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Indonesia plane crash death toll 141 as search effort ends

| Wednesday, July 1, 2015, 7:27 a.m.

MEDAN, Indonesia — Indonesia's air force said Wednesday it will investigate if the transport plane that crashed into a city neighborhood, killing 141 people, was violating orders by carrying paying passengers. A local military commander said the search for bodies has ended.

The dead included all 122 on the plane, including military personnel and family members, and people in a residential area of Medan city where the C-130 Hercules crashed shortly after takeoff on Tuesday, North Sumatra police Maj. A. Tarigan told TVOne station.

The final death toll may not be known for some time. Body parts were also retrieved from the rubble and transported to a hospital in two body bags.

The cause of the accident is not yet known but the pilot was trying to return to the airport because of an engine problem. At Adam Malik Hospital where bodies were taken, regional military commander Edy Rahmayadai told reporters that the rescue operation involving hundreds of soldiers and police had finished.

The C-130 was carrying many more passengers than the military first reported. Initially, the air force said there were 12 crew members on the 51-year-old plane and did not mention passengers. It then repeatedly raised the number of people on board, indicating lax controls and raising questions about whether the plane was accepting paying passengers despite previous promises to crack down on the practice.

Hitching rides on military planes to reach remote destinations is common in Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago that spans three time zones. The plane had traveled from the capital, Jakarta, and landed at two locations before stopping over at Medan on Sumatra, one of Indonesia's main islands.

Air force chief Air Marshal Agus Supriatna told reporters the C-130 was only authorized to carry military personnel and their families. He said he would investigate allegations of paying passengers.

A copy of the manifest seen by The Associated Press shows 32 passengers with no designation. The rest are described as either military or military family members. In some circumstances, civilians such as government officials or researchers can get authorization to fly on military planes, according to Supriatna.

Dozens of family members gathered at Adam Malik Hospital on Wednesday. Outside its mortuary, more than 100 wood coffins were arranged in rows and women cried and screamed the names of loved ones killed in the disaster.

A group of students from a Catholic high school in the city screamed hysterically as a body bag was opened, revealing the badly bruised corpse of classmate Esther Lina Josephine, 17, clasping her 14-year-old sister.

“She looks like she wanted to protect her younger sister,” said the school's principal, Tarcisia Hermas. “We've lost kind and smart students who had so many creative ideas.”

Hermas said the sisters were traveling during school vacation to see their parents in the remote Natuna island chain, where the father of the teenagers is stationed with the army.

Adam Malik Hospital spokeswoman Sairi M. Saragih said more than 60 bodies have been identified.

Indonesia has a patchy civil aviation safety record and its cash-strapped air force has suffered a series of accidents. Between 2007 and 2009, the European Union barred Indonesian airlines from flying to Europe because of safety worries.

The country's most recent civilian airline disaster was in December, when an AirAsia jet with 162 people on board crashed into the Java Sea en route from Surabaya to Singapore. There have been five fatal crashes involving air force planes since 2008, according to the Aviation Safety Network, which tracks aviation disasters.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said he ordered the defense minister and armed forces commander to carry out a “fundamental overhaul” of the management of military weaponry.

“We can no longer simply buy weapons, but should think to modernize our weapons systems” he told reporters in Depok, West Java. “We have to be involved from the beginning in design, production, operations, training, maintenance and elimination of aged weapons.”

At the crash site, a backhoe has been digging at the pile of smoldering concrete where the plane hit. The impact shattered a large building that local media said contained shops and homes, and set vehicles alight.

The crash of the aircraft occurred only two minutes after it took off from Soewondo air force base in Medan, headed for Natuna.

Witnesses said the plane was flying low and flames and smoke streamed from it before crashing. Supriatna, the air force chief, has said the pilot told the control tower that he needed to turn back because of engine trouble and the plane crashed while turning right to return to the airport.

It was the second time in 10 years that an airplane has crashed into a Medan neighborhood. In September 2005, a Mandala Airlines Boeing 737 plowed into a crowded residential community shortly after takeoff from Medan's Polonia airport, killing 143 people including 30 on the ground.

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