I think this has been my hardest assignment to get photos since I began working for Reuters.
Wednesday afternoon at the office I received news that a Russian Sukhoi Superjet 100 passenger plane with 46 people on board had lost contact with air traffic control at Jakarta’s Halim Perdana Kusuma airport during their demonstration flight over Mount Salak. After more than four hours of no contact, it meant the aircraft was lost, crashed or had made an emergency landing. I decided to spend the night at the office to figure out the fastest options for covering the Sukhoi news, and to prepare all the camera equipment in the pictures vehicle. After a discussion with Heru Asprihanto from TV and Indonesia bureau chief Matthew Bigg, we decided to wait until morning to head to the the nearby location Mount Salak.
After taking photos in the morning of volunteers preparing to climb Salak Mountain, I received information that the Sukhoi aircraft had crashed after hitting a slope atop Mount Salak. For Indonesians, it is common for aircraft to hit the mountain. Since 2004, four aircraft have crashed there, the worst an Indonesian air force aircraft in 2008 that killed 18 soldiers on board.
After eating lunch, I joined the first rescue team heading to the crash site. The team said it would need two to three hours to climb to the crash site from our position. I thought I would need between four to six hours to climb up and walk back down, before managing to send pictures to the desk at around 6pm local time. I joined the team, deciding not to carry a laptop and sat phone in order to lighten the baggage that I was carrying while climbing. It would also prevent any damage to the equipment should I fall. I had five chocolate bars, 1.5 liters of water, two camera bodies and three lenses, alongside a pocket knife, headlamp and rain coat in my backpack.
The team had received coordinates for the crash site – around seven kilometers in a straight line from our position. In the beginning it was quite difficult to keep up with the fast pace of the rescue team members, made up of mainly Indonesian military soldiers. Mount Salak is a tropical rainforest; foggy but warm and wet, and with many insects and leeches. After walking for two hours I began to adapt to the situation. The wet path was almost like vertical stairs. I often needed to grip onto tree roots to help pull myself up.