LANCANG ISLAND, Indonesia – Hendrik Mulyadi was checking his crab traps when he heard a huge explosion on the water nearby. The sea suddenly rose and raised the Indonesian fishing boat as smoke filled the air.
“I’m happy it didn’t hit me,” he recalled on Monday as he sat in his home on Lancang Island, still visibly shaken by what he saw. “It was like lightning, very fast. It exploded when it hit the water. I saw debris floating. It was aircraft debris. “
Mr Hendrik, 30, was one of five shrimp fishermen working on the water on Saturday afternoon when the Sriwijaya Air Flight fell from the sky 182 minutes after take-off with 62 people on board, including 10 children and babies. The plane crashed into the Java Sea about 300 feet from where Mr. Hendrik was fishing.
Typically a sleepy island with relatively few visitors, Lancang has now become an aircraft search and rescue base run by Basarnas, Indonesia’s national search and rescue agency. The crash site is less than a mile (1.6 km) from the island’s mangrove, coconut and banana trees.
The islanders, who often live in brightly colored, single-story houses, can now see dozens of ships offshore searching the area for rubble and corpses, trying to recover the black box.
The Sriwijaya flight, which flew to Pontianak on the island of Borneo, is the third passenger aircraft to crash into the Java Sea after departing from airports on the island of Java in just over six years.
Air Asia Flight 8501 crashed off the coast of Borneo with 162 people on board in the Java Sea in December 2014 when it was flying from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore. Investigators ultimately blamed the disaster of failure of a key component and an inappropriate response from the flight crew.
And in October 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 plunged a few minutes after take-off with 189 passengers and crew on board to Pangkal Pinang in the Java Sea northeast of Jakarta, the capital. The anti-stall system malfunctioned on the Boeing 737, a different aircraft than the one in the crash this weekend.
Lancang is one of the so-called Thousand Islands which are actually around 110 and are scattered in the Java Sea north of Jakarta. Some of the islands are popular tourist destinations. Others, like Lancang, are devoted almost entirely to fishing.
“Since Lion Air crashed, I often think when I’m out at sea and see an airplane fly by. What if an airplane crashes here?” Mr. Hendrik said. “There are a lot of fishermen here. We would die. “
Lancang is less than a mile long and half a mile wide. About 2,100 people live in Lancang, almost all of whom are related to the fishing industry. The small, mostly Muslim community is only 15 miles northeast of Jakarta and is one of the thousand islands closest to Soekarno-Hatta International Airport.
There are no cars and residents get around on foot or by motorcycle. The main road is only a track wide and it takes less than an hour to circumnavigate the island.
Few of the islanders have ever flown on an airplane. On a clear day, they can see them go overhead as they take off from Jakarta to destinations in the north. Nevertheless, Mr Hendrik said he could never have predicted what happened on Saturday.
“I never thought that a plane crash could happen here,” he said.
The island’s village chief, Mahtum, 47, who like many Indonesians only uses one name, said that many families on the island earn a living and lead simple lives. Lancang has been virtually untouched by the coronavirus, with only three cases discovered last week. But the islanders live under the threat of tsunamis.
The highest point in the entire Thousand Island chain is 23 feet. Many are prone to rising sea levels and extreme storms that delayed Sriwijaya flight before takeoff. Lancang’s highest point is seven feet above sea level. Some fishermen thought the crash on Saturday was an impending flood.
“Not only Lancang Island, but all of the islands in the Thousand Islands are threatened by high tides and strong winds due to climate change,” said Mahtum.
When the plane fell into the sea, it was so close to the island that the windows rattled. A fisherman, Sahapi, was on the water with his crew checking his crab traps not far from Mr. Hendrik’s boat when the disaster struck.
Mr Sahapi, 52, a Lancang Island fisherman since 1987, said he heard what sounded like a huge explosion. He felt the sea lift his boat and saw yellow and red lightning under the surface. “I saw debris in the rising water,” he said. “Thick black smoke filled the air and the rain was heavy. The water was yellow and red. “
At first he thought there might have been a tsunami, then he noticed that Mr. Hendrik’s boat was closer to the place of the explosion and decided that his friend must have been struck by lightning.
“I was scared of the wave rolling,” he said. “I looked right and left and didn’t see my friend’s boat.”
“I didn’t hear any plane noise,” he said.
He hurried home to bring the bad news of Mr. Hendrik’s death. To his relief, Mr. Hendrik returned soon afterwards and reported that there had been a plane crash.
Mr. Sahapi took police from the island back to the scene after learning of the crash and helped them pull some cables and clothing off the plane with an anchor.
By Sunday, the searchers had found the aircraft’s flight data recorder and hoped to restore it soon. However, it could be months before investigators determine the cause of the crash. Efforts continued on Monday to extract corpses and recover the data recorders from the rubble.
The Sriwijaya aircraft, a Boeing 737-500, was rated safe to fly prior to take-off and the airline had never suffered a crash that resulted in death on board. More than 50 ships and thousands of people are involved in the search and recovery.
Mr. Hendrik, born and raised in Lancang, started fishing with his father as a child and has been a fisherman ever since. At the time of the crash, he was with his crew of two on his 33-foot boat.
He said he was still so shocked after what he saw that he refused to go with the police to show them the location.
“I was still in trauma,” he said. “I just sat at home shivering and stuttered when I spoke. I have lost my appetite by now. I am still in shock. “
Authorities have not allowed Lancang shrimp fishermen to check their traps near the crash site since Saturday. Mr. Hendrik has 550 traps in the sea.