POLEWALI MANDAR, Indonesia – Indonesia's transportation minister said Tuesday rescuers had not found the wreckage of a missing passenger jetliner, despite earlier statements from aviation and police officials that it had been.
The Adam Air Boeing 737 carrying 102 people sent out two distress signals in stormy weather Monday. Flight KI-574 was about halfway through its two-hour journey from Indonesia's main island of Java to Manado, on the northern tip of Sulawesi, one of the largest islands in the sprawling archipelago.
"The search and rescue team is still looking for the location," Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa told El-Shinta radio, insisting that earlier statements that the wreckage had been found were based on rumors from villagers that were passed on to local officials. "It has not yet been found."
Police Chief Col. Genot Hariyanto had earlier said that rescue teams arrived at the crash site on Sulawesi's western coast early Tuesday and found the charred remains of the plane and scores of bodies.
Setyo Raharjo, head of the National Commission on Transportation Safety, also said that searchers had found 90 bodies at the scene and the search for the other 12 was continuing. He had said the crash site was inaccessible by helicopter or car.
Other senior aviation officials also later retreated from the initial reports.
Air force Rear Cmdr. Eddy Suyanto was one of numerous officials who had said the plane crashed in a mountainous region in Polewali, west Sulawesi province, but he acknowledged the error later Tuesday.
"We apologize for the news that we released earlier," he said. "It was not true."
Bambang Karnoyudo, the head of the National Search and Rescue Agency, said the erroneous reports that reached Indonesia's highest aviation officials, the military, police and Adam Air originated from Hariyanto, who said he received the information from his subordinates after they spoke to a village chief.
Descriptions of the crash site were vivid, with officials saying 90 corpses and debris from the plane were scattered over a 300-meter (yard) area of forests and jagged cliffs, and that a dozen people may have survived — bringing anguish and hope to waiting relatives.
"Once he went to check for himself, he found it was not true," Karnoyudo said, referring to the local police chief.
Rescue and search teams hiked through heavy rain and slippery forest paths for hours Tuesday in search of the plane. Teams suspended the search as darkness fell and said they would continue at dawn Wednesday and would be expanded to include the Malakka Strait off Sulawesi's western coast, Karnoyudo said.
Weeks of seasonal rains and high winds in Indonesia have caused deadly floods, landslides and half a dozen maritime accidents — including the sinking of a ferry in the Java Sea late Friday that killed or left missing about 400 people.
Hundreds of people gathered at Manado's airport, and some collapsed when they heard reports that 90 people were killed. Others angrily banged on the door of the Adam Air office there, demanding information, witnesses said.
Justin Tumurang's twin sister was on the plane.
"Being a twin, we share almost every feeling. I felt something was not right, and it grew worse. Now I feel pain," she said.
Three of those aboard were American citizens, the U.S. Embassy said. It was unknown if other foreign nationals were on the flight.
Adam Air is one of at least a dozen budget carriers that have emerged in the country since 1999, when the industry was deregulated. The rapid expansion has led to cheap flights to scores of destinations around the sprawling nation, but has raised some safety concerns, since maintenance on the leased planes is reportedly poor.
National aviation chief Ichsan Tatang said the Boeing 737 that vanished Monday was 17 years old, had flown 45,371 hours and passed its last inspection on Dec. 25.
"Everything was in order, the condition of the plane was good," he said, adding it was too early to speculate on the cause of the crash though it went down in severe weather.
In September 2005, a Mandala Airlines Boeing 737 crashed after takeoff on Sumatra, killing 143 people.
In September 1997, a Garuda Airlines Airbus crashed into a jungle-covered mountain slope in Sumatra, killing all 234 people aboard. Two months later, a Silk Air Boeing 737 jet crashed into a river on Sumatra, killing 104 people.