MH370 Search: Reunion Island Scoured for Clues After Debris Washes Ashore

An air, land and sea search was launched around an island in the Indian Ocean on Thursday following the discovery of an airplane fragment deemed to be a “major lead” in the hunt for missing Flight MH370.

Beaches were being combed and boats were scouring the waters off Reunion Island as helicopters flew overhead the French territory, east of Madagascar off the southern tip of Africa.

Image: Remnants of a suitcase on Reunion Island
Remnants of a suitcase found on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean on Thursday, near where a fragment of an aircraft was located a day earlier. Le Journal de l’Ile de la Réunion

The barnacle-covered plane piece was found by a crew cleaning the coastline on Wednesday.

Boeing investigators have looked at photos of the fragment and say that they believe it is from one of their 777s, sources told NBC News. It appears to be a piece of a flap from a wing. There is only one such aircraft missing in the world right now — Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

Local media also reported Thursday that the remains of a suitcase had also been found in the same area where the debris was recovered. Officials did not immediately comment on the reports.

“This is obviously a very significant development,” Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss told a news conference in Sydney early Thursday.

Truss said a “piece of debris could’ve floated a long, long way in 16 months” — the period since the Malaysia Airlines jet vanished.

“It’s the first real evidence that there is a possibility that a part of the aircraft may have been found. It’s too early to make that judgment, but clearly we are treating this as a major lead,” the deputy prime minister said. “It is credible that wreckage from the search area could’ve reached Reunion Island.”

The plane wreckage is roughly 6.5 feet to 8 feet in length, according to photographs. It appeared fairly intact and did not have visible burn marks or signs of impact.

Truss told reporters that a number stamped on the piece of debris would help to identify it.

Related: Relatives in Agony Over Debris Find

BEA, the French counterpart to the National Transportation Safety Board, said that it could not officially confirm yet that the fragment was from a Boeing 777.

However, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak said Thursday that the plane debris was “very likely” from a Boeing 777.

“The location is consistent with the drift analysis provided to the Malaysianinvestigation team, which showed a route from the southern Indian Ocean to Africa,” Najib said in a statement.

Image: Reunion Island map
A map showing where the fragment of a plane that may be lost MH370 have been found, in relation to the original search areas. MSNBC / Malaysian Transport Ministry/Joint Agency Coordination Center

He said the fragment would be shipped to Toulouse where French authorities would determine whether it came from MH370.

Earlier, Malaysia’s deputy transport minister told Reuters it would take about two days to verify if the piece was from the missing jet.

MH370 was carrying 239 people when it disappeared about an hour into its journey from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, China, on March 8 last year.

Search efforts led by Australia have focused on a broad expanse of the southern Indian Ocean off Australia, roughly 2,300 miles from Reunion Island.

Related: How Currents Could’ve Carried Wreckage to Reunion

Professor Charitha Pattiaratchi, of the University of Western Australia Oceans Institute, told APTN that finding a piece of the debris on Reunion was “entirely consistent with current patterns in the Southern Indian Ocean to be originated from the area that they’re doing the current search for the wreckage.”

He added: “It would not surprise me if more debris will be washing up in that part of the region in the coming weeks.”

In an earlier briefing with reporters, Truss said that the development could finally provide answers for relatives of those aboard the jetliner — including Sarah Bajc, the girlfriend of missing Texan Philip Wood.

“If the wreckage is identified, what that does is give some degree of closure to the families who are waiting for information,” he said. “If it can be established beyond doubt that the aircraft has gone into the water then that helps people to understand what happened.”

MH370: If debris is part of missing plane, what’s next?

(CNN)If confirmed to be from missing flight MH370, could a small portion of plane wing be the clue investigators need to unlock one of aviation’s biggest mysteries?

On the surface, it’s what investigators have been waiting for — the first physical piece of evidence as to what happened to the Malaysian Airlines flight that vanished in March 2014, carrying 239 people.

Here’s what could happen next:

Identifying the wing fragment

Planes are stamped with multiple serial numbers for exactly this purpose — to allow parts to be identified and matched to a specific model and aircraft.

“If the part numbers that are stamped on the pieces of the plane still survive, it literally could be a phone call to Boeing or the parts indices to see if it belongs to a 777. And if it belongs to a 777, it is MH370,” said Mary Schiavo, CNN aviation analyst and former inspector general of the United States Department of Transportation.

Schiavo points out that there have been only five accidents involving Boeing 777s, and the disappearance of MH370 is the only one where debris hasn’t been recovered.

If the identifying numbers are missing, more tests will need to be conducted on the part to determine its origin. In that case, it’s likely that the wing portion will need to be transported elsewhere, potentially Paris, because it was found within French territory.

Australia: Debris found is ‘major lead’ in MH370 search

If it is from MH370, will the main search area move?

Unlikely, analysts say.

The discovery of the potential debris off Reunion Island in the west Indian Ocean is consistent with the route of currents in the region and the time it would take for a piece of metal to be washed thousand of kilometers across a vast ocean, experts said.

“It’s possible that it could have drifted that far — certainly it is possible, especially if air was maintained in that particular piece,” said former pilot Les Abend.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said if the piece is proved to be from MH370, it would indicate authorities are searching in “roughly the right place.”

The current search is focused deep on the sea floor off the coast of Western Australia, along an arc considered by investigators to be the most likely area the plane went down if it turned back towards Malaysia, as indicated by data, and stayed in the air before running out of fuel.

The arc where investigators are mapping the sea floor in the search for MH370.

If it’s part of the plane, is it more likely the main section will be found?

Truss says no.

He told Australian media on Thursday it is “not really going to be all that helpful in pinpointing precisely where the aircraft is.”

However, if confirmed, the find is likely to give investigators further belief that other pieces of the plane have been carried by currents to the same region.

Hope hangs by a thread for MH370 families

Will the search area expand?

Potentially.

If the piece is confirmed to be from MH370, searches are likely to be conducted of surrounding islands.

However, experts are divided as to whether one or more pieces of floating debris will give many clues as to the fate of flight MH370.

“It really is not going to tell us too much about the final moments of the aircraft,” said Geoffrey Thomas from AirlineRatings.com. For that, the flight data recorders — or black boxes — are crucial.

However, Tom Ballantyne of Orient Aviation magazine, said the condition of the wing could indicate if the plane met a catastrophic end. Charring, for example, could indicate an explosion, he said.

9 aviation mysteries highlight long history of disappearances

Will debris found near Reunion cause a rethink of past theories?

Not necessarily.

Thomas said, if anything, the location of the potential debris confirms modeling form the University of Western Australia which showed that material from the plane could wash up around Reunion between 12 to 24 months after the plane’s disappearance.

Despite the modeling, no one had been searching in that area, he said, because of the vast nature of the Indian Ocean and the multitude of factors that meant that finding anything would be matter of luck and time.

“It was a matter of waiting for something to wash up,” he said.

Thomas said, however, if confirmed the find would dispel the numerous conspiracy theories that suggest that investigators were searching in the wrong place, or that somehow the plane may have landed safely undetected.

The mystery of MH370: What you need to know