Authorities hunting for missing flight MH370 are “increasingly confident” that wreckage found on an Indian Ocean island is from the ill-fated jet, the Australian official leading the search has said.
A two metre barnacle-covered chunk of aircraft debris was being flown to Toulouse on Friday for identification amid hopes it is the first physical evidence from the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines jet 16 months ago.
Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said on Friday that authorities were “increasingly confident” the debris came from MH370.
“The shape of the object looks very much like a very specific part associated only with 777 aircraft,” Dolan told Agence France-Presse.
“We are still working with our French and Malaysian colleagues to analyse all the information so we don’t have certainty yet, but we hope that within the next little while we’ll be able to get to that level of confidence. We’re hoping within the next 24 hours.”
In a BBC interview on Friday Dolan said that if the wing piece, known as a flaperon, was from a 777, then MH370 was the only known possible source.
Malaysia’s prime minister had previously said the wreckage was “very likely” to have come from a Boeing 777, but Dolan’s comments appeared to mark the first time a high-level official had said the flaperon was likely to have come from the missing jet.
The search had gone cold after planes and ships from more that 20 countries scoured the Indian Ocean for the aircraft, which was carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
An Australian taskforce has spent more than a year combing the submarine depths of the ocean for wreckage. But the first tangible evidence may have quietly washed up into the path of workers cleaning up a beach on the island of Réunion, thousands of miles west.
For the families of the missing, the grey metal object has brought fresh grief but also the prospect of closure.
“Sometimes I hope that this is it and at times, I hope that this isn’t the plane,” Elaine Chew, wife of steward Tan Size Hiang, told the Malaysian Straits Times. “I would fall asleep, then wake up again. I just kept thinking of the plane and Size Hiang,” she said.
“It’s starting all over again.”
Relatives of many of the 153 Chinese passengers of MH370 said they wanted authorities to be completely certain the part was from the missing plane. A statement said: “We want [the information] to be 100% positive. We care more about where our families are rather than where the plane’s wreckage is.”
The flaperon – a moveable part on the trailing edge of the wing – will be analysed by French air accident authorities, along with a team of investigators from Malaysia. It appears to match diagrams in Boeing’s 777 manual.
French police on the tiny overseas territory carried out a further search of the island’s coastline by helicopter in an effort to spot more debris but found nothing more.
Part of a suitcase had been discovered not far from the plane wreckage by the islanders but Australian MH370 search chiefs on Friday were cautious about any link. “From what we understand so far there’s much less reason to be positive about the suitcase,” Dolan told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“There’s no obvious indication it’s been in the water a long time and so on.”
Warren Truss, the deputy prime minister of Australia, which has led the ocean search, said the discovery of the flaperon was “being treated as a major lead”.
“The Réunion islands are a very long way from the search area but it is consistent with the work that has been done in identifying the current search area, the satellite interpretations of the route path that the aircraft is expected to have taken.”
An identifying number, BB657, found on the flaperon should allow investigators to quickly confirm whether that the part did originate from a 777.
James Record, a Professor of Aviation at Dowling College and former commercial airline pilot, said the long wait to find a part of the plane was not surprising.
“It is a big ocean and we always knew that eventually debris from the crash would either be found by passing ships or be washed ashore somewhere,” he told the Guardian in an email. “Every piece of equipment on a plane has inventory markings of some sort – authorities will be able to cross reference the numbers on the piece of debris and if it belonged to 370 as we expect it did, have the evidence needed to confirm that.”