Ever since a part from a Boeing Co. 777 was found on Reunion island last week, Grace Subithirai Nathan has been exchanging online messages through the night with loved ones of those on board Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.
“Everybody is really anxious. No one is sleeping,” Nathan, whose mother was on board the plane that disappeared in March 2014, said by phone from Kuala Lumpur. “Before this, a lot of us thought it would be good to find something and have closure. But we would rather they’re still alive somewhere.”
The week-long wait for testing that can determine whether the Boeing Co. 777 part came from Flight 370 is prolonging the uncertainty for friends and relatives of the disappeared. In nearly 17 months since the plane vanished with 239 people on board, no physical remnants of the aircraft have been identified.
“Finding what appears to be a part of the plane raises the level of hope for families, but it doesn’t solve the problem,” said Geoffrey Glassock, a psychologist who has counseled people bereaved in the 2002 Bali bombings and 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
More information about what happened “gives them a structure to understand their grief, but it doesn’t take away the pain of their loss,” he said by phone from Springwood, near Sydney. “You’re never going to remove that.”
The part known as a flaperon, found on the French island of Reunion close to Madagascar in the western Indian Ocean, will be examined by Wednesday in the same lab that scoured fragments of an Air France jet that crashed in the Atlantic in 2009. A suitcase discovered near the debris also will be studied, the Paris prosecutor’s office said.
If the flaperon “is indeed from the aircraft, it will be physical evidence and that will take us a big step forward,” Andrew Herdman, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, said Monday on Bloomberg TV’s “Trending Business” show. Still, he noted, it’s just a first step.
“The key will be finding the bulk of the wreckage and the black boxes if we’re to piece together what happened in this tragedy,” Herdman said.
Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai told reporters Monday that more airplane parts had been found on Reunion, though he said he hadn’t yet been briefed on the details. Hopes were raised Sunday when an object believed to be a plane door was found, but authorities later said the piece was a domestic ladder, not part of an aircraft.
Malaysia has reached out to aviation authorities in territories near Reunion, seeking their aid in analyzing any additional debris. Liow said the U.S., China and Australia are sending teams to Reunion, where a Malaysian team has been mapping and combing the area.
Wen Wancheng, whose son was on board Flight 370, plans to travel to Reunion from his home in Shandong province south of Beijing to join the search. He wished Malaysian authorities would arrange a trip for family members to survey the debris on Reunion, he said.
“The wing debris found on the island is only a small part of the plane, and there must be more, larger parts to be found,” he said via online message. “I will go and persuade other family members to go.”
Seeking a Link
Boeing has dispatched a team of technical experts who are assisting in the multinational effort at the request of investigators, the planemaker said Friday.
A part number on the flaperon enabled investigators to determine that it came from a 777, the same model as the missing plane. Since the number is used for all Boeing 777s, it isn’t proof that the flap ruptured from MH370. However, only five 777s have suffered irreparable damage since the model was introduced in 1993, according to Aviation Safety, an online accident database, and none of the others occurred in the Indian Ocean.
For a definitive link to the Malaysian plane, investigators would look for other proof on sub-components, including inspection stamps and serial numbers on pieces in the flap assembly, according to John Purvis, who used to lead Boeing’s accident investigations unit.
“While this is a promising development, I’m not sure that in terms of the grieving process this makes it any easier or helps people along,” Christopher Hall, chief executive officer of the Melbourne-based Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement, said by phone. “There’s no closure on this experience. As more is known, each answer just poses more questions.”
For Jennifer Chong of Melbourne, whose husband Chong Ling Tan was on board MH370, the days since the flaperon was found have been “a torturous wait” for relatives of the missing passengers.
“The familiar overpowering emotions and intense shock are hitting once more, but this time it’s worse,” she said by e-mail from Kuala Lumpur. “I have yet to convince my heart to give up the hope that I’ve been holding onto for the last 16 months.”
Flight 370 was en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur in March 2014 when it vanished without a trace. By analyzing satellite signals, investigators concluded that the jet turned back over the Indian Ocean and probably plunged into the sea off Australia’s western coast.
The wreckage that washed ashore in Reunion is the strongest clue yet in a search that is now the longest ever for a missing commercial jet. Ships using deep-sea sonar have already scanned more than 55,000 square kilometers (21,325 square miles) of the seabed southwest of Australia.
If the lab analysis proves the piece is from Flight 370, it won’t pinpoint the plane’s resting place. But it could give fresh momentum to search efforts in a remote stretch of ocean some 3,800 kilometers (2,360 miles) southeast of Reunion.
“The most important part of this whole exercise at the moment is to give some kind of closure to the families who have loved ones who perished on the aircraft,” Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss, whose government has led the seafloor search, said at a media conference in Canberra on July 31. “It’s important for them to have some positive indication about what may have happened to their loved ones.”
(An earlier version was corrected to reflect the proper conversion of square kilometers to square miles.)