Malaysia Says Missing Plane Sent One Last Partial Signal


By KEITH BRADSHER, EDWARD WONG and THOMAS FULLER
New York Times
MARCH 25, 2014

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The Malaysian authorities released new details on Tuesday to buttress their conclusion that Flight 370 must have ended in a crash in a remote part of the Indian Ocean.

But with no physical evidence of the plane’s fate yet found, and the search suspended for a day because of treacherous weather, distraught relatives and friends of passengers mounted an angry protest in Beijing, breaking through police lines and marching to the Malaysian Embassy demanding more answers.

Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s defense minister and acting transportation minister, said at a news conference near Kuala Lumpur that the plane appeared to have sent one more partial signal eight minutes after the last of the previously disclosed electronic “handshakes” between the plane and a satellite, which engineers have analyzed to infer the plane’s probable path after it disappeared from radar screens early on March 8. Mr. Hishammuddin called the newly reported signal a “partial handshake.”

Hishamuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s defense minister, said satellite data analysis has led officials to concentrate the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the southern Indian Ocean.

“At this time, this transmission is not understood, and is subject to further ongoing work,” he said.

The last full handshake was recorded at 8:11 a.m., more than seven hours after the plane took off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing with 227 passengers and 12 crew members.

The next satellite signal from the aircraft would have been due by 9:15 a.m., but it never came. Mr. Hishammuddin referred delicately to the likelihood that signals stopped because the plane ran out of fuel and crashed, saying that the timing “is consistent with the maximum endurance of the aircraft.”

His office later released additional technical details about the way the satellite signals had been analyzed and about how those calculations had narrowed down the search area.

None of this appeared to have diminished the mistrust felt by the relatives and friends of Chinese citizens who were on Flight 370, who have been bitterly critical of Malaysia’s handling of the search. A group of them protested outside the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing at midday Tuesday, demanding that officials tell them the full truth about the flight.

The group shoved past police officers as it left its hotel and arrived at the embassy on foot about 40 minutes later. The street was crowded with journalists, police officers and people trying to reach some of the other embassies on the street. A line of paramilitary police officers blocked journalists from following the marchers up the road.

The group presented a Malaysian diplomat with a scathing statement saying that the families would regard Malaysian leaders and the state-controlled operator of the flight, Malaysia Airlines, to be “murderers” if it emerged that missteps had led to the deaths of their loved ones.

Later in the afternoon at the hotel where the families were staying, a man who said that he represented them and that his surname was Wang asserted that the Malaysian government had not given any evidence to back its conclusion that the plane had crashed at sea with no survivors. He said most of the families did not believe that account.

The Malaysian ambassador to China arrived at the hotel after 3 p.m. and spoke privately to the relatives and friends gathered in the hotel ballroom. People in the room said the anger and frustration were palpable.

The Chinese government continued to express skepticism as well. “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 news conference.

In Kuala Lumpur, Mr. Hishammuddin bristled when a succession of Chinese journalists questioned him about delays in finding the missing jetliner. “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.

His office released calculations from Inmarsat, a British satellite communications company, based on the handshake signals. Those calculations pointed to an area of the southern Indian Ocean where the plane must have wound up, assuming it was flying at a ground speed between 400 and 450 knots, or about 460 to 520 miles per hour. That narrowed the search area down to one-fifth of its peak size, though it is still vast — about 470,000 square nautical miles, greater than the area of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington State combined.

Surveillance aircraft have been trying to sweep about 20,000 square nautical miles of ocean a day, though they could not do so on Tuesday because of a storm. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said the search would resume on Wednesday.

“We are not searching for a needle in a haystack; we are still trying to define where the haystack is,” Air Marshal Mark Binskin, the deputy chief of the Australian military, told reporters at Pearce Air Force Base near Perth, Australia, where the aircraft are based.

David Johnston, Australia’s defense minister, said the search area was “probably one of the most remote parts of the planet” and one that “has shipwrecked many sailors.” He said an Australian ship that was hunting for possible floating debris had to move 75 miles off its station on Tuesday because of the weather.

Mr. Johnston called the maritime search, involving ships and aircraft from Australia, New Zealand, China, South Korea, Japan, the United States and other nations, “one of the largest efforts you’ll ever see.” But none of the vessels had yet recovered any of the large floating objects sighted by planes or satellites, suggesting that the plane could be in an altogether different area.

An American submersible craft capable of finding objects on the sea floor was being flown to Perth on Tuesday, but Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said it would be useful only once the general location of the plane’s wreckage was known.

“It’s being sent there to be ready, should there be a need,” Admiral Kirby said. “And right now, there’s no need. We do not have a debris field.”

As for the Malaysian police inquiry into the plane’s disappearance, Khalid bin Abu Bakar, the forces’ inspector general, declined to discuss details on Tuesday, saying, “That would jeopardize the ongoing investigations.”

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airlines said that though the investigation had not found the plane or the reason it vanished, relatives of those on board had to let go of any hope for a miracle.

“We must accept the painful reality that the aircraft is now lost, and that none of the passengers or crew on board survived,” said Mohamed Nor Yusof, the chairman of Malaysia Airlines. He said the airline’s primary responsibility now was caring for the grieving families.

Keith Bradsher reported from Kuala Lumpur; Edward Wong from Beijing; and Thomas Fuller from Pearce Air Force Base, Australia. Michelle Innis contributed reporting from Sydney, Australia.

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