KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The missing Malaysia Airlines plane crashed in to a remote corner of the Indian Ocean, the nation’s prime minister said Monday night, citing a new analysis of satellite data. The statement was the first major step toward resolving a 2-week-old mystery that has consumed the world.
But with the location of Flight 370 itself still unknown — most likely somewhere at the bottom of the sea — profound questions remain about what brought down the aircraft and why.
Dressed in a black suit, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced the news in a brief statement to reporters, saying the information was based on an unprecedented study of data from a satellite that had received the final known signals from the plane.
He said the data indicated that the Boeing 777, which took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March 8th with 239 passengers and crew, flew “to a remote location, far from any possible landing sites.”
“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.”
In Beijing, relatives shrieked and sobbed uncontrollably and men and women held up their loved ones when they heard the news. Their grief came pouring out after days of waiting for definitive word on the fate of their relatives aboard the missing plane.
The family members in Beijing had been called to a hotel near the airport to hear the announcement. Afterward, they filed out of a conference room in heart-wrenching grief.
One woman collapsed and fell on her knees, crying, “My son! My son!”
Medical teams arrived with several stretchers and at least one elderly man was carried out of the conference room on one of them, his faced covered by a jacket. Minutes later a middle-aged woman was taken out on another, her face ashen and her eyes blank and expressionless.
Nan Jinyan, whose brother-in-law Yan Ling was aboard the flight, said she was prepared for the worst. “This is a blow to us, and it is beyond description,” Nan said.
In Kuala Lumpur, Selamat Omar, the Father of a 29-year-old aviation engineer who was on the flight, said some family members there broke down in tears at the news.
“We accept the news of the tragedy. It is fate,” Selamat told the Associated Press.
“We know there are no words that we or anyone else can say which can ease your pain,” Malaysia Airlines said in a statement. “The ongoing multinational search operation will continue, as we seek answers to the questions which remain.”
An airline official, who declined to be identified citing company policy, said there are no plans to fly the families to the Australian city of Perth, where the search is centered, until wreckage is found.
The plane’s disappearance shortly after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur on a routine flight to Beijing has baffled investigators who have yet to rule out mechanical or electrical failure, hijacking, sabotage, terrorism, or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or someone else on board.
Malaysian authorities have said that evidence so far suggests the plane was deliberately turned back across Malaysia to the Strait of Malacca, with its communications systems disabled. They are unsure what happened next.
Officials have said the plane automatically sent a brief signal – a “ping” – every hour to a satellite belonging to Inmarsat, a British company, even after other communication systems on the jetliner shut down.
The pings did not include any location information, but an initial analysis showed that the location of the last ping was probably along one of two vast arcs running north and south.
Najib said Inmarsat had done further calculations “using a type of analysis never before used in an investigation of this sort,” and had concluded that the plane’s last position was “in the middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth.”
He gave no indication of exactly where in the Indian Ocean the plane was last heard from, or what the next step in finding it would be. The grueling hunt could take years, or the plane’s main fuselage may never be found at all.
Search teams from 26 nations have pored over radar data and scoured a wide swath of Asia for weeks with advanced aircraft and ships in a deeply frustrating attempt find the plane.
On Monday, planes and ships from Australia to China were crisscrossing the southern part of the ocean after multiple satellites had detected objects that could have been possible remains of the lost airliner.
The search is now considered a race against time because of the battery life of the “pinger” in the black box, which may run out in the next two weeks.
On Monday, an Australian navy support vessel, the Ocean Shield, was headed toward the search zone and was expected to arrive in three or four days, a defense official said. The ship is equipped with acoustic detection equipment that can search for the black box.
The U.S. Pacific Command said it is also sending a black box locator in case a debris field is located.
The Towed Pinger Locator, which is pulled behind a vessel at slow speeds, has highly sensitive listening capability that can hear the black box pinger down to a depth of about 20,000 feet (6,100 meters), Cmdr. Chris Budde, a U.S. 7th Fleet operations officer, said in a statement. He called it “a prudent effort to pre-position equipment and trained personnel closer to the search area.”
The ocean depth in the current search area ranges between 1,150 meters (3,770 feet) and 7,000 meters (23,000 feet).
U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes on Monday stopped short of saying the United States had independent confirmation of the status of the missing airliner. He noted the conclusion of Malaysian authorities that the Boeing 777 had plunged in to the Indian Ocean and said the United States, which has been assisting the search effort, was focused on that southern corridor of the ocean.
Earlier Monday, Malaysia’s police chief, Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar, reiterated that all the passengers had been cleared of suspicion.
But he said the pilots and crew were still being investigated. He would not comment on whether officials had recovered the files that were deleted a month earlier from the home flight simulator of the chief pilot.