Families grieve as Indonesia releases report into plane crash

One month after Sriwijaya Air crash, investigators say it is too early to determine exact cause of the accident.

Family members pay their respects and scatter petals at the spot where Sriwijaya Air flight SJ182 crashed into the sea last month [File: Ajeng Dinar Ulfiana/Reuters]

Jakarta, Indonesia – One month ago, Rahmania Ekanda and her two young daughters boarded a flight at Indonesia’s Soekarno-Hatta Airport.

The family lived in Jakarta, while the girls’ father worked in West Kalimantan.

They were preparing to move to the Borneo province to be together. Rahmania had already changed her daughter’s school enrollment ahead of the move.

On January 9, he waited at Pontianak airport for them to disembark.

But the family never got the chance to reunite.

Rahmania Ekanda and her daughters – aged six and the other, two-and-a-half – were three of the 62 passengers on board flight SJ182, when it crashed into the Java Sea minutes after takeoff.

In Kediri, East Java, her family is in mourning.

Her younger sister Neyna Rahmadani told Al Jazeera they are still in shock.

“We need to take our time to grieve. My mum still cries if she mentions them,” she said.

When the remains of Rahmania were brought to Kediri, her elderly mother was so overcome with grief that she fainted.

“We are very sad. This is a big disaster for us, three of our family died,” Rahmadani said.

Rahmania Ekanda and her daughters were on board SJ182 when it crashed into the sea. Their family wants to know the cause of the crash [Al Jazeera]

“She was my eldest sister. She set an example for us. She was a very firm person, and very generous too.”

The funerals have already been held – and a month on, Rahmadani said they are waiting to know what caused the disaster.

“Plane crashes happen very rarely, not even once a year. How come it happened to our family?”

It is a question investigators are working swiftly to answer.

Search for answers

Preliminary findings released on Wednesday suggest a malfunctioning throttle might have caused pilots to lose control of the plane. However, investigators from Indonesia’s National Transport Safety Commission (KNKT) told reporters that the exact cause of the crash remained unclear.

“The left [engine throttle] was moving backwards too far while the right one was not moving at all – it was stuck,” said investigator Nurcahyo Utomo. “But what would have caused this anomaly? We can’t conclude anything just yet.”

The Boeing 737-500 aircraft was 26 years old but passed an air-worthiness check only weeks before the crash.

The investigators have analysed data from the Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast, which shows the aircraft was still capable of sending data before it plunged into the sea. In addition to the auto-throttle system, they are also looking at other components that may have contributed to the crash, including the Ground Proximity Warning System.

The investigation also confirmed that based on the spread of debris, the plane was fully intact before it hit the water.

Navy divers were able to retrieve the flight data recorder and investigators have already downloaded its data.

But the search for the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) continues, and aviation experts say it is an essential part of the investigation.

“The Flight Data Recorder will tell you what happened but it can’t tell you why it happened. It doesn’t mean the investigation can’t be concluded without the CVR, but it will be more concrete once it is found and that data is analysed,” said aviation analyst Gerry Soejatman.

Investigators inspect the wreckage of SJ182 recovered from the Java Sea [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]

“We need to know what the pilots were talking about, if they faced problems and how they dealt with those.”

Soejatman, who has worked in aviation safety for 20 years, said Indonesia has made progress in improving airline safety.

“Indonesia has a bad history, there is no denying that. But 10 or 15 years ago, we used to have an accident once every month or two months,” he said.

“Since 2011, there have been a lot of changes. Each accident reminds us, there is still work to be done. I think everybody in the industry is pushing for that.”

While there is no indication yet that pilot error caused the recent crash, Soejatman says improving pilot training is an important step in making Indonesia’s airlines safer.

“Pilot training is something we were quite far behind in, especially about 2007. Some of the airlines have caught up with global standards, or in some cases, exceeded it,” he said.

“Some airlines are still thinking about training in the old way and others are meeting current practices. We need to encourage the airlines left behind to follow new practices.”

Emotional toll

The Sriwijaya Air crash is Indonesia’s third big plane crash in less than 10 years.

In 2014, an Indonesia AirAsia flight from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore crashed into the Java Sea with 162 people on board. There were no survivors.

In 2018, a Lion Air plane from Jakarta to Pangkal Pinang also crashed into the Java Sea – all 189 people on board died.

A briefing for the SJ182 search and rescue team on the Java Sea. Diver Bayu Wardoyo says conditions were ‘quite murky with thick mud’ [Courtesy of Indonesia Diving Rescue Team]

Bayu Wardoyo is an experienced diver, who volunteered his services to assist in the search efforts for all three disasters.

“Every operation has its own challenges. For me, one of the hardest was AirAsia because the body of the plane was still intact, broken into three pieces … the victims were still strapped inside, mostly in their seats,” he said.

He helped find human remains and the belongings of those on board in the aftermath of the Sriwijaya crash.

“The situation is similar to Lion Air. Quite murky with thick mud … and often we are faced with zero visibility and forced to search with our hands,” he told Al Jazeera.

“They crashed in the same waters, around Jakarta Bay. But the wreckage from Sriwijaya was smaller and spread around a larger area. So the search effort was even more difficult.

The work of Wardoyo and all the divers is essential not only in the investigation, but in allowing grieving relatives a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones.

It is dangerous and exhausting work, but for him, the heaviest burden is the emotional toll.

The search for human remains is now over, but he says he still thinks about the families of the passengers.

“I found several children’s clothes … like a Marvel t-shirt. That was so emotionally draining for me,” he said.

“The end of the operation is always emotional because we know that there were still some that we didn’t manage to find. We tried so hard to bring their loved ones home.”

Source: Al Jazeera