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7 Bodies Recovered From AirAsia Crash Site; Weather Hampers Search

Indonesian authorities believe they have located a large section of the AirAsia jet that crashed in the Java Sea, as the search for victims was hampered by poor weather.

Officials said Wednesday that sonar images suggest a large section of the plane is lying upside down on the bottom of the sea, in an area officials say is only 30-50 meters deep (100-165 feet).

But AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes later played down those reports, saying there is "some visual identification, but nothing confirmed."

Emergency workers pulled four corpses from the relatively shallow waters Wednesday, bringing the number of bodies recovered since Tuesday to seven. The bodies from the crash scene have been taken for identification to a victim identification center at Pangkalan Bun, in Central Kalimantan.

Pangkalan Bun is about 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the area where bodies were first spotted.

The first two bodies, which police said were of a woman and a teenage boy, arrived in the city of Surabaya Wednesday. Officials told The Associated Press that the other five bodies - three males and two females - will remain on a warship until the weather clears.

Wind and rain hamper search

Search-and-rescue agency officials said Wednesday waves of up to three meters, strong winds and heavy rain prevented rescue planes and helicopters from participating in an aerial search of the crash site near the island of Borneo. However, 18 ships continued to scour the search area.

Search-and-rescue official Sunarbowo Sandi said bodies and debris were being scattered by strong currents and monsoon weather conditions.

“All the wreckage and bodies have drifted around 50 kilometers and we're expecting all the bodies will end up on the beaches around here,” Sandi told reporters.

Indonesia's Meteorology and Geophysics Agency predicted conditions would worsen, with more intense rains, through Friday.

The first traces of the plane were discovered Tuesday, not far from where the Airbus A320 disappeared during a storm en route from Surabaya to Singapore on Sunday.

None of the 162 passengers and crew on board the plane have been found alive. Many on board were traveling to celebrate the new year with friends and relatives.

The search area was narrowed to 120 square nautical miles and 22 ships continued to hunt for the remaining victims and for the plane's black box, Dwi Putranto, a senior air force official, told Reuters.

Investigators hope to determine the cause of the crash once divers locate and recover the plane's cockpit voice and flight data recorders.

President Joko Widodo met the victims' families in Surabaya on Tuesday and promised "a massive search" effort, with priority given to recovering bodies of the passengers and crew.

Region drawn together

The tragedy has drawn the region together with offers of assistance across the Asia Pacific area. Several nations offered search and assistance to Indonesia - including Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, China, South Korea and the United States.

While preliminary investigations have blamed the heavy monsoon weather over the Java Sea for the accident in the early hours of Sunday, Indonesian transport officials said background checks were being carried out on all passengers as part of standard procedures.

The destroyer USS Sampson is on the scene helping with the search. A second ship, the USS Forth Worth, is standing by in Singapore and will head to the crash site if needed.

The White House said the United States sends its condolences to the families and loved ones, and stands by to provide Indonesia with all the help it needs.

AirAsia's Fernandes has apologized to the families of the victims, saying that as head of the airline, he will not run away from his responsibilities. He said the company will provide immediate financial assistance to the families.

Air traffic controllers denied the pilot's request to fly at a higher altitude to avoid the storm because there were other planes in the area. It tried to fly around the storm instead. The pilot gave no distress call before the plane disappeared.

The passengers included 149 Indonesians, three South Koreans, and one each from Britain, Malaysia and Singapore.

Ron Corben contributed to this report from Bangko. Some material for this report came from Reuters.