Uncertainty haunts Flight 370 relatives as weather delays search
(CNN) -- Malaysian officials say they can tell you how Flight 370 ended. It crashed into the Indian Ocean, they'll say, citing complicated math as proof.
They can tell you when it probably happened -- on March 8, sometime between 8:11 and 9:15 a.m. (7:11 to 8:15 p.m. ET), handing you a sheet with extraordinarily technical details about satellite communications technology.
What they still can't tell you is why, or precisely where, or show you a piece of the wreckage.
All those uncertainties are too much for relatives of the 239 people aboard the plane, some of whom marched to the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing to denounce the airline, the country and just about everything involved with an investigation that has transfixed the world and vexed experts.
"I'm so mad," one upset family member told reporters. He said he felt there was "no evidence" that the passenger jet crashed in the Indian Ocean.
"If you find something: OK, we accept," he said. "But nothing -- just from the data, just from analysis."
Malaysian authorities say they know the news is hard to take. But Tuesday, acting Malaysian Transportation Minister Hishammuddin Hussein defended the decision to release the analysis, and the heartbreaking conclusions that flowed from it.
"It was released out of a commitment to openness and respect for the relatives, two principles which have guided the investigation," he said.
That investigation now focuses on an area of the southern Indian Ocean off Australia's west coast, where authorities believe the plane went down after a long, odd, unexplained flight that should have ended hours before in Beijing.
On a day when rough weather held up any efforts to find the plane, Hishammuddin said authorities have stopped searching for the plane altogether along a northern arc that stretched from Vietnam to Kazakhstan. Analysis of data by British satellite company Inmarsat and British accident investigators show the Boeing 777-200ER was heading south at last contact, he said.
Commercial satellite data from a U.S. company, first analyzed by Australian officials, as well as satellite imagery from China and France, have turned up evidence of debris bobbing in the general area where authorities believe the plane went down.
Australian and Chinese surveillance planes have both reported seeing debris on the water, but so far nothing has been recovered or definitively linked to the missing flight.
Authorities cautioned that despite the narrowing the search area, it could still be some time before crews find any sign of the airplane.
"We're not searching for a needle in a haystack," Mark Binskin, vice chief of the Australian Defence Force, told reporters. "We're still trying to define where the haystack is."
Bad weather blocks search
Tuesday's search was called off on account of weather, Australian officials said.
Gale-force winds, large waves, heavy rain and low clouds were lashing the search area, making it impossible to dispatch surveillance planes to the scene and making it all but impossible to spot anything from ships.
The search is expected to resume Wednesday with 12 aircraft. Four Chinese vessels are also expected to join the search. And equipment to locate the plane's locator beacon is expected to arrive Wednesday from the United States.
But even with more searchers and equipment and calmer weather, the effort will still face severe challenges.
The area is extraordinarily remote -- some 1,500 miles from Perth, Australia, where military surveillance planes capable of searching the site are being based. It is also astoundingly large --- some 400,000 to 500,000 square miles of ocean.
"With eight hours of flying to and from the search region, the fleet of P-3 Orion aircraft and other military aircraft have only a precious few hours to scour the search tracks they have been given," Australian Defence Minister David Johnston said.
To complicate matters, debris that may have been floating days ago, when some of the satellite images were taken, could have sunk by now. Other debris may have drifted hundreds of miles.
And time is running out to find the flight data recorder, whose locator beacon is expected to stop working sometime around April 7.
More than half a million square kilometers (193,000 square miles) have been searched to date, Australian authorities said.
Crash conclusion explained
Hishammuddin spent part of Tuesday's briefing explaining how investigators came to the conclusion that the plane must have gone into the southern Indian Ocean.
He said the analysis was based on sophisticated mathematics calculating how long it took signals from a transmitter on the plane to reach an orbiting Inmarsat communications satellite.
Much like the horn from a passing car whose pitch rises as it approaches and then falls as it races away, engineers were able examine the satellite's signal and determine it had to be moving south, he said.
Engineers checked their calculations against data from other Boeing 777 flights that day and found their technique was sound, he said.
One mystery remains in the data: The plane's transmitter and satellite tried to make one final connection at 8:19 a.m.
"At this time this transmission is not understood and is subject to further ongoing work," he said.
The analysis shows that the plane didn't answer a ping from the satellite ground station at 9:15 a.m. (8:15 p.m. ET), leading investigators to conclude the plane's satellite transmitter stopped working sometime between 8:11 and 9:15 a.m.
"This," Hishammuddin said, "is consistent with the maximum endurance of the aircraft."
Malaysia has convened an international working group to help further narrow the search area. It involves agencies with "expertise in satellite communications and aircraft performance," he said.
It will build on the existing analysis of satellite data in hopes of pinpointing a more exact location for the plane's location.
What happened to cause the plane to veer off course and presumably crash into the Indian Ocean hours after it was supposed to arrive in Beijing remains unknown. Authorities and analysts have speculated anything from mechanical failure to terrorism to pilot suicide could have played a role.
Police have interviewed scores of people, and the Royal Malaysian Air Force is conducting its own inquiry into the disappearance, authorities say.
Anguished families react
Tuesday's announcement was met with anger by relatives, many of whom said it was premature to declare their loved ones dead before locating any wreckage or bodies. Others accused Malaysian officials of lying or concealing facts.
Passengers first learned of the conclusion that the plane had crashed via a text message sent to their cell phones. Malaysian authorities followed up with briefings for families in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
"They have told us all lives are lost," a missing passenger's relative briefed by the airline in Beijing said Monday.
In Beijing, hundreds of friends and family members of missing passengers marched to the Malaysian Embassy to express their anger and frustration.
Uniformed police blocked journalists from joining the protesters as they approached the gates of the embassy. One woman in the crowd, overcome by stress and emotion, was carried to a nearby ambulance on a stretcher.
James Wood, whose brother Philip was one of three American passengers on the plane, said the announcement, followed by the suspension of the search because of weather, "almost felt like a miniature roller coaster within the day."
Families are stuck in a "holding pattern," he told CNN's "AC360."
"We're just waiting and waiting," he said, "and not getting any answers one way or another."
Malaysian officials said they are doing all they can.
Prime Minister Najib Razak explained Tuesday that he decided to make his official announcement Monday because he did not want the government to be seen as hiding information on purpose from the families of the missing passengers.
In an address to Parliament in Kuala Lumpur, he said his statement was based on "the most conclusive information we have."
Malaysia Airlines said Tuesday it has offered family members financial support of $5,000 for each passenger aboard the ill-fated flight and was preparing to make additional payments as the prolonged search continues.
CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya told reporters the airline shares in the families' grief.
"We all feel enormous sorrow and pain," he said Tuesday. "Sorrow that all those who boarded Flight MH370 on Saturday 8th March, will not see their families again. And that those families will now have to live on without those they love."