Powerful currents and muddy brown water hampered Indonesian divers trying Saturday to reach victims of a crashed jetliner at the bottom of a fast-flowing river on Sumatra island.
Rescuers said most of the 104 people aboard SilkAir Flight MI-185 likely were still strapped into their seats and the plane’s nose was embedded in thick mud.
“Everybody is dead. Most of them are still inside the plane,” said police Sgt. Ganep Nasir.
The Boeing 737-300 crashed into the Musi River on Friday, halfway through a flight from Jakarta to Singapore.
Divers groped their way through the opaque water to locate the wreckage, but Police Sgt. Husen Achmad said they were having trouble opening the doors of the plane.
Welding tools were being brought in to help pry the doors loose, and divers said they intended to cut their way into the jet today.
Indonesian officials also said they hope to use a floating crane to hoist the mostly intact fuselage from the river, which monsoon rains have swollen to 500 yards wide.
Two SilkAir flights Saturday ferried 200 relatives of the passengers to Palembang, 35 miles south of the crash site.
Dozens of them hired speedboats to watch a flotilla of Indonesian police and navy boats scour a 10-square-mile area of river and swamp for debris and human remains.
An Indonesian woman who flew there with her husband from Jakarta said she lost three relatives.
“I can’t believe they’re dead,” she said. “Four days ago, we celebrated my sister-in-law’s birthday. And now they are gone.”
Helicopters flying overhead dropped divers into the water. Nearby villagers watched the search from longboats.
Rescuers cast a net over the plane to prevent debris from drifting away. Investigators pored over pieces of the plane’s shattered tail and examined items such as clothing and a yellow life jacket for clues to why the plane crashed.
A twisted piece of orange metal was found and, although it was the same color as the missing flight recorders, investigators would not speculate on what it was.
Indonesian Transport Minister Haryanto Dhanutirto refused to comment on reports the plane exploded. Police quoted witnesses as saying the plane exploded twice in the air and again when it hit the water.
Residents of Makarti Jaya, a village a half-mile from the crash site, said the plane went down at high tide and there were concerns that some bodies were swept away, the official Antara news agency reported.
Villager Ahmad Hasan said he heard the explosions.
“It came in very low,” he said. “It was going down. It exploded in the air, and then a few seconds later it exploded again when it hit the water.”
It was not known whether the plane tried to make an emergency landing.
“There were no distress signals. There were no adverse weather conditions. There was no mountainous terrain. It is obviously very puzzling,” said Mah Bow Tan, Singapore’s communications minister.
SilkAir, a division of Singapore Airlines, said the plane was carrying 97 passengers, including 40 Singaporeans, 23 Indonesians, 10 Malaysians, five Americans and 14 Europeans.
The airline identified the Americans as Richard Dalrymple, Berenice Oey, Jonathan Oey, Susan Picariello and Kathryn Worth. No hometowns were provided. Singapore’s The New Paper said Dalrymple’s mother lives in San Diego and Worth’s employer said the 36-year-old lawyer was born in Fremont, Calif.
The airline said the plane’s captain was a veteran who had logged 6,900 hours of flying time.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent an investigating team to the crash site, as did Boeing, the airplane’s manufacturer.
SilkAir said the plane was 10 months old and was the newest aircraft in its fleet.
The carrier was formed in 1975 as the holiday operator arm of Singapore Airlines.
The crash was the second commercial jetliner disaster on Sumatra in three months. On Sept. 26, an Indonesian-owned Garuda Airbus A-300 crashed into a jungle slope and exploded in north Sumatra, killing all 234 aboard.
The cause is being investigated, but reports indicated there was confusion between the pilot and an air traffic controller. Poor visibility from a smoky haze covering Southeast Asia also may have been a factor. The haze has since dissipated.
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