Nearly 17 days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took off into the Kuala Lumpur night, then vanished off radar screens, families of the 239 passengers and crew received the news they had dreaded: the plane had crashed in a remote corner of the Indian Ocean and everyone on board had perished.
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The fate of those on the Beijing-bound plane – two-thirds of them Chinese – was relayed by the airline through the startlingly brusque medium of a text message. It informed relatives that “we have to assume beyond reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived”.
In Beijing, there were harrowing scenes at the Lido Hotel, where Malaysian officials held a private briefing for family members. Loved ones wept uncontrollably, and one woman collapsed, crying: “My son, my son!” Two of the grief-stricken were carried out on stretchers. Some lunged in anger at the TV cameras waiting outside.
In Kuala Lumpur, a sombre-faced Najib Razak, the Malaysian Prime Minister, announced that data collected and analysed by the British satellite company Inmarsat had revealed that the plane’s last position was “the middle of the Indian Ocean … a remote location, far from any possible landing sites”.
"Malaysia Airlines has already spoken to the family of the passengers and crew to inform them of this development," Mr Najib said.
"For them the past few weeks have been heartbreaking. I know this news must be hard as well."
The implication was clear: all on board were dead. After an excruciatingly long wait, relatives – and a mystified world – finally had some certainty. But the key question – why MH370 flew thousands of miles off course before running out of fuel and crashing – remained unanswered. Really, this was not the end of the story: it was the beginning.
Mr Najib, who said he had been briefed by Britain’s Air Accidents Investigations Branch (AAIB), noted that the same Inmarsat data had earlier enabled investigators to narrow the search to two broad “corridors”: a northern one, stretching over to central Asia, and a southern one, extending towards Antarctica.
Inmarsat had performed new calculations on the data, the Prime Minister said, and “using a type of analysis never before used in an investigation of this sort … [had] been able to shed more light on MH370’s flight path … Based on their new analysis, Inmarsat and the AAIB have concluded that MH370 flew along the southern corridor.”
While Mr Najib said more details would be released at a press conference today, some aviation experts suggested that the plane’s course – and the fact it flew for many hours after diverting from its path - indicated that a skilled pilot had been in charge, making a hijacking or terrorism scenario far less likely.
All that will remain conjecture, though, unless and until the wreckage of the Boeing 777, and its “black box” – the cockpit recorder – are found.
Although that is still a daunting task, for the planes and ships scouring the remote, inhospitable waters between Australia and Antarctica, the satellite data – together with calculations of how far the plane could fly on its fuel, and data about ocean currents – will help to assist them in narrowing the search area, about 2,500 kilometres south-west of Perth, experts said.
Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Australian and Chinese planes both spotted possible debris in the hours before Monday's dramatic announcement.
Two objects – one grey or green and circular, the other orange and rectangular – were photographed by a Royal Australian Air Force P3 Orion, while a Chinese Ilyushin IL-76 saw two “relatively big” objects and many white, smaller ones, dispersed over several square kilometres.
The US Navy, meanwhile, is flying in its high-tech black box detector, so it can be immediately used if wreckage is found. Search crews are racing against time, since the black box’s battery life will run out after about 30 days. If the it is not recovered, what happened aboard Flight 370 may never be known.
The US Pacific command said the Towed Pinger Locator, which is pulled behind a vessel at slow speeds, has highly sensitive listening capability so that if the wreck site is located, it can hear the black box pinger down to a depth of about 20,000 feet.
Commander Chris Budde, a US Seventh Fleet operations officer, said: "This movement is simply a prudent effort to preposition equipment and trained personnel closer to the search area so that if debris is found we will be able to respond as quickly as possible since the battery life of the black box's pinger is limited."
Although relatives had feared the worst, some had still hoped against hope that hijackers had brought the plane down at some isolated airfield and that those on board were still alive.
Nan Jinyan, whose brother-in-law, Yan Ling, was on the flight, said she feared dire news when she learnt that the Malaysian Prime Minister was to deliver a statement. “This is a blow to us, and it is beyond description,” she said.
Speaking on the fifth day of the international search effort focused in an area around 2,000km west of the Australian coast, the Malaysian prime minister made no reference to debris spotted in the southern Indian Ocean, with several grey or green, white and orange objects spotted in the search area now identified as the region where the jet came down.
Earlier, the Malaysia transport minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said that an Australian naval ship could locate possible debris within hours.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (Amsa) confirmed that the HMAS Success had made its way out to the remote search area some 2,500km (1,550 miles) from Perth, and that the objects were seen within the stretch of water being scoured today.
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"HMAS Success is on scene and is attempting to locate and recover these objects," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in a statement to parliament.
So far, ships in the search effort have been unable to locate several "suspicious" objects spotted by satellites in grainy images or by fast-flying aircraft over a vast search area in the remote southern Indian Ocean.
Earlier on Monday spotters on a Chinese plane said they had seen two white, square-shaped objects in the southern Indian Ocean, at that stage the second possible sighting of plane debris made with the naked eye in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777.
Spotters aboard that search plane reported the coordinates to a Chinese icebreaker ship, Xue Long, which was making its way to the area - as well as to the central Australian command centre.
In addition to the two larger floating objects, the searchers also reported seeing a range of smaller, white debris scattered over several square miles, according to China's Xinhua news agency.
The sightings were all made in the area identified in previous satellite images from Australia and China.
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