The desperate, multinational hunt for Flight 370 resumed again Wednesday across a remote stretch of the Indian Ocean after fierce winds and high waves that had forced a daylong halt eased considerably.
A total of 12 planes and two ships from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand were participating in the search, hoping to find even a single piece of the Malaysia Airlines jet that could offer tangible evidence of a crash.
Malaysia announced earlier this week that a mathematical analysis of the final known satellite signals from the plane had proved beyond doubt it gone down in the sea, taking the lives of all 239 people on board.
The new data vastly shrunk search zone, but it remains huge — an area estimated at 1.6 million square kilometers (622,000 square miles), about the size of Alaska.
“We’re throwing everything we have at this search,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Nine network television on Wednesday.
“This is about the most inaccessible spot imaginable. It’s thousands of kilometers from anywhere,” he later told Seven Network television. He vowed that “we will do what we can to solve this riddle.”
In Beijing, some families held out a glimmer of hope their loved ones might somehow have survived. About two-thirds of the missing are Chinese, and their relatives have lashed out at Malaysia for essentially declaring their family members dead without any physical evidence of the plane’s remains. Many also believe that the Malaysian officials have not been transparent or swift in communicating information with them about the status of the search.
Wang Chunjiang, whose brother was on the plane, said he felt “very conflicted.”
“We want to know the truth, but we are afraid the debris of the plane should be found,” he said while waiting at a hotel near the Beijing airport for a meeting with Malaysian officials. “If they find debris, then our last hope would be dashed. We will not have even the slightest hope.”
In China’s capital a day earlier, nearly 100 relatives and their supporters marched to the Malaysian Embassy, where they threw plastic water bottles, tried to rush the gate, shouting, “Tell the truth! Return our relatives!”
Wary of virulently nationalistic public opinion, China’s government has sought to defend the interests of family members, calling in Malaysia’s ambassador Monday to demand access to the technical data that determined the plane crashed into the sea west of Australia.
That was likely the reason why authorities permitted Tuesday’s rare protest outside the Malaysian Embassy, in which they briefly tussled with police who kept them separated from a swarm of journalists.
China dispatched a special envoy to Kuala Lumpur, Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui, who was expected to meet Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and other top officials Wednesday.
Deputy Foreign Minister Xie Hangsheng has said China wants to know details about the complex analysis of satellite data by foreign experts indicated the flight had plunged into a remote corner of the Indian Ocean, far from any landing strip.
The conclusions were based on an analysis of the brief signals the plane sent every hour to a satellite belonging to Inmarsat, a British company, even after other communication systems on the jetliner shut down for unknown reasons.
The plane’s bizarre disappearance March 8 shortly after it took off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing has proven to be one of the biggest mysteries in aviation.
Investigators will be looking at various possibilities, including mechanical or electrical failure, hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or someone else on board.
The search for the wreckage and the plane’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders could take years because the ocean can extend to up to 7,000 meters (23,000 feet) deep in some parts. It took two years to find the black box from an Air France jet that went down in the Atlantic Ocean on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009, and searchers knew within days where the crash site was.
There is a race against the clock to find Flight 370’s black boxes, whose battery-powered “pinger” could stop sending signals within two weeks. The batteries are designed to last at least a month.
David Ferreira, an oceanographer at the University of Reading in Britain, said little is known about the detailed topography of the seabed where the plane is believed to have crashed.
“We know much more about the surface of the moon than we do about the ocean floor in that part of the Indian Ocean,” Ferreira said.
Kerry Sieh, the director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore, said the seafloor in the search area is relative flat, with dips and crevices similar to that the part of the Atlantic Ocean where the Air France wreckage was found.
He said he wouldn’t expect much current on the seafloor, and believes any large pieces of the plane would likely stay put once they have completely sunk. But recovering any part of the plane will be a challenge because of the sheer depth of the ocean and inhospitable conditions on the surface where intense winds and high swells are common.
“This is a really rough piece of ocean, which is going to be a terrific issue,” Sieh said. “I worry that people carrying out the rescue mission are going to get into trouble.”
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the southern search operation Malaysia’s behalf, said the focus Wednesday will be on an 80,000 square kilometer (30,900 square miles) swathe of ocean. Ships and aircraft are looking for possible debris that has drifted from the suspected crash zone. The area is about 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) southwest of Perth.
Various pieces of floating objects have been spotted by planes and satellite, but none have been retrieved or identified.
Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology warned that weather was expected to deteriorate again Thursday with a cold front passing through the search area that bring rain thunderstorms, low clouds and strong winds.