JAKARTA: Indonesian rescuer Charles Batlajery was spending the afternoon with his family last Saturday (Jan 9) when he suddenly received a phone call informing him that a Sriwijaya Air plane had gone missing.
He immediately told his family that he had to go back to his office, the Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas), and then to Jakarta’s port.
As the commander of Basarnas’ Special Group (BSG), a special unit of the agency which is deployed throughout Indonesia when a major accident happens, Mr Batlajery received the call just about 20 minutes after Sriwijaya Air SJ 182 went missing.
The Pontianak-bound plane with 62 people aboard took off from Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta international airport at 2:36pm local time, but four minutes later air traffic controllers could not trace it on their radar screens.
“As a rescuer I always hope that nothing happens when there is news that a plane is missing. I always hope it is merely not detectable but is still intact,” Mr Batlajery, 35, told CNA.
Tracking service Flightradar24 reported that SJ 182 climbed to reach 10,900ft within four minutes after departure, and then began a steep descent. It stopped transmitting data 21 seconds later.
The commercial plane was last detected in the waters north of Jakarta around Laki and Lancang island in the Java sea.
Authorities also received information that local fishermen heard something explode in the Java Sea and subsequently saw debris floating in the ocean around the time the plane went missing.
Mr Batlajery and 26 other rescuers promptly worked out the coordinates and then headed to the Java Sea.
“We combed the area. We searched the ocean and found debris and body parts.
“The following day, on Sunday, we started to dive,” said Mr Batlajery.
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It was on Sunday that authorities confirmed that the plane had crashed into the Java Sea.
Led by Basarnas, an extensive search and rescue operation involving more than 3,000 people from multiple agencies including the military, police, transport ministry, National Transportation Safety Committee (KNKT) and volunteers was launched to find the passengers as well as the black box.
On Tuesday, officials recovered a part of the black box, the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) which collects data such as the plane altitude and airspeed.
The FDR along with the other part of the black box – the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) - can help shed light on why the plane has crashed.
RECOVERY MISSION TO GO ON
Mr Batlajery has been a rescuer for 15 years with Basarnas and joined its BSG when it was established in 2012.
“When I first started, I felt sad when I saw body parts. I would think: ‘What if that were my family…?'
“But after years, I accepted that it’s part of the job,” he said.
Every search and rescue operation is unique, Mr Batlajery said.
He opined that the Sriwijaya Air plane crash is in particular challenging because of the current weather condition.
“There are high waves, the currents are fast and the wind direction hinders the search operation,” he said.
Flight SJ 182 was actually delayed for half an hour due to heavy rain.
As of Friday morning, about 155 body bags of human remains have been retrieved, and 12 people have been identified.
“We have to find all 62 people. That’s why there's still a lot to do. We’ve retrieved more than 100 human parts but that doesn’t mean all 62 people on board have been found,” Mr Batlajery said, adding that the team is determined to find everyone.
Furthermore, even though a part of the black box has been found, the second part also needs to be retrieved.
According to Indonesian law, a search and rescue operation should last seven days but can be extended depending on the situation on the ground. Basarnas head Air Marshal Bagus Puruhito said on Friday that the mission will go on until next Monday for now.
ALWAYS READY FOR ANY DISASTER
Mr Batlajery told CNA that as a rescuer, he is ready to be deployed any time for an operation.
He is always on standby, especially when La Nina, which causes bad weather, is expected to last until at least March, he said.
He is ready for all emergencies, be it transport incidents such as plane and boat accidents to natural disasters like earthquakes and volcano eruptions.
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Prior to this, Mr Batlajery has been assigned to two other air disasters - Lion Air JT 610 in 2018 and AirAsia QZ 8501 in 2014 - which both crashed into the Java Sea, leaving no survivors.
Mr Batlajery was also deployed to the 2016 Aceh earthquake as well as the eruption of Mount Agung in Bali a year later.
Basarnas has more than 3,000 staff members all over Indonesia but only about 200 are in its special group.
Mr Batlajery is one of some 50 who are based in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta.
As a member of the BSG, Mr Batlajery has more skills than an ordinary Basarnas employee.
Among others, he is able to dive at least 40m below the ocean, parachute, do jungle rescue, and also rescue people under collapsed structures.
"After several years, I now know that working at Basarnas as a rescuer is God's way of helping many people through me.
“After understanding it I always do my best because I was chosen by God to carry out this noble task.”