JAYAPURA, Indonesia — An airplane with 54 people on board that crashed in the mountains of eastern Indonesia was carrying nearly half a million dollars in government cash for poor families to help offset a spike in fuel prices, an official said Monday.
Smouldering wreckage of the Trigana Air Service turboprop plane was spotted from the air Monday morning in a rugged area of the easternmost province of Papua, rescue officials said. There was no immediate word of any survivors from Sunday’s crash, which happened in bad weather.
Four postal workers aboard the plane were escorting four bags of cash totalling $468,750 in government fuel aid, Franciscus Haryono, the head of the post office in Jayapura, the provincial capital, told The Associated Press.
The ATR42-300 twin turboprop plane was flying from Jayapura to the city of Oksibil when it lost contact. Transportation Ministry spokesman Julius Barata said there was no indication that the pilot had made a distress call.
The cash from the Social Affairs Ministry was to be distributed among poor people in remote areas to cushion the jump in fuel costs, Haryono said.
“They were carrying those bags (of cash) to be handed out to poor people in Oksibil through a post office there,” Haryono said.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration raised fuel prices late last year and slashed government subsidies, a move the government says will save the country billions of dollars but has already sparked angry protests around the country.
Officials said three search planes spotted the wreckage about 12 kilometres (7 miles) from Oksibil. Search and rescue operations involving about 10 aircraft were halted Monday evening because of darkness and would resume early Tuesday, said Heronimus Guru, deputy operations director of the National Search and Rescue Agency.
The plane was carrying 49 passengers and five crew members on a scheduled 42-minute flight. Five children, including two infants, were among the passengers.
“Smoke was still billowing from the wreckage when it was spotted by a plane search,” said Henry Bambang Soelistyo, the chief of the National Search and Rescue Agency. He said bad weather and rugged terrain were hampering efforts to reach the wreckage, located at an altitude of 2,600 metres (about 8,500 feet).
He said elite forces from the air force and army will build a helipad for evacuation purposes near the crash site. Much of Papua is covered with impenetrable jungles and mountains. Some planes that have crashed in the past have never been found.
Search planes went into the air early Monday after residents of a village not far from Oksibil told police that they saw a plane flying low before crashing into a mountain, said Ludiyanto, who heads the search and rescue operation from Jayapura, and like many Indonesians uses only one name.
The airline’s crisis centre official in Jayapura’s Sentani airport, Budiono, said all the passengers were Indonesians.
Budiono said the passengers included three local government officials and two members of the local parliament who were to attend a ceremony Monday in Oksibil marking the 70th anniversary of Indonesia’s independence from Dutch colonial rule.
Widodo said in a statement that he was calling “for a moment of silence and pray for the crew and passengers ahead of our independence anniversary.”
Oksibil, about 280 kilometres (175 miles) south of Jayapura, was experiencing heavy rain, strong winds and fog when the plane lost contact with the airport minutes before it was scheduled to land.
European plane maker ATR said late Sunday that it “acknowledges the reported loss of contact” with the Trigana flight “and is standing by to support the relevant aviation authorities.” ATR, based in Toulouse, France, makes regional planes with 90 seats or less.
Indonesia has had a string of airline tragedies in recent years. In December, all 162 people aboard an AirAsia jet were killed when the plane plummeted into the Java Sea as it flew through stormy weather on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, to Singapore.
The sprawling archipelago nation of 250 million people and some 17,000 islands is one of Asia’s most rapidly expanding airline markets, but it is struggling to provide enough qualified pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers and updated airport technology to ensure safety.
From 2007 to 2009, the European Union barred Indonesian airlines from flying to Europe because of safety concerns.
Trigana Air Service, which began operations in 1991, had 22 aircraft as of December 2013 and flies to 21 destinations in Indonesia.
Associated Press writers Nini Karmini and Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.