KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Debris found on an Indian Ocean island a week ago is from flight MH370, Malaysia’s prime minister said Thursday, confirming for the first time that the plane which mysteriously disappeared 17 months ago met a tragic end.
“Today, 515 days since the plane disappeared, 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,” Najib Razak told reporters.
French prosecutors used more cautious language, saying only there was a “very high probability” the wreckage came from MH370.
The Malaysia Airlines jet disappeared on March 8 last year, inexplicably veering off course en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board, sparking a colossal but ultimately fruitless multinational hunt for the aircraft.
Last week’s discovery of a two-meter-long wing part called a flaperon on the French island of La Reunion has provided the first glimmer of hope for relatives desperate for answers.
It was examined at a military lab outside the French city of Toulouse in the presence of Malaysian and Australian experts, Boeing employees and representatives from China — the country that lost the most passengers in the disaster.
Malaysia Airlines hailed the news as a “major breakthrough.”
“We expect and hope that there would be more objects to be found which would be able to help resolve this mystery,” the airline said in a statement.
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,” Weeks told the Fairfax New Zealand media group.
Some families said the confirmation was not enough to lay the matter to rest, as they reiterated demands to know why the plane went off course, flying for hours after its communications and tracking systems were shut down, in what remains one of the biggest mysteries in the history of aviation.
“Now I want to know where the main body of the plane is so that we can take out the passengers and get the black box so we can know what happened. Only that, for us, will be full closure,” said Jacquita Gonzales, wife of MH370 chief steward Patrick Gomes.
Meanwhile, Weeks said it was “pretty disgusting” that she heard about the confirmation from a reporter and had not been contacted beforehand by the Malaysian authorities.
‘A huge step’
Gerry Soejatman, a Jakarta-based aviation consultant, said proof the flaperon came from MH370 was 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.”
The Malaysian premier gave no indication that the analysis of the debris yielded any clues into the cause of the disappearance.
Many relatives accuse his government and the airline of a bungled response to the disaster, possible cover-up, and insensitive treatment of families, charges that are vehemently denied.
“I would like to assure all those affected by this tragedy that the government of Malaysia is committed to do everything within our means to find out the truth of what happened,” Najib said.
“MH370’s disappearance marked us as a nation. We mourn with you, as a nation.”
Meanwhile, Australian authorities said Thursday that they were confident the search for MH370 was being carried out in the right area and the plane would be found.
“(The La Reunion find) is consistent with all the work we’ve done so we’re confident that we’re looking in the right area and we’ll find the aircraft there,” Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, told ABC radio.
But Dolan added that it was “too early to tell” what happened to the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet, adding that “close examination (of the flaperon) is what’s necessary to access how much we can learn.”
Australia has been leading the hunt for the plane.
Starting grieving process
It is hoped that more detailed examination in the coming days can yield information on the final moments of the plane by showing how it detached itself from the wing, or whether it showed traces of an explosion or fire.
Scientists have also pointed to the barnacles attached to the flaperon, saying these could give an idea of how long the fragment had been in the water, and perhaps where it had been.
“If it has cold-water barnacles on it that might tell them it went down further south than they think. Or if it’s got only tropical barnacles, that might tell them it went down further north,” said Shane Ahyong, a crustacean specialist from the Australian Museum.
For the victims’ loved ones, any tangible piece of information is likely to help them in seeking closure, according to psychologist Carole Damiani, who specializes in helping the families of people who died in disasters.
“The grieving process is about untying oneself from someone, accepting that they will not be found and they have gone forever,” she said.