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March 25, 2014

Bad Weather Forces Suspension of Search for Malaysian Plane

by Ron Corben, William Ide

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced Monday evening that new satellite data had concluded missing Malaysian flight MH370 with 239 passengers and crew went down in the Indian Ocean.

Bad weather and rough seas on Tuesday forced the suspension of the search for any wreckage of the missing plane.
      
An international air and sea search in the area on Monday spotted several floating objects that might be parts of the plane and an Australian navy ship was close to finding possible debris, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.
      
But the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said gale-force winds, heavy rain and low cloud meant planes could not fly safely to the zone on Tuesday, and waves of 6 meters (20ft) or more forced the navy ship from the area.
      
“AMSA has consulted with the Bureau of Meteorology and weather conditions are expected to improve in the search area in the evening and over the next few days. Search operations are expected to resume tomorrow, if weather conditions permit,” AMSA said in a statement.
      
The search site is far from commercial flight paths about 2,500 km (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, a region of deep, frigid seas known as the Roaring 40s where storm-force winds and huge waves are commonplace.

The search will be suspended for 24 hours. Officials said it should resume Wednesday, when conditions are expected to improve.

Razak said that "never before used analysis" from the British satellite company Inmarsat formed the basis to conclude that the plane's last position was in the middle of the Indian Ocean southwest of Perth, Australia.

"This is a remote location far from any possible landing sites." he said in a brief statement at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur after 10 p.m. local time.

"It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you, that according to this new data, flight MH 370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean,’’ he said.

Malaysian authorities provided few other details at a news conference Tuesday, further angering relatives of those missing, some of whom protested in Beijing.

Malaysian Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya acknowledged "we do not know why, [and] we do not know how" the tragedy occurred. But he said there is no evidence of any survivors.

Inmarsat evaluated changes in data signals from the plane as they had been received, and compared those changes to signals from other, similar, aircraft on known flight trajectories, a company official told VOA. 

That enabled them to narrow down where the missing plane was when its last signal was received, and to determine that it was moving and in which direction.

“The last known position of a ping was way over the southern Indian Ocean, with no landfall and no long runways, obviously, around it," said Inmarsat senior vice president Chris McLaughlin..

"The distance to Perth was far further than the remaining fuel would allow after seven hours," he said. "The range simply wasn’t there.

“The Eureka moment for them [the engineers] was when not only did they realize that they had one ping, but they had several, and that the aircraft was moving," he said. "And then it’s been a process of digging deep into the data thereafter to build a picture, if not a final solution, at least a picture.”

After learning of Inmarsat's conclusions, Malaysia's prime minister informed relatives of passengers of the data telling of the plane's fate. The announcement seems to indicate that the government is resigned that all aboard have perished.

“We absolutely are not saying that we know exactly where this aircraft may have ended its days, but we are saying that we know the direction is south, that it is in that southern ocean area, and that we can give you a general area to look,” said Inmarsat's McLaughlin.

Australian Defense Minister David Johnston said Malaysia's analysis is the "best information we've got right now." But he cautioned the flight remains "a mystery and until we recover and positively identify a piece of debris, virtually everything is speculation."

​​
Most passengers on board were Chinese. For nearly three weeks, the Chinese families of passengers have been hoping for a miracle, but those hopes were dashed upon the annoucement. After 17 days of riding an emotional roller coaster the grief for many was too much to bear.

In Beijing, around 100 Chinese relatives of those missing protested outside the Malaysian embassy. The protesters held signs and chanted slogans demanding to be told the "truth." In some cases, they called Malaysian government officials "dogs" and "liars."

At least 200 police officers, who arrived well before the protest, cordoned off a street in front of the embassy, forcing journalists from the area and obstructing their view of the rare demonstration.
 
Paramedics were on hand at Beijing's Lido Hotel, where many Chinese families have been gathered since the plane went missing. After hearing the news, several were taken away on stretchers.
 
Amid the anguish some family members lashed out at journalists. As one family member cried, another yelled at a reporter, telling him to stop asking questions.

A Chinese lady whose husband was on board the missing jet said she will not believe the Malaysian authorities until they provide proof the plane crashed.

"They said the plane went down in the southern Indian Ocean, but they have not found the plane yet. What are they basing this on?" asked the woman.
 
China's state-run CCTV said some hurled water bottles at video journalists standing nearby. The scene at the hotel was chaotic with many crying and wailing.
 
On China's social media sites, some were calling on the Chinese government to mark a national day of mourning for those on board MH 370.

​​Following the announcement, a brief statement by China's Foreign Ministry demanded the Malaysia government provide more evidence and information to support its findings.

The statement also said China hopes other countries will keep searching for the missing plane.
 
A posting on the social media site of the newspaper of the Communist Party noted many questions remain. The post said until the black box is found, search and rescue efforts cannot stop. 

Throughout Monday, Australian and Chinese search teams looked for signs of the missing jet in the southern Indian Ocean and reported sighting more debris that may be from the plane.

The latest leads come as the United States prepares to send specialized equipment to aid in the search for the aircraft’s “black box” flight recorder.

During a briefing in Kuala Lumpur, authorities say an Australian plane spotted two objects: one circular and gray and the other rectangular and orange - inside the targeted search area for the plane.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier described the sightings as "significant" in the search for the Malaysian flight MH370 with 239 passengers and crew, bound for Beijing on March 8.

"There have been three significant developments - new satellite imagery, new Chinese satellite imagery, does seem to suggest at least one large object consistent with the object that earlier satellite imagery discovered which I told the Australian parliament about last week," Abbott said.

​​The search Monday extended to almost 70,000 square kilometers. Australia's Maritime Safety Authority said 10 aircraft had been dispatched from Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, and the United States.

A Chinese icebreaker is reported to have changed course and heading to the area where the latest objects were seen.

Specialized locator en route

Also Monday, the U.S. Pacific Command said it is sending a specialized locator to assist in the recovery of the vital "black box" flight recorder in the hope a debris field is located.

The locator device is capable of receiving the black box transmitter signals to a depth of 6,100 meters.

Martin Tasker, technical director with the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, said it is a race against time to find the recorder because the box's locator batteries will fail after 30 days

Tasker said a recovery from such depths is similar to the problems posed by the loss in 2009 of an Air France airliner that crashed into the Atlantic.

“In the case of Air France 447 it took two years and they found it and of course the locator beacon had been dead for a long time," he said.

"So I can’t say how long it will take but they’ll put every effort in just like they did with the Air France event to try and locate, once they know or confirm the area where the aircraft possibly went down. They will then find a way to find the black boxes,” Tasker said.

Despite several sightings of possible debris from the plane, none of the reports have been confirmed as from the missing aircraft.

The initial search of the South China Sea over several days later shifted to the southern Indian Ocean as a possible location for the aircraft after reports the plane’s transponder “pings” had been sent over several hours after the last civilian radar sightings.

Ron Corben reported from Bangkok and William Ide from Bejing. VOA's Al Pessin contributed to this report from London. Some reporting was contributed by Reuters.