Indonesia's National Search And Rescue Agency of Indonesia (Basarnas) shows rescue personnel displaying a piece of wreckage from Lion Air flight JT 610 which crashed into the sea off the northern coast of Indonesia's Java island. Photo: Basarnas Handout via AFP

A Lion Air passenger aircraft crashed into the sea soon after takeoff on Monday morning from the national capital, Jakarta, with 189 people on board, according to Indonesia’s national search and rescue agency and news reports.

As of Monday afternoon, rescuers were scouring debris in the sea and searching for survivors amid parts of the aircraft’s fuselage, identification cards, handphones and bags belonging to the passengers on board.

Muhammad Syaugi, head of the government’s search-and-rescue agency, told a news conference that he was unable to confirm if there were any survivors. “We hope, we pray, but we cannot confirm” Syaugi said.

Lion Air flight JT-610 lost contact with air traffic officials and fell from over 3,000 feet 13 minutes after takeoff, rescue officials said. No distress signal was received from the plane’s emergency transmitter, they said.

The air traffic websites FlightAware and Flightradar24 showed the plane climbing erratically, barely reaching above 5,000 feet, before quickly dropping and disappearing from radar, news reports said.

Among those on board were 20 employees from Indonesia’s Finance Ministry, reports said.

The aircraft, a Boeing 737 MAX 8, was purchased this year by Lion Air, Southeast Asia’s second-largest low-cost airline. The plane is one of Boeing’s newest, and had flown several hundred hours since Lion Air started operating it on August 15.

The accident is the first to be reported involving the widely sold Boeing 737 MAX, an updated, more fuel-efficient version of the manufacturer’s workhorse single-aisle jet, reports said.

Lion Air announced in April a firm order to purchase 50 Boeing 737 MAX 10 narrow-body jets for US$6.24 billion. The carrier is one of the US aviation giant’s largest global customers, reports said.

“Boeing stands ready to provide technical assistance to the accident investigation,” Boeing said in a statement after the crash. Boeing said all inquiries should be directed to Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee, in accordance with international protocol.

Indonesian officials say the cause of the crash will not be known until flight data, particularly from the plane’s black box, is retrieved from the sea.

The flight departed at 6:21 am local time and was scheduled to arrive about 7:20 am at Pangkal Pinang, a tin-mining region.

A statement from Indonesia’s Transport Ministry said the plane had requested to return to base before it lost contact. Skies were clear and there were no abnormal weather conditions, reports said.

The flight was reportedly commanded by Captain Bhavye Suneja, who had more than 6,000 flight hours, and his co-pilot, who had more than 5,000 hours, officials said.

Aircraft makers like Boeing have long prized Indonesia as one of Asia’s fastest growing aviation markets. Air travel has boomed as a growing middle class increasingly takes to the skies to travel across the country’s wide archipelago of islands.

Domestic passenger traffic has tripled over the past 12 years to 97 million in 2017, according to industry statistics.

At the same time, Indonesia has a notoriously poor airline safety record.

If all on board perished, Monday’s Lion Air crash would rank as Indonesia’s second-worst air disaster, after a Garuda Indonesia A300 crash in Medan that killed 214 people in 1997, Reuters reported citing industry experts.

Founded in 1999, Lion Air’s only fatal accident was in 2004, when an MD-82 crashed upon landing at Solo City on Java, killing 25 of the 163 on board, the Flight Safety Foundation’s Aviation Safety Network says.

All of Indonesia’s carriers were removed from the European Union’s air safety list and deemed safe to travel only in June this year. The EU permitted Lion Air and two other Indonesian airlines, Citilink and Batik Air, in June 2016.

This dispatch draws on wire agency reports

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