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Indonesian searchers find recorder from crashed Lion Air jet

Passenger on 737's 'scary' earlier flight reported two sharp drops in altitude

A family member of one of the passengers on Lion Air flight JT 610 cries at a funeral in the village of Sukodono, East Java, Indonesia, on Nov. 1.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Searchers in Indonesia have retrieved one recorder from Lion Air JT 610, which crashed Monday off the coast of Jakarta with 189 people on board, bringing authorities one step closer to finding out what caused the crash.

An official with Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Committee, or KNKT, said Thursday that searchers have retrieved "what is likely the flight data recorder" from the aircraft, adding that the search team is still looking for the cockpit voice recorder.

Muhammad Syaugi, head of the agency known as Basarnas, said the team had also recovered a 1.5-meter piece of debris, which he said was "larger than what we've found before."

"There is another, larger piece of debris, but the divers cannot retrieve it yet," Syaugi said, adding that the fragments were found about 500 meters from the coordinates where air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane.

Rescuers have narrowed the area of the search since Wednesday evening, after a ping locator aboard a recovery vessel picked up what appeared to be signals from the plane's twin black boxes.

Hundreds of smaller pieces of debris, as well as remains of people aboard the flight and their belongings, have been recovered since the search team began scouring the surface near the crash. As of Thursday, searchers had collected 56 body bags of human remains and had taken DNA samples from 238 body parts. Only one victim has been identified, a 24-year-old woman from a town in East Java.

The crashed jet, a Boeing 737 Max 8 that had been in service only since August, lost contact with controllers on the ground 13 minutes after takeoff on Monday morning, plunging into Karawang Bay in West Java Province about 15 km northeast of Jakarta. The scheduled one-hour flight took off from Jakarta bound for Pangkal Pinang, the capital of Bangka-Belitung Province. All 189 people on board are presumed dead.

Lion Air temporarily replaced its technical director, Muhammad Asif, on orders from the Transportation Ministry on Wednesday. Budi Karya Sumadi, the transport minister, said the move was temporary and that Asif may be reinstated if he is found not culpable for the accident.

Sumadi also said at a news conference on Thursday that the ministry has instructed the airline to replace four people, including the director of maintenance and engineering. The directorate general for air transport has frozen the aircraft maintenance engineer licenses of the four.

"The aim is so that they can focus on supporting the investigation," said Sumadi. "We haven't done a dismissal because KNKT is still conducting the investigation. But the suspension is a hint, a warning that they have to be responsible for what they've done."

Sumadi added that the government may review the lower limit on airfares, and consider raising fares set by low-cost carriers, as well as tighten air safety rules. "We will review all regulations concerning safety on all flights. It is very possible that we'll do an evaluation and tighten functions, such as investigation, clarification and reporting," Sumadi said.

Since Monday, details have emerged regarding technical problems with the aircraft during its previous flight from Denpasar, on the resort island of Bali, to Jakarta the night before. One female passenger on the Sunday flight said that it was delayed for a few hours before it finally took off, and that the plane suddenly lost altitude shortly after takeoff and then shook for almost the entire flight.

"After taking off and climbing, it immediately dropped, and then rose again and dropped even more sharply, while shaking. It was very scary," the passenger told local TV station TVOne. "We could clearly feel the shakes. The aircraft continued flying."

Bloomberg reported Wednesday that the Lion Air jet had experienced problems with the sensors used to determine the plane's altitude and speed on its previous flight. The pilots who flew the jet reported the problem after the flight from Denpasar, according to Lion Air spokesman Danang Mandala Prihantoro. He added that the instruments were checked by maintenance workers overnight and the plane cleared to fly.

Transport minister Sumadi said that the preliminary results from checks on 10 Boeing 737 Max 8s belonging to Lion Air and one to Garuda since Monday have found no technical problems. An official from the ministry added that there will need to be additional checks, but “at the moment, our inspectors have declared they are all airworthy.”

Officials from KNKT, which is responsible for investigating air accidents in Indonesia, have previously said it may take up to a year to determine the cause of the Lion Air crash.

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