BEIJING — Recovery teams pulled wreckage and bodies from the sea off Indonesia on Tuesday after an intensive three-day search for a missing passenger jet that plunged from storm-laced skies with 162 people aboard.
Executives from the carrier AirAsia confirmed the debris was from the plane that disappeared Sunday moments after the pilot asked to climb to a higher altitude in an apparent attempt to avoid rough weather.
"We are sorry to be here today under these tragic circumstances," said AirAsia executive Sunu Widyatmoko in a statement issued in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, where the plane departed for Singapore.
Indonesia's president, Joko Widodo, thanked the international effort mobilized for the search, and then shifted his comments to the families of those on board.
"I feel your loss," he said.
Even as bodies and flotsam were pulled aboard ships, experts were making plans to reach what was left of the Airbus A320-200 in waters up to 100 feet deep.
Indonesia authorities said divers and sonar-equipped ships headed to the site, about 100 miles southeast of the coast of Borneo. The top goal is recovery of the plane's flight recorder, the so-called black box, in hopes of gaining clues on the cause of the crash.
Indonesia's search and rescue chief, Bambang Soelistyo, said the effort has been challenging because of waves up to 10 feet high. There are no signs of survivors, he said.
According to former accident investigator John Cox, the recorder — if found — would likely be analyzed by experts in countries, such as the United States or Australia, working alongside Indonesian authorities. It could take several days to fully study the data, he added.
"In those boxes will be story of what brought down the AirAsia flight," said Cox, a former captain for US Airways and now chief executive of the Washington-based consulting firm Safety Operating Systems.
Among the critical questions is whether Flight 8501 broke up during flight or hit the water intact.
"It's important to know because that tells you whether it was a force like a storm that destroyed the airplane in air or if it was a matter of the pilots losing control and never able to recover from it," said Australia-based aviation security expert Desmond Ross.
As night fell Tuesday, dozens of bodies were being carried to various ports along with an array of debris: A portable oxygen tank, a light blue wheeled suitcase, a portion of the inner layer of the aircraft cabin.
At the Surabaya airport, relatives of those on the flight broke down in tears as television images showed the recovery of bodies, some bloated by the sun and sea. Some hugged or collapsed in anguish. One man was carried out on a stretcher.
The TV images drew strong condemnation online. The station, TvOne, quickly apologized and subsequently blurred out video of a corpse at sea.
The debris field was first spotted about six miles from the flight's last known coordinates.
In a cruel twist, some rescuers believed they saw people waving for help. It turned out to be the sea swells tossing lifeless arms.
"When we approached closer [we saw] they were already dead," said Lt. Tri Wibowo, co-pilot of an Air Force Hercules C130 involved in the search effort, according to the Indonesian newspaper Kompas.
The spotters on the plane also saw what looked like a shadow on the seabed in the shape of a plane.
Indonesian authorities said Monday they believed the plane was lying at the bottom of the sea, complicating the search and prompting them to ask the United States, Britain and France for more advanced equipment.
The Pentagon said that details of that assistance are being worked out but that it would probably include "air, surface and sub-surface detection capabilities."
In a statement issued late Monday, search officials said they have deployed 12 helicopters, 11 planes and 32 ships, including assets from Malaysia, Singapore and Australia, with more than 1,100 personnel involved. Even fishing boats have been tapped in the widespread search, authorities said.
The U.S. Navy said the USS Sampson, a guided-missile destroyer that is already in the region, would join the search later Tuesday.
Until the discoveries Tuesday, the frustrating maritime search were eerily similar to those in the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared over the Indian Ocean in March. The whereabouts of the plane, with 239 people aboard, are still a mystery.
For the moment, the last moments of the AirAsia flight offer the only hint of what may have happened.
According to Indonesia's state-owned navigation provider, AirNav, the pilot asked air traffic control at 6:12 a.m. on Sunday for permission to turn left to avoid bad weather. Permission was granted, the Jakarta Post reported.
The pilot then asked to climb from 32,000 to 38,000 feet but did not explain why.
In the central Philippines, meanwhile, an aircraft that is part of the AirAsia group overshot a runway after landing in windy conditions. There were no immediate reports of injuries among the 159 passengers and crew members on the AirAsia Zest flight.
AirAsia Zest is partly owned by AirAsia Philippines.