Thursday 19 July 2018

Wing and a prayer to solve the riddle of flight MH370

CASTLES MADE OF SAND: An Indian sand artist applies the final touches to a sand art sculpture in eastern India last March in memory of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines flight MH370
CASTLES MADE OF SAND: An Indian sand artist applies the final touches to a sand art sculpture in eastern India last March in memory of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines flight MH370
IMPORTANT CLUE: French police officers carry the recovered debris on Reunion Island

Harriet Alexander

Experts in France will start to test the recovered wreckage for clues as to where missing plane crashed

Nicolas Ferrier barely gave the weathered blue seat a second glance. As he carried out his daily patrol of the shores of the Indian Ocean island of Reunion, picking up debris from the black sands and giant boulders, it seemed to him like just another piece of rubbish — a bus seat, perhaps, or a hang-glider’s chair.

“It wasn’t until Wednesday that it hit me what it could have been,” said Mr Ferrier. “It was probably part of that plane.”

Mr Ferrier spotted the seat in early May. And yesterday he told his story for the first time – until now, no one but his wife knew about the find.

It was, he explained, washed up on the mile-long stretch of coast which he monitors near Saint Andre, on the east of the French island. And last week the same stretch of coast was at the centre of the world’s attention, after what is believed to be part of a Boeing 777 wing was washed ashore.

Given that the only such plane to have crashed in the southern hemisphere is MH370 — the ill-fated flight that vanished in mysterious circumstances in March 2014 — it seems, at last, that the riddle could have been solved.

An Australian-led search has spent 16 months combing the southern Indian Ocean for the aircraft, which is known to have inexplicably veered off-course from its designated route, from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

“This is the first positive sign that we have located part of that plane,” said Julie Bishop, Australia’s foreign minister.

Yesterday the suspected wing component arrived in Paris, having been flown from Reunion on an Air France flight on Friday night.

Malaysian and French experts will begin their analysis in a military-run lab in Toulouse on Wednesday, along with an examination of parts of a suitcase that was discovered nearby.

Tomorrow, three French magistrates, as well as a Malaysian legal representative and an official from France’s civil aviation investigating authority, will begin meeting, behind closed doors, in Paris.

“I believe that we are moving closer to solving the mystery of MH370,” said Abdul Aziz Kaprawi, Malaysia’s deputy transport minister. “This could be the convincing evidence that MH370 went down in the Indian Ocean.”

Yet Mr Ferrier had no idea of the significance of the object. Flotsam and jetsam are part of his everyday life on the inhospitable beach, where nobody dares to enter the fierce waves and shark-infested waters.

“I found a couple of suitcases, too, around the same time, full of things,” he said, almost in passing.

“I burnt them,” he said, pointing to the pile of ashes lying on the boulders. “That’s my job. I collect rubbish and burn it. I could have found many things that belonged to the plane and burnt them without realising.”

He also saw the wing that washed up on Wednesday — although in May, the barnacles encrusting its side were still alive.

“Like the seat, I didn’t know what it was. I sat on it. I was fishing for macabi (bonefish) and used it as a table. I really didn’t pay it much attention — until I saw it on the news.”

His story is backed up by that of another local woman, named only as Isabelle, who spotted the same object while walking on the beach in May, accompanied by her 10-year-old son.

“It was the beginning of the holidays — around May 10,” she said. “I was walking with my son, Krishna. Then from a rock on which we were standing, he saw an object and shouted. ‘Mum, that looks like the wing of a plane!’”

Krishna then jumped on what looked like a suitcase. He managed to prise it open and then spotted another suitcase buried in the black sand.

But the waves were gathering height and so Isabelle ordered her son off the beach. They went home and thought nothing of it until Wednesday.

Mr Ferrier has not told his tale until now because he has been in hospital for several days. Yesterday was his first day back home, 300 yards from the beach.

Why didn’t he report the seat and suitcases at the time?

“I work alone, so didn’t have anyone to consult about it — unlike the others,” he said, referring to the team of beach cleaners led by Johnny Begue, who found the wing.

And the testimony of Mr Ferrier and Isabelle raises the question that hundreds of items could have been washing up on Reunion for the past few months, with no one paying any attention.

“Even now I can’t quite understand it. For me, it was something totally normal — I see it all the time. I can’t really say if it was the first time or the last time I saw bits like that, because I never pay attention. From now on I will look more closely.”

Has he found any other interesting or unusual objects?

“Maybe,” he said. “But I wouldn’t know. I just throw them on the fire.”

He doesn’t listen to the radio or watch television, he said, and was unaware of the furore.

And for Mr Ferrier and other islanders, the global spotlight has taken them aback.

Reunion, a sleepy volcanic outcrop 400 miles east of Madagascar, is unused to this attention. The 850,000 inhabitants live from agriculture — sugar cane plantations carpet over half the agricultural land on this 40-mile long island — and from tourism.

One — calling himself only Mr Periamagom — in a cowboy hat and white shirt was convinced that the wreckage had washed up on his isle.

“They found two bottles on Friday,” he said conspiratorially. “And they were definitely from the plane, because they were special drinking water given to pilots to keep them awake during long flights.”

The two local police standing nearby smiled and rolled their eyes.

For the past four days the beach has been abuzz with activity; on Friday around a dozen police were out on patrol, while helicopters hovered overhead. Local people took it upon themselves to fly drones over the waves in the hope of spotting more debris.

Scientists say there are several plausible scenarios in which ocean currents could have carried a piece of debris from the plane to the island.

But Australian search authorities, who are leading the Indian Ocean hunt for the aircraft some 2,500 miles from Reunion, said they were confident the main debris field was in the current search area.

Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which is leading the search for the jet, said the discovery did not mean other parts would start washing up on the island.

“Over the last 16 or 17 months, any floating debris would have dispersed quite markedly across the Indian Ocean,” he said.

And by yesterday the beach was beginning to empty again.

“In the month of May, if I had realised, there would have been even more bits,” said Mr Ferrier. “There was a lot of evidence on the beach. But the sea took it away.

“I think they’ll find more, though,” he added. “I’ve seen quite a lot — and I wasn’t even looking.”

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