This article has been updated to include the safety investigation team’s debris examination report.
Relatives of passengers and crew who were on board MH370 met Malaysia’s transport minister, Anthony Loke Siew Fook, today (Friday) and handed over five pieces of debris that will be examined to see if they are from the missing plane.
The debris was found by local people on the island of Madagascar between December 2016 and August this year and was brought to Kuala Lumpur by American amateur investigator Blaine Alan Gibson, who has himself found numerous pieces of debris that are believed to be from MH370.
One of the pieces handed over today still has a fragment of a label attached to it and has been identified as being part of a floor panel from a Boeing 777.
The other pieces have no markings. One of them is thought to be part of an access panel from an aircraft wing or tail.
MH370 disappeared on March 8, 2014. The Boeing 777 was en route from from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.
Grace Subathirai Nathan, whose mother Anne Daisy was on board MH370, said during a press conference after the handover: “The fact that one piece was found as recently as August this year means that pieces are still washing up and we wish that the government would take a more active interest and a more active initiative in looking for more pieces in that area.”
She said that, when individual pieces were looked at as part of a jigsaw puzzle, and were put together, “they could tell a story and potentially tell us a lot more about what happened to the plane and that is what we hope for”.
Grace added: “It is very, very sad that until today – it’s almost five years – every single piece of debris that we have has been found by a member of the public. The official investigation has found nothing.”
The government, Grace says, should be taking more of an initiative to get the public to be on the lookout in countries where the debris is washing up, since that, she says, “seems to be the only real evidence that we have obtained in the last five years”.
Jacquita Gonzales, whose husband Patrick Gomes was an in-flight supervisor on MH370, took part in the handover. She also pointed to the importance of creating public awareness in countries like Madagascar and Mozambique so that evidence is not thrown away.
The five pieces of debris handed over today were discovered after next of kin visited Madagascar and Mauritius in December 2016 to raise awareness about the disappearance of MH370.
Gibson said that, if the authorities verified that the labelled piece of debris was from MH370, this would be extremely important.
It would indicate, Gibson said, that the floor of the plane had shattered and, if this was the case, this would indicate that there is no intact fuselage.
He added: “These are small pieces and they tell us that this plane tragically shattered on impact. There is no intact plane under water.
“And so each one of those little pieces, when all added together, can give us a clue to what happened.”
The real answers to what happened to MH370 lie in the underwater debris field, Gibson said. “To get the real answers and the real truth, they need to find the underwater crash site. However, each of these small pieces can help provide a clue.
“Also, there are possible personal effects and I’d like to see the report on the investigation into those possible personal effects to see if there’s a chance any of those could be from the plane.”
It’s good to have private search efforts, Gibson said, “and it would be nice if there were also a government effort to search for surface debris”.
Gibson says that, in many cases, locals in Madagascar have spotted pieces of debris, but didn’t realise what they were. “I saw one that was being used to fan a fire because it was light and smooth,” he said. “Another piece, which turned out to be part of the landing gear door, was being used to wash clothes.”
The next of kin asked Loke if the government was open to a new independent search being conducted on a “no cure, no fee” basis.
“There are private companies that are capable who are willing to continue on a ‘no cure, no fee’ basis,” Grace said.
Loke responded that, as he had said in parliament, there would need to be some credible leads before the search could be resumed.
Any decision to resume the search would be made by the Cabinet, he added.
Loke was accompanied today by the lead investigator from the Malaysian International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Annex 13 Safety Investigation Team for MH370, Kok Soo Chon.
When releasing the team’s full report in July this year, Kok Soo Chon said that the safety investigation team was “unable to determine the real cause for the disappearance of MH370”.
The only debris that is said to be from MH370 has been retrieved on the African mainland and on islands off the African coast.
The safety investigation team’s report says that items of debris possibly from MH370 have been found as far north as the eastern coast of Tanzania and as far south as the eastern coast of South Africa.
It says that this is “in addition to several islands and island nations off the east coast of the African continent”.
Of these items of debris, the flaperon, a part of the right outboard flap, and a section of the left outboard flap were confirmed to be from MH370, the report states.
The report states that 27 significant pieces of debris have been recovered and examined. In addition to the three pieces confirmed to be from MH370, seven pieces, including some cabin interior items, have been determined to be “almost certainly” from the plane. The report says eight pieces of debris are “highly likely” to be from MH370 and one piece is “likely” to be from the plane. Eight pieces of debris were not identifiable.
Twenty-six pieces of debris are with the Malaysian authorities, but the flaperon found on Reunion island is still with the French judicial authority.
Gibson says there are in fact 28 pieces of debris that have already been examined as two of the pieces he discovered are being treated as one find.
Two pieces of debris are still in Madagascar despite being found two years ago. They were about to be delivered to Malaysia by DHL by the then honorary Malaysian consul in Madagascar, Zahid Raza, but Raza was gunned down in the centre of the island nation’s capital Antananarivo in an apparent assassination on August 24 last year, just before he was due to pick up the debris.
Grace Subathirai Nathan pointed out that one of these two pieces is extremely important because it is from an engine cowling.
The five pieces of debris handed over today were found in three different places in Madagascar: Riake beach, where most of the debris discovered in Madagascar was found; Antongil Bay in northeastern Madagascar; and an area near the village of Sandravinany in southern Madagascar, where the floor panel debris and another piece were found. Two pieces were found in the south and three in the northeast.
Independent Group investigator Don Thompson has determined that the full placard number for the floor panel is BAC27WPPS61, and has documented his findings in a report.
He states that this type of placard is affixed to high-strength panels of material that is used for flooring in passenger compartments of commercial aircraft, including the Boeing 777-200ER.
He states that he found that a similar placard was affixed to the floorboard of wreckage from MH17, which, like MH370, was also a Boeing 777-200ER.
Independent Group member Victor Iannello says that the nature of the damage to the piece believed to be from a floorboard panel is “consistent with a high speed impact”.
Searches in the southern Indian Ocean
Not a trace of MH370 was found during lengthy searches in the southern Indian Ocean – initially by an Australian-led team.
The Australia-led search went on for 1,046 days and was suspended on January 17 last year. An area spanning more than 120,000 square kilometres was scoured.
The American seabed exploration company Ocean Infinity then searched, and collected data from, an area spanning about 120,000 square kilometres, which was far in excess of the initial 25,000-square-kilometre target.
Description of the debris handed over on November 30:
Found near Sandravinany, south Madagascar, 24° S, 48°E; 17″ x 11.5″ black carbon fibre; polymer both sides with brown hexagonal honeycomb 3/8″ thick. Measures 10.5″ along the bottom with two intact holes 1/2″ in diameter, 2 1/2″ apart. Numbers and letters visible on a white label: VPP561. (The V is believed to be part of a W.) Confirmed by independent experts to be part of a floor panel from a passenger cabin.
Found on Riake Beach, 16° 51′ S, 49° 57′ E; composite brown hexagonal honeycomb 14″ x 11″ x 1″ thick. Washed ashore at the end of August 2018 at Riake beach, five kilometres south of the resort. No barnacles on it. Found washed ashore by a local fisherman in August 2018. Thought to be interior cabin debris, possibly from the galley area.
Found at Antongil Bay, 15°26’S, 49°43’E; 10.5″ × 9.5″; dull silver on one side and smooth shiny white on the other, with brown hexagonal honeycomb inside. Three holes 1/ 4″ diameter, 2 1/2″ apart along intact strip 7″ long. Tapered from 1 1/4″ thick on the silver side. Appears to be some black under the silver on the back. Possible access panel from wing or tail elevator. Repainted. Fibreglass laminate and carbon fibre polymer.
Found at Antongil Bay, 15°26’S, 49°43’E; 13″ x 11″; 9 1/4″ along the bottom seam; smooth grey on one side, smooth off-white on the other with brown honeycomb 3/4″ thick in between. White washer about 2″ diameter and Phillips screw 3/4″ diameter. Possible sidewall panel from the lower lobe of a cargo hold.
Found in south Madagascar north of Sainte Luce, 24.5°S, 47°E; 4″ × 3″. Smooth. Light grey on one side, rough white on the other. Brown hexagonal honeycomb in between, 1″ thick. Thickness of the honeycomb and the design of the carbon fibre indicate that this could possibly be an access panel, maybe from landing gear.
The Malaysian ICAO Annex 13 Safety Investigation Team for MH370 says that examination of the piece of floor panelling handed over to Malaysia’s transport minister in November has shown that the part is “likely” to be from MH370.
The team has concluded that the other four pieces handed in are “not identifiable”.
In its debris examination report, the team says there is no conclusive evidence that the five pieces of debris could be from MH370 “although they appeared to be parts from an aircraft”.
The team added, however, that the floor panel “is likely to be from MH370 (aircraft registered as 9M-MRO) based on the material it was constructed of and the visible part of the placard, which confirms that the debris is a floor panel of a Boeing aircraft”.
The team says that, in the case of the floor panel, the location of the find is consistent with the drift path modelling produced by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia.
“This suggests that the part is likely from MH370 given that the likelihood of it originating from another source is quite remote.”
Blaine Alan Gibson said he was pleased that the analysis of the debris was done so quickly.
He added: “I hope that they will collect the two pieces still in the hands of the Madagascar authorities that failed to be delivered as a result of the assassination of the honorary consul, Zahid Raza.”
Gibson added that he hoped the underwater search for MH370 would resume.
“I hope that the Malaysian government will offer a new contract on a ‘no find, no fee” basis, preferably to Ocean Infinity, if the company is available, or to another company that is willing and able to carry out such a search.”
The safety investigation team states that item 28 was of triangular shape with a width of approximately 10 inches and height of 12 inches. It had a partial grey skin on one side. The debris had an edge band with 4 fasteners’ holes still visible with one of the holes torn. The spacing between the fastener holes was 2 inches apart.
The team says the construction was a hybrid laminate with plies of carbon fibre reinforced plastic and glass fibre reinforced plastic; a “composite sandwich panel” with a non-metallic honeycomb core. “It was a standard construction of aircraft sandwich part. The thickest part of the core was approximately 1.5 in.”
There were no identification numbers on the part, the team states.
“Based on the plies of carbon tape layers the piece of debris was similar to part of the vertical stabilizer trailing edge panels forward of the rudder of a B777 aircraft.
“However, the fastener spacing on these panels is 1.2 in. as opposed to 2 in. on the debris. The small size of the debris made it difficult to determine whether it could be from a B777 aircraft.”
Item 29 was approximately 13 inches by 11 inches and the piece was approximately 0.6 inches thick. “The paint scheme was slight white, which had been discoloured. It was badly fractured and could be from a larger part since there were no end of parts visible on this piece,” the report states.
The team says the piece was constructed from laminate plies of glass fibre reinforced plastic composite with a non-metallic honeycomb core.
“There were no black colour plies, which means there were no carbon plies in the laminate. The non-metallic honeycomb core had also been discoloured possibly due to exposure to the weather. A countersunk fastener remained attached to the panel. The fastener was screwed into a potted insert.”
The team added: “It was obvious that the fastener was not designed to carry high load and was used to hold a plastic panel piece; the rest of the piece had been ripped off with only a small piece remaining secured by the fastener. The fastener was approximately 9 mm in length and had a Phillips countersunk head.
“The potted insert indicated that the part was not a primary carrying structure and was most likely an interior part possibly from a cargo floor panel or main deck interior or ceiling panel. However, it was difficult to determine whether it could be from a B777 aircraft.”
Item 30 was brownish on both sides. The part was fractured on all sides and “without end of part”. No fastener holes, or any form of identification numbers, were found on the part, which is approximately 14 inches by 11 inches.
The team says the piece was constructed of laminate plies of glass fibre reinforced plastic composite with a non-metallic honeycomb core, approximately 1 inch thick.
“The part is possibly part of a cabin interior wall, galley, closet, or partition. Many lavatory and galley walls have similar construction and are about 1” thick. However, the partitions on MAS B777 are mostly 1.3” thick. Therefore, there is no conclusive evidence that this part could be from a MAS B777.”
Item 31 (the floor panel) was black in colour “and it was obvious that it was made of carbon”, the team states. The part was approximately 17.5 inches by 11.5 inches and the unidirectional carbon fibres were clearly visible. “On the edge of the panel there were signs of potted inserts that were ripped off.”
The piece was constructed of laminate plies of carbon fibre reinforced plastic, with a non-metallic honeycomb core that was approximately 0.4 inches thick.
“Part of a white placard was visible on one side of the debris with the characters ‘VPPS61’,” the investigation team states.
“On further research it was determined that these characters were the trailing numbers of the part number of the placard (marker) ‘BAC27WPPS61’ which is used for the cabin floor panels on the B777 aircraft. This part number is placed at the bottom right hand corner of the placard … Part of the character ‘W’ was missing on the debris giving the impression that it was a character ‘V’.”
The team says that the thickness of the debris, and the material it was made of, are consistent with that stated on the floor panel manufacturer’s product data sheet “which meets the BMS4-20 specification and therefore it is almost certain that the debris is part of a cabin floor panel of a B777 aircraft”.
The team says that item 32 is approximately 4 inches by 3 inches, and light grey on one side and white on the other.
It was the smallest piece of debris collected and was constructed of laminate plies of carbon fibre reinforced plastic with a non-metallic honeycomb core that is 1 inch thick.
“The material the part was made of indicated that it could be from the cabin interior, possibly from a galley, lavatory, closet or compartment panel. However, it was difficult to determine whether it could be from a B777 aircraft,” the team concluded.