POLEWALI, Indonesia – Rescuers scoured the ocean for a missing jetliner Wednesday, one day after senior Indonesian officials erroneously said the Boeing 737's charred wreckage had been found in a remote mountainous area and that a dozen people may have survived.
Three navy ships set sail soon after sunrise in the Makkasar Strait and five air force planes took off to search for signs of wreckage, said Bambang Karnoyudho, head of the National Search and Rescue Agency.
Karnoyudho said that based on radar and satellite readings, he thought it most likely that the plane had fallen into the sea. "God willing, we can find it soon," he told The Associated Press.
Adam Air Flight KI-574, carrying 102 people, was flying from Indonesia's main island of Java to North Sulawesi's provincial capital of Manado when it disappeared Monday in stormy weather after sending out distress signals — one over mountainous jungles and the other along the coast.
Three Oregonians were on board: Scott Jackson, a 54-year-old wood-products industry representative, and his daughters, 21-year-old Stephanie and 18-year-old Lindsey, the Oregonian newspaper reported. It was unclear whether any other foreigners were on the plane.
Air Force Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Mudjianto, whose team followed the plane's scheduled flight path to the site where its last distress signal was picked up, said visibility was good early Wednesday, but they had found no signs of the 120-foot-long plane.
Strong wind and rain forced surveillance planes back to base later in the day, and a severe storm was heading toward the island and due to hit Thursday.
Relatives of the passengers — some camped out at the Adam Air counter at the Manado airport — were losing patience after being misinformed a day earlier about the fate of the plane.
Top Indonesian aviation, military and police officials — and the airline itself — said the plane had been found in a remote part of Sulawesi. They said that 90 people on board had perished, but that the remaining 12 may have survived.
Descriptions were vivid, with officials saying corpses and debris from the plane were scattered over a 300-yard area of forests and jagged cliffs, highlighting the often unreliable and chaotic nature of disaster relief efforts in Indonesia.
Eventually, Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa acknowledged the news that the plane had been located was based on rumors from villagers, sparking a series of reversals from other officials.
"I don't understand how the authorities could be so heartless and spread rumors without thinking of the suffering of those waiting for news of their loved ones," said Ima Kulata, who was awaiting word about her cousin and two nieces.
"It's ridiculous," she said, crying after learning there may be no survivors after all. "How come they make such fools of us?"
Aviation experts say the search has been bogged down by bad weather, a potentially damaged emergency locator and dense, remote island terrain.
"In an area of low population density, particularly if it is in inhospitable terrain — such as jungle, or a deep ravine or covered by a canopy — it could sit for a long time without being found," said Laurence Benn, head of the Center for Civil Aviation in London.
The plane's tracking technology may have been destroyed upon impact, but even if an emergency transponder signal went off, there may be interference weakening the signal, Benn said. "The locator beacon also has a limited battery life," he added.
The search has been further compounded by the misinformation spread by Indonesian officials.
"Indonesia is a place full of miscommunication, contradictory information and confusion during an accident like this," said Nicholas Ionides, managing editor for Flight International Magazine in Asia. "There is gossip and rumor and you never know what the facts are."
A U.S. National Transportation Safety Board team was to arrive Friday to offer assistance. It was unclear whether any other foreigners were on the plane.
The Oregonian reported Tuesday that the Jackson sisters, both from Bend, Ore., were traveling with their father, who lives part time in Indonesia, Brazil and Oregon.
Felice Jackson DuBois said her daughters sent her an e-mail that said "Happy New Year" shortly before takeoff.
"Any time I hear that they're going on an airplane, yes, I'm scared," DuBois told The Oregonian. "But you can't live your life guided by your fears. You just want to hold out hope."