The costliest, most thorough, most painstaking search for airplane wreckage in history has been called off.
The three-year, $160 million effort to find out what happened to Flight MH370 mounted by Malaysia, Australia and China was officially suspended — though not officially closed — on Wednesday.
The cause of the plane’s disappearance with 239 people on board, and its final resting place, have been relegated to the unsolved mysteries file of aviation history.
For now, that is. Officials did not rule out resuming the search if compelling new evidence should turn up. The re-entry strategy is a response to the moral imperative, as well as to the outrage of the families of the missing.
Some of the families reacted to the announcement with predictable anger.
As Danica Weeks, who lost her husband Paul on MH370, told Australian Associated Press: “It is their plane, their responsibility, they’re the ones that promised they would bring them home and now they are just giving up,” she said. “We will keep fighting. If Malaysia thinks it’s just going to disappear on them then they have got another think coming … I’m not going to leave him out there or wherever he is, we’re not going to leave our loved ones out there.”
A support group, Voice 370, issued a statement saying that extending the search is “an inescapable duty owed to the flying public.”
Officials in the search group had to face the terrible question: When do you stop looking?
In a public statement on Wednesday, Australia’s Transport Minister Darren Chester sought to explain: “The decision came not lightly. But in the absence of new credible evidence it is not possible to continue searching. Every effort has been made. We have used the most high-tech [methods] and the best people for this search.”
The three governments decided last year that once the designated 46,000 square miles search zone — about the size of the state of Ohio — was scoured, the operation would be terminated unless some new lead emerged.
Acceptance of that deadline might have come somewhat more easily if it were not for a new search zone recently identified by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. Using drift modeling, the scientists calculated that the point of origin of debris from MH370 that washed ashore in the western Indian Ocean was in a 9,700-square mile area to the north of where the search had been conducted up until then.
In other words, they may have been looking in the wrong place for the last three years.
Despite the offer of new hope, Chester and his colleagues did not seize upon this information as the kind of “new credible evidence” that would justify an extension of the search. It is not evidence in the sense that additional debris or a “black box” would be. It is a calculation. And however sophisticated the science behind it, it still amounts to highly educated guesswork. Not enough to go on, they decided.
Clearly, that’s not an answer that will still the anguish and sense of grievance of those who lost loved ones in the disaster.
“They said they are quite sure that they were searching the right place, but it seems that they are wrong,” said Steve Wang, who lost his mother on the flight. “I think it is their responsibility to give an answer to the whole world … what really happened to MH370.”
As often happens in such cases, those expressing the strongest emotions catch the attention of the media. The angry and the accusatory make headlines, while those who accept harsh judgments without casting blame aren’t heard from. Not that the former don’t have a legitimate claim, but the impression given that theirs is the only or representative voice is untrue.
In fact, Chester said that family members he spoke to “in the last 24 hours” had been “very understanding of the decision that has been reached by the three governments” during their “emotional time.”
“Some were aware that we were approaching the completion of the priority search area (and) they were very thankful to the ATSB and the experts and the searchers for the work they’ve done. They were very appreciative of the Australian government’s effort and understood the decision.”
In any case, for the foreseeable future, the question of what happened to MH370 will remain a question without an answer.
Once again we are reminded that sometimes there are questions that have no answers. Even in 2017, technology cannot solve every problem, human ingenuity cannot unravel every mystery, and governments and corporations, even with the best intentions in the world, cannot always find answers or provide solace for the bereaved. It’s not that they are hiding anything; they just don’t know.
It is a sobering, humbling lesson for all mortals in the limitations of human endeavor.