Kuala Lumpur (AFP) – Malaysia said Thursday that debris found on a remote island was from flight MH370, the first proof that the plane met a tragic end in the Indian Ocean 17 months ago and offering hopes one of aviation’s biggest mysteries could finally be solved.
Australian authorities, who have led a multinational search for the ill-fate plane, expressed renewed confidence that the frustrating search for MH370 was on the right track.
The wreckage, from a wing component called a flaperon, “does seem to indicate that the plane did come down, more or less where we thought it did, and it suggests that for the first time we might be a little bit closer to solving this baffling mystery,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak earlier on Thursday ended a torturous wait for physical evidence when he announced that a team of international experts in Toulouse had “conclusively confirmed” that the aircraft debris was from MH370.
French prosecutors used more cautious language, saying only there was a “very high probability” the wreckage came from the ill-fated plane, and that more tests were needed before making a definitive conclusion.
Anguished family members have awaited news with a mix of anticipation and dread, and some welcomed the first concrete proof of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777’s fate.
The jet disappeared on March 8 last year, inexplicably veering off course en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.
– ‘First step forward’ –
Sara Weeks, the sister of MH370 passenger Paul Weeks of New Zealand, said the confirmation ended “a week of turmoil”.
“We’ve had 17 months of nothing… so actually finding something is the first step towards pinpointing where it is,” she told the Fairfax New Zealand media group.
But some relatives who have harshly criticised Malaysia’s handling of the crisis said the lack of a black box or bodies leaves emotional wounds unhealed and lingering questions about what caused the disaster.
“Where is my husband’s body? Have any passengers’ belongings been found? No. It’s just a piece that they found,” said Elaine Chew, whose husband Tan Size Hiang was part of the cabin crew.
“No, this is not closure for me.”
The disappearance created one of the biggest mysteries in the history of aviation, sparking a colossal hunt in the Indian Ocean based on satellite data which hinted at MH370’s possible path.
The two-metre-long (almost seven-foot) chunk of wreckage was found on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion last week and examined by a team of experts Wednesday in France.
Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), said he was now “confident that we’re looking in the right area and we’ll find the aircraft there”.
But he told ABC radio it was “too early to tell” what exactly happened to the aircraft and that close examination of the flaperon was necessary.
Najib said during his briefing in the early hours of Thursday that “it is with a very heavy heart that I must tell you that an international team of experts has conclusively confirmed that the aircraft debris found on Reunion Island is indeed from MH370.”
Malaysia Airlines hailed the news as a “major breakthrough”.
– ‘They won’t tell us the truth’ –
Many relatives accuse Najib’s government and the airline of a bungled response to the disaster, possible cover-up, and insensitive treatment of families, charges that have been vehemently denied.
In China — where relatives of MH370 passengers have consistently expressed beliefs that their loved ones are alive — many congregated outside the Beijing offices of Malaysia Airlines to reject the latest news.
“I don’t believe this latest information about the plane, they have been lying to us from the beginning,” said Zhang Yongli, whose daughter was on the plane.
“I know my daughter is out there, but they won’t tell us the truth,” he added, waving Chinese and Communist Party flags.
However Gerry Soejatman, a Jakarta-based aviation consultant, called the confirmed MH370 link a “huge step”.
“People want all the answers, but look, let’s be real. We must be glad that we found something at all. Now we know roughly where it might have crashed,” he said.
“This answers a lot of questions actually. It eliminates other theories, conspiracy theories. If the black box is found later on, it is likely we could get more answers.”
It is hoped that more detailed examination in the coming days may indicate how the piece detached from the wing, possibly yielding clues in the mystery, or whether it showed traces of an explosion or fire.
Scientists have also said barnacles on the flaperon could indicate how long it was in the water, and perhaps where it had been.