- POSTED: 28 Apr 2014 12:22
- UPDATED: 28 Apr 2014 18:35
Australia's prime minister on Monday announced an expanded search across a huge swathe of seabed where Flight MH370 might have crashed seven weeks ago, admitting it is now "highly unlikely" that any surface wreckage will be found.
SYDNEY: Australia's prime minister on Monday announced an expanded search across a huge swathe of seabed where Flight MH370 might have crashed seven weeks ago, admitting it is now "highly unlikely" that any surface wreckage will be found.
A massive hunt for the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 in the southern Indian Ocean has so far yielded nothing on the surface or below, baffling authorities who are struggling to explain the loss of the aircraft.
"I regret to say that thus far, none of our efforts in the air, on the surface, or undersea have found any wreckage," Tony Abbott said.
"It is highly unlikely at this stage that we will find any aircraft debris on the ocean surface," he added, noting that a surface area of more than 4,500,000 square kilometres had been scanned.
"By this stage, 52 days into the search, most material would have become water-logged and sunk."
Flight MH370 disappeared on March 8 carrying 239 people and is believed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean off west Australia after mysteriously diverting from its Kuala Lumpur to Beijing journey.
Abbott said the search would now enter a new phase involving undersea efforts being ramped up, with authorities scouring the ocean floor over an area of nearly 60,000 square kilometres.
"If necessary, of the entire probable impact zone which is roughly 700 kilometres by 80 kilometres," he said when asked about the extent of the search area.
The search zone has been defined by analysis of satellite data, and was boosted by several detections of transmissions believed to have come from the plane's black box recorders before their batteries died.
But a submersible Bluefin-21 scouring a 400-square kilometre zone centred around one of these transmissions has failed to yield results, prompting Abbott to announce a hugely expanded underwater search involving different technology, possibly a specialised side-scan sonar.
Abbott said the Australian government, in consultation with Malaysian authorities, was willing to engage one or more commercial companies to undertake the work.
He estimated it would cost Aus$60 million (US$55.8 million) and take six to eight months.
Until now, the eight nations involved in the Indian Ocean search -- Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, United States, Britain and China -- have been bearing their own costs, but Abbott said Canberra would ask for help in funding the next stage.
"We will be seeking some appropriate contribution from other nations involved; but we will ensure that this search goes ahead," he said.
Australia is working closely with Malaysia and China, whose citizens made up two-thirds of those onboard the flight, and Beijing said it would actively support the next phase as it also called for international support.
In the meantime, the Bluefin-21 and several ships would maintain the search and a team of experts in Kuala Lumpur from Malaysia, China, Australia, Britain and the US would work on refining where to look.
Abbott said authorities still had "a considerable degree of confidence" that the signals picked up were from the black box and while it may turn out to be a false lead, authorities were determined to pursue it.
The anguish of the families of those onboard has repeatedly spilled over into anger against the Malaysian government and airline for their handling of the unprecedented event -- but the lack of wreckage had them questioning the search on Monday.
Steven Wang, whose mother was on the plane, said that by expanding the underwater search area Australian authorities were suggesting they were not sure they were searching in the right place.
"If they could find out what happened to the plane maybe they could find the plane more easily," he said.
"But they just search the whole ocean, and it is such a big ocean, and you cannot search everywhere. It will take years."
Sarah Bajc, whose American partner Philip Wood was on the flight, questioned why Australia continued to pour assets into searching in one area, given there had been challenges to pinpointing the plane's probable location.
"Why not just open up the raw data for independent review and let's see what happens?" she asked in an email to AFP.
Selamat Omar, whose 29-year-old son Khairul Amri Selamat was on the plane, said there were still many unknowns.
"With no sign of a crash, I have to think that my son could still be alive," he said.