MAPUTO, Mozambique (AP) — An American adventurer said Thursday that he discovered part of an aircraft on a sandbar off the coast of Mozambique and initially thought it was from a small plane, and not from the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared two years ago with 239 people aboard.
If confirmed that the piece of tail section came from Flight 370, a small piece of the puzzle will have been found, but it might not be enough to help solve one of aviation's greatest mysteries.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Blaine Gibson described how a boat operator took him to a sandbar named Paluma and then called him over after seeing a piece of debris with "NO STEP" written on it.
"It was so light," said Gibson, who has told reporters that he has spent a long time searching for evidence of missing Flight 370.
Photos of the debris appear to show the fixed leading edge of the right-hand tail section of a Boeing 777, said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. Flight 370 is the only known missing 777.
Gibson said the discovery happened after he decided to go "somewhere exposed to the ocean" on the last day of a trip to the Mozambican coastal town of Vilankulo.
"At first, all I found were usual beach detritus — flip flops, cigarette lighters. Then 'Junior' called me over," said Gibson, using the nickname of the boat operator.
"I think, 'Wow, this looks like it's from an airplane but it looks like it's from a small airplane because it's very light and very thin. But I suppose there's a chance that it could be from the plane or from one of those others.'
"In any case, it needs to be preserved, brought to the authorities and investigated," he said. "So yes, my heart was thumping, there was anticipation, there was excitement."
But Gibson said he wants "to exercise caution. We don't yet know what this piece is ... Until it's been investigated by the experts, I warn not to jump to any conclusions."
After being interviewed, Gibson went to the Maputo airport to take a flight to Malaysia to participate in second anniversary commemorations of the disappearance.
"It's important to keep it in perspective," Gibson said of his find. "This is about the families of the 239 victims, who haven't seen their relatives for two years now."
Gibson, who is from Seattle, said the piece of debris is now in the hands of civil aviation authorities in Mozambique, and that he expects it to be transferred to their Australian counterparts.
On Friday, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau's chief commissioner Martin Dolan, who is heading up the search for the plane off Australia's west coast, said the part should arrive in the nation's capital, Canberra, early next week. It is being taken to Australia rather than Malaysia because the ATSB has facilities set up for examining aircraft wreckage and trained technical staff on hand to help, he said. The part will be analyzed by multiple people, including ATSB materials failure experts, with Boeing representatives and the Malaysian investigation team giving advice.
Investigators hope that once the part arrives, they will be able to confirm whether or not the piece is from Flight 370 within a matter of days, Dolan said.
"All that we know is that it's a piece from an aircraft. It's sufficiently similar to a part from a large passenger aircraft, possibly a 777, for us to want to take a close look at it," Dolan told the AP. "At this stage, we have no conclusive evidence as to what it is or where it comes from."
Even if confirmed to be from Flight 370, Dolan said it was too early to speculate on whether the part could shed any light on what happened to the aircraft, including whether it could clarify if someone was at the controls when the plane hit the water.
The search team has been operating on the theory that no one was steering the plane when it crashed, but some critics have argued there may have been someone controlling the plane at the end of its flight. If that was the case, the plane could have glided much further than investigators believe, thus tripling in size the search area.
"That's the sort of thing we'll have to do a very close analysis of this part (to find out), if indeed it is associated with MH370," Dolan said. "The question we will have to establish to the best of our ability is what level of energy was involved in the aircraft colliding with the water to have led to the separation of the part."
Gibson said that he had come to Mozambique as part of a dream to see every country in the world.
"It has been my ambition since I was 7 to visit every country in the world. Malawi was number 176, Mozambique was number 177," he said.
According to New York Magazine, Gibson has also spent much of the past year searching for traces of the missing airliner. Gibson has traveled to the Maldives to investigate reports of a plane flying low at the time of the disappearance, Reunion Island to interview a man who found another section of the plane, and met with former Australian Transport Minister Warren Truss to discuss Australia's seabed search for the plane.
The plane disappeared on March 8, 2014, and is believed to have crashed somewhere in a remote stretch of the southern Indian Ocean about 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) east of Mozambique. Authorities have long predicted that any debris from the plane that isn't on the ocean floor would eventually be carried by currents to the east coast of Africa.
Australian Transport Minister Darren Chester said Thursday the location of the debris in Mozambique matches investigators' drift modeling and would therefore confirm that search crews are looking in the right place for the main underwater wreckage. Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai also said the location of the debris lines up with investigators' predictions.
Gelineau reported from Sydney. Associated Press writers Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Joan Lowy in Washington and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that Warren Truss is a former Australian transport minister rather than prime minister.