MAKASSAR, Indonesia (Reuters) - The fate of an Indonesian airliner missing with 102 people on board remained in doubt late on Tuesday after senior officials apologized for erroneously stating that its wreckage had been found.
Officials had earlier said what was left of the plane, a Boeing 737-400 operated by budget carrier Adam Air, had been located in the mountains of Sulawesi island where it had crashed in heavy rain. Reports said 12 people had survived the crash.
“The location has not been found. We apologize that the news that we conveyed was not true,” First Air Marshal Eddy Suyanto, commander of Hasanuddin air base in Makassar, told reporters.
“It’s not true that the crash location has been found,” Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa told the same news conference, held less than an hour after another in which he had talked about difficulties in reaching what was thought to be the site.
“We found nothing when we arrived at the location,” Suyanto added.
The plane lost contact with the ground on Monday about an hour before it was due to land in Manado in North Sulawesi, the transport ministry said.
The plane was carrying 96 passengers and six crew. A copy of its manifest showed three passengers as non-Indonesians. The United States embassy in Jakarta said they were Americans.
The plane went missing just two days after a ferry carrying more than 600 people sank in bad weather off the main island of Java. At least 200 were saved and rescuers were still finding survivors on Tuesday, but some 400 were still unaccounted for.
Suyanto had earlier told Radio Elshinta an air force plane had spotted the wreckage of the Boeing, and a spokesman for Adam Air said 12 people had survived and would be evacuated.
In another twist, transport minister Radjasa had already cast doubt on the survivors’ report, saying it was based on comments from villagers and could not be confirmed.
Relatives of passengers anxiously awaiting news in Makassar reacted to the new developments with shock and dismay.
“It was said that the search and rescue team had seen the aircraft. We are confused whom we should trust,” Toni Toliu, 48, from Manado told Reuters. His sister and her two children were on the plane.
Sopiana de Fretes, 49, related to an army official on the plane, said: “Since I got here, the news has been conflicting. It’s like we don’t get the news that we are supposed to get.”
Officials said the search would now continue at other sites, concentrating in areas of western Sulawesi from where distress signals had been picked up on Monday before contact with the plane was lost.
Searchers face bad weather conditions and rough, jungle terrain.
A spokesman for Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had issued a statement in Jakarta, shortly before news broke that the plane had not been found, saying the president wanted a full investigation into what went wrong.
“The president orders the transportation minister to evaluate and investigate this accident. The president also asked for an evaluation and investigation on the airworthiness of the plane and standard procedure on airplane operations,” the statement said.
Thus far transport officials have insisted the Boeing was airworthy and had no record of trouble.
The transport ministry said it had last evaluated the plane in December 2005, when it had passed all service checks. The 17-year-old aircraft was due to be checked again in late January.
The Boeing had 45,371 flying hours and, according to Adam Air, was powered by General Electric CFM56-3C1 engines.
Air travel in Indonesia, home to 220 million people, has grown substantially since the liberalization of the airline industry after the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, which enabled privately owned budget airlines to operate.
Adam Air was established in 2002 by Agung Laksono, speaker of Indonesia’s parliament and chairman of the company, and Sandra Ang. It began operations on December 19, 2003.
With additional reporting by Muklis Ali, Achmad Sukarsono, Mita Valina Liem and Muara Makarim in JAKARTA