BEIJING — Families aching for closure after their relatives disappeared aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 last year vented deep frustration Thursday at differing statements from Malaysia and France over whether the finding of a plane part had been confirmed.
“Why the hell do you have one confirm and one not?” asked Sara Weeks of Christchurch, New Zealand. Her brother, Paul Weeks, was on the plane that disappeared March 8, 2014, while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
“Why not wait and get everybody on the same page so the families don’t need to go through this turmoil?” she said.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced early Thursday that a plane wing section found on the French island of Reunion was “conclusively confirmed” to be from Flight 370, saying he hoped the news would end “unspeakable” uncertainty. The announcement was in line with the Malaysian conclusion that the plane crashed in the Indian Ocean, killing all 239 people aboard.
But French officials with custody of the wing part said only that there were strong indications the barnacle-encrusted part — known as a “flaperon” — was from the flight and that they would work further to try to confirm the finding.
“After 17 months, we need definite answers,” Weeks said. “We need to progress, get answers, move toward further answers, and get some closure along the line.”
About two-thirds of the passengers were from China, and in Beijing, Xu Jinghong said she could not understand why Malaysian and French authorities did not make their statements together.
“I am very angry — so angry that my hands and feet are cold,” Xu, 41, said in an interview early Thursday outside her downtown home. “The announcement was made without experts from France present. I don’t understand how the procedure can be like this.”
The statement by Najib would appear to give the first strong physical evidence of a crash, which could put to rest several theories that many relatives have refused to rule out, including that the plane and its passengers were hijacked and intact in some still-unknown location.
Irene Burrows, the 85-year-old mother of missing Australian passenger Rod Burrows, who was lost with his wife, Mary, said last year that she didn’t expect the mystery to be solved in her lifetime. She said at the time: “All I just want is a bit of the plane. It’s all I want to know — where they are.”
For her, Thursday’s confirmation was a simple wish come true.
“We’re quite pleased that it’s been found,” she said from her home in Biloela in northeastern Australia.
However, for many relatives, any potential certainty was diluted by the word from Paris, where Deputy Prosecutor Serge Mackowiak said the “very strong conjectures” that the wing part was from the missing Boeing 777 still needed to be “confirmed by complementary analysis” that would begin later Thursday.
It was unclear whether the mix-up was a result of miscommunication between the two countries, differing notions of the burden of proof, or whether Malaysian officials were overeager to send out some definitive signal for relatives of the missing.
In any case, a full confirmation of the wing part wasn’t likely to bring total closure for relatives, with the rest of the plane and the bodies still missing.
Jiang Hui, whose mother was on board, said there was still a lack of evidence to prove that the plane crashed as was announced by Malaysian officials last year. At the time, they cited thorough analysis of the limited satellite data available for the flight. Major questions remain, including why the plane went off course.
“The finding of debris does not mean the finding of our next of kin,” said Jiang, 41.
About a dozen Chinese relatives of passengers gathered Thursday at Malaysia Airlines offices in Beijing, holding signs, including one saying, “Malaysia hides the truth.” After several hours, the group was invited into a closed-door talk with airline officials. They later went to Boeing offices but weren’t allowed in.
While confirming ocean-borne debris from the plane is an important threshold for many relatives, it will be difficult for some to fully come to terms with the disaster without seeing the body of their loved one, said Nancy Smyth, a University of Buffalo sociologist focusing on psychological trauma.
The finding of the wing piece “is certainly a step toward closure,” Smyth said, adding: “It is important not to think of closure as a check box, but more of a journey and process for people with a lot of layers.”
“So much of our grieving process involves physicality, such as seeing the body, and that’s not present here, which makes it very difficult for the families to gain closure,” she said.
Melanie Antonio, whose husband was a Flight 370 flight attendant, said she wasn’t sure how to feel.
“I’m numb, I’m not sad,” she said in Kuala Lumpur. “It’s just a flaperon, it doesn’t prove anything. We still need the wreckage to prove. I just want anything that can tell me my hubby is gone.”
Jacquita Gomes, also the wife of a flight attendant, echoed that sentiment. “If it’s not too much to ask, I still want the remains of my husband.”