Bad weather and rough seas on Tuesday forced the suspension of the search for any wreckage of a missing Malaysian jetliner that officials are now sure crashed in the remote Indian Ocean with the loss of all 239 people on board.
Citing groundbreaking satellite-data analysis by British firm Inmarsat, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Monday that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which vanished more than two weeks ago while flying to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, had crashed thousands of miles away in the southern Indian Ocean.
Recovery of wreckage of the Boeing 777 could unlock clues about why the plane had diverted so far off course. Theories range from a hijacking to sabotage or a possible suicide by one of the pilots, but investigators have not ruled out technical problems.
An international air and sea search in the area on Monday spotted several floating objects that might be parts of the plane and an Australian navy ship was close to finding possible debris, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.
MH370 families distraught, angry as hope extinguishes
But the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) said gale-force winds, heavy rain and low cloud meant planes could not fly safely to the zone on Tuesday, and waves of 6 metres (20ft) or more forced the navy ship from the area.
"AMSA has consulted with the Bureau of Meteorology and weather conditions are expected to improve in the search area in the evening and over the next few days. Search operations are expected to resume tomorrow, if weather conditions permit," AMSA said in a statement.
The search site is far from commercial flight paths about 2,500 km (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, a region of deep, frigid seas known as the Roaring 40s where storm-force winds and huge waves are commonplace.
"This is a remote location, far from any possible landing sites," Malaysia's Najib said. "It is therefore, with deep sadness and regret, that I must inform you that, according to this new data, Flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean."
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Australian Navy ship HMAS Success is seen, in a photo taken from an Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) AP-3C Orion patrol aircraft, participating in the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. (Reuters)
Some relatives of those on board first received the news that the search for survivors was over in a Malaysia Airlines SMS message which said: "We have to assume beyond all reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and none of those on board survived."
There were hysterical scenes at the Beijing hotel where many of the relatives of those on board were staying. Most of the passengers on the flight, from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, were Chinese.
A group reportedly representing families issued a statement describing the Malaysian airline, government and military as "executioners" who constantly tried to delay and deceive them. "We will take every possible means to pursue the unforgivable crimes and responsibility of all three," said the statement on the microblog of the Malaysia Airlines MH370 Family Committee.
Malaysia Airlines said in a statement that it would make arrangements to fly relatives to Australia once it had approval from the investigating authorities. Abbott said he expected the families to travel to Australia soon. "They will find a welcoming country that is more than willing to embrace them in this difficult time," he told reporters.
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Able Seaman Emma Searle works in an operations room of the Australian Navy ship, the HMAS Success, in a search area for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370.(Reuters)
COSTLY DIFFICULT INVESTIGATION
Najib's announcement opens the way for what will be one of the most costly and difficult air crash investigations ever. Normally, an official investigation can only begin once a crash site has been identified.
That would give Malaysia power to coordinate and sift evidence. Malaysia has faced heavy criticism over the progress of the search and its informal investigation, especially from China which had more than 150 citizens on board the plane.
Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Xie Hangsheng immediately demanded Malaysia hand over all relevant satellite-data analysis showing how Malaysia had reached its conclusion about the fate of the jet.
Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss said the Malaysian statement moved the search to a new phase. "It moves it to a stage where we are now investigating an accident, a loss of an aircraft and some new decisions will have to be taken now about the direction of future operations," Truss told reporters.
"Malaysia needs to take control under the Chicago convention of those investigations."
The United States said it was sending an undersea Navy drone to Australia, in addition to a high-tech black box detector, to help in the search.
The so-called black boxes - the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder - record what happens during flight. Black boxes carry locator beacons but they fade out after 30 days.
Flight MH370 vanished from civilian radar screens less than an hour after taking off on March 8. No confirmed debris from the plane has been found since.
Investigators believe someone on the flight may have shut off the plane's communications systems. Partial military radar tracking showed it turning west and re-crossing the Malay Peninsula, apparently under the control of a skilled pilot. Najib said Inmarsat had been performing further calculations on data gleaned from faint pings picked up by satellite that initially only narrowed the search area to two massive arcs.
The Inmarsat analysis had narrowed the search area "but it's still a big area that they have to search", said Stephen Wood, CEO of All Source Analysis, a satellite analytic firm.
BACK IN INDIA
The family of Chennai resident Chandrika Sharma was still coping with the loss after receiving the airlines' message. Three members from the same Mumbai family -- on their way to Beijing to visit their eldest son – were also feared dead. The rest of the Kolekar family now wants the eldest son and his wife to come back from Beijing.
The Beijing-bound plane went off radar an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur on March 8. A massive search operation, involving 26-nations at last count including India, resulted in multiple satellite leads but no physical sighting of debris.
The search swung deep into the Indian Ocean last week after initial satellite images depicted large floating objects there but ships and aircraft sent to the spot returned empty-handed. The deeply frustrating search operation gave rise to multiple theories with officials not ruling out hijacking, pilot sabotage, or a sudden mid-air crisis.
Full coverage: Malaysian Airline Mystery
(with Reuters inputs)