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AirAsia victim families in shock, anger as mourning begins

Families of the 162 people aboard the AirAsia Bhd. airliner that went missing almost three days ago broke into tears and anguished wails as authorities said the debris they found off the coast of Borneo was from Flight 8501.

Shock ensued at the crisis center of Juanda Airport in the Indonesian city of Surabaya as people fainted. One person was taken from the waiting room by a stretcher. Some reacted in anger, with one AirAsia employee railing at a television reporter for showing footage of a bloated and nearly naked corpse bobbing up and down on the waves. There was no mention of survivors.

As investigators shift their focus to figuring out what caused the Airbus Group NV A320 plane to crash into the ocean near Pangkalan Bun, about 620 miles southeast of Singapore, the families join the growing number of mourners in what’s turning out to be the airline industry’s deadliest year since 2010.

Among those grieving is Hendrik Theodoros, whose brother Hendra, a 44-year-old businessman, was on the ill-fated flight with his wife, 20-year-old son and teenage daughter. They were going to Singapore for medical check-ups and to spend a year-end holiday.

“We hoped they would come back,” said Theodoros, 51, as tears started to well in his eyes. “Life still has to go on.”

Some, such as Dwi Jayanto, turned to religion. His son, Bhima Aly Wicaksana, had been heading to Singapore with a friend for vacation.

“I can only pray, pray and always pray,” he said. “I’m so devastated. I can’t really put this into words.”

AirAsia Chief Executive Officer Tony Fernandes said he was rushing to Surabaya to be with the grieving families.

“My heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved in QZ 8501,” Fernandes said on Twitter. “On behalf of AirAsia, my condolences to all. Words cannot express how sorry I am.”

Malaysia-based AirAsia won’t shirk its obligations and will work on a speedy conclusion, Fernandes subsequently told reporters in Surabaya.

It wasn’t just the passengers who were mourned. Suwarto, father of Captain Iriyanto who commanded Flight 8501, recalled how his son turned his boyhood dreams of flying fighter jets into reality by joining the air force, climbing to the rank of first lieutenant before piloting commercial flights. Iriyanto’s son, 7, also wants to become a pilot, Suwarto said.

Fighter Pilot

“He was most happy when he flew fighter jets,” Suwarto, 76, said in an interview in the town of Sidoarjo that’s near Surabaya, pausing at times to cry. “His experience in fighter jets makes him very able to fly commercial planes.”

Iriyanto was in the cockpit of Flight 8501 on the morning of Dec. 28 as he set off for what should have been a routine two-hour flight on the heavily traveled route to Singapore. Less than an hour into the flight, over the Java Sea between the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, he requested permission to gain additional altitude because of storms in the area. Before air- traffic controllers could answer, contact with the plane was lost.

While most on the plane were Indonesian, passengers included nationals from Singapore, Malaysia, the U.K. and South Korea.

Park Seong Beom, a 37-year-old Korean missionary, had just recently moved to the city of Malang in East Java with his wife and infant daughter to work as a missionary. The family was traveling to Singapore to renew visas.

Korean Missionary

“He was strong in his faith and wanted to be of service to people more than anything,” said Kim Seong Ryeong, who was Park’s Sunday school teacher and watched him grow up. “We feel devastated that he and his family are missing.”

Some were more lucky. A passenger manifest showed that 26 people who bought tickets didn’t show up for the flight, including former beauty queen Anggi Mahesti, who said she was part of a group of 10 people who missed the plane because they weren’t aware of a change in the plane’s departure time.

The multi-nation search for the aircraft – and the scenes of distraught family members searching for any scrap of information – revived memories of other air tragedies this year.

In March, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing en route to Beijing from Singapore. That plane is believed to have crashed in the remote Indian Ocean off the coast of Australia, but more than nine months later not a trace of the plane has been found.