Sriwijaya Air flight 182 from Jakarta to Pontianak, in Indonesian Borneo, lost contact at 2:40 p.m. Western Indonesian Time (2:40 a.m. ET) on Saturday.
Maj. Gen Bambang Suryo Aji of Indonesia’s search and rescue agency, Basarnas, told reporters on Saturday that the plane is believed to have crashed between the islands of Laki and Lancang, in the Thousand Islands chain northwest of the capital, Jakarta. Basarnas is now conducting a search operation.
Three fishermen from Lancang Island told CNN they heard an explosion and experienced a sudden large wave around the time the plane went missing.
“I heard very loud explosion. I thought it was a bomb or a big thunder. We then saw the big wave, about 2 meters high, hitting our boat,” Hendrik Mulyadi told CNN.
Hendrik’s colleague, Solihin, described the sound as “a bomb on the water.” They said it was dark and raining at the time.
The men said they didn’t see a plane crash into the sea, but smelled fuel and spotted debris. The men said they returned to shore to report what they experienced to police.
The missing Indonesia plane was carrying 50 passengers — 43 adults and 7 children — as well as 12 crew members, Indonesia’s Minister of Transportation Budi Karya Sumadi said during a press conference. o
The Indonesian Navy has deployed five warships and diving troops in the search, according to Rear Admiral Abdul Rasyid.
A coast guard captain with Indonesia’s Transportation Ministry said an emergency evacuation slide from a Boeing 737 has been found at sea in the location near the site where the crash is thought to have happened.
On Wednesday evening, Captain Eko Suryo Hadi Prayitno, of the Indonesian Sea and Coast Guard, told CNN that his team is still conducting search operations in the area between Laki and Lancang islands, which is approximately 20 miles from Jakarta.
Eko said they began searching the area at 7:00 p.m. local time (7:00 a.m ET) and that 45 minutes later, they found a plane’s emergency exit — which he believes is from the missing plane.
He added that there is heavy rain and winds in the search area and the crew was using night vision and radar in their search effort.
Earlier on Saturday, a high-ranking Basarnas officer told reporters their officers on the ground had found debris around Lancang Island.
The debris will be passed to the National Transportation Safety Committee to be investigated, he said, adding that is not confirmed if that debris belongs to the missing plane.
Flight 182 lost contact 11 nautical miles north of Jakarta’s Soekarno–Hatta International Airport at an altitude of 11,000 feet while climbing to 13,000 feet, officials said.
The plane dropped 10,000 feet in less than a minute before disappearing from the radar, according to the global flight tracking service Flightradar24. The drop happened about four minutes after takeoff, it said.
Sriwijaya Airlines CEO Jefferson Irwin Jauwena said the plane was in good condition before it took off.
“Of course we are very concerned about what happened to us with SJ 182,” he said at a press conference on Saturday.
“We hope that your prayers can help the search process run smoothly. We hope all is well,” Jauwena said.
In an earlier statement, Sriwijaya Air said that they were “in contact with various related parties to get more detailed information” regarding the incident and that they will “immediately issue an official statement” when more information was clear.
The Transport Ministry said it is investigating and coordinating with Basarnas and the National Committee for Transport Safety.
The plane, registered PK CLC, is a Boeing 737-500. The aircraft is 26 years old, according to Flightradar24.
A Boeing spokesperson told CNN in a statement that they are “aware of media reports from Jakarta, and are closely monitoring the situation.”
“We are working to gather more information,” they said.
Boeing later issued an updated statement saying, “Our thoughts are with the crew, passengers, and their families. We are in contact with our airline customer and stand ready to support them during this difficult time.”
Sriwijaya Air, a low-cost airline and Indonesia’s third largest carrier, transports more than 950,000 passengers per month from its Jakarta hub to 53 destinations within Indonesia and three regional countries, according to the company’s website.
In June 2018, it was removed from the European Union’s list of banned air carriers, 11 years after it was placed on that list.
The incident is the latest to rock Indonesia’s airline industry, a sector that, while growing, continues to be plagued by notoriously poor safety standards.
A worrying record
In 2014, Indonesian AirAsia Flight 8501 claimed the lives of all 162 people on board after crashing into the Java Sea, while flying from Surabaya to Singapore.
And in the year before that, Lion Air was involved in two accidents. A Boeing 737 missed the runway on landing and crashed into the sea near Bali, forcing passengers to swim or wade to safety, while another Boeing 737 collided with a cow while touching down at Jalaluddin Airport in Gorontalo on the island of Sulawesi.
In 2007, the European Union banned all 51 Indonesian airlines from its airspace after a Garuda Indonesia plane with 140 people on board overshot the runway in Yogyakarta in March and burst into flames, killing 21 people on board.
Indonesia, an archipelago nation of more than 13,000 islands, has seen a boom in domestic aviation in recent years, with passenger traffic tripling between 2005 and 2017, according to Australian consultancy the CAPA-Center for Aviation.
The country of 270 million people rely heavily on air transport to commute between islands across the archipelago, which stretches over more than 3,000 miles, around the same distance between London and New York.
Jamaluddin Masrur reported from Jakarta. CNN’s Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.