Written for TODAY during the AirAsia QZ8501 air crash in 2014. I spent two weeks in Indonesia covering the search mission.
PANGKALAN BUN (Indonesia) — Circling the rough waters off Kalimantan in a helicopter three days after AirAsia flight QZ8501 disappeared over the Java Sea, Second Sergeant (2SGT) Mahmud Junianto, part of Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas), thought he spotted an airplane door in the water.
The 24-year-old diver and his four unit mates had received instructions from a nearby military aircraft to move as quickly as possible towards what was suspected to be debris from the missing plane.
It was only after 2SGT Mahmud rappelled down about 25m on a rope from the helicopter into the sea did he realise they had found the body of a woman. “My first thought was to try to get the body as soon as possible,” he said. “She could still be alive.”
For the next 20 minutes, he struggled desperately against 4m waves to reach the body. Failing to do so, he jumped into the sea and swam in vain towards the body. “Every time I tried to retrieve the body, another wave would toss it away,” he said.
Fearing for his safety, his crew eventually pulled 2SGT Mahmud back on board. An Indonesian warship later recovered the body, which was subsequently taken to Pangkalan Bun and flown to Surabaya for identification.
Although 2SGT Mahmud did not know at the time, that body was the first to be recovered from the AirAsia flight.
Since last Tuesday, he and his fellow divers have battled rain, strong wind and rough seas in a race against time to recover bodies and wreckage.
The work is strenuous: While search-and-rescue (SAR) personnel such as 2SGT Mahmud are allocated shifts, the length of each shift is unpredictable and divers are constantly on standby for instructions from pilots.
Monsoon winds and rains leave SAR personnel only short windows of calm weather to recover bodies and debris.
Nonetheless, with the combined efforts of the Indonesian and foreign militaries, search-and-locate attempts have made progress and 34 bodies have been found and taken to Surabaya, said the authorities in Pangkalan Bun.
2SGT Mahmud, who was taking a break at the Pangkalan Bun airport when TODAY spoke to him, said even as a seasoned diver — he joined Basarnas in 2010 — he found the conditions in the Java Sea “extreme” for search operations.
The waves, which reached as high as 5m, had pushed him to his physical limits, he said. “I have retrieved dead bodies at least once every year, but they are usually inland, in the rivers,” said the Kalimantan native. “This is my first time in an open sea.”
However, SAR divers understand the urgency of their mission, he said.
“I feel sad whenever I see a body, because it is someone’s child, husband, wife or relative,” he said. “But the most important task is to retrieve it quickly. To the families of the victims, I am sorry. You must stay strong.”