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Search Area Expanded for AirAsia Flight Victims, Data Recorders

A military ship is seen from Indonesian Air Force NAS 332 Super Puma helicopter during a search operation for the victims of AirAsia Flight 8501, off Pangkalan Bun, Central Borneo, Indonesia, Jan. 6, 2015.
A military ship is seen from Indonesian Air Force NAS 332 Super Puma helicopter during a search operation for the victims of AirAsia Flight 8501, off Pangkalan Bun, Central Borneo, Indonesia, Jan. 6, 2015.

The head of Indonesia's National Search and Rescue Agency said the search area for the wreckage and victims of AirAsia Flight 8501 is being expanded, as the hunt for the plane's "black boxes," or flight data recorders, continues.

On Tuesday, Henry Bambang Soelistyo said authorities are opening up a "second priority" search area in the Java Sea off Indonesia. The plane went down into the sea more than a week ago during a storm, though no official cause has been determined.

Recovery teams have been struggling against strong currents and rough seas to reach what they believe to be the plane’s tail section, where the flight data recorders are located.

Suryadi Supriyadi, director of operations for the National Search and Rescue Agency, said there had been no "pings" detected from the black box's emergency locator beacon, possibly because it was buried in the seabed or the muddy water was impeding its signal.

"They haven't found anything, maybe because the water is turbid and there is zero visibility," Supriyadi, who is coordinating the operation from the southern Borneo town of Pangkalan Bun, said. "There's a possibility it is buried in mud."

Divers sent down

Divers were sent down to the sea floor during a break in the weather on Tuesday, but they were struggling to investigate the wreckage, Supriyadi said.

"Some of them tried to dive, but the bad weather hampered the diving operation," he told the French news agency, AFP, from Pangkalan Bun, which has the nearest airstrip to the wreckage.

"Divers haven't managed to get close to the large parts of the plane so far," Supriyadi said.

Forensic experts from Australia and Singapore have been working with Indonesia to assist in identifying the bodies. There were 162 people on board the plane when it crashed, but so far only 37 bodies have been retrieved, but only 13 have been identified.

In Jakarta Monday, the Indonesian government suspended a number of aviation officials following the revelation that AirAsia Flight 8501 did not have the proper permits to fly the day it went down.

The Ministry of Transport said the airline was approved to fly the route from the city of Surabaya to Singapore on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, but it took off on a Sunday. The ministry has suspended further AirAsia flights on the route and will conduct a full investigation, separate from the crash investigation.

Indonesia's financial regulator said it did not believe the issue of whether the airline had the correct flight permits would affect insurers paying out on claims.

"AirAsia didn't fall because it was a Sunday," Firdaus Djaelani, non-bank financial institutions supervisor at the financial services authority, told reporters in Jakarta.

Weather likely suspect

While the cause of the crash is not known, the national weather bureau has said the seasonal tropical storms common in the area were likely to be a factor. Last week, the authorities questioned whether the pilot had followed proper weather procedures.

The twin-engine Airbus A320 disappeared from radar without a distress call nearly halfway into what was supposed to be a two-hour flight from Surabaya to Singapore.

Before takeoff and during the last moments of the flight, the pilots requested to fly at a higher altitude to avoid a storm. The request was not approved because other planes were in the area.

The search for the remaining 125 bodies has been exhausting for family members anxiously waiting to identify and bury their loved ones.

On Tuesday, eight Islamic clerics flew in a helicopter over the site where the plane is believed to have crashed and scattered rice into the sea, a local tradition, and prayed for those who perished, The Associated Press reported.

Dozens of ships and planes are involved in the multinational search, with a Chinese ship joining the efforts on Tuesday.

Some material for this report came from Reuters, AFP and AP.