KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Monday that the missing Malaysia Airlines plane went down in the southern Indian Ocean, effectively removing all hope that it might have survived the still-unexplained diversion from its flight path more than two weeks ago.
Reading from a prepared statement, Najib said new information from satellite data showed that the plane’s last location was “in the middle of the Indian Ocean west of Perth,” a city on Australia’s west coast.
“This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites,” Najib said solemnly. “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.”
He said the families of those on board have been informed of this “heartbreaking” news about the ill-fated Boeing 777 that vanished March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board. He did not take questions from reporters.
In a text message to family members, Malaysia Airlines said: “We deeply regret that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board have survived.”
In Beijing, Chinese relatives of the missing passengers were called to the second floor of the Lido Hotel for an emergency meeting to receive the news. Paramedics attended the meeting, and wailing was heard from behind closed doors.
More objects seen
The announcements raised the question of why British, American or Malaysian authorities could not have reached the same conclusion more quickly from the Inmarsat data – a succession of hourly electronic “handshakes” between the plane and a satellite – which the company began analyzing within a day or two of the plane’s disappearance.
Vanita Supaya, a former Malaysia Airlines flight attendant who knew some of the crew on board, said the Malaysians should have solicited help from experts in the West much earlier.
“It shouldn’t have taken them 17 days to tell us what happened to the aircraft,” she told BBC World News. “This is really very, very sad for the families.”
On March 18, Australia announced that analysis of the satellite data, carried out by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, had allowed investigators to narrow the search area to just 3 percent of the “southern corridor” suggested by Malaysia. The area being searched by the Australians is around 1,500 miles from land, precluding any safe landing for the plane.
The statements from Najib and the airline came after observers on a Chinese search plane Monday spotted some “suspicious objects” in the southern Indian Ocean – two large floating objects and many smaller white ones.
With the search now in its third week, crew members on an Australian plane separately were able to see two objects, one gray or green and circular and one an orange rectangle, in another section of the 42,500-square-mile stretch of the southern Indian Ocean where observers have tried for days to find some sign of the missing airliner.
Until now, the sighting of possible plane debris has largely been confined to satellite images, making Monday’s visual sighting by human spotters aboard planes a potentially significant breakthrough for the massive search-and-rescue operation, one of the largest in aviation history.
‘No real closure’
According to a Malaysia Airlines, Flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur with 12 crew members on board, all Malaysians, and 227 passengers from 14 countries.
Of the passengers on the Beijing-bound red-eye flight, nearly two-thirds were from China. Five of the passengers – three Chinese and two Americans – were children under 5 years old, the airline’s flight manifest said. There were a total of 38 Malaysian passengers on the plane and three Americans.
The manifest also listed two passengers – one Austrian and one Italian – who turned out to be Iranian men traveling on stolen passports. No links to terrorism have been found; the two were apparently trying to migrate to Europe.
Sarah Bajc, the fiancée of missing American passenger Philip Wood, said in an email message that she was still processing the new information even as she grieved over it. Wood, 50, of Texas, was the lone American adult passenger on Flight MH370, according to the manifest. Bajc had been finishing up preparations to move to Kuala Lumpur with Wood when the plane disappeared.
Since then, Bajc has conducted a flurry of interviews, speaking eloquently of her love and plans for a future with Wood. She launched a Facebook page and Twitter accounts devoted to “FindPhilipWood.”
She has said she hoped to sustain public attention and support for the ongoing search. But Monday night, she said she was putting all of it on hold in light of the devastating new information.
“The announcement is on data only, no confirmed wreckage so no real closure,” she wrote in the email. “I STILL feel his presence, so perhaps it was his soul all along.”
At the Beijing hotel where families have awaited word of the plane’s fate for more than two weeks, the news was greeted by sporadic wailing as some passengers’ relatives sobbed loudly. Some clung to each other. A few sat silently, apparently in shock.
Some family members made the point that their lost relative was the only child in the family – their grief compounded by China’s one-child policy.
Many had held out hope up until Monday night that passengers might still be alive as hostages of a hijacking. And even now, from overheard comments, a few appeared to still harbor hope that survivors, against tough odds, may still be clinging to debris or wreckage in the ocean.