PERTH, Mar 25 – 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 which is coordinating the multinational hunt 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.”
“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 — dropping off air traffic control screens in what has become one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history.
News that the plane was lost with no survivors, far from its intended route between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, 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.
Some lashed out at reporters, and a group of 30 Chinese relatives later vented their anger, decrying Malaysian authorities as “murderers”.
The national carrier said arrangements would be made to take relatives to the “recovery area”, likely Perth from where the Indian Ocean search is being coordinated.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said they would be warmly welcomed in their “desperately difficult time” should they choose to make the trip.
With detailed information still scarce, China’s deputy foreign minister has demanded Malaysia hand over the satellite data that led 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.
– Multiple debris sightings –
Najib said Monday’s conclusions were based on new analysis of the 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.
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.
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 two objects — a green circular item and an orange rectangular one.
But AMSA said the Success was forced to leave the search area until heavy seas abate.
“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”.
Abbott said the operation was now one of recovery and investigation.
“It’s a long way from anywhere but obviously it’s closer to Australia than anywhere else and Australia has much of the capacity needed to get this done as best it can be,” he said.
– Competing theories –
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 thousands of kilometres (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 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 has sent a specialised device to the region 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.
The high-tech black box locator can track down flight recorders as deep as 20,000 feet (6,060 metres). The search area ranges from 3,000-4,000 metres deep. The 30-day signal from the black box is due to fail in less than two weeks.