Bayu Wardoyo tends to skip the 6am breakfast of Indonesian fried rice served to divers on the ship searching for wreckage of the Sriwijaya Air passenger jet that crashed in the Java Sea on Jan. 9.
He prefers coffee, light snacks and some fruit to prepare for the long day ahead.
Later in the morning, kitted out in a black wetsuit and weighed down by diving paraphernalia, he boards a speedboat and heads out under heavy monsoon clouds to the day’s search area.
Once there, Wardoyo attaches his scuba regulator and rolls overboard into waters filled with fresh tragedy.
Indonesia has been the site of several air disasters over the past decade and the 49-year-old has been involved in more than his fair share of undersea searches.
He worked on recovery efforts after an AirAsia jetliner carrying 162 people went down in the Java Sea in December 2014. Less than four years later, he returned to the same waters to hunt for wreckage and bodies in the wake of a Lion Air crash that claimed 189 lives.
Now he is back there again, after Sriwijaya Air Flight 182 plunged into the ocean with 62 people on board. Among them were seven children and three infants.
He has never seen a crash as devastating as this.
“This Sriwijaya crash is the worst. The aircraft body is totally destroyed and scattered,” Wardoyo said by text message. “We’ve only found small chunks of human remains. On the Lion Air crash we still found big pieces and the AirAsia crash we found almost a complete human body.”
SJ182 plummeted close to 3,050m in 14 seconds shortly after takeoff from Jakarta on a stormy Saturday afternoon.
The Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee confirmed that the Boeing 737-500’s engines were running when the plane hit the sea at high speed, indicating that the aircraft was in one piece upon impact.
What triggered the violent dive remains a mystery.
One possibility investigators are looking into is the pilots losing control because a malfunctioning throttle was producing more thrust in one of the engines, according to a person familiar with the situation.
The device had been having problems on previous flights, the person said.
With the search in its second week, hopes are fading that the cockpit voice recorder — a crucial jigsaw piece in finding out what unfolded — will ever be found.
Divers retrieved the casing of the so-called “black box” last week, but the memory chip that records communication between pilots and ambient sound in the cockpit had broken loose.
The flight-data recorder was recovered last week and should provide clues as to whether there was a problem with the plane, pilot error, a freak weather occurrence or something else entirely.
However, the investigation is hamstrung without the other black box. The locator beacons of both were dislodged when the plane smashed into the water, an impact so hard that Queensland-based air-safety specialist Geoffrey Dell said it would have been like hitting concrete.
With the AirAsia crash in 2014, “the aircraft body was still intact — only broken into three pieces, so we had to pull bodies from inside the aircraft,” Wardoyo said.
“The Lion Air crash was different, the aircraft body disintegrated, but we could still find big pieces of the fuselage. Sriwijaya is the worst,” he said.
Indonesian authorities extended the search period, prolonging the divers’ stay on the command vessel off the coast to Jakarta’s north, but it was due to finish yesterday.
Wardoyo leads a group of 15 civilian professional divers with various qualifications, such as deep-sea exploration and cave diving. One is a police officer and diving instructor. The team of volunteers is supporting specialist divers from the Indonesian National Search and Rescue Agency.
He is not optimistic about recovering the rest of the voice recorder.
“Since the aircraft body is totally disintegrated to very small pieces and the sea floor is very thick mud, it would be very hard to collect anything after more than seven days,” Wardoyo said. “It’s almost impossible to find the memory or other piece of the recorder.”
Bad weather and high seas in Indonesia’s monsoon season have hampered recovery efforts.
“Big swells, high winds and rain wouldn’t affect the divers below, but it makes it difficult for the surface team operating dinghies and rubber boats,” Wardoyo said. “It also makes it harder for divers to transfer to the mother ship if the weather is bad.”
“We don’t and won’t take credit for doing this, but at least we can help others with our expertise,” Wardoyo said. “Anyone else would do the same.”
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