PANGKALAN BUN, Indonesia – Searchers were racing "against time and weather" Thursday to recover the dead from the crash of AirAsia Flight 8501, with a window of good conditions slammed shut by another onslaught of wind and heavy rain.
Seven bodies have been recovered from the jet, which crashed into the Java Sea on Sunday with 162 people aboard. Search crews began finding wreckage and corpses Tuesday, but in the thick of Indonesia's rainy season, the weather has frequently prevented helicopters and divers from operating while strong sea currents have kept debris moving.
Singapore's navy flew in an unmanned underwater vehicle capable of surveying the seabed to try to help pinpoint the wreckage and the all-important "black boxes." Indonesia is using a minesweeper and a private survey ship that specializes in sea mapping, while aircraft capable of detecting metal also were deployed.
We are "focusing on finding the body of the plane," Indonesia air force spokesman Rear Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto told reporters. "There was something like a dark shadow once seen from a plane, but it cannot yet be proven as wreckage."
The seven bodies were recovered from an area off Borneo island, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the site where bodies were first spotted. Remains are being sent initially to Pangkalan Bun, the closest town, before being transported to Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, where Flight 8501 had taken off.
Choppy conditions had prevented divers from entering the water Wednesday, and helicopters were largely grounded, but 18 ships continued to survey the narrowed search area.
Sonar images have identified what appeared to be large parts of the plane.
"It's possible the bodies are in the fuselage," said Vice Air Marshal Sunarbowo Sandi, search and rescue coordinator in Pangkalan Bun. "So it's a race now against time and weather."
It is still unclear what brought the plane down about halfway into its two-hour flight from Surabaya to Singapore. The jet's last communication indicated the pilots were worried about bad weather. They sought permission to climb above threatening clouds but were denied because of heavy air traffic. Four minutes later, the airliner disappeared from the radar without issuing a distress signal.
The cockpit-voice and flight-data recorders, or black boxes, hold data that will help investigators determine the cause of the crash but have yet to be recovered. Items recovered so far include a life jacket, an emergency exit door, an inflatable slide, children's shoes, a blue suitcase and backpacks filled with food.
Nearly all the passengers were Indonesian, and many were Christians of Chinese descent. The country is predominantly Muslim, but sizeable pockets of people of other faiths are found throughout the sprawling archipelago. Around 10 percent of those in Surabaya, the nation's second-largest city, are Christian.
Many family members have remained at the Surabaya airport since getting word that the plane disappeared.
"Help us, God, to move forward, even though we are surrounded by darkness," the Rev. Philip Mantofa of Mawar Sharon Church about 100 relatives gathered in an airport waiting room Wednesday. About 40 members of Mantofa's church died in the crash.
"Some things do not make sense to us, but God is bigger than all this," he said. "Our God is not evil."
Officials have not announced the identities of the seven bodies recovered. Relatives have given blood for DNA tests and submitted photos of their loved ones, along with identifying information such as tattoos or birthmarks that could help make the process easier.
Ng reported from Surabaya, Indonesia. Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini, Ali Kotarumalos and Margie Mason in Jakarta contributed to this report.