SAINT-ANDRÉ, Reunion I.: Investigators headed to a tiny Indian Ocean island Thursday to inspect whether plane wreckage that drifted ashore was from missing flight MH370, raising hopes of solving one of aviation’s greatest mysteries.
Australia described Wednesday’s discovery of the two-meter long piece of wreckage, which appeared to be part of a wing, as an “important development” after more than 16 months of searching.
But Malaysia Airlines and authorities involved in the search, yet to make a thorough inspection of the debris on the French island of La Reunion, cautioned against jumping to quick conclusions.
“Whatever wreckage is found needs to be further verified before we can further confirm whether it belongs to MH370,” Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai told reporters in New York, saying he hoped for answers “as soon as possible.”
French, Malaysian, and Australian authorities have all begun looking into the object’s origin, with Malaysia saying it was sending a team of experts to the island.
Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, vanished on March 8 last year shortly after takeoff over the South China Sea with 239 people on board
Authorities involved in an Australian-led search at sea believe it eventually went down in the southern Indian Ocean.
But no confirmed physical evidence has ever been found and Malaysian authorities in January declared that all on board were presumed dead.
“This obviously is a very important development and if it is indeed wreckage from MH370, it starts to provide some closure for the families of the people on board,” said Australia’s Transport and Infrastructure Minister Warren Truss.
Malaysia’s deputy transport minister, Abdul Aziz Kaprawi, also said investigators in Malaysia who examined photos of the object believed it could be a Boeing 777 flaperon, a wing component.
“It is almost certain that it is similar to that of a Boeing 777,” he told AFP.
He said the Malaysian team headed to La Reunion included experts from its Department of Civil Aviation and Malaysia Airlines, who would be joined by representatives from Boeing, and that verification could be completed within two days.
No physical evidence
Excitement over the discovery was tempered by suggestions it could be from planes that went down in the region before, including a South African Airways Boeing 747 that crashed near the island of Mauritius in 1987, killing all 159 people on board.
Malaysia Airlines said it remained “too premature for the airline to speculate (on) the origin of the flaperon.”
La Reunion lies about 4,000 kilometers from the area considered the most likely impact zone, but experts said it could have drifted there.
“From the information that we know about the oceanography and our computer modeling, it is completely consistent with the possible path of the debris originating from the current search area,” said Charitha Pattiaratchi, an oceanographer with the University of Western Australia.
Relatives of those aboard said they were trying to keep their emotions in check until verification was complete.
“We have mixed feelings. If this is true, at least I know I can have peace and give my husband a proper send-off. But part of us still hopes they are out there alive somewhere,” said Jacquita Gonzales, wife of Patrick Gomes, the flight’s cabin crew supervisor.
Angry next of kin have accused Malaysia’s government of incompetence, secrecy, and insensitivity toward relatives, and many have questioned the focus on the Indian Ocean, saying other possibilities were being ignored.
And Sara Weeks, sister of MH370 passenger Paul Weeks of New Zealand, said Thursday she was happy the debris was in French hands.
“They’ve (Malaysia) just been incompetent, so at least it’s in the hands of someone else and we may get some answers a little bit quicker,” she told Fairfax New Zealand.
Speculation on the cause of the plane’s disappearance has focused primarily on a possible mechanical or structural failure, a hijacking or terror plot, or rogue pilot action.
However, nothing has emerged to substantiate any scenario, sustaining a flow of conspiracy theories, with books, documentaries and a thriving online debate positing a range of possibilities.
These include suggestions that the plane was diverted to Kazakhstan, or commandeered to be used as a “flying bomb” headed for US military installations on the Diego Garcia atoll, and was shot down by the Americans. The United States has dismissed this.