KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia said Monday that a missing jetliner had crashed into the Indian Ocean, an announcement that was greeted with hysteria by Chinese relatives of those on board and a demand by China that Kuala Lumpur share all the evidence it had on the incident.
Citing groundbreaking satellite-data analysis by the British company Inmarsat, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which vanished more than a fortnight ago while flying to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, had crashed thousands of miles away in the southern Indian Ocean.
His statement may go some way toward tamping down some of the fevered speculation about the plane’s fate, including one theory some grief-stricken relatives had seized on: that the plane had been hijacked and forced to land somewhere.
All 239 people on board were presumed dead, airline officials said.
Najib’s announcement opens the way for what could be one of the most costly and challenging air crash investigations in history.
The launch of an official air crash investigation would give Malaysia power to coordinate and sift evidence, but it may still face critics, especially China, which had more than 150 citizens on board the missing plane and has criticized Malaysia over the progress of the search. The Inmarsat data showed the Boeing 777’s last position was in the Indian Ocean west of Perth, Australia, Najib said in a statement.
“This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites,” he said. “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.”
Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Xie Hangsheng immediately demanded all relevant satellite-data analysis from Malaysia that demonstrated how Malaysia had reached its conclusion about the fate of the jet.
In a further sign the search was bearing fruit, the U.S. Navy was flying in its high-tech black box detector to the area.
The so-called black boxes – the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder – record what happens on board planes during flight. At crash sites, finding the black boxes soon is crucial because the locator beacons they carry fade out after 30 days.
Investigators believe someone on the flight may have shut off the plane’s communications systems. Partial military radar tracking showed it turning west and re-crossing the Malay Peninsula, apparently under the control of a skilled pilot.
That led them to focus on hijacking or sabotage, but investigators have not ruled out technical problems.
Relatives of those on board received the news that the search for survivors was over in a Malaysia Airlines SMS message which said: “We have to assume beyond all reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and none of those on board survived.”
After the message was transmitted, there were hysterical scenes at the Beijing hotel where many of the relatives of those on board were staying.
A Reuters reporter on the scene saw at least four people being carried away on stretchers.
Cries of deep pain rang out as relatives burst forth, sobbing uncontrollably, while the news left others appearing disoriented, with one man lying on the floor holding his head.
One Chinese relative who spoke to AFP by phone said: “We know we have no hope left now.”
In the lobby of a hotel outside Kuala Lumpur where relatives, including many flown in from China by Malaysia Airlines, had gathered, an elderly woman sat down hard on the floor and wept.
“He died too young, I want my son back,” she cried out in Mandarin before security escorted her into an elevator.
Najib’s comments came as an Australian navy ship was close to finding possible debris from the jetliner after an increasing number of sightings of floating objects that were believed to be parts of the plane. The search site is about 2,500 kilometers southwest of Perth, in icy sub-Arctic seas that are in one of the most remote parts of the world.