Previous 'roller-coaster' flight of crashed Lion Air jet scared passengers

Relatives numbed by grief provided samples for DNA tests to help identify victims of the Lion Air plane crash that killed 189 people in Indonesia, as accounts emerged Tuesday of problems on the jet's previous flight that included rapid, terrifying descents.

Jet plunged into sea just 13 minutes after taking off

A relative of a passenger of the crashed Lion Air plane cries at the police hospital in Jakarta on Tuesday. (Fauzy Chaniago/Associated Press)

Relatives numbed by grief provided samples for DNA tests to help identify victims of the Lion Air plane crash that killed 189 people in Indonesia, as accounts emerged Tuesday of problems on the jet's previous flight that included rapid, terrifying descents.

Hundreds of rescue personnel searched the Java Sea where the plane crashed, sending more than three dozen body bags to identification experts, while the airline flew dozens of grieving relatives to the capital of Jakarta.

The two-month-old Boeing 737 Max 8 jet plunged into the sea early Monday, just 13 minutes after taking off from Jakarta for an island off Sumatra.

Its pilot requested clearance to return to the airport two to three minutes after takeoff, indicating a problem, though the cause of the crash is still uncertain.

Aircraft debris and personal belongings including ID cards, clothing and bags found scattered in the sea were spread out on tarps at a port in north Jakarta and sorted into evidence bags. Arthur Tampi, chief of the police medical unit, said it has received dozens of body parts for identification and is awaiting results of DNA tests, expected to take four to eight days.

Plane dropped suddenly during previous flight

The disaster has reignited concerns about safety in Indonesia's fast-growing aviation industry, which was recently removed from European Union and U.S. blacklists.

Two passengers on the plane's previous flight from Bali to Jakarta on Sunday have described issues that caused frustration and alarm.

Alon Soetanto told TVOne the plane dropped suddenly several times in the first few minutes of its flight.

"About three to eight minutes after it took off, I felt like the plane was losing power and unable to rise. That happened several times during the flight," he said. "We felt like in a roller coaster. Some passengers began to panic and vomit."

'Unusual' engine roar

His account is consistent with data from flight-tracking sites that show erratic speed, altitude and direction in the minutes after the jet took off. A similar pattern is also seen in data pinged from Monday's fatal flight. Safety experts cautioned, however, that the data must be checked for accuracy against the plane's so-called black boxes, which officials are confident will be recovered.

Lion Air president Edward Sirait said there were reports of technical problems with the flight from Bali, but they had been resolved in accordance with the plane manufacturer's procedures. The airline didn't respond to requests to verify a document purporting to be a company maintenance report, dated Sunday, that described inaccurate airspeed and altitude readings after takeoff.

Rescuers continue search operation in the waters of Tanjung Karawang, Indonesia, on Tuesday. (Tatan Syuflana/Associated Press)

In a detailed post online, Indonesian TV presenter Conchita Caroline said boarding of Sunday's flight was delayed by more than an hour and when the plane was being towed, a technical problem forced it to return to its parking space.

She said passengers sat in the cabin without air conditioning for at least 30 minutes listening to an "unusual" engine roar, while some children vomited from the overbearing heat, until staff faced with rising anger let them disembark.

Experienced pilots in fine weather

After about 30 minutes of passengers waiting on the tarmac, they were told to board again while an engine was checked.

Caroline said she queried a staff member but was met with a defensive response.

"He just showed me the flight permit that he had signed and he said the problem had been settled," she said. "He treated me like a passenger full of disturbing dramas even though what I was asking represented friends and confused tourists who didn't understand Indonesian."

Distraught family members struggled to comprehend the sudden loss of loved ones in the crash of a plane with experienced pilots in fine weather.

Underwater vehicle deployed

"This is a very difficult time for our family," said Leo Sihombing, outside a crisis centre set up for family members at Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta airport.

"We know that it is very unlikely that my cousin is still alive, but no one can provide any certainty or explanation," he said as other family members wept and hugged each other.

Sangeeta Suneja, mother of Bhavye Suneja, a pilot of Lion Air flight JT610, leaves New Delhi for Jakarta. (Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters)

"What we hope now is rescuers can find his body, so we can bury him properly, and authorities can reveal what caused the plane crash," Sihombing said.

Specialist ships and a remotely operated underwater vehicle have been deployed to search for the plane's hull and flight recorder.

Plane in relatively shallow water

Search and Rescue Agency chief Muhammad Syaugi has said he's certain it won't take long to locate the hull of the aircraft and its flight recorders due to the relatively shallow 30-metre depth of the waters where it crashed.

The crash is the worst airline disaster in Indonesia since an AirAsia flight from Surabaya to Singapore plunged into the sea in December 2014, killing all 162 on board.

Relatives have been asked to provide DNA samples to help identify victims of the Lion Air plane crash. This relative, at the police hospital in Jakarta on Tuesday, holds a photo of one of the passengers. (Fauzy Chaniago/Associated Press)

Indonesian airlines were barred in 2007 from flying to Europe because of safety concerns, though several were allowed to resume services in the following decade. The ban was completely lifted in June. The U.S. lifted a decade-long ban in 2016.

Lion Air, a discount carrier, is one of Indonesia's youngest and biggest airlines, flying to dozens of domestic and international destinations. Earlier this year it confirmed a deal to buy 50 new Boeing narrow-body aircraft worth an estimated $6.2 billion US. It has been expanding aggressively in Southeast Asia, a fast-growing region of more than 600 million people.