Searchers scour beaches for more plane debris
Searchers scored Reunion's shoreline for debris and investigators prepared to load a sea-encrusted wing fragment onto a plane bound for France on Friday to learn whether the aircraft remnant could help unlock the mystery of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
It will take at least another day to learn whether the plane missing for 16 months crashed into the sea. Though several officials have expressed confidence that the debris found on the French island of Reunion is from a Boeing 777, French authorities are planning to send the piece to southern France for analysis. The part could arrive Saturday morning, according to the Paris prosecutor's office.
Officials, keenly aware that families of those on board Flight 370 are desperately awaiting word on the fate of their loved ones, hope to have at least some answers within a day or two.
"The most important part of this whole exercise at the moment is to give some kind of closure to the families," said Australian Transport Minister Warren Truss, whose country is leading the search for the plane in a desolate stretch of ocean off Australia's west coast.
Still, given the myriad false leads that have peppered the search, some would prefer certainty to speed.
Jacquita Gomes, whose husband, Patrick, was a flight attendant on the missing plane, is anxious for the results of the analysis, but wants authorities to ensure they're conclusive before announcing them.
"It's going to be a nail-biting weekend but we cannot rush it," said Gomes, of Kuala Lumpur. "We have been waiting for more than 500 days. The agony continues and I hope there will be answers soon."
But even if the piece is confirmed to be the first confirmed wreckage from Flight 370, there's no guarantee investigators can find the plane's vital black box recorders or other debris. A multinational search effort now focused on the southern Indian Ocean has come up empty.
The part has been moved to the local airport on Reunion, located off Africa's east coast, and will next head to Toulouse, the hub of Europe's aerospace industry. It will be analyzed in special defense facilities used for airplane testing and analysis, according to the Defense Ministry.
Air safety investigators, including one from Boeing, have identified the component as a "flaperon" from the trailing edge of a Boeing 777 wing, a U.S. official said. The official wasn't authorized to be publicly named.
Flight 370, which disappeared March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board, is the only missing 777.
"Nothing has been confirmed, but obviously this is, by far, the most encouraging sign so far," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Sydney radio station 2SM. "We have long thought it went down somewhere in the Indian Ocean and, at last, it seems that we may be on the verge of some confirmation."
A French law enforcement helicopter is scouring the waters around Reunion in hopes of spotting more debris, and Malaysian authorities were headed to the island and to Toulouse.
Scanning the beach's distinctive black volcanic sand and stones on Friday, searcher Philippe Sidam picked up a plastic bottle for laundry detergent. "This is from Jakarta, Indonesia," he said, pointing to the writing on the bottle. "This shows how the ocean's currents bring material all the way from Indonesia and beyond. That explains how the debris from the Malaysian plane could have reached here."
Reunion environmental worker Johnny Begue told The Associated Press that he stumbled across the plane part on Wednesday morning while collecting stones to grind spices. A colleague, Teddy Riviere, corroborated his account, but authorities wouldn't say who discovered the component.
"I knew immediately it was part of an aircraft, but I didn't realize how important it was, that it could help to solve the mystery of what happened to the Malaysian jet," Begue, 46, told the AP.
He and several workmates carried the wing fragment out of the water so that it would not be battered by the surf against the volcanic rocks that make up most of the beach.
Begue also discovered a piece of a suitcase about 2.5 meters (8 feet) away, he said.
Australian officials expressed skepticism that the suitcase was associated with the wing part. Truss, the transport minister, noted that there did not appear to be any marine life attached to the suitcase, indicating it probably hadn't been in the water for long. But he dubbed the wing part a major lead.
"There's strong evidence to suggest that the wreckage found on Reunion Island does come from a Boeing 777," Truss said.
Investigators have found what may be a maintenance number on the wing piece, which may help investigators figure out what plane it belongs to, Truss said.
Truss expects French investigators will also try to determine how the part separated from the rest of the aircraft, and whether it shows evidence of fire or other damage, which might explain how the plane crashed.
The fact that the part was found 4,200 kilometers (2,600 miles) from the current search site does not mean officials are looking in the wrong place, said Australian Transport Safety Bureau Chief Commissioner Martin Dolan, who is leading the hunt. To the contrary, it gives them reassurance that they're in the correct spot, given that ocean modeling predicted that currents would eventually carry any floating wreckage to the African coast. The discovery is therefore unlikely to alter the seabed search, he said.
"We remain highly confident in our work defining the search area," Dolan said.
Over the past 16 months, hopes have repeatedly been raised and then dashed that the plane, or parts of the plane, had been found. In the end, none was from Flight 370.
In Beijing Zhang Qian, whose husband, Wang Houbin, was on the plane, said she hopes this is not another false lead.
"I don't want to see any news about suspected debris," she said. "What I want is a verified result."
Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, Ian Mader in Beijing, Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Joan Lowy in Washington and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed.