Searchers on Reunion Island have found additional pieces of debris that resemble airplane parts, which will be tested to see if they came from missing Malaysia Airlines’ Flight 370, Malaysia’s transport minister said.
The items include materials from seat cushions and window panes, Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said by telephone Thursday afternoon.
“The team has handed over the materials to Reunion island authorities,” he said. The debris “will be sent to France to verify if it belongs to MH370.”
Liow also said a maintenance seal on the initial wing part found July 29 on Reunion island, a French territory near Africa, matched Malaysia Airlines’ records. His comments came less than a day after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak confirmed that the piece, known as a flaperon, came from Flight 370, the first physical evidence of the jet that vanished 17 months ago with 239 people on board.
Investigators “conclusively” linked the piece to the missing aircraft, Najib said early Thursday morning in Kuala Lumpur. The announcement validates authorities’ hypothesis that Flight 370 crashed in a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean southwest of Australia.
Still, it doesn’t pinpoint where the aircraft took its fatal plunge in March 2014 — or why it strayed so far from its intended Kuala Lumpur-to-Beijing route.
The inquiry into the longest search for a modern commercial jet is a multilayered effort involving French judicial authorities and the Malaysian government, as well as aviation accident investigators from the U.S., Australia and France. Specialists from Chicago-based Boeing also are participating.
Little more than an hour after Najib spoke, deputy Paris prosecutor Serge Mackowiak told reporters that officials have only a “strong presumption” the piece is from MH370. Later Thursday, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said there was a “high probability” the flaperon came from the doomed plane.
The differing messages drew anger from relatives of the missing, who said authorities had not offered any explanation of the evidence to the families.
“We are appalled by the premature announcement” by Najib, Jennifer Chong, who lost her husband Chong Ling Tan on MH370, said Thursday by e-mail. The declaration “has created confusion and anger for the families. It leaves more questions than answers, confusion instead of assurance.”
The wreckage appears to confirm that MH370 went down in the Indian Ocean, Australia Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in a radio interview Thursday. Australia, which has allocated about US$74 million toward the search, will keep looking for more debris, he said.
“We owe it to the families of the people lost on that plane to try to solve the mystery,” Abbott said.
“We owe it to the traveling public who obviously want to be confident of their safety in the air.”
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which has led a search of nearly 60,000 square kilometres of the seabed southwest of Australia, said it won’t alter its plans.
“Our search area has always been defined based on analysis of the satellite communications, and so accordingly this will not lead to any changes,” Daniel O’Malley, a spokesman for the bureau, said by phone from Canberra.
The region being scoured by sonar submersibles is about 3,800 kilometres southeast of Reunion. That’s consistent with modeling done for the bureau on the way flotsam would have drifted since the crash.
A map published Wednesday on the bureau’s website showed a range of predicted locations for debris that entered the water around the time of the MH370 crash close to where the seafloor search is taking place. The locations cover a stretch of mostly open ocean due west of Australia and between the latitudes of Madagascar and the Bay of Bengal.
Evaluations of the debris in a French defense ministry lab will take weeks or months, and still may not shed much light on why the plane went into the sea, according to John Cox, a former airline pilot who is president of consultant Safety Operating Systems.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a great ‘aha!’ moment tomorrow that says we have figured it out,” Cox said in a telephone interview. “This is going to be an additional piece of evidence, but I don’t think in and of itself it’s going to be conclusive.”
The examination could include dimensional inspection of the debris, x-rays, fractography, electron microscopy, crystallography and metallography, as well as analysis of barnacles that attached to the debris while it drifted, according to Hans Weber, president of San Diego-based Tecop International Inc., a consultancy focusing on aviation safety and security.
“The investigation will tell a great deal about how the part broke off and how the airplane was configured when it crashed,” Weber said.
In a statement Thursday, Malaysia Airlines described the developments as “a major breakthrough” in unraveling what happened to MH370.
“We expect and hope that there would be more objects to be found which would be able to help resolve this mystery,” the statement said. A few hours later, there were.