Searchers spot wreckage of Indonesian plane in rugged Papua

Relatives of passengers on the missing Trigana Air Service flight sit at Sentani airport in Jayapura, Papua province, Indonesia, Monday, Aug. 17, 2015. Rescue officials spotted an Indonesian airliner that went missing on Sunday in the country's mountainous easternmost province of Papua and rescue teams were preparing to try to reach the crash site by air and foot. (AP Photo)

JAYAPURA, Indonesia (AP) — A search plane has spotted the wreckage of an Indonesian passenger plane that went missing with 54 people on board, smoke still billowing from it in a rugged area in eastern Papua province, rescue officials said Monday.

There was no immediate word if there were any survivors from Sunday’s crash, which happened in bad weather over Indonesia’s mountainous easternmost province.

The Trigana Air Service plane was flying from Papua’s provincial capital, Jayapura, to the Papua city of Oksibil when it lost contact with Oksibil’s airport. Transportation Ministry spokesman Julius Barata said there was no indication that the pilot had made a distress call.

Officials said the wreckage was spotted about 12 kilometers (7 miles) from Oksibil. Henry Bambang Soelistyo, the chief of the National Search and Rescue Agency, said search and rescue teams were preparing to try to reach the crash site by air and foot.

The ATR42-300 twin turboprop plane was carrying 49 passengers and five crew members on a scheduled 42-minute journey. Five children, including two infants, were among the passengers.

“Smoke was still billowing from the wreckage when it was spotted by a plane search,” said Soelistyo who is leading the rescue operation from Sentani Airport in Jayapura, adding that bad weather and rugged terrain were hampering efforts to reach the wreckage located in a mountainous area at an altitude of 2,600 meters (about 8,500 feet).

He said elite forces from the air force and army will build a helipad for evacuation purposes near the crash site.

Search planes went into the air early Monday after residents of a village not far from Oksibil told local police that they saw a plane flying low before crashing into a mountain, said Ludiyanto, who heads the search and rescue operation from Jayapura. Ludiyanto, like many Indonesians, goes by one name.

The airline’s crisis center official in Jayapura’s Sentani airport, Budiono, said all the passengers are Indonesians and there were nine names on the initial passenger manifest were eventually replaced by other persons — a common practice among small domestic airlines in the country.

Budiono also said that among the passengers were five local government officials and members of the local parliament who were to attend a ceremony Monday in Oksibil marking the 70th anniversary of Indonesia’s independence from Dutch colonial rule. The event is a major holiday across the country, with many ceremonies and carnivals.

Oksibil, which is 280 kilometers (175 miles) south of Jayapura, was experiencing heavy rain, strong winds and fog when the plane lost contact with the airport minutes before it was scheduled to land.

Much of Papua is covered with impenetrable jungles and mountains. Some planes that have crashed in the past have never been found.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said in a statement ahead of Indonesia’s 70th independence anniversary ceremony that he was calling “for a moment of silence and pray for the crew and passengers ahead of our independence anniversary.”

European plane maker ATR said in a statement late Sunday that it “acknowledges the reported loss of contact” with the Trigana flight “and is standing by to support the relevant aviation authorities.” ATR, based in Toulouse, France, makes regional planes with 90 seats or less.

Indonesia has had a string of airline tragedies in recent years. Last December, all 162 people aboard an AirAsia jet were killed when the plane plummeted into the Java Sea as it flew through stormy weather on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, to Singapore.

The sprawling archipelago nation of 250 million people and some 17,000 islands is one of Asia’s most rapidly expanding airline markets, but it is struggling to provide enough qualified pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers and updated airport technology to ensure safety.

From 2007 to 2009, the European Union barred Indonesian airlines from flying to Europe because of safety concerns.

Trigana Air Service, which commenced operations in 1991, had 22 aircraft as of December 2013 and flies to 21 destinations in Indonesia.

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