All 18 people aboard a plane that crashed on Indonesia's Sumatra island were found dead Saturday, an official said, after two days of hampered efforts to reach the remote jungle site.
Hopes that some on board the aircraft might be alive had been raised when a victim's mother reported that her daughter had called her from the plane after the crash Thursday, and aerial photos showed the main cabin largely intact.
But after rescuers finally reached the site, national search and rescue operations head Sunarbowo Sandi announced: "We received a radio response from our team on the ground that all 18 people on the plane had died.
"The passengers were still in their seats."
The turboprop plane owned by Nusantara Buana Air took off from Medan in North Sumatra on Thursday morning heading for the nearby province of Aceh.
But it sent a distress signal soon afterwards and crashed at 1,100 metres (3,600 feet) in the mountainous Bohorok area about 70 kilometres (40 miles) northwest of Medan.
The weather and rough terrain had for two days prevented rescuers from reaching the crash location by foot and by helicopter, forcing three teams travelling by land and several helicopters to return to Medan.
A clear morning Saturday allowed rescuers to finally reach the victims and build an emergency helipad to land near the site and recover the bodies.
But the operation was again halted by late afternoon when bad weather returned.
"We've stopped the recovery because the weather is very bad and there is a thick fog," said Medan air base head Suharyonno.
But after a full day of official accounts that all 18 were dead, a transport ministry official gave a conflicting report that it was too early to be sure.
"We don't yet know if the passengers are dead or injured. Hopefully we will know for sure by this evening," ministry spokesman Freddy Numberi told local news website Detik.com.
A woman named Lita said on live television Saturday that her calls to a passenger named Astuti, who was travelling with her children, were being answered until Friday night.
"I tried to call Astuti, and each time a girl would pick up and say 'Hello, hello'. The last time it was a boy. I think it was her little boy," she said.
As rescue officials said all 18 on board were dead, scores of relatives who had gathered in Bohorok let out cries of despair.
Some passed out and were taken away on stretchers, while others lambasted the government for its slow response.
Reike Andriani, whose relatives on board the aircraft included a 20-month-old baby, said she was angered by the delayed rescue attempts.
"Why did this process take so long? They just kept saying that they would reach there soon, and they kept blaming the weather," she said.
Another woman added: "They just kept saying the weather was bad, the weather was bad. They don't have a proper system."
The Indonesian Transport Association said the rescue teams had followed standard procedures and had done their best given the "impossible" conditions.
"The weather in Bohorok is extreme and unpredictable. There was heavy rain, fog and strong winds," the head of the association's aviation forum Suharto Abdul said.
The incident is the fourth fatal air crash in Indonesia in the past month.
A helicopter chartered by US giant Newmont Mining crashed last Sunday in central Indonesia, killing two people on board.
Earlier in September, an Australian and a Slovak pilot were killed when their small Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft, which was carrying fuel and food to a remote area in Papua province, went down.
Another small aircraft, which was also transporting supplies to remote villages for a Christian organisation in Papua, crashed last week, killing its American pilot and two passengers.
(c) 2011 AFP
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