THIS AIN’T CLUB MED

Why Is the Search for MH370 Debris Being Left to Amateurs?

The only bits of the missing airliner have been found by tourists and part-time sleuths on beaches. Meanwhile, the $180 million underwater search is running out of time.

04.12.16 5:00 AM ET

A little fragment of paradise named Rodrigues Island in the Indian Ocean has become part of an unfolding controversy about how vital clues to the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 could have been discovered much sooner than they were—and whether many more are waiting to be found.

Even on the largest and most detailed maps of the Indian Ocean, Rodrigues barely shows up. It is only 41.6 square miles in area—literally the tip of an extinct volcano, part of a ridge that extends for hundreds of miles, mostly underwater.

Like many other volcanic islands, Rodrigues is encircled by a coral reef that works as a natural breakwater, creating broad and shallow lagoons between it and land, and protecting many golden beaches.

Two weeks ago two guests at a budget hotel on the southeastern coast were enjoying one of those beaches when they spotted a piece of gray metal among some flotsam. When they examined it more closely they realized that they might have found a piece of debris from Flight 370.

Although the coral reef would naturally inhibit flotsam reaching the island’s inner coast, there is a gap in the reef close to the Mourouk Ebony Hotel where the guests were staying, resulting in a small channel allowing tidal movement to the beaches.

That piece of debris is now on its way to Australia, where it will be examined by experts who have already confirmed that other pieces of debris found on beaches in the western Indian Ocean were from the Malaysian Boeing 777.

If the debris from Rodrigues does turn out to be from Flight 370 the location of the island is particularly significant. It is part of the Republic of Mauritius but lies some 450 miles east of the main island of Mauritius—and around 550 miles east of the island of La Reunion, where the first piece of Flight 370 debris, a part of the wing called a flaperon, was discovered last July.

Any debris from the airplane will have drifted on currents across the Indian Ocean from east to west, originating in the area some 1,700 miles west of the Australian coast where searchers are looking for main parts of the wreckage presumed to be laying at great depths. Rodrigues would therefore have been, in all probability, the first landmass to intercept any debris.

Computer models run to estimate the time and course taken for wreckage to cross the Indian Ocean toward Africa have allowed 500 days as a rule-of-thumb number for the duration of the crossing. The flaperon was found 509 days from the date of Flight 370’s disappearance, March 8, 2014. By that measure, debris could first have reached Rodrigues in markedly less than 500 days.

Australian experts noted that wreckage found early this year in the Mozambique Channel (a broad sea passage between the Mozambique coast and Madagascar) was found 716 days after the disaster. But, they pointed out, “it had taken possibly much less time to get there.” And it had “probably spent a significant length of time either weathering in the sun and, or, washing back and forth in the sand at this or some other location.”

In saying this, the Australians explained what seemed to be an anomaly: the metal surface of the debris from Mozambique was scrubbed clean (clean enough to read the words “NO STEP” on its edge) whereas the much larger flaperon found on La Reunion was encrusted with barnacles, gathered during its passage. This seems to confirm that the flaperon was discovered within days of washing ashore, before it could be subjected to weathering and scrubbing on a beach.

Even if the wreckage found on Rodrigues proves not to be from Flight 370 the random nature of the confirmed discoveries and the fact that many miles of shoreline in the western Indian Ocean are unpopulated suggests, as one expert told The Daily Beast: “Useful pieces of wreckage for analysis could very well be laying somewhere on a beach, undiscovered and untouched.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

David Griffin of the Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization, CSIRO, based in Australia, who worked on the computer modeling of debris drift patterns, told The Daily Beast, somewhat cryptically: “One way to think of it is this: If there were just three pieces to have landed on beaches, it’s pretty amazing that all three have been found.”

In fact, the total found so far could be five: the flaperon, two pieces in the Mozambique Channel, all confirmed as being from the Boeing 777, a fragment of a Rolls Royce engine casing found on a South African beach and the piece found on Rodrigues, both of these awaiting expert inspection in Australia.

The Daily Beast asked a spokesman for the Australian Transport Safety Board, ATSB, which leads both the underwater search and the inspection of debris, whether in view of the value of even the smallest piece of debris once that it is established that it is from Flight MH370, it is not time for a more systematic search to be made of the coastlines where the highest likelihood exists of finding debris.

He declined to reply and recommended that the question should be put to the Malaysian authorities in charge of the investigation in Kula Lumpur. This was done, but following a familiar pattern, the Malaysians did not respond to several requests for a reply.

After the discovery of the flaperon on La Reunion there was a short and perfunctory search by airplanes and helicopters of surrounding coastlines but it turned up nothing.

All of the debris has so far been found by a combination of amateur sleuthing, beachcombers and observation by people on vacation.

The ATSB has told the Daily Beast that the current undersea search will have cost as much as $180 million at its conclusion. Australia committed $60 million, China committed $20 million in assets and finance and the balance, in both assets and finance, came from Malaysia.

Experts I have spoken to argue that if only a small fraction of the money and resources devoted to the undersea search were devoted to a more systematic search of the coastlines where more debris almost certainly remains undiscovered it would surely be justified.

That said, finding the main body of the wreckage, and particularly the flight data recorders, remains by far the most important part of the search, and the only hope of ever really explaining what happened to create the greatest mystery in modern aviation history.

Of the 48, 263 square miles of the total undersea search area, 9,600 square miles remains to be searched—that is an area more or less exactly the size of Vermont. In February the ATSB said that they anticipated that the search will be completed by June.

“In the absence of credible new information leading to a specific location of the aircraft there will be no further expansion of the search area,” they said.

If—heaven forbid—the search is unsuccessful it will be a tough moment of reckoning and there will doubtless be pressure to reexamine the premise on which the search area was based.

That would also leave the floating debris as the only surviving evidence. And that, at the very least, does prove that the airplane crashed into the Indian Ocean, and did not—as some conspiracy theories proposed—get snatched by some unseen hand to be diverted to a hidden location on land.

Each piece of floating debris, no matter how small, has its own story to tell when investigators examine it. The more pieces that are discovered, the more that can be understood about, for example, how different parts of the airplane were torn away on impact with the water and, possibly, in what sequence. And, based on what has been found, there is no evidence of fire or an explosion playing a role. It is not enough, but in the absence of anything else it is better than knowing nothing.