KUALA LUMPUR — Word that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had crashed "beyond doubt" may have ended the mystery over the fate of its 239 passengers and crew. But piecing together the puzzle of how and why the Boeing 777 plunged into the Indian Ocean could take months, perhaps years.
"This answers some questions, but it also opens up lots of questions that aren't close to being answered," says Shawn Pruchnicki, a veteran disaster investigator and safety expert with the Ohio State University Center for Aviation Studies. "We're just scratching the surface now."
Conflicting statements from Malaysia Airlines, the Malaysian government and other countries — coupled with far flung but futile search operations extending into a third week — added to the conundrum. What remained of glimmering hopes among anxious friends and families evaporated Monday, when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said fresh satellite data analysis showed Flight 370 "ended" in a remote part of the southern Indian Ocean and Malaysia Airlines said it was "beyond reasonable doubt" anyone had survived.
Parts of the downed aircraft have yet to be found, let alone retrieved. But if and when they are, they could yield preliminary clues into the cause of the crash and dispel speculation ranging from terrorism and suicidal pilots to mechanical failure. Sheet metal and fabric could provide evidence of an on-board fire or the rate of the aircraft's descent, which might reveal clues into the pilots' efforts to save the plane as well as how passengers and crew perished, Pruchnicki said.
Still, accident investigators will have trouble merely retracing the debris field or multiple debris fields, likely swept hundreds of miles over the past 17 days from the initial crash site. Twisting ocean currents and poor weather conditions could hamper and prolong the search. Moreover, the depth of the ocean and rugged underwater terrain could make actual recovery difficult, said Al Yurman, a former National Transportation Safety Board accident investigator.
Recovering the aircraft's "black box" data recorders is key, said Pruchnicki, a former airline pilot. "That's the best-case scenario. There's about two hours of recording time on the cockpit voice recorder, so if there was an event going on, there'd be talk about smoke, about an intentional turn back."
"The worst-case scenario is if we don't find the boxes and there's limited wreckage because it's so scattered, the search area is so vast and recovery is impossible,'' he said. "There's lots of work ahead before we find out what happened."
Searchers are also racing against time — black box battery locators only have enough "ping" power for about 30 days, making the search even more difficult if it lasts beyond April 8.
Safety experts say locating the wreckage could prove more daunting than the nearly two-year, $40 million effort to recover flight data recorders from the June 2009 Air France Airbus that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 aboard as it headed from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. Wreckage and two bodies were located within five days, but the aircraft's black boxes were not recovered until May 2011. Accident investigators initially estimated a six-month search in an area 2.5 miles deep. Robot submarines eventually made 60 dives before retrieving the black boxes.
Monday, the Defense Department said the Navy's 7th Pacific Fleet is moving a black box locator to the region in case a debris field is found. The 30-inch locator, towed by a ship, is a hydrophone with listening capability to depths of 20,000 feet, says Cmdr. Chris Budde, an operations officer. The Defense Department has set aside $4 million to aid in the search until next month. The cost so far, including Navy search ships and aircraft, is about $2.5 million.
News of the aircraft's fate was met with outrage by victims' loved ones. The Chinese Family Committee, a coalition representing some victims' families, issued a scathing statement condemning Malaysian government and airline officials, saying both had delayed word of the crash and had "misguided and delayed information ... wasting a large quantity of human resources and materials and lost valuable time.''
In Beijing, some relatives shrieked and sobbed after hearing all was lost. One woman collapsed and fell on her knees, crying, "My son! My son!"
Najib acknowledged their heart-wrenching grief. "For them, the past few weeks have been heartbreaking; I know this news must be harder still."
Selamat Omar, father of Khairul Amri, a 29-year-old aircraft engineer on board the plane, said he was still trying to come to terms with the news. "I was living with the hope that my son was alive somewhere," Omar told USA TODAY. "Now I know he is no more. But this is fate. I will have to accept it. I hope the search to find the plane and my son will continue."
Sarah Bajc, the girlfriend of American passenger Philip Wood, said in an e-mail that she felt a need to "regroup" after the latest news. "The announcement is on data only, no confirmed wreckage so no real closure," Bajc wrote. "I need closure to be certain but cannot keep on with public efforts against all odds. I STILL feel his presence, so perhaps it was his soul all along."
Reached for comment, Aubrey Wood, Philip Wood's 76-year-old father, said, "I just can't talk to you right now."
Authorities based their conclusions about the fate of Flight 370 on fresh analysis of data by global satellite network operator Inmarsat. Satellites, as well as Chinese and Australian search aircraft, had also reported potential debris in an area about 1,500 miles southwest of Perth, Australia.
An Inmarsat satellite orbiting over the Indian Ocean received signals that lasted seven hours, providing a long arc of possible search areas. Inmarsat studied the compression and expansion of waves from the plane to determine whether it was moving toward or away from the satellite, and determined it was over the Indian Ocean, Chris McLaughlin, Inmarsat's senior vice president for external affairs, told CNN.
That's what suggested the plane had headed south, rather than north over land. McLaughlin called the technique "groundbreaking" for satellite signals but said it relied on traditional math and a process reviewed by Boeing and experts in space research.
John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the disappearance of Flight 370 was unusual because there usually is far more information to track a plane. Typically, a plane's transponder will send location signals, and aircraft have maintenance systems that relay information about engines and other equipment to airlines or manufacturers. Flight 370's two systems stopped signaling, either because they were turned off or damaged.
"It is remarkable that they have been able to piece as much together as they have from the very limited Inmarsat data," Hansman says. "I think that this case is essentially unprecedented."
The high-tech search benefited from satellites from Australia, China and France that spotted floating debris.
NASA also contributed to the search with a satellite and the ISERV camera aboard the International Space Station.
Contributing: Marisol Bello in McLean, Va., Bart Jansen and Ray Locker in Washington, D.C., and Calum MacLeod in Beijing.