BEIJING - With the discovery of floating wreckage and bodies Tuesday in waters off Indonesia, the massive search and rescue effort for a missing AirAsia jet now turns into a recovery operation.
Crews mobilized Wednesday morning to pull more bodies from the Java Sea and to comb underwater for the main fuselage and flight recorders, which represent their best chance of figuring out why the plane crashed.
After an intense three-day search, the discovery of the debris and at least three bodies Tuesday was a source of sharp anguish. For families - who had been awaiting word ever since the jet lost radar contact Sunday - it was grim confirmation of their worst fears: that the plane and its 162 passengers had plunged from the storm-laced skies.
Indonesia's president, Joko Widodo, rushed to the scene and thanked the international teams that mobilized for the search. Then he addressed the grieving families.
"I feel your loss," he said, adding prayers that they would be "given strength to face this tragedy."
At the Surabaya airport, about 400 miles southeast of Jakarta, relatives of those on the flight broke down in tears as television images showed the recovery of a body, bloated by the sun and sea. Some hugged or collapsed in anguish. One man was carried out on a stretcher.
The TV images drew condemnation online. The station, TV One, quickly apologized and subsequently blurred out video of the corpse at sea.
Nearly all of the passengers and crew members were Indonesians.
"Words cannot express how sorry I am," AirAsia's chief executive, Tony Ferdandes, wrote in a tweet.
The top goal, authorities said, was to recover more bodies when operations resume at first light Wednesday - an effort that was complicated by strong winds and waves up to 10 feet high.
It was unclear how many bodies had been spotted by the international flotilla and air reconnaissance teams by the end of operations at nightfall Tuesday.
Indonesia's rescue operations chief, Bambang Soelistyo, said that at least six bodies were seen and that three were recovered and placed on an Indonesian warship. A spokesman for the country's navy, Manahan Simorangkir, initially said more than 40 bodies were recovered, but later told reporters that was an error based on "miscommunication" by his staff.
The small number of bodies recovered suggests that many may remain in the underwater wreckage. In the 2009 Air France 447 crash, to which many experts have compared the AirAsia situation, the majority of bodies found were not recovered until authorities found the submerged fuselage.
An array of debris was carried Tuesday to Indonesian ports: a portable oxygen tank, a light-blue wheeled suitcase, a portion of the inner layer of the aircraft cabin.
The debris field was spotted about six miles from the flight's last known coordinates and roughly 100 miles southeast of the coast of Borneo.
It was discovered by a fisherman, who had not heard about the plane and had no clue what the debris signified until he returned to his village, local news outlet Tempo reported.
In a cruel twist, some rescuers initially thought they saw people waving for help. It turned out to be sea swells tossing lifeless arms.
The spotters also saw what looked like a shadow on the seabed in the shape of a plane, which search officials believe could be the main wreckage.
Even as they pull more bodies and debris Wednesday from the sea, investigators are preparing for the next step: Reaching what may be the remains of the Airbus A320-200 in relatively shallow waters up to 100 feet deep.
Authorities have sent divers to the site.
One possible advantage for investigators was the relatively shallow seabed and its proximity to shipping lanes. Seamen and others have extensive knowledge of currents that could have carried the wreckage and flight recorders.
"My guess is we'll know what happened within a week," said David Gallo, an American oceanographer and co-expedition leader in the probe of the 2009 Air France crash.