A piece of a wing that washed up on an Indian Ocean island beach last week was part of the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, Malaysia said on Thursday, confirming the discovery of the first trace of the plane since it vanished last year.
"Today, 515 days since the plane disappeared, it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you that an international team of experts have conclusively confirmed that the aircraft debris found on Reunion Island is indeed from MH370," Prime Minister Najib Razak said in an early morning televised address.
"I would like to assure all those affected by this tragedy that the government of Malaysia is committed to do everything within our means to find out the truth of what happened," Najib said.
The announcement, by providing the first direct evidence that the plane crashed in the ocean, closes a chapter in one of the biggest mysteries in aviation history but still gives families of the 239 victims little clue as to why.
“It’s not the end," said Jacquita Gonzales, who lost her husband Patrick Gomes, a flight attendant on board the aircraft.
"Although they found something, you know, it’s not the end. They still need to find the whole plane and our spouses as well. We still want them back," she said.
The airline described the discovery as "a major breakthrough for us in resolving the disappearance of MH370.
"We expect and hope that there would be more objects to be found which would be able to help resolve this mystery," it said in a statement issued as soon as Najib had spoken.
The fragment of wing known as a flaperon was flown to mainland France after being found last week covered in barnacles on a beach on France's Indian Ocean island of Reunion.
Despite the Malaysian confirmation it was part of MH370, prosecutors in France, where it was still Wednesday evening, stopped short of declaring they were certain, though they said there was a very strong likelihood it was the case. A piece of luggage also found in Reunion would be examined by French police, they said.
"YET TO BEGIN"
Investigators looking at the wing flap are likely to start by putting thin slices of metal under a high-powered microscope, to see subtle clues in the metal's crystal structure about how it deformed on impact, said Hans Weber, president of TECOP International, Inc., an aerospace technology consulting firm based in San Diego, California.
They can examine biological organisms on the wing for evidence about the part's path in the ocean, he said.
Later, investigators would probably clean the piece and "do a full physical examination, using ultrasonic analysis before they open it up to see if there's any internal damage," Weber said. "That might take quite awhile. A month or months."
John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, told Reuters: "The real work is yet to begin".
"They will identify everything they can from the metal: damage, barnacles, witness marks on the metal. They're going to look at the brackets (that held the flapron in place) to see how they broke. From that they can tell the direction and attitude of the airplane when it hit. There's a lot to be told from the metal."
The examination of the part is being carried out under the direction of a judge at an aeronautical test facility run by the French military at Balma, a suburb of the southwestern city of Toulouse, and witnessed by Malaysian officials.
Officials from the United States and manufacturer Boeing were also on hand. Boeing said it was providing technical expertise: "Our goal, along with the entire global aviation industry, continues to be not only to find the airplane, but also to determine what happened – and why."
Flight MH370 went missing on March 8 last year while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It is believed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, about 3,700 km (2,300 miles) from Reunion.
The Balma test centre specialises in metal analysis and is equipped with a scanning electron microscope capable of 100,000 times magnification. It was used to store and analyse debris from an Air France jet which crashed in the Atlantic in 2009.
The Boeing 777 was minutes into its scheduled flight when it disappeared from civil radar. Investigators believe that someone may have deliberately switched off the aircraft's transponder, diverted it thousands of miles off course, and deliberately crashed into the ocean off Australia.
In January, Malaysia Airlines officially declared the disappearance an accident, clearing the way for the carrier to pay compensation to relatives while the search goes on.
A $90 million hunt along a rugged 60,000 sq km patch of sea floor 1,600 km (1,000 miles) west of the Australian city of Perth has yielded nothing.
The search has been extended to another 60,000 sq km (23,000 sq miles) and Malaysian and Australian authorities say this will cover 95 percent of MH370's flight path.