Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: The Malaysian authorities released new details on Tuesday of the last satellite communications by Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, even as furious family members and friends of the plane’s passengers broke through police lines in Beijing and marched to the Malaysian embassy.
Hishammuddin Hussein, the defence minister and acting transport minister, said that the plane appeared to have sent a last, partial satellite signal eight minutes after a previously disclosed electronic “handshake” between the plane and a satellite at 8.11am, Malaysia time, on March 8. The incomplete signal represented a “partial handshake”, he said.
“At this time, this transmission is not understood and is subject to further ongoing work,” Mr Hishammuddin said.
The next signal from the aircraft was due at 9.15am but never came. Mr Hishammuddin referred delicately to the likelihood that the cessation of signals came after the plane ran out of fuel, saying that the timing “is consistent with the maximum endurance of the aircraft”.
On Tuesday morning, relatives and friends of many of the 153 Chinese passengers on Flight 370 gathered outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing to demand that Malaysian officials tell them the truth about the fate of the flight. They went there despite assurances from the police that the Malaysian ambassador would come to their hotel to talk to them, an apparent effort to dissuade them from going to the embassy, according to people on the scene.
One diplomat came out to talk to the protesters, who presented the embassy with a scathing collective statement saying the families wanted answers and would consider Malaysian officials and the airline to be “murderers” if the families found that missteps had led to the deaths of their loved ones.
In the mid-afternoon, a man who said his surname was Wang spoke at the hotel where the families were staying, saying he represented them. He said the Malaysian government had so far failed to provide any evidence for its conclusion that the plane had ended up crashing in the Indian Ocean, killing everyone on board. He said most of the families did not believe the Malaysian government’s narrative about the loss of the plane.
“I just want the truth to come out with evidence,” Mr. Wang said, adding that he believed hijackers who harboured ill will towards Malaysia had taken the plane.
After 3pm, the Malaysian ambassador to China arrived to talk privately to the relatives and friends gathered in the hotel’s ballroom. A palpable feeling of anger and frustration hung over the conversation, people in the room said.
The Chinese government continued to make sceptical remarks over the announcement by the Malaysians. “We are highly concerned with Malaysia’s conclusion, and have demanded full information and the evidence that supports the conclusion,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said at a regularly scheduled news conference in the afternoon.
In Kuala Lumpur, Mr Hishammuddin bristled at a news conference when a succession of Chinese journalists asked him about delays in finding the missing plane. “Can I also remind you that we received satellite data from China, regarding sightings in the South China Sea, which made us distract ourselves from the search and rescue to search areas that had already been searched?” he said.
Mr Hishammuddin’s office subsequently released calculations from Inmarsat, a British satellite company, showing a wide area of sea in the southern Indian Ocean where the plane could have ended up. The area to be searched measures 469,407 square nautical miles - equivalent to 1.61 million square kilometres.
That is a fifth of the combined area of the northern and southern arcs that were identified as search areas on March 18. But it is still an enormous area, greater in size than the US states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington combined.
Aircraft operating out of Perth, Australia, have been trying to do sweeps of about 20,000 square nautical miles a day. An underwater search for pings from the aircraft’s black box would be much slower. The United States Navy is now sending to Perth from New York an undersea listening device that is designed to be towed behind a slow-moving ship.
Mr Hishammuddin said at a news conference on Tuesday evening that all further search for the aircraft had been cancelled in the so-called northern corridor, from Kazakhstan across China to northern Laos, and had also been suspended in the east-central Indian Ocean near Indonesia.
The deputy chief of Australia’s Defence Force, Air Marshal Mark Binskin, underlined the vastness of the search area.
“We are not searching for a needle in a haystack - we are still trying to define where the haystack is,” he told reporters at Pearce Air Force Base, near Perth.
Defence Minister David Johnston described the search as taking place in “probably one of the most remote parts of the planet” and one that “has shipwrecked many sailors”. He said an Australian vessel, which on Monday was scouring for possible debris spotted by an aircraft, was forced to deploy 75 miles to the south because of weather conditions.
Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, the chief executive of Malaysia Airlines, repeated the assessment of the authorities here that those aboard the aircraft all appear to have perished when the plane ran out of fuel, particularly given that it has been 17 days since the plane disappeared. “For anyone to survive that long is extremely, extremely remote,” he said.
Khalid bin Abu Bakar, the inspector general of the Malaysian police, declined to discuss details of police inquiries into the disappearance of the plane, saying “that would jeopardise the ongoing investigations”.
Mr Johnston, speaking to reporters at Pearce Air Force Base, said that despite several reports of possible debris from the plane having been spotted in the southern Indian Ocean, none had been recovered yet, suggesting that any wreckage could be in an altogether different area. He described a multinational search involving ships and aircraft from nations including China, Australia, South Korea, Japan, the United States, and New Zealand as “one of the largest efforts you’ll ever see” in terms of maritime surveillance.
The United States military said on Monday it was sending an unmanned submersible craft capable of searching for wreckage using sonar systems. Known as the Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle, it was expected to arrive in Perth on Wednesday.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters that the submersible, which is shaped like a torpedo, would only be useful once the location of the wreckage is known.
“It’s being sent there to be ready should there be a need,” he said. “And right now, there’s no need. We do not have a debris field.”
The Australian government suspended search operations on Tuesday for the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, citing “horrendous” weather conditions in the southern Indian Ocean, the remote and treacherous seas where authorities believe the plane crashed.
In Kuala Lumpur, officials with Malaysia Airlines stressed that despite the lack of details about the plane’s fate, the relatives of the passengers and crew must accept that their loved ones had almost certainly died. Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, announced Monday that new data left no doubt that the plane had gone down in the ocean.
“We must accept the painful reality that the aircraft is now lost, and that none of the passengers or crew on board survived,” said Mohammed Nor Mohammed Yusof, the chairman of Malaysia Airlines. He said the airline’s primary responsibility now was caring for the grieving families.
He also said, “The investigation still under way may yet prove to be even longer and complex than it has been since March 8.”
The Australian government said the search for the plane would resume on Wednesday, with 12 aircraft taking part.
New York Times
Keith Bradsher reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Edward Wong from Beijing; and Thomas Fuller from Pearce Air Force Base, Australia.