PERTH, Australia – Wild weather halted the search Tuesday for wreckage from the Malaysia Airlines jet that crashed into the Indian Ocean, frustrating attempts to determine why it veered off course and bring closure to grieving relatives.
The air and sea mission for MH370 was suspended for the day due to gale force winds, driving rain and huge waves, said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) which is coordinating the multinational hunt far southwest of Perth.
It was another body blow for relatives, whose hopes were extinguished Monday when a sombre Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said new analysis of satellite data placed the flight’s last position “far from any possible landing sites.” (READ: MH370 ended at the southern Indian Ocean)
“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,” Najib said.
The plane went missing on March 8 with 239 people aboard – two thirds of them Chinese – en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. (READ: Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 239 missing)
News that the plane was lost with no survivors touched off deep despair among relatives in both cities who had endured an agonising 17-day wait.
“What can I say? I had the belief that my son would return home safely. But what can be done?” asked Subramaniam Gurusamy, whose 34-year-old son was on board.
“This is fate. We must accept it,” he said, his voice choking with emotion.
In Beijing, family members who had gathered in a hotel ballroom were crushed by the announcement. Many sobbed uncontrollably, while others collapsed and were taken away on stretchers.
“For them, the past few weeks have been heartbreaking; I know this news must be harder still,” Najib said in Kuala Lumpur.
A group of about 30 Chinese relatives later vented their anger to reporters in Beijing, decrying Malaysian authorities as “murderers.”
With detailed information still scarce, China’s deputy foreign minister demanded that Malaysia hand over the satellite data that led it to the announcement the plane was lost at sea.
“We demand the Malaysian side to state the detailed evidence that leads them to this judgement,” Xie Hangsheng told Malaysia’s Ambassador to China, Iskandar Bin Sarudin, according to a foreign ministry statement.
Najib said Monday’s conclusions were based on new analysis of satellite data by Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch, and the satellite telecommunications firm Inmarsat.
He gave no specifics on where the plane may have been lost, but Inmarsat said it was able to work out which direction it flew by measuring hourly satellite “pings” which bounced from the plane despite its communication systems being switched off.
Multiple debris sightings
Numerous recent sightings of suspected debris, by satellites as well as aircraft criss-crossing the region, had raised hopes that wreckage would be found on Tuesday.
The Australian naval ship HMAS Success was sent to investigate the latest sighting about 2,500 kilometres (1,562 miles) southwest of Perth and to attempt to recover objects – a green circular item and an orange rectangular one.
But AMSA said the Success was forced to leave the search area Tuesday until heavy seas abate.
“AMSA has undertaken a risk assessment and determined that the current weather conditions would make any air and sea search activities hazardous and pose a risk to crew,” it said.
Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss warned the weather could remain poor for days and “it may be some time before we can get aircraft back into the search.”
He said the operation had now moved into a new phase and Australia would “expect some direction and requests from the Malaysian government in due course about what action they want to be taken from now on.”
Efforts to locate wreckage, and the black box and flight data, will be crucial in determining what caused the Boeing 777 to deviate inexplicably off course and fly for hours and thousands of kilometers (miles) in the wrong direction.
Malaysia believes the plane was deliberately diverted by someone on board. But the lack of evidence has fuelled intense speculation, competing theories, and tormented the families of the missing.
“Terrorism, pilot suicide and a complex set of mechanical failures never seen before are now the likely possibilities. A simple failure such as a simple fire or structural failure is becoming very unlikely,” said aviation consultant Gerry Soejatman.
The last known contact with MH370 was made over the South China Sea between Malaysia and Vietnam. For reasons unknown, it backtracked over the Malaysian peninsula.
The search swung deep into the Indian Ocean last week after initial satellite images depicted large floating objects there, and a flurry of debris sightings continued into Monday.
The US Navy sent a specialized device to the region on Monday to help find the “black box” of flight and cockpit voice data, along with a robotic underwater vehicle that can scan the ocean’s depths. (READ: US deploys ‘black box’ locator in Malaysian jet search)
The high-tech black box locator can track down flight recorders as deep as 20,000 feet (6,060 metres), the US Seventh Fleet said in a statement. The search area ranges from 3,000-4,000 meters deep.
The 30-day signal from the black box is due to fail in less than two weeks. – Rappler.com