Investigators identify charred victims of Indonesian plane crash

Investigators picked through the charred debris of a Boeing 737-400 that burst into flames after careering off a runway in Indonesia, as forensic doctors Thursday struggled to identify the 21 people killed, many burned beyond recognition.

About 117 dazed and bloodied survivors staggered from the jetliner after it broke through a fence and came to rest in a rice paddy on Wednesday. Most escaped without major injuries, although several suffered burns and broken bones.

Those killed were trapped in the wreckage of the Garuda Airlines plane after it caught fire, sending billowing clouds of black smoke and orange flames high into the air. The plane had been carrying 140 passengers and crew, officials said.

The accident at Yogyakarta international airport on Java island was the third plane crash in as many months in Indonesia, raising urgent questions about the safety of the country's booming airline sector.

Two people were missing and five Australians were feared to be among the dead.

Australian and Indonesian crash investigators Thursday examined the blackened fuselage and other parts of the plane scattered over a brilliant green rice paddy at the end of the runway, taking photos and notes as they worked.

Both of the plane's flight data recorders had been found and would be sent to Australia for analysis, investigators said.

"We are working hard to investigate the crash, we can not even make a preliminary conclusion yet, but it is clear there are no indications of sabotage or intentional explosions in this crash as yet," Joseph Tumenggung, the head of the investigation team, told The Associated Press.

Alexandra Bertellotti, a journalist with Italian broadcaster RAI, said the plane was going at a "crazy speed" as it approached Yogyakarta airport after a 50-minute flight from the capital, Jakarta.

"It was going into a dive and I was certain we would crash on the ground," he told the Italian news agency ANSA. "I was sitting behind the wing. I saw that the pilot was trying to stop it, but it was too fast. It literarily bounced on the strip."

Australian police forensic experts were helping Indonesian doctors working to identify bodies in the morgue of the city's Sarjito Hospital.

With the smell of charred flesh heavy in the air, some relatives argued with doctors, demanding permission to take bodies home they thought they recognized before dental or DNA checks were performed.

"I definitely recognize the body of my brother," said Salamun, who goes by a single name.

"We asked doctors to bring him home because as Muslims we want him buried immediately, but doctors required dental records of my brother. This bureaucracy is making us crazy."

As of Thursday, the bodies of 16 victims had been identified, said police forensic doctor Col. Slamet Pornomo.

"Their faces no longer have any shape," said another forensic doctor called Syahrizal. "We are waiting for family members to arrive and let us know of if they recognize any unique features on their bodies. Failing that, we will have to use dental records or DNA."

The Indonesian government ordered an investigation into the crash, the latest in a series of accidents in the country. On New Year's Day, a jet plummeted into the sea, killing all 102 people aboard. Weeks later, a plane broke apart on landing, though there were no casualties. There have also been several ferry sinkings, one of which killed 400, the AP says.

In response, the government has said it would ban commercial airlines from operating planes more than 10 years old, but most experts say maintenance must be improved and the number of flights per day limited.

Some have also called for Transportation Minister Hatta Radjasa to resign.

"He should not be allowed to wash his hands of this," Burhanuddin Napitulu, senior lawmaker from Indonesia's ruling party. "The public has lost all trust. They are too scared to take planes, trains or ferries any more because the disasters are never-ending."

Dozens of airlines have emerged since Indonesia started deregulating the industry in the late 1990s, and the rapid expansion has raised concerns that growth has outpaced the supply of trained aviation professionals, regulatory oversight, parts and ground infrastructure.

Although Garuda has had nine plane crashes in the past 30 years, killing 330, the airline has made strides recently on improving its safety regulations and training pilots, experts said.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team to help the Indonesian government investigate the crash.

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