A massive hunt for the 162 victims of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 has resumed in the Java Sea, focusing on an area of the aqua-colored waters where the first bodies and debris were located on Tuesday.

But wind, strong currents and high surf hampered recovery efforts as distraught family members anxiously waited to identify their loved ones.

The Airbus A320-200 lost contact with air traffic control and disappeared early on Sunday during bad weather on a two-hour flight between Surabaya, Indonesia, and Singapore. 

The airliner's disappearance triggered an international search involving dozens of planes, ships and helicopters. 

It is still unclear what brought the plane down.

The plane needs to be located and its cockpit voice and flight data recorders, or black boxes, recovered before officials can start determining what caused the crash.

Initially, the navy on Tuesday said 40 bodies had been recovered. But officials later gave conflicting information. Bambang Soelistyo, head of Indonesia's search operation, told BBC only three bodies had been retrieved. 

First Admiral Sigit Setiayanta, Naval Aviation Centre commander at Surabaya air force base, was quoted in an Associated Press story saying six bodies were spotted about 160 kilometres from Central Kalimantan province

Debris found included a life-jacket, an emergency exit door and a suitcase.

Shock and sorrow

News of the wreckage finding was greeted with shock and sorrow from family members.

"I know the plane has crashed, but I cannot believe my brother and his family are dead," said Ifan Joko, who lost seven relatives, three of them children, as they travelled to Singapore to celebrate the new year.

"We still pray they are alive," he said.

Haidar Fauzie, 60, said his youngest child and only daughter, Khairunnisa Haidar, was a flight attendant who had worked with AirAsia for two years.

"We already knew the risks associated with being a stewardess," Fauzie said. "She is beautiful and smart. It has always been her dream to fly. We couldn't have stopped her."

The airline said in a statement that it was inviting family members to Surabaya, "where a dedicated team of care providers will be assigned to each family to ensure that all of their needs are met."

"My heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved in QZ8501," airline boss Tony Fernandes tweeted. "On behalf of AirAsia, my condolences to all. Words cannot express how sorry I am."

Can't see on mobile? Read the tweet from AirAsia's CEO.

Collapse in grief

Pictures of floating bodies were broadcast on television and relatives of the missing gathered at a crisis centre in Surabaya wept with heads in their hands. Several people collapsed in grief and were helped away, a Reuters reporter said.

"You have to be strong," the mayor of Surabaya, Tri Rismaharini, said as she comforted relatives. "They are not ours, they belong to god."

A navy spokesman said a plane door, oxygen tanks and one body had been recovered and taken away by helicopter for tests.

"The challenge is waves up to three metres high," Soelistyo, head of the Search and Rescue Agency, told reporters, adding that the search operation would go on all night. He declined to answer questions on whether any survivors had been found.

“The United States offers condolences to the families and loved ones of those who perished on Indonesia Air Asia Flight 8501,” the White House said in a media release on Tuesday.

The U.S. comments echoed earlier remarks by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

“Our thoughts and prayers of our entire country are with the families and friends of the missing during this distressing time,” the Canadian statement said.

Flight QZ8501 was travelling at 32,000 feet (9,753 metres) and had asked to fly at 38,000 feet, officials said earlier.

Indonesia Plane wreckage suitcase

Indonesian Air Force Rear Marshall Dwi Putranto, right, on Tuesday shows airplane parts and a suitcase found floating on the water near the site where AirAsia Flight 8501 disappeared. (Dewi Nurcahyani/Associated Press)

Shaken confidence, shaken travellers

Three airline disasters involving Malaysian-affiliated carriers in less than a year have dented confidence in the country's aviation industry and spooked travellers across the region. 

Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 went missing on March 8 on a trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew on board and has not been found. On July 17, the same airline's Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.

On board Flight QZ8501 were 155 Indonesians, three South Koreans, and one person each from Singapore, Malaysia and Britain. The co-pilot was French.

AirAsia area altitudes graphic

With files from Reuters