The wing fragment found on the French island of Reunion was wrapped and ready to be loaded Friday on a cargo flight for the mainland, where experts are hoping to unlock the mystery of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Several uniformed officers loaded a large wooden crate into a van that drove under police escort from the main wing of the Roland Garros airport to a separate hangar.
French authorities have imposed extraordinary secrecy over the 2-meter (6-foot) long piece of wing. If it’s from the Malaysia Airlines jet missing for 16 months, the wreckage could have drifted thousands of kilometers across the Indian Ocean to this French island off the east coast of Africa.
Among the searchers scouring Reunion’s shoreline for debris on Friday was the man from the beach maintenance crew who first found the wing fragment.
It will take at least another day to learn whether the plane missing for 16 months crashed into the sea. Though several officials have expressed confidence that the debris found on the French island of Reunion is from a Boeing 777, French authorities are planning to send the piece to southern France for analysis.
The part could arrive on Saturday morning, according to the Paris prosecutor’s office.
Officials, keenly aware that families of those on board Flight 370 are desperately awaiting word on the fate of their loved ones, hope to have at least some answers within a day or two.
“The most important part of this whole exercise at the moment is to give some kind of closure to the families,” said Australian Transport Minister Warren Truss, whose country is leading the search for the plane in a desolate stretch of ocean off Australia’s west coast.
Still, given the myriad false leads that have peppered the search, some would prefer certainty to speed.
Jacquita Gomes, whose husband, Patrick, was a flight attendant on the missing plane, is anxious for the results of the analysis, but wants authorities to ensure they’re conclusive before announcing them.
“It’s going to be a nail-biting weekend but we cannot rush it,” said Gomes, of Kuala Lumpur. “We have been waiting for more than 500 days. The agony continues and I hope there will be answers soon.”
But even if the piece is confirmed to be the first confirmed wreckage from Flight 370, there’s no guarantee that investigators can find the plane’s vital black box recorders or other debris. A multinational search effort has come up empty.
The part will be analyzed in special defense facilities used for airplane testing and analysis, according to the Defense Ministry.
Air safety investigators, including one from Boeing, have identified the component as a “flaperon” from the trailing edge of a Boeing 777 wing, a U.S. official said. The official wasn’t authorized to be publicly named.
Flight 370, which disappeared March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board, is the only missing 777.
Scanning the beach’s distinctive black volcanic sand and stones on Friday, searcher Philippe Sidam picked up a plastic bottle for laundry detergent. “This is from Jakarta, Indonesia,” he said, pointing to the writing on the bottle. “This shows how the ocean’s currents bring material all the way from Indonesia and beyond. That explains how the debris from the Malaysian plane could have reached here.”
Reunion environmental worker Johnny Begue told The Associated Press that he stumbled across the plane part on Wednesday morning while collecting stones to grind spices. A colleague, Teddy Riviere, corroborated his account, but authorities wouldn’t say who discovered the component.
“I knew immediately it was part of an aircraft, but I didn’t realize how important it was, that it could help to solve the mystery of what happened to the Malaysian jet,” Begue, 46, told the AP.
He and several workmates carried the wing fragment out of the water so that it would not be battered by the surf against the volcanic rocks that make up most of the beach.
Begue also discovered a piece of a suitcase about 2.5 meters (8 feet) away, he said.
Australian officials expressed skepticism that the suitcase was associated with the wing part. Truss, the transport minister, noted that there did not appear to be any marine life attached to the suitcase, indicating it probably hadn’t been in the water for long. But he described the wing part as a major lead.
Investigators have found what may be a maintenance number on the wing piece, which may help investigators figure out what plane it belongs to, Truss said.
Truss expects French investigators will also try to determine how the part separated from the rest of the aircraft, and whether it shows evidence of fire or other damage, which might explain how the plane crashed.
Ocean modeling predicted that currents would eventually carry any floating wreckage to the African coast from its suspected crash site.
Report by Associated Press.