Rescue Diver Describes Harrowing Search for Crashed Indonesian Plane

“I’ve actually lost track of time and dates, that’s how intense this operation has been.”
January 12, 2021, 8:54am
Indones
An unidentified Indonesian navy diver holds up debris retrieved during an ongoing search and rescue operation for the crashed Sriwijaya Air plane. PHOTO: AFP / ADEK BERRY)

Search and rescue operations in Indonesia’s Java Sea are grinding on for a fourth straight day after a Sriwijaya Air Boeing 737 crashed mere minutes after takeoff from Jakarta on Saturday, Jan. 9. 

Hundreds of navy divers, assisted by experienced volunteers, are combing the wreckage-littered seabed surrounding the site, where no survivors have been found. 

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Underwater images and footage released by the Indonesian navy showed divers entering murky seawater and swimming through twisted red, yellow and blue pieces of material believed to be parts shorn off the plane, which was carrying 62 passengers. Huge chunks of metal debris have been retrieved, along with body parts, clothes and other personal items believed to belong to the victims on board Flight 182. 

The job is a physically and emotionally draining one, according to Bayu Wardoyo, a volunteer diver from Jakarta who is currently involved with the official rescue mission led by the national search and rescue agency of Indonesia, often referred to by its acronym BASARNAS. 

VICE World News spoke with the rescued-trained diver, who has more than 20 years of experience. He has seen numerous aviation disasters play out in his country and helped respond to them, including the 2014 AirAsia crash and the 2018 Lion Air tragedy which killed all 189 passengers and crew on board.

The accidents have severely tarnished Indonesia’s aviation safety record, one of the worst in Asia. The Southeast Asian country sees more civilian airliner passenger accidents than any other country in the region. Past accidents have been attributed to poor pilot training, lax safety measures, mechanical failures, air traffic control issues and poor aircraft maintenance.

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Bayu described his background in the field, what makes this search more challenging than others, and the toll it takes over time. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE World News: It’s about 12pm local time right now [in Jakarta]. Can you tell us where you are?  

Bayu Wardoyo: Hello VICE. I’m actually on board the navy mothership, taking a rest after a one-hour dive this morning. I got the call from authorities on Sunday informing me that a Sriwijaya plane had gone down off Jakarta and I’ve been in the water ever since. 

How long has each dive been?

I’ve actually lost track of time and dates, that’s how intense this operation has been. We started on Sunday and have been here since then. 

Yesterday I completed three dives, each around 45 minutes to an hour to complete, and I was surveying the surroundings underwater.

What have you found so far? 

Sadly, things beyond our imagination and control.

The aircraft has been so badly broken down into many small pieces. There has been lots of debris from the aircraft body but also human remains and corpses underwater, most all still in one piece. 

NAVY DIVERS RETRIEVE WRECKAGE NEAR LANCANG ISLAND. PHOTO: AFP / ADEK BERRY

NAVY DIVERS RETRIEVE WRECKAGE NEAR LANCANG ISLAND. PHOTO: AFP / ADEK BERRY

Clothes, personal items belonging to those on board have also been floating around. But this is normal in rescue and recovery dives, unlike those for leisure. 

You started out as a diving instructor in Bali, back in 1998. How did you come to be involved in search and rescue sea missions?

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I’ve been helping BASARNAS with its search and rescue dive operations for more than 20 years. I’m there if there are any accidents at sea because that is my area of strength and expertise. 

I also run a private team of trained search and rescue divers called the Indonesia Divers Rescue Team (IDRT). We have 20 members among us and are very skilled at rescue sea missions, which can be dangerous and very challenging. 

We unofficially formed the team back in 2014, when the AirAsia plane went down in Surabaya. We always volunteered our efforts and helped out informally because our navy and government agencies appreciate extra hands. After that mission, we decided to make ourselves formal and have always stepped forward to serve the country, and others if help is needed. We were also there when the Lion Air plane crashed in 2018. So many disasters, that’s why our help is always welcomed. 

THE IDRT TEAM IN FORMATION. PHOTO: IDRT FACEBOOK

THE IDRT TEAM IN FORMATION. PHOTO COURTESY OF IDRT

I can’t imagine the level of intensity and energy involved in such high risk work. Can you tell us more about what you do, and have been doing since the plane crashed on Sunday? 

I need to be frank, it is quite tiring and draining on all fronts, emotionally and mentally. You have to be very dedicated and resilient to perform a high risk rescue dive because you never know what you’re going to see. 

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I’m not new to rescue dive missions. But after speaking with the other divers involved, this accident is so different from the previous air crashes. The location is accessible and easy, close by to the [Jakarta] airport runway. But the way the plane went down speaks for itself. It’s tragic to see. 

The Lion Air crash saw the plane’s body frame still being largely visible at sea, the debris came out in very large pieces. This time, the Sriwijaya plane disintegrated so badly and we see so many small fragments and parts of the aircraft’s body. It’s a very different experience altogether and we have been adjusting as best as we can. 

The government investigators warned us that it would be a high-risk operation ahead and that’s certainly been the case. 

Have the sea conditions been favorable?

Largely so. In terms of water visibility, there was rain on Monday which hampered our operations. The weather generally has been fine. Today [Tuesday] was a good day and it was a very productive dive this morning. The only problem myself and others have been facing are small currents near the bottom of the sea bed. It’s visible for us underwater for five to eight meters [15 to 25 feet] and that helps us to see a lot. 

But we have to be careful and avoid kicking up sand and mud on the bottom. Very careful. 

Divers head out to the crash site off the northern coast of Jakarta on Jan. 12. (PHOTO: AFP / Azwar Ipank)

Divers head out to the crash site off the northern coast of Jakarta on Jan. 12. PHOTO: AFP / Azwar Ipank

Have you ever found yourself in situations where you panic and stress out underwater, especially during these high risk dive missions? 

I always remind my dive students that the ocean is not our world and meditation is really important to ensure a good state of mind when you dive. The same applies to when I embark on search and rescue missions. 

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I close my eyes and bring back calm memories when I am underwater carrying out rescue operations. 

Diving into a crashed plane will require a strong mind, you have to fully adjust to the mission and what you will see, in order to bring back victims and the plane. 

Members of the Indonesian Red Cross spray disinfectant over items recovered from Sriwijaya Air flight SJ182. PHOTO: AFP / ADEK BERRY

Members of the Indonesian Red Cross spray disinfectant over items recovered from Sriwijaya Air flight SJ182. PHOTO: AFP / ADEK BERRY

What is involved in search and rescue dives? 

Contrary to what most people think, there are so many parts to these specialized operations that take place at sea. Divers are the first thing you think about because of the skills and water experience but it’s really a mission that involves everyone because there are so many challenges.

Scuba kits and gear need to be prepared and placed on standby, help is always welcomed with regards to logistics and we have official timekeepers who keep track of how long we are each underwater. 

We also have trained doctors on board the vessels and rubber lifeboats to assist us in case of dive-related illness like decompression. 

Navy divers bring back bags of debris. PHOTO: AFP / Azwar Ipank

Navy divers bring back bags of debris. PHOTO: AFP / Azwar Ipank

What are your objectives now? 

We’ve been recovering plane debris as well as corpses, body parts and other remains of those on board. Now it’s a matter of time to find the black boxes.