By Shashank Bengali and Ahmad Pathoni, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Searchers recovered bodies from the Java Sea on Tuesday and found what officials said wreckage from Indonesia AirAsia Flight 8501 as the three-day mystery over the plane’s whereabouts reached a heartbreaking resolution for the families of 162 people aboard.
“I am absolutely devastated,” Tony Fernandes, AirAsia’s chief executive, said in a statement.
“This is a very difficult moment for all of us at AirAsia as we await further developments of the search-and-rescue operations but our first priority now is the well-being of the family members of those on board QZ8501,” he said.
AirAsia said debris belonging to its aircraft was found in the Karimata Strait — between Singapore and Indonesia — about 110 nautical miles southwest of Pangkalan Bun, on the southern edge of Borneo island.
The debris was about six miles from the last known location of the aircraft, which lost contact Sunday morning while flying in heavy thunderstorms to Singapore from Surabaya, Indonesia.
“It’s confirmed 100 percent that debris found in the sea are parts of the AirAsia plane,” search chief Bambang Soelistyo said.
Relatives who had huddled and prayed since Sunday at the international airport in Surayaba broke down and wept as television images showed rescuers being lowered into the Java Sea to retrieve swollen bodies floating at the water’s surface.
AirAsia said it would bring counselors and religious and spiritual personnel to the crisis center it has set up at the Surabaya airport to help the grieving families.
There were seven crew members and 155 passengers on board, including 137 adults, 17 children and one infant, the airline said. Almost all were Indonesians.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo, speaking at the Surabaya airport, said, “I feel the loss and we all pray that all the families be given strength in this trying time.”
Widodo said that ships and aircraft on Wednesday would continue a large-scale search operation to locate and retrieve the remaining bodies.
“The focus should be to evacuate the passengers and the crew,” he said.
Indonesian planes involved in the search operation saw “an object that formed a shadow under the sea in the shape of an aircraft,” Bambang, the head of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency, said during a news conference in Jakarta.
Indonesia’s TV One said six bodies were spotted and three retrieved by search teams in the waters between the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The bodies were being taken by the Indonesian military to Banjarmasin, a port on the southern edge of Borneo, news media reported.
Officials at Singapore’s Changi International Airport issued a Twitter statement saying, “We are saddened to hear the latest news of #QZ8501. We are working closely with AirAsia on travel arrangements for the next-of-kin.”
Ships and aircraft from at least five countries have been searching across tens of thousands of square miles of sea and land between Indonesia and Singapore since Sunday.
A San Diego-based U.S. Navy destroyer, the Sampson, was heading toward the Java Sea and due to arrive later Tuesday to assist in the search-and-recovery effort.
Photo: Families of the passengers of AirAsia flight QZ8501 wait for news at Surabaya International Airport on Dec. 29, 2014 in Surabaya, Indonesia. The missing AirAsia Indonesia flight QZ8501 is likely to be at the bottom of the sea, the head of Indonesia’s search-and-rescue agency has said. (Imago/ZUMA Press/TNS)