Divers and an unmanned underwater vehicle on Wednesday spotted the tail of the AirAsia plane that crashed into the Java Sea, the first confirmed sighting of any major wreckage 10 days after Flight 8501 went down with 162 people on board.
Searchers managed to get the first photographs of the debris — nearly 6 miles from where the plane lost contact — after it was detected by an Indonesian survey ship, National Search and Rescue chief Henry Bambang Soelistyo told reporters.
One released image appeared to show an upside down "A'' painted on a piece of metal, while another grainy shot depicted some sort of mechanical parts.
The find is particularly important because the all-important cockpit voice and flight data recorders, or black boxes, are located in the aircraft's tail. Smaller pieces of the plane, such as seats and an emergency door, had previously been collected from the surface, and six other several large objects have been detected by sonar on the seabed in the same area.
"Today we successfully discovered the part of the plane that became the main aim since yesterday," Soelistyo said. "I can ensure that this is part of the tail with the AirAsia mark on it."
Two more bodies were retrieved Tuesday, bringing the total to 39. But there are concerns that it will become harder to find the remaining corpses from Flight 8501, which crashed on December 28 with 162 passengers and crew aboard.
At two weeks, most corpses will sink, said Anton Castilani, head of Indonesia's disaster identification victim unit, and there are already signs of serious decomposition. Officials are hopeful many of the more than 120 bodies still unaccounted for will be found entombed in the fuselage.
Finding the black boxes will be key to the investigation. They provide essential information including the plane's vertical and horizontal speeds along with engine temperature and final conversations between the captain and co-pilot. The ping-emitting beacons still have about 20 days before their batteries go dead, but high surf had prevented the deployment of ships that drag "ping" locators.
The search area for bodies and debris was expanded this week to allow for the strong currents that have been pushing debris around, said Indonesian search and rescue operation coordinator Tatang Zainudin.
In addition to heavy rain and wind, the monsoon weather has turned the Java Sea into a slush bowl.
But in some ways, it is one of the best places to look for a missing plane, especially when compared to the extreme depths of the Indian Ocean where searchers continue to hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared last March with 239 people aboard.
The water at the Indonesia site is shallow, but this is the worst time of the year for a recovery operation to take place due to seasonal rains that have created choppy seas and blinding mud and silt from river runoff.
"Because the Java Sea is such an enclosed basin, and there's not really big currents passing through it, everything just stays there for quite a while and the waves make it so that the sediment doesn't slowly just sink to the bottom," said Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. "It continuously keeps churning it up."
He said the conditions also make it particularly dangerous for divers because the water is dark and murky, making it easy for them to cut themselves on jagged wreckage or even become snared and trapped. During the dry season, he added, it would likely be easy to see the plane underwater from the sky. Waters in the area are relatively shallow, at around 30 meters deep.
The search for the remaining bodies has been exhausting for family members anxiously waiting to identify and bury their loved ones.
Eight Islamic clerics flew in a helicopter over the site Tuesday and scattered rice into the sea, a local tradition, and prayed for those who perished.