Officials had just told them they were 95% certain they had found wreckage from the plane. But there was no word about their friends and loved ones.
Live video on TVs at an airport crisis center were showing coverage of the story when up popped pictures of debris, and a body in the water.
Until that moment, most of the people in the room had been watching stoically, one man told CNN's Andrew Stevens.
When the body appeared on screen, many were shocked.
"People became hysterical, they were screaming and crying. Some people fainted," said the man, who identified himself as Nasaruddin. His friend, businessman Charlie Gunawan, was on the flight, along with Gunawan's wife, three children and mother-in-law.
People burst into tears, dabbing their eyes as officials passed out tissues. Some sat still, covering their mouths, or with their heads buried in their hands.
Others had phones jammed against their ears.
The mayor of Surabaya demanded the televisions showing the images be turned off immediately, according to Nasaruddin.
The grisly images appeared during a news conference the families had been watching.
Indonesia's TVOne was shooting video from a helicopter when it captured the images. The country's national search and rescue agency had asked to use their live images during a briefing at the airport crisis center.
TVOne split its screen at times, showing both the news conference and images from the water. At one point it showed a full-screen image of the body, nearly naked.
"TVOne just broadcasted a naked body floating, suspected a victim of QZ8501 and then zoomed-in the reaction of the families, cruelty!" tweeted Dessy Sagita, who says on her profile that she is a Web editor for the Jakarta Globe.
Some other news agencies around the world carried the live feed from TVOne.
Channel NewsAsia was among them. "We apologize for graphic images on our TV feed that were inadvertently shown from a live feed, taken directly from an Indonesian TV station," the news agency said on Twitter and Facebook.
"Well done on (an) apology, CNA. There's truth and there's gratuitous gore. You've made the right decision to recognize the difference," Darryn Johnston commented on the channel's Facebook post.
But many commenters found the image of the body to be OK and part of the story.
"Personally, I don't find it offensive," Dana Raegan wrote. "In fact, I appreciate being shown the truth 'cause that is what journalism is all about - showing the truth for what it is and not what would look good on the screen."