JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The Mozambican sandbank where a possible piece of a missing Malaysian airliner was found is in waters with treacherous currents and is not normally visited by tourists, a hotel owner said Friday.
Tony Manna, who owns a beachfront hotel in the Mozambican town of Vilankulo, said American adventurer Blaine Gibson was a guest at Manna's lodge, the Varanda, when he discovered debris that could be a piece of tail section from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared March 8, 2014 with 239 people aboard.
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Manna said he connected Gibson with a boat operator nicknamed "Junior," who took the American to the Paluma sandbank and first spotted the debris there.
The location is "not even an island, it's a sandbank in a dangerous area" that can only be reached by experienced mariners who know the waters, Manna said. Fishermen sometimes go there to collect rope and other washed up debris that might be useful for their work, he said.
The Boeing 777 flew far off course for unknown reasons after leaving Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March 8, 2014. An ongoing search of the southern Indian Ocean has found no trace of the plane, though a wing part from the aircraft washed ashore on Reunion Island last year.
Gibson said in an interview with the AP on Thursday that he initially thought the piece that he and the boat operator found was from a small plane, and not from the missing airliner. Gibson, who is from Seattle, said the debris is with civil aviation authorities in Mozambique, and that he expects it to be transferred to their Australian counterparts.
Manna described Gibson as a sincere man who is also somewhat eccentric. He recalled that Gibson was emotional after the discovery of the debris.
"I was happy because maybe that little piece can give some peace to all those families" of the people who were aboard the missing airliner, Manna said.
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."
Associated Press writers Kristen Gelineau in Sydney and Rod McGuirk in Canberra contributed to this report.
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