Malaysia concluded that Flight 370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean with no hope of survivors, ruling out theories of a detour over Asia or an island landing, as the search for wreckage was suspended today on foul weather.
Conditions permitting, patrols will resume tomorrow for debris from the Boeing Co. (BA) 777-200ER, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in an e-mailed statement. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said yesterday the jet’s “last position was in the middle of the Indian Ocean” off Australia’s west coast. An analysis of satellite signals helped seal the judgment, he said.
“This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites,” Najib told reporters yesterday in Kuala Lumpur. “It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that according to this new data, Flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean.”
His comments triggered condemnation from a group representing Chinese passengers’ families, which accused Malaysia of “delaying, hiding and covering up the truth.” Najib focused on the certainty of the jet’s loss and shed no new light on why Flight 370 abandoned its Kuala Lumpur-to-Beijing route on March 8 and carried 239 people in the opposite direction.
Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) said separately today that it plans to take relatives to the search zone pending authorities’ approval, and Chairman Md Nor Yusof and Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya set a press conference at 12:30 p.m. in Kuala Lumpur.
“You can’t make a judgment based on Malaysia’s data,” Li Bo, who had a cousin on Flight 370, said at Beijing’s Metropark Lido Hotel, where passengers’ relatives gathered. His comments echoed criticism of Malaysia’s handling of the case by China and by a group that said it represented travelers’ families, of whom Chinese nationals made up about two-thirds of the total.
Malaysian authorities’ “despicable and shameless actions have deceived and destroyed the hearts of our relatives of 154 Chinese passengers, misled and delayed the search efforts, wasted manpower and material resources and led to the loss of the precious rescue time,” the relatives’ committee said.
Malaysian Air said it reached “the majority” of relatives with preparatory phone calls and personal contacts to cushion the emotional blow of Najib’s remarks.
The carrier “deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived,” Malaysian Air said in a follow-up message to relatives. “We must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.”
China’s Foreign Ministry said it’s paying “high attention” to the announcement from Malaysia.
“China has asked Malaysia to provide all information and evidence leading to the conclusion,” Hong Lei, a spokesman for the ministry, said in a statement posted on its website.
While Najib didn’t use the word “crash,” he and Malaysian Air sought to remove any doubt that the plane ended up anywhere else than at sea, after days in which the absence of evidence became fodder for conspiracy theorists around the world.
The prime minister cited an analysis of data from London-based satellite provider Inmarsat Plc (ISAT) and the U.K. Air Accidents Investigation Branch as showing that the 777 flew south after contact was lost as it neared Vietnamese airspace. Pings tracked by satellite had suggested either a northward arc or, more strongly, the southerly route that Najib confirmed.
Najib’s comments move the search to a new phase, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said today, according to a transcript e-mailed from his office.
“We are now investigating an accident, a loss of an aircraft, and some new decisions will have to be taken now about the direction of future operations,” Truss said. “It’ll be a matter now for the Malaysian government to request what assistance they may need to undertake the investigation.”
That course had been the focus of the search for more than a week, while Malaysia hadn’t ruled out the prospect of a heading that took Flight 370 over Asia. Bloomberg News reported March 15 that the last satellite transmission from the jet probably placed it over the Indian Ocean.
“The satellite data has been continuously assessed, and it was finally getting to the point where the Malaysians felt comfortable enough to rule out the northern route,” said Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which has been assisting Malaysian authorities.
Aircraft and ships scouring the southern Indian Ocean came up empty again yesterday, and the passage of time since the accident adds to the difficulty of locating any surface debris in waters known for high swells and strong winds.
“It remains immensely difficult to search at sea,” New York-based security consultant Soufan Group, led by former FBI counterterrorism specialist Ali Soufan, said in a briefing on its website. Such a hunt is “like finding a drifting needle in a chaotic, color-changing, perception-shifting, motion-sickness-inducing haystack.”
The search area is forecast to experience strong gale force winds up to 80 kilometers per hour, heavy rain and low cloud, AMSA said in its statement. Any search activity is deemed hazardous and poses a risk to crew.
HMAS Success from the Royal Australian Navy found nothing yesterday, said Andrea Hayward-Maher, a spokeswoman for AMSA, after an Australian Air Force P3 Orion cruising overhead saw a gray or green circular object and an orange rectangular item.
They were in an area about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told lawmakers in Canberra, without giving coordinates.
The items are separate from those reported by Chinese aircraft earlier yesterday. The crew of a Chinese IL-76 plane reported sighting two “relatively big” floating objects, state-run Xinhua News Agency said.
Chinese aircraft photographed a square floating object, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing. The icebreaker Xuelong and three Chinese naval ships are due to arrive in the search area as soon as today, Hong said.
The Chinese asked for Australian aircraft to further scan the area around the coordinates of 95.1113 degrees east longitude and 42.5453 south latitude, Xinhua said. Many white smaller objects were scattered within a radius of several kilometers of the two objects, the agency said.
In a satellite picture taken March 18, China detected a floating object 22.5 meters (74 feet) long at a position about 120 kilometers southwest of a March 16 image that showed similar items, according to China’s State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.
The dimensions appear similar to those of the larger of two objects seen previously, said to be 24 meters long.
Recovery of the data and cockpit-voice recorders from the 777 would help investigators narrow in on the plane’s movements and pilots’ actions in its final hours in the air after contact was lost.
The U.S. sent two pieces of equipment to Australia in case the search zone can be narrowed.
One is an underwater listening device called a towed pinger locator, which would help hunt for the plane’s voice and data recorders, said Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman. The other is a Bluefin-21 unmanned underwater vehicle, equipped with sonar and other sensors, told reporters in Washington.
Sea Horse Standard
An Australian commercial ship called the Sea Horse Standard would be used to tow the pinger locator and deploy the Bluefin, Kirby said. The equipment is being flown to Perth along with a crew of about 10 people, he said.
The size of any wreckage may vary depending precisely on how Flight 370 ended, said Todd Curtis, CEO and founder of safety and security consultant AirSafe.com.
Pilots attempting emergency water landings typically deploy flaps on the trailing edge of the wings to lower their speed. The Malaysian jet would have been flying at “higher than the ideal ditching speed” if it was on autopilot until the fuel was exhausted or it was nosed over into a dive, Curtis said.
“It would tear the aircraft up for sure, and contents could’ve been strewn all over the place,” Curtis said.