards and carry-on bags from the seas northeast of Jakarta.
Search and Rescue Agency chief Muhammad Syaugi said he is certain it will not take long to locate the hull of the aircraft and its black box because of the relatively shallow (30-35m) depths of the waters it plunged into.
Three specialised search ships, including one from Singapore, are to help with the search.
The jet, which was on a one-hour flight, was carrying 181 passengers, including one child and two babies, and eight crew members.
Lion Air said there were two foreigners on the plane: one of the pilots, Indian national Bhavye Suneja, and an Italian citizen.
The pilot of Flight 610 had more than 6000 flying hours while the co-pilot had more than 5000 hours, according to Lion Air.
Boeing said it is “deeply saddened” by the crash and is prepared to provide technical assistance to Indonesia’s crash probe.
The 737 Max 8 was leased from China Minsheng Investment Group Leasing Holdings, according to the official China News Service.
Lion Air president-director Edward Sirait said the plane had a “technical problem” on its previous flight from Bali to Jakarta but it had been fully remedied.
The crash is the worst airline disaster in Indonesia since an AirAsia flight from Surabaya to Singapore plunged into the sea in December 2014, killing all 162 on board.
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