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MH370: What do we know? What will we ever know?

BANGKOK (AP) — At the time — the evening of March 24 — it seemed like the breakthrough the world was waiting for.

Malaysia vows: We will give plane families closure

EILEEN NG, Associated Press
NICK PERRY, Associated Press

PERTH, Australia (AP) — Leaders of the two countries heading multinational efforts to solve the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 pledged Thursday that no effort would be spared to give the families of those on board the answers they need.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak flew to Australia for briefings on the search for the missing plane and talks with his Australian counterpart, Tony Abbott, whose country is overseeing the hunt in a huge and remote patch of the Indian Ocean.

"It is a very difficult search — the most difficult in human history. But as far as Australia is concerned, we are throwing everything we have at it," Abbott said in a media appearance with Najib.

No trace of the Boeing 777 has been found nearly four weeks after it vanished in the early hours of March 8 on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.

Ten planes and nine ships were involved in search operations Thursday, scouring the ocean far off Australia's southwest corner where investigators believe the plane may have ended up after unknown events occurred on board.

Najib, whose government has been harshly criticized by some victims' families for giving sometimes conflicting information about the flight and for the slow pace of the investigation, said everyone involved in the search is thinking of the families of victims who are waiting desperately for news.

"I know that until we find the plane, many families cannot start to grieve," Najib said. "I cannot imagine what they are going through. But I can promise them that we will not give up.

"We want to provide comfort to the families and we will not rest until answers are indeed found. In due time, we will provide a closure for this event," he said.

Najib met with Abbott at the Australian base near Perth that is serving as the hub for the multinational search effort. They were briefed by Angus Houston, the head of a joint agency overseeing the search.

Although Australia is coordinating the ocean search, the investigation into the tragedy ultimately remains Malaysia's responsibility. Najib said Australia had agreed to be an "accredited representative in the investigation," and would work with Malaysia on a comprehensive agreement on the search.

On Wednesday, officials warned the investigation may never fully answer why the airliner disappeared. A dearth of information has plagued investigators from the moment the plane's transponders, which make the plane visible to commercial radar, were shut off.

Military radar picked up the jet just under an hour later, way off course on the other side of the Malay Peninsula. Authorities say that until then, its "movements were consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane," but have not ruled out anything, including mechanical error.

Police are investigating the pilots and crew for any evidence suggesting they may have hijacked or sabotaged the plane. The backgrounds of the passengers have been checked by investigators and nothing suspicious has been found.

The search for the plane began over the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea, where its last voice communications were, and then shifted west to the Strait of Malacca. Experts then analyzed hourly satellite "handshakes" between the plane and a satellite and now believe it crashed somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.

Thursday's search zone was a 223,000-square kilometer (86,000-square mile) patch of ocean 1,680 kilometers (1,040 miles) northwest of Perth, part of a larger area crews have been scouring since last week.

The British navy's HMS Echo reported one alert as it searched for sonic transmissions from the missing plane's flight data recorder, but it was quickly discounted as a false alarm, the Joint Agency Coordination Center overseeing the search said Thursday.

False alerts can come from animals such as whales, or interference from shipping noise.

No confirmed trace of the plane's wreckage has been found. Houston has said there is no timeframe for ending the search, but acknowledged a new approach will eventually be needed if nothing turns up.

Australia's prime minister said everything that possibly could be done to find the plane would be done, but cautioned, "We cannot be certain of success."

Najib's wife, Rosmah Mansor, also traveled to Perth, where she met with Danica Weeks, whose husband, Paul Weeks, was among those on Flight 370. Weeks said the meeting gave her some comfort and confidence the Malaysians are committed to finding answers. But she also said the pervasive uncertainty surrounding the plane's fate had made coping with the loss impossible.

"You cannot grieve for someone unless you have something concrete," Weeks told Australia's Channel 9.

Two British vessels — a nuclear-powered submarine with advanced underwater search capability and the British Survey ship HMS Echo — have joined the hunt, Houston said. The Ocean Shield, an Australian warship carrying a U.S. device that detects "pings" from the plane's flight recorders, was en route.

Spotting wreckage is key to narrowing the search area and ultimately finding the plane's data recorders, which would provide a wealth of information about the condition the plane was flying under and the communications or sounds in the cockpit.

The data recorders emit a ping that can be detected by special equipment in the immediate vicinity. But the battery-powered devices stop transmitting the pings about 30 days after a crash. Locating the data recorders and wreckage after that is possible, but becomes an even more daunting task.

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Ng reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Associated Press writers Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, and Kristen Gelineau and Rohan Sullivan in Sydney contributed to this report.

In a hastily called speech, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that an unprecedented analysis of satellite signals concluded that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 "ended" deep in the Indian Ocean, far from any possible refuge for the 239 souls aboard.

Finally, there was a solid explanation for what happened to the aircraft. A much more focused search could begin, and so perhaps could the grieving process for families from 14 countries. Najib's announcement quieted wild speculation about desert islands and terrorists and covert operations.

But four weeks after the plane disappeared, the apparent pivot in the search is proving to be not much of a pivot at all.

Not a single piece of wreckage from the lost plane has been found, not even after a new analysis led investigators to change the focus of their search yet again. The latest search area is based on extremely limited satellite data combined with radar data taken some five hours before the plane is believed to have gone down. It is, as one search official said, "a very inexact science."

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose country is coordinating the current search effort, spoke of "very credible leads" and "increasing hope" a day before Najib's announcement. But on Thursday he said the search has become "the most difficult in human history."

The aircraft could indeed still be in the area planes and ships from several countries have been combing for nearly a week. Currents change the area each day, but on Thursday it was a 223,000-square kilometer (86,000-square mile) patch of ocean 1,680 kilometers (1,040 miles) northwest of Perth.

Each unsuccessful day adds to the skepticism.

"Without any kind of proof, uncertainty rules the day," said Tim Brown, a satellite imagery expert at GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Virginia. "People still can't wrap their head around how a modern airplane that big could just go missing in the modern world."

The focus of the search has changed repeatedly since air traffic controllers lost contact with the Boeing 777 between Malaysia and Vietnam. It began in the South China Sea, then shifted toward the Strait of Malacca to the west, where Malaysian officials eventually confirmed that military radar had detected the plane.

Then came evidence that the plane had continued flying for at least five hours after contact was lost. The plane automatically sent hourly signals to a satellite belonging to Inmarsat, a British company, after the plane's transponder and all communication systems had shut down. The "pings" did not include specific location information, but the team of experts who studied them said they must have come from one of two vast arcs that ran through both the Southern and Northern hemispheres.

Najib's announcement reflected a further refinement of that data that determined the aircraft could only have flown south, where it most likely crashed into the sea when it ran out of fuel. Days of costly and fruitless searches off the coast of Perth since then have employed satellites, advanced aircraft and ships, but so far there have only been dead ends.

Last week, using revised estimates of how fast the plane was traveling when it left the Malacca strait, investigators moved the search area hundreds of kilometers (miles) north. But there's no guarantee that the plane maintained that speed for hours before going down.

"The problem is, we're dealing with probabilities — estimates," Brown said of the Inmarsat data. "It's where they THINK the plane went down."

Or as Capt. Ross "Rusty" Aimer, a former pilot who now runs Aero Consulting Experts, put it: "Until we find a positive concrete shred of evidence — a piece of the aircraft — everything else is just conjecture, and it could be totally wrong. So far, the satellite calculations have only directed us to oceanic garbage dumps."

Australian officials have expressed increasing pessimism in recent days. Angus Houston, who heads the joint agency coordinating the multinational search effort out of Australia, said investigators are using computer modeling to determine the plane's final location, but two key variables needed to calculate that more precisely are unknown: the aircraft's altitude and speed.

"The starting point whenever you do a search and rescue is the last known position of the vehicle or the aircraft," Houston said Tuesday. "In this particular case, the last known position was a long, long way from where the aircraft appears to have gone."

Satellite images taken from the previous search area captured hundreds of possible objects in the water, but searchers in planes and ships found nothing related to Flight 370. In the current search area, even those clues have been lacking.

"We have not had any satellite data, I'd have to say, that has given anything better than low confidence of finding anything so far," Mick Kinley, deputy CEO of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, said Tuesday. But he also said plane and ship crews "have by no means exhausted" the search area.

Affected families, particularly those of some of the 153 Chinese passengers, have lashed out at Malaysian authorities for essentially declaring their loved ones dead without any firm proof.

Najib said Thursday that everyone involved in the search is thinking of the families and their suffering.

"I know that until we find the plane, many families cannot start to grieve," he said. "We will not rest until answers are indeed found. In due time, we will provide a closure for this event."

Malaysia's government on Wednesday organized a closed-door briefing for the families in Kuala Lumpur with officials and experts involved in the hunt. Steve Wang, a representative of some of the Chinese families who were also briefed in Beijing via video link, said most relatives remain skeptical.

"They said themselves that there are many different possibilities, but they are judging on the basis of just one of them. We all know this can't convince us," Wang said. "Hope dwindles by the day and sadness grows. I believe the plane must be somewhere and someone must know, but we do not know who knows it.

"What else can I do but wait in bitterness?" he said. "Two sleeping pills may get me two hours of sleep if I am lucky."

Dr. Michael Phillips, a Shanghai-based Canadian psychiatrist, said that without bodies or even wreckage, families are caught in an emotional "no man's land."

"A whole bunch of things can complicate grief, but in this situation it's clearly complicated because they're not sure the people are dead," Phillips said. "Your logical head would say, 'Oh, of course they're dead,' but your heart will say, 'No, no, no, I don't know.'"

The lack of physical evidence also weighs on the investigation into the crash. Just like on Day 1, every theory remains on the table, including electrical or mechanical failure, terrorism, hijacking and pilot murder-suicide.

On Wednesday, Malaysian Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar sounded the most pessimistic note yet, warning that although investigations will go on, at the end of it "we may not even know the reason" the plane veered off course.

The most vital clues are trapped inside the plane's black boxes, or are hoped to be. Information from the flight data recorder will show what the jetliner was doing, but it may not explain why. The cockpit voice recorder, which only records audio from the flight's final couple of hours, could simply be silent if the pilots were incapacitated before the plane went down.

Wherever those boxes are, they are pinging. Their batteries are designed to last a month. That month runs out Tuesday.

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Associated Press writers Christopher Bodeen, Didi Tang and video journalist Peng Peng in Beijing, Gillian Wong in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.

 

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