Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, announced in parliament today that satellite imagery shows two objects in the southern Indian Ocean that could be debris from missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
Military aircraft and ships were immediately deployed to the area, which is about 2,500 kilometres southwest of Perth on Australia’s west coast.
The aircraft search has not come up with anything as yet and has been hampered by bad weather. It has been called off until the morning.
A Norwegian cargo vessel, on its way from Madagascar to Melbourne, has answered a call to assist and will continue searching throughout the night.
Malaysia’s acting transport minister, Hishammudin Hussein, said that, while the sighting was credible, there was not yet any confirmation that this was debris from the missing plane. There was still much work to do, he said.
There were many reports of debris early on in the search, but none of it turned out to be from flight MH370. Mr Hishammudin said the new lead was different because there was corroboration from other satellite data.
There are those, however, who say a piece of debris of this size would not be floating.
Search in rough waters
The search is now being carried out in waters that are several thousand metres deep.
John Young from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said the objects spotted on satellite were relatively indistinct, but were of a “reasonable size”. One of them is about 24 metres long and the other five metres.
Visibility is poor in the area, and the waters are very rough.
Four aircraft have been sent to the area, including a Royal Australian Air Force Orion, an Orion from New Zealand, and a US navy P-8 Poseidon.
Marker buoys will be dropped to assist in drift modelling.
Mr Abbott said the task would be extremely difficult and the debris may not be related to MH370. The Australians are remaining cautious, but do also say this is the best lead so far.
There is some confusion about the date that the satellite images were taken. They are stamped March the 16th, four days ago, but the Malaysian authorities spoke just now of them being taken today.
Mr Hishammudin said search teams were dealing with conditions that are very similar to those in the Atlantic, where an Air France plane went down in 2009. It took two years to find that plane’s black box.
Malaysia is already looking into the possibility of deep sea surveillance and sonar searching to find the aircraft’s black box. Such advanced technology is available to very few countries, and Malaysia doesn’t have it, so would need help.
The transport minister said the search was continuing in the northern corridor, which stretches up to central Asia. There are still four aircraft in that corridor and China is using 21 satellites in the search it is conducting on its territory.
There are more than 25 aircraft and 18 ships in the southern corridor.
“Until we are certain that we have located MH370, search and rescue operations will continue in both corridors,” Mr Hishammudin said.
Families’ suffering goes on
It is now watch and wait for the families and friends of those on board the missing plane. They are bracing themselves for further news from Australia.
The CEO of Malaysia Airlines, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, said that if the suspected debris does turn out to be from MH370 the airline will arrange for families to be flown to Australia.
Malaysia is getting help from members of a French delegation, who are advising them on how to deal with the raw emotions of the families, for whom today’s information will bring no comfort.
The relatives have been demanding clearer information, but if this is wreckage and the plane went down in the southern Indian Ocean, their hopes of their loved-ones still being alive will be dashed. It would be closure, but it would be devastating.
There were emotional scenes yesterday yesterday – day 12 of the search. Relatives of Chinese passengers came to the Sama-Sama hotel at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport, where press conference are held, and protested about Malaysia’s handling of the plane’s disappearance.
They tried to talk to journalists, but were dragged away by police.
Mr Hishammudin said today that he regretted the way the relatives were treated and the authorities, he said, were investigating the incident.
He also said a high-level team was leaving for Beijing this evening and that there would be a briefing for Chinese families in Malaysia, led by Malaysia’s special envoy to China and the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia. A similar briefing had been organised for other families.
The minister said that, whatever happened, his heart and sympathies were with the relatives all the time. “We must show to the families that we will not give up hope,” he said.
“For families around the world, the one piece of information they want most is the information we just don’t have: the location of MH370.
“Our primary focus has always been to find the aircraft. And with every passing day, our efforts have intensified.”
The police investigation into passengers, crew, and ground staff continues and the flight simulator taken from the home of the chief pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, is still being analysed.