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Relatives upset after learning Indonesian plane not found
MAKASSAR, Indonesia -- Relatives waiting for news about a missing jetliner broke down in tears Tuesday after learning that senior Indonesian officials erroneously reported the Boeing 737's charred wreckage had been found and that a dozen people may have survived.
"Oh, what is happening to us?" wailed Dorce Sundalangi, whose daughter was on the flight, after hearing the report was based on rumors from villagers that reached the highest levels of government. "They had given us hope of seeing our beloved relatives ... but it was false hope."
The Adam Air plane carrying 102 people sent out two distress signals in stormy weather Monday halfway through its two-hour journey from Indonesia's main island of Java to Manado, on the northern tip of Sulawesi, one of the largest islands in the sprawling archipelago.
Three of those aboard were American citizens, the U.S. Embassy said. A U.S. National Transportation Safety Board team was to arrive Friday to offer assistance. It was unclear if any other foreigners were on the plane.
Rescue and search teams hiked slippery forest paths in heavy rain for more than 10 hours Tuesday but found nothing, calling off their search along Sulawesi's mountainous western coast as darkness fell and vowing to set off again at dawn today.
Bambang Karnoyudo, the head of the National Search and Rescue Agency, said the search would be expanded to include the nearby Makassar Strait.
The announcement capped a day of hope and anguish for relatives of those on Flight KI-574.
Police Chief Col. Genot Hariyanto earlier said rescue teams arrived at the crash site. Setyo Raharjo, head of the National Commission on Transportation Safety, said 90 bodies were found near the wreckage and that the search for the 12 others was continuing.
The claims were repeated by everyone from the chief of Adam Air -- who extrapolated to say that a dozen people survived -- to senior aviation officials, high-ranking military officials and police.
Descriptions were vivid, with officials saying corpses and debris from the plane were scattered over a 300-yard area of forests and jagged cliffs, highlighting the often unreliable and chaotic nature of disaster relief efforts in the world's largest archipelagic nation.
Based on rumors
Eventually, Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa acknowledged the news was based on rumors from villagers, sparking a series of reversals from other officials.
"The search and rescue team is still looking for the location," the minister told El-Shinta radio. "It has not yet been found."
Karnoyudho said much of the original information came from Hariyanto, who said he received the news from subordinates after they spoke to a village chief.
"Once he went to check for himself, he found it was not true," Karnoyudho said, referring to the local police chief.
Air force Rear Cmdr. Eddy Suyanto -- among those who earlier confirmed the plane crashed in the mountainous Sulawesi region of Polewali -- acknowledged the error late Tuesday and apologized.
But that provided little consolation to relatives awaiting news about the missing.
Some were camped out at the Adam Air counter at the Manado airport -- the destination of the ill-fated plane -- and others were in the southern Sulawesi city of Makassar, believed to be closer to where the plane went down.
"I don't understand how the authorities could be so heartless and spread rumors without thinking of the suffering of those waiting for news of their loved ones," said Ima Kulata, who was awaiting word about her cousin and two nieces.
"It's ridiculous," she said, crying after learning there may be no survivors after all. "How come they make such fools of us?"
Earlier Tuesday, some relatives collapsed when hearing reports about the high death toll. Others angrily banged on the door of the Adam Air office, demanding information.
Just over half of the Adam Air's flight path was over the Java Sea, the Maluku Sea and other smaller bodies of water, but most of the focus Tuesday was over land.
The accident followed weeks of seasonal rains and high winds in Indonesia that have caused deadly floods, landslides and half a dozen maritime accidents -- including the sinking of a ferry in the Java Sea late Friday that killed or left missing about 400 people.
Adam Air is one of at least a dozen budget carriers that have emerged in the country since 1999, when the industry was deregulated. The rapid expansion has led to cheap flights to scores of destinations around the sprawling nation, but has raised some safety concerns, since maintenance on the leased planes is reportedly poor.
National aviation chief Ichsan Tatang said the plane involved in Monday's disaster was 17 years old, had flown 45,371 hours and passed its last inspection on Dec. 25.
"Everything was in order, the condition of the plane was good," he said, adding it was too early to speculate on the cause of the crash though it went down in severe weather.
In September 2005, a Mandala Airlines Boeing 737 crashed after takeoff on Sumatra, killing 143 people.
In September 1997, a Garuda Airlines Airbus crashed into a jungle-covered mountain slope in Sumatra, killing all 234 people aboard. Two months later, a Silk Air Boeing 737 jet crashed into a river on Sumatra, killing 104 people.