The death toll from the crash of an Indonesian air force plane into a city neighbourhood rose to 142 Wednesday, amid claims civilians had paid for flights on the doomed aircraft in violation of military rules.
Witnesses described scenes of horror when the Hercules C-130 transport plane crashed into a residential area of Medan on Tuesday, shortly after taking off from an airbase in the city of two million people on Sumatra island.
Buildings were severely damaged, cars reduced to flaming wrecks and the plane itself was almost completely destroyed, with the mangled tail the only part of the 51-year-old aircraft still recognisable after the disaster.
Many of those on board the flight, which was carrying 122 people, were believed to be servicemen and women and their families.
But the air force has repeatedly revised up the number of people on the plane — it initially indicated there were only 12 crew — raising questions about poor management and whether there were paying civilian passengers on board.
As more bodies were pulled from the rubble and taken to hospital, police put the total death toll at 142, indicating a growing number of fatalities on the ground. So far 62 victims, mostly military personnel, have been identified.
New witness accounts emerged of terrifying scenes, with one man describing how the plane flew low and then smashed into a building, producing “flames as high as four storeys”.
“Everyone panicked and screamed,” Tumpak Naibaho, a 27-year-old tyre repairman, told AFP, adding there were hundreds of people in the area when the crash happened around midday.
“I thought it was a terrorist attack or something… I saw one man whose clothes were on fire, staggering out of the debris. His face was covered in blood, dust and ash.”
People in the area said several buildings were thought to have been destroyed when the plane came down, hitting a massage parlour and hotel.
Around 100 despairing relatives gathered at a hospital morgue in Medan where coffins were stacked up waiting to receive the bodies of crash victims. Some quietly sobbed, while others stared into space as ambulances came and went.
One grieving relative, Rahayu, wailed hysterically after opening a body bag and discovering her cousin.
“We were so close, we attended a wedding last month but now I can only see her pictures on Facebook,” the 23-year-old, who only gave one name, told AFP.
Her two female cousins, teenage sisters Esther Yosephine and Rita Yunita, were killed on the flight and their bodies lay in bags side by side in the morgue. They had been travelling to visit their army officer father in the remote Natuna Islands.
Claims emerged that civilian passengers other than air force families were on the plane and had paid to travel, with air force chief Agus Supriatna vowing a probe into the allegations.
The armed forces are not supposed to accept payments to transport people on their planes, although it is common for civilians to travel on air force aircraft to remote parts of Indonesia, a vast archipelago of more than 17,000 islands.
The uncle of the two teenagers who were killed, Mikael Asak, said he had paid military staff at the airport 1.4 million rupiah ($105) for his nieces to travel on the plane.
The plane set off from the capital Jakarta and had been due to travel on from Medan to Bintan island off Singapore and the Natuna Islands.
Tuesday’s accident was the sixth deadly crash involving an Indonesian air force plane in the past decade, according to the Aviation Safety Network, and prompted President Joko Widodo to call for modernisation of the military’s ageing equipment.
“I have ordered the defence minister and the armed forces chief to conduct a fundamental overhaul of the management of the military’s defence equipment,” he said.
Indonesia also has a poor civil aviation safety record — the latest disaster came just six months after an AirAsia plane crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 162 people on board.
It is not clear what caused Tuesday’s crash but the aircraft asked to turn back just after take-off and the air force has said it may have suffered engine trouble.