SAINT-DENIS, Reunion Island — A piece of debris found on a French beach is indeed part of missing Malaysian Flight 370, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Wednesday.
Expert analysis of the Boeing 777 wing component, which was found last week on the French island of Reunion, was due to begin Wednesday at a specialized laboratory in southwestern France.
The part, known as a flaperon, is the first piece of physical evidence recovered from the Malaysian jetliner since it disappeared nearly 17 months ago with 239 people on board.
MH370 seen as likely origin
Australian officials have said they think it’s likely the Boeing wing component is from MH370 — no other 777 aircraft is believed to have gone missing in the Indian Ocean — but the part still needs to be verified.
An investigator from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau will join the French and Malaysian teams examining the piece of plane debris at the lab in a suburb of the city of Toulouse, Truss said.
The lab previously examined wreckage from Air France Flight 447, a passenger jet that went down in the Atlantic Ocean en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009.
The remnants of a suitcase that were found on Reunion the day after the flaperon was discovered have been sent to a lab outside Paris for analysis.
Complex multinational effort to solve mystery
The international cast of officials involved in the investigation reflects the complexity of the globe-spanning efforts to try solve modern aviation’s biggest mystery: What happened aboard Flight 370 to make it veer sharply off course and disappear from radar? And where did it end up?
Malaysia, the country where MH370 began its journey and whose flag it was carrying, is in charge of the overall investigations.
Australia is overseeing the underwater search for the wreckage because the plane is believed to have gone down far off its western coast, in a remote part of the southern Indian Ocean.
France, four of whose citizens were aboard the flight, has been drawn deeper into the matter by the discovery of the flaperon on a remote part of its territory. French authorities had already opened their own criminal investigation last year into possible manslaughter and hijacking in the loss of MH370.
China, which had the largest number of citizens on the plane, has been involved in decisions about the search for the plane. Flight 370 went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
U.S. and British government agencies — as well as experts from Boeing and the satellite company Inmarsat — have also been contributed to the investigations.
Seeking a definitive link
Heartbroken family members of those on board the missing aircraft say they want to be 100% certain the flaperon found on Reunion is from the missing plane, recalling previous false alarms during search efforts.
Identification would usually be aided by a small serial number plate attached to the component, but the part found on the beach appears to be missing the plate, according to photographs.
“The preference would be to get a direct, physical link between this flaperon and MH370,” said Martin Dolan, the head of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.
“If we can’t do that, then obviously, we’ll have to find a way of eliminating all other possibilities,” he told CNN’s “New Day” on Monday.
Some family members say that while confirmation would remove uncertainty about where Flight 370 ended up, it would also erase their remaining hopes that their loved ones might somehow still be alive.
Will wing part provide clues and what could be next?
Experts have said the analysis of the flaperon could provide investigators with some clues about Flight 370’s final moments — whether it broke apart in midair or hit the water intact, for example.
If the part is confirmed to be Flight 370, it may lead investigators to believe other pieces of the plane were carried by currents to the same region the part was found, experts say.
But that won’t explain what went wrong with the flight.
“The mystery of how it entered the water, the last few hours of the flight, may not be solved as a result of the discovery of isolated pieces of debris,” he told The Wall Street Journal on Monday.
Relatives of those on board say real closure won’t come until their family members’ remains have been recovered and the truth about what happened to the plane is established.
Progress on those fronts is unlikely to be made unless the Australian-led underwater hunt locates the aircraft’s wreckage and flight recorders somewhere in the huge southern Indian Ocean search area, which covers and area bigger than the U.S. state of Pennsylvania.
Debris won’t change underwater search
The wing part found on Reunion, even if it is from MH370, won’t prompt a rethink of the search area, Australian officials say.
“Because of the turbulent nature of the ocean, and the uncertainties of the modelling, it is impossible to use the La Reunion finding to refine or shift the search area, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau said in a report published Tuesday, citing the country’s national science agency.
The arrival of some debris parts on Reunion, thousands of miles to the west of the underwater search area, is consistent with ocean drift models, Australian officials say.
The ATSB report admitted, though, that an earlier prediction that some debris from MH370 could wash up in July 2014 on the shores of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, north of where the aircraft is calculated to have entered the ocean, was incorrect because of an error in the use of wind data.
Searches are taking place on Reunion for more possible debris from MH370. But Truss is doubtful that many pieces are likely to turn up.
“Reunion Island is a pretty small speck in a giant Indian Ocean,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “Most pieces that were even floating by the time they got to this area would simply float past.”