While family members mourned the loss Wednesday of AirAsia Flight 8501, the investigation into the doomed flight that likely led to the loss of all 162 aboard deepened.
Debris from the flight, which was reported missing on Sunday during a trip from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore, turned up in the Java Sea about six miles from the plane’s last known point of contact. At least 40 bodies, and what appeared to be a life jacket and an emergency exit door, were spotted on Tuesday, confirming the flight’s fate.
Investigators were turning their attention Wednesday to the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, which will provide clues to what happened during the six minutes between the time the pilot of the Airbus A320-216 made contact with air traffic control and when the jet dropped off of the radar.
The black boxes can reveal how fast the plane was going before crashing, its altitude, the status of its systems and what the pilots’ final words were. Investigators will use this information to reconstruct a timeline of what happened and why.
The extent of the plane’s damage will also be analyzed. Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, told The Associated Press that if the plane came down relatively intact, the wreckage would show signs of compression.
However, if the metal were torn to pieces, Goelz added, that’s a sign of a breakup at altitude. Similar to what was seen during the crash of TWA Flight 800, which exploded over the Atlantic Ocean in 1996 after takeoff.
The deceased passengers of Flight 8501 will also be key evidence for accident investigators in determining the cause of the crash. For example, if a body is fully clothed it probably emerged after the plane hit the water. If the body is wearing less clothing, the passengers may have been ejected midflight, Goelz told the AP.
“It wasn’t a controlled ditching,” Paul Hayes, safety director at London-based aviation consulting company Ascend Worldwide told the Miami Herald. “That’s clear from the finding of bodies that don’t have life jackets on.”
If autopsies show death came from blunt-force trauma, it “could suggest passengers were alive upon impact with the water,” Scott Hamilton, managing director of aviation consulting firm Leeham Co., told the AP. Other causes of death might mean there was rapid decompression and in-flight breakup.
Nearly all the passengers and crew are Indonesians, who are frequent visitors to Singapore, particularly on holidays.
Several countries are helping Indonesia retrieve the wreckage and the passengers.
A Chinese frigate was also on the way, while Singapore said it was sending two underwater beacon detectors to try to detect pings from the plane’s all-important cockpit voice and flight data recorders. Malaysia, Australia and Thailand also are involved in the search.
The investigation could help determine what causes these tragic aviation accidents, as well as bring closure to the families who wonder what happened.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.