Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced a two-metre-long (almost seven-foot) wing part that was discovered on French Reunion island last week was definitely from the missing plane, the first proof it met a tragic end in the Indian Ocean 17 months ago.
“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 said.
Fuelling more hope, Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai yesterday said investigators on the French island had collected more aircraft debris, including a plane window and aluminium foil, but there was no confirmation they also belonged to the missing plane.
The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 disappeared on March 8 last year, inexplicably veering off course en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.
The disappearance turned into 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.
Malaysia Airlines hailed the news as a “major breakthrough” that it said would hopefully help to find the plane somewhere in the depths of the Indian Ocean.
Australian authorities, who have led a multinational search for the aircraft, also expressed renewed confidence that the frustrating search for the body of the plane would succeed.
“It suggests that for the first time we might be a little bit closer to solving this baffling mystery,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.
But French prosecutors involved in determining if the wing part was from MH370 used more cautious language than Najib, saying only there was a “very high probability” it came from the plane.
Adding to the confusion, French investigators have not been sent any new wreckage to analyse after Malaysia said more items suspected to be from MH370 had been found on Reunion island.
Anguished family members have awaited news with a mix of anticipation and dread, and some welcomed the first concrete proof of the plane’s fate.
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 consistently criticised Malaysia’s handling of the crisis, particularly in China where most of the passengers were from, refused to believe the wing part was from the plane.
They have accused 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.
Some continued to insist that they would not believe the Malaysian authorities until the plane’s black box data and flight recorders were recovered, or bodies were found.
“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.”
Zhang Yongli, whose daughter was on the plane, similarly voiced her anguish, anger and distrust.
“I don’t believe this latest information about the plane, they have been lying to us from the beginning.”
“I know my daughter is out there, but they won’t tell us the truth,” he added, waving Chinese and Communist Party flags.
Still, China’s foreign ministry said Najib’s declaration “confirmed the verdict on the Malaysia Airlines accident”, and expressed “deep grief” for the passengers.
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.
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 and 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.