Cijeruk, Bogor. For one week, the quiet village of Cijeruk, at the foot of Mount Salak, transformed from a sleepy farming village to a bustling site.
The area teemed with rescue officials, journalists and curious onlookers observing each step of the arduous rescue mission to evacuate bodies from the wreckage of a Sukhoi Superjet that crashed into the dormant volcano’s rocky face on May 9.
Mount Salak has been a favorite getaway site, located a mere 80 kilometers south of Jakarta, but only a handful of trekkers climb the northern face, on the Cijeruk side. Most choose to ascend the 2,200-meter mountain from Cidahu, where the eastern-side trek is milder.
Mount Salak’s tallest peak, Salak I, was covered in thick fog at the time of the crash and heavy rain masked the sound of plane’s metal body hitting the near vertical cliff, shattering the Superjet to pieces.
When the wreckage was spotted the following day, Cijeruk residents — mostly poor peasants, construction workers and sand miners — tried to make sense why police and military officials were suddenly storming their village.
“I was speechless,” 34-year-old Karta said. “Every corner and turn was guarded by police officers. And at my daughter’s school, they erected tents and cleared its field to make way for a helicopter landing pad.”
An estimated 2,000 people eventually crowded into Cijeruk, and the village has been busy since.
Motorcycle taxi drivers benefited the most by the bustle, offering rides to journalists from one evacuation center to the next while other residents offered what little plot of land they had for parking.
“Fifty motorcycles can park here,” said Rizky, 19, pointing to a nearby football field which he and two of his friends manage. “Everyday we got people parking here and on a good day I can get Rp 200,000 [$22].”
Raodah, 29, decided to abandon her field and become a food vendor, traversing from one evacuation site to the next selling snacks and drinks.
Empty fields in Cijeruk were littered with military vehicles, ambulance and cars which sometimes carried tourists.
One woman who refused to give her name said she traveled all the way from Sumedang, a four-hour drive, with six members of her family drawn by her curiosity of the rescue efforts.
“Stand here, son. Stay close to your father,” she said as she snapped a picture of her son and her husband in front of a parked rescue helicopter.
Disaster tourism is rife in Indonesia, an archipelago often plagued by floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Disaster tourists also packed the site of the 2009 twin-suicide bombing in Kuningan, Jakarta, as well as the 2009 dam burst which killed more than a thousand in Situgintung, Tangerang.
There was occasional scolding directed at the vendors and morbid tourists who often crowded the narrow beaten pathway used by rescuers to remove body bags containing victims’ shattered limbs and belongings from the wreck site to the helicopter landing pad.
Rescuers were only able to reach the wreckage on the third day, hampered by bad weather as constant rain turned the shrub-covered trek to a nearly impenetrable, mud-filled pathway.
It was clear that not many climbers went through Cijeruk as the trail ended at the first checkpoint at the mountain’s base. Beyond that point, rescuers had to cut their way through a dense jungle amid pouring rain before reaching the edge of a cliff near the summit. The wreck was 200 meters below, scattered at the near-vertical face.
Rescuers had to camp at the summit for two days, plotting the best way to reach the wreck site before rapelling down the cliff. The first bodies were moved out last Saturday.
Much of the plane was scattered along the cliff, while its black box, a crucial part to solving the mystery of why the crash occurred, was another 500 meters down, near the bottom of the ravine.
The forces of nature were enough to knock back even the most experienced mountaineers who volunteered as rescuers, let alone inexperienced and ill-equipped journalists.
“Four years ago I climbed Mount Elbrus in Russia but this trek was the hardest for me,” said Alexis, a member of the Russian rescue team.
It was also a challenge for Ambrosius Harto, a journalist from Kompas Daily who climbed the world’s tallest peaks years earlier.
Rescuers managed to retrieve the black box on Wednesday afternoon, one week after the crash, and by Friday most of the bodies had been retrieved.
But the long process of identifying the victims — none of the bodies were found intact — is far from over. And there is still the mystery of what happened that day, which could take months before experts reach a conclusion.
The National Police on Friday announced that they had identified 15 of the 45 victims from the doomed flight but refused to divulge further details.
With the box and most of the bodies found, the number of rescuers has dwindled by the day.
As the rescue mission officially ended on Friday — only a handful of military officials continue to sweep the mountain in search of the flight data recorder — Cijeruk suddenly found itself returning to its normal, tranquil self.