Anguished family members were finally told Monday – some by text message – that their loved ones on board the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that mysteriously vanished more than two weeks ago were dead.
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, dressed in funereal black, confirmed the increasingly obvious and stark truth that his state-owned airline’s Boeing 777 had crashed into the ocean and there could be no survivors.
Painstaking analysis of data from a satellite that remained in hourly contact with the missing jetliner led authorities to the conclusion the Boeing 777 had flown for hours in a southerly direction before crashing.
“With deep sadness and regret … I must inform you that, according to this new data, Flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean,” Mr. Najib.
The data came from a series of electronic “handshakes” the Boeing 777’s communication link sent hourly to an Inmarsat geostationary satellite even after someone on Flight 370 had turned off the rest of the plane’s usual communications systems.
Engineers at Inmarsat used the fractional additional delays in signal transmission time to determine that the Boeing 777 was headed south and away from the satellite high above the equator when the final “ping” came seven hours after it abruptly went otherwise silent. At that time, the aircraft was somewhere southwest of Perth shortly before it would have run out of fuel.
“This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites,” Mr. Najib admitted.
At a Beijing hotel where scores of relatives have waited hoping against hope that by miracle those on board the China-bound Boeing 777 might be safe at some remote airport or in life rafts at sea, the text message sent by the airline caused hysteria and anguish. Some family members collapsed and were taken to hospital.
“It’s not possible, it’s not possible,” one woman wailed.
A majority of the passengers on the flight were Chinese citizens and the Beijing government, much of China’s media and relatives have voiced increasing anger over Malaysia’s handling of the vanished flight.
“I tell you, this was the wrong way to release this information,” one stricken woman said, speaking over the bellows of security guards trying to hold back the crush. “It’s all so black,” she added, using the Chinese expression for opacity and deceit.
That the airline opted to send text message to inform some of the relatives that no hope remained ignited fury on social media. It forced yet another exculpatory explanation from the airline, which has been on the defensive since its flight disappeared.
“We informed the majority of the families in advance of the Prime Minister’s statement in person and by telephone,” the airline said in a statement, adding: “SMSs were used only as an additional means of communicating with the families.”
Meanwhile, poor weather conditions on Tuesday in the southwest Indian Ocean lead Australia’s maritime safety authority to suspend the day’s search for debris that may be connected to the missing Malaysian jet. Search operations were expected to resume Wednesday if weather improved.
Long-range patrol aircraft from half-a-dozen country have been searching more than 2,000 kilometres southwest of Perth for debris spotted by satellites last week, although nothing yet definitively links the objects to the missing Boeing 777.
The search area included tens of thousands of square kilometres and several ships have also converged on the area.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott admitted: “We don’t know whether any of these objects are from MH370. They could be flotsam. Nevertheless, we are hopeful that we can recover these objects soon, and that they will take us a step closer to resolving this tragic mystery.”
Sophisticated modelling with super-computers of ocean currents and winds can help backtrack from where debris is recovered but even in benign conditions locating the wreckage would be difficult.
With the locator beacons on the flight recorders only certified to last for 30 days, it is increasingly a race against time.
The long-expected confirmation that MH370 was lost at sea did nothing to shed any light on the mystery surrounding why a modern, well-equipped jetliner with an experienced crew flying for an airline with a fine safety record on a routine flight suddenly changed direction, taking a course that doomed it to running out of fuel far from any airport or human habitation.
Pilot suicide, terrorism, hijacking, or a combination where an initial criminal event went wrong leaving the aircraft on autopilot with its crew and passengers incapacitated or dead because the life-sustaining artificial atmosphere had been vented from the Boeing 777 at high altitude have all been mooted as possible – but so far-unsubstantiated – theories.
What is evident is that shortly after a routine hand-off to air-traffic control, someone in the cockpit with sophisticated and detailed knowledge of how to fly the big, twin-engined intercontinental Boeing 777 deliberately – perhaps acting alone, perhaps coerced – switched turned off both of the plane’s transponders – which send position, speed, and direction and identification details to air-traffic control – and then keyed at least one change of course into the flight management computer.
With reports from Reuters and Associated Press