IT was just after lunchtime on Tuesday that Witjaksono realised his son was never coming home.
Graphic images of the passengers of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, now floating semi-naked corpses, were broadcast by an Indonesian news channel.
And they appeared on six widescreen televisions inside the room where families, including several young children, were waiting for news of the missing airliner.
There were screams, shouts and an explosion of Javanese expletives as the majority of those present understood their loved ones were dead.
Several relatives fainted and were carried away on blue stretchers.
One man collapsed after appearing to suffer a minor heart attack.
“Perhaps it is the will of God,” reflected Witjaksono, a retired civil servant whose son, Bhima Ali, was one of 162 people on board the Airbus 320-200, on his way from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to a holiday in Singapore with friends. “When I saw the red and white fragments I knew my son was no longer alive.”
The gruesome images filled his head with horror.
“I suddenly imagined my son in the water like that,” the 60-year-old said, raising his arms in the air to impersonate one of the bloated cadavers shown on TV. “What if that was my son? I lost all my hope.”
Witjaksono, who like many Indonesians has just one name, was one of hundreds of relatives plunged into mourning as authorities confirmed that the airliner had been found and rescuers began pulling dozens of bodies from the Java Sea, off
the southwest corner of Borneo.
“I can’t really put into words how I feel right now,” Tony Fernandes, AirAsia’s owner, said at Surabaya’s international airport, where relatives had been waiting for news for more than two days.
The wreckage of the jet had in fact been discovered more than 36 hours earlier by Mohammed Taha, a 38year-old fisherman, who only realised the significance of the sighting of debris when he reached home, having dismissed it as ocean junk.
An aerial search was launched at first light and by 8am that unexplained debris had been found.
First came reports that objects resembling a plane’s door and emergency exit had been spotted, then that a plane-shaped “shadow” had been seen under the surface of the water.
Finally came the macabre news that bodies had also been sighted, in waters about 25m to 30m deep, almost 10km from Flight QZ8501’s last known location.
“We thought the passengers were still alive and were waving at us for help,” Tri Wibowo, a co-pilot of one of the search planes, said.
“But when we came nearer we saw they were already dead.”
Confirmation of that gruesome find reached Surabaya airport’s family room a few hours later, in the worst possible way.
For all the afternoon’s appalling revelations, some continued to insist their relatives could have survived.
“I still hope they are safe because I have had no specific news about them,” Ifan Joko, 54, who had six family members on the plane, including his son, said.
“I am still optimistic,” he said, although his blood-shot eyes told a different story.
A few hours later, Indonesia’s president touched down on the runway from which Flight QZ8501 had made its final take-off. He brought confirmation that its passengers would not be coming home.
“I am so sorry and sad for this accident,” Joko Widodo said after meeting the families.
“I hope the families can stay strong while facing this tragedy.”
The immediate focus was bringing back the bodies, the president said.
As he spoke, vessels carrying helicopters, divers and body bags were converging on the crash site.
But fog, darkness and 3m waves made that a complex task, he warned.
At a press conference on the island of Borneo, rescue officials began exhibiting objects plucked from the Java Sea, including the turquoise suitcase of one of the 17 children on the plane.
Fernandes wiped away a tear as he prepared to face the media with confirmation of the disaster. – The Telegraph