Official: Debris in sea ‘95% likely’ from AirAsia Flight QZ8501

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(CNN) — After three days of intense searching, Indonesian officials say they think they’ve found debris from AirAsia Flight QZ8501 in the waters off the island of Borneo.

Objects spotted in the sea are “95% likely” to be from the plane that went missing Sunday with 162 people on board, Bambang Sulistyo, the head of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, said Tuesday.

A search team on a plane spotted the shadow of an object that looked like a plane in the water. Further searching discovered floating objects believed to be the bodies of passengers, and then what appeared to be an emergency exit of the plane, Sulistyo told a news conference.

The announcement came as a heart-breaking blow to relatives of passengers who had been waiting for news at the airport in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, where Flight 8501 began its journey.

The plane was carrying 155 passengers and 7 crew members. The overwhelming majority of those on board were Indonesians. There were also citizens of Britain, France, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea.

There were scenes of anguish as families watched the news conference live and saw video of a helicopter lowering a diver down to what appeared to be a floating body.

Some people fainted and stretchers were taken into the room.

Family members burst into tears, dabbing their eyes as officials passed out tissues. Some sat with their eyes full of tears, hands covering their mouths, or heads buried in their hands. Others had phones jammed against their ears.

Words cannot express how sorry I am’

“My heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved in QZ 8501,” AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes tweeted. “On behalf of AirAsia my condolences to all. Words cannot express how sorry I am.”

He said he was on his way to Surabaya.

Search and rescue teams are diverting all their resources to where the debris is located, authorities said. The area is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the aircraft’s last known location over the Java Sea, off the coast of Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province on Borneo.

Divers and ships with sonar equipment are being sent to the site, where the depth of the sea at the site varies between 25 and 30 meters, Sulistyo said.

Ships, planes and helicopters have been scouring the sea for Flight 8501 since it went missing on its way to Singapore.

READ: How can a modern airliner vanish?

The Airbus A320-200 lost contact with air traffic control early Sunday shortly after the pilot requested permission to turn and climb to a higher altitude because of bad weather, according to Indonesian officials.

Unanswered questions

Authorities mounted a huge effort to find the aircraft, mapping out a search zone covering 156,000 square kilometers.

Questions remain unanswered about why Flight 8501 lost contact with air traffic control and what happened afterward.

Some experts have speculated that the aircraft might have experienced an aerodynamic stall because of a lack of speed or from flying at too sharp an angle to get enough lift.

Analysts have also suggested that the pilots might not have been getting information from onboard systems about the plane’s position or that rain or hail from thunderstorms in the area could have damaged the engines.

The key to understanding what happened is likely to be contained in the aircraft’s flight recorders.

“Until we get the black boxes, we won’t know what’s going on with the engines,” Bill Savage, a former pilot with 30 years of experience, told CNN.

‘It was to be his last vacation with his family’

Details have emerged about some of the people on board the plane.

They include Alain Oktavianus Siauw, whose fiance says she was on her way to the airport to pick him up when she heard the plane had gone missing.

Louise Sidharta said Siauw was supposed to be enjoying a family vacation before the two got married. “It was to be his last vacation with his family,” she said.

Siauw’s Facebook page says he lives in Malang, a province in Indonesia.

The disappearance of Flight 8501 also stirred painful memories of the families of people on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which dropped off radar over the South China Sea in March.

Nearly 10 months later, searchers are still combing remote reaches of the southern Indian Ocean for any trace of the Boeing 777 that had 239 people on board.

“The lack of ability to close things down emotionally is just exhausting,” said Sarah Bajc told CNN on Monday night. Her partner, Philip Woods, was on board Flight 370.

When news broke that another plane had disappeared this week, Bajc said, “I just started to shake.”

CNN’s Andrew Stevens, Brian Walker and Khushbu Shah, and translators Azieza Uhnavy and Edi Pangerapan contributed to this report.