Story highlights

Divers are expected to search the fuselage Thursday morning

Data from cockpit voice and flight data recorders have been downloaded

A preliminary report will be released within weeks, Indonesian official says

CNN  — 

The majority of AirAsia Flight QZ8501’s fuselage has been found in the Java Sea, Indonesian authorities said Wednesday, 17 days after the airliner carrying 162 people went down.

Officials have said the fuselage, or the main part of the plane, might contain many of the bodies of those who were aboard the flight.

Authorities don’t yet know why the plane crashed into the sea December 28 while en route to Singapore from the Indonesian city of Surabaya.

Roughly 35 minutes into the flight, the pilot asked air traffic control for permission to turn left and climb to avoid bad weather. Minutes later, the plane disappeared from air traffic control’s radar, Indonesian officials say.

Now that the fuselage has been found, here are some of the tasks that are ahead for searchers and authorities:

Recovery of the plane, bodies

The fuselage discovery adds to the significant finds elsewhere in the Java Sea. Authorities earlier this week recovered the plane’s cockpit voice and flight data recorders – which will help investigators determine what happened to the flight – and lifted the tail section of the craft from the sea on Saturday.

The priority now is to locate bodies, and divers are expected to search the fuselage Thursday morning, Indonesia search and rescue chief Bambang Soelistyo told reporters Wednesday.

As of Wednesday night, 50 bodies had been recovered elsewhere, some still strapped into their seats, officials said.

Many of the more than 100 remaining bodies might be found in or near the plane’s fuselage. It wasn’t clear Wednesday whether the cockpit is attached.

Soelistyo didn’t reveal the fuselage’s depth. But officials have said other debris, such as the recorders – which were found about a half-mile from the fuselage on Monday and Tuesday – were generally discovered at a depth of roughly 30 meters (100 feet).

If divers have trouble accessing the bodies, officials may decide to “lift the fuselage out of the water,” Soelistyo said.

It wasn’t immediately clear how that would be done. To recover the tail section on Saturday, crews inflated giant balloons underneath, lifting it from the bottom of the sea. A crane then lifted the tail onto a ship.

The investigation

Both the flight data recorder and the cockpit flight recorder are expected to help investigators understand what went wrong.

The flight data recorder, which stores a vast amount of information about the aircraft’s performance including air speed and cabin pressure, tells investigators what happened on a plane.

But the cockpit voice recorder tells them why, said Mardjono Siswosuwarno, a senior official at Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Committee, which is leading the investigation into the disaster.

“The ‘why’ is mostly in there,” he said of the voice recorder, which captures conversations between pilots as well as other sounds in the cockpit.

Investigators say they have successfully downloaded the contents of both devices. But Mardjono cautioned that interpreting the information will require a lot of time.

Mardjono said he expected a preliminary report to be released within a month of the crash. But it’s unclear how much information the initial document will contain beyond what’s already been made public. The final report containing investigators’ full conclusions will take months, Mardjono said.

His agency’s final report into Adam Air Flight 574 – which crashed in Indonesian waters on New Year’s Day 2007, killing all 102 people on board – came out more than a year after that disaster.

Meanwhile, Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, told CNN that because the recorders’ data had been downloaded, investigators should have “a pretty good idea within a couple of days” of what happened aboard the plane.

But Schiavo added that she didn’t think officials would release any information publicly for a couple of weeks.

French aviation experts are helping the Indonesian investigation, which also expected to involve Airbus, the manufacturer of the downed A320-200.

Observers have suggested that the locations of the different parts of debris indicate the plane broke apart when it hit the water, not when it was still at a high altitude.

Compensation for victims’ families

AirAsia has said it will pay about $124,000 to the families of each victim – $100,000 mandated by Indonesia’s Transport Ministry’s regulations, and $24,000 for what the airline called “financial hardships” relating to the initial search period.

That is below the amount guaranteed by the Montreal Convention, a treaty that governs compensation for the families of air disaster victims. But Indonesia did not sign the treaty.

Families may be able to pursue larger claims through courts, CNNMoney reported.

It could be some time before the families to receive AirAsia’s payments. In the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished in March, families received some initial payments but final amounts haven’t been settled, according to CNNMoney.

CNN’s Jethro Mullen, Kocha Olarn, Elizabeth Joseph, Andrew Stevens, Mitra Mobasherat, Gary Tuchman, Brian Walker, Catherine E. Shoichet, Josh Levs and Deborah E. Bloom, CNNMoney’s Virginia Harrison, and journalist Rudy Madanir contributed to this report.