A search plane early Monday spotted the wreckage of an airliner that vanished Sunday in a remote, mountainous region of Indonesia with 54 people aboard.
Officials said the wreckage was spotted about seven miles from its destination. Henry Bambang Soelistyo, chief of the National Search and Rescue Agency, said search and rescue teams were preparing to try to reach the crash site by air and foot.
“Smoke was still billowing from the wreckage when it was spotted by a plane search,” said Soelistyo who is leading the rescue operation from Sentani Airport in Jayapura, adding that bad weather and rugged terrain were hampering efforts to reach the wreckage located in a mountainous area at an altitude of 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.
Indonesian Air Transportation Director General Suprasetyo said the plane was found Sunday by villagers who said it crashed into a mountain in Papua, the nation’s largest and most eastern province. The fate of the 49 passengers — including five children — and crew of five was not immediately known, he said.
“Residents provided information that the aircraft crashed into Tangok mountain,” Suprasetyo said.
The crash was the third catastrophe for the Southeast Asian nation’s beleaguered air transportation system in less than a year.
The Transportation Ministry said the Trigana Air Service flight lost contact 33 minutes into a 42-minute flight from the provincial capital of Jayapura bound for the city of Oksibil. There was no indication of a distress call from the French-built ATR 42-300 twin turboprop plane, the ministry said.
Heavy rain, high winds and some fog were reported in the area around the time the plane disappeared. Papua is home to miles-high mountains, sheer cliffs and dense rain forests.
The National Search and Rescue Agency tweeted at about 7 a.m. ET Sunday — 8 p.m. local time — that the search had been suspended because of limited visibility and will resume early Monday. A short time later Suprasetyo confirmed that villagers had found the crash site.
“We are now working closely with the National Search and Rescue Agency to find the plane,” Transport Minister Ignasius Jonan told the Associated Press.
The agency tweeted that it had not arrived at the site and could confirm no details. “We pray for the best for the passengers and crew,” the agency tweeted.
Trigana, one of many Indonesian airlines banned from flying to Europe because of safety concerns, is a local airline founded in 1991. It has had 14 “accidents and incidents” since 1992, according to the Aviation Safety Network database.
“It’s mountainous, very remote and the airfield runways are sometimes on the side of a hill, so it is not really an area for the faint-hearted to fly,” aviation analyst Gerry Soejatman told The Guardian. “There are bound to be accidents.”
Aviation analyst Dudi Sudibyo told the AP that the rapidly changing weather patterns add to the difficulty pilots face.
“I can say that a pilot who is capable of flying there will be able to fly an aircraft in any part of the world,” he said.
Indonesia has made international headlines for two other deadly crashes. In June, more than 100 people died when a military plane crashed into a residential neighborhood in Medan, Indonesia’s third-largest city. In December, an AirAsia plane crashed in the Java Sea en route from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore, killing all 162 people aboard.
That tragedy spurred Indonesia to impose new regulations aimed at improving safety. The 17,000-island nation of 250 million people, the world’s fourth-largest country by population, has seen rapid growth in the aviation industry. But the industry has struggled to provide enough pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers and updated airport technology to ensure safety.