A One-Man Quest for Answers in Malaysian Jet’s Disappearance
By AUSTIN RAMZYMARCH 5, 2016
Blaine Alan Gibson with the debris he discovered on the coast of Mozambique. Investigators are examining whether it could be from the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared almost two years ago. Credit Blaine Alan Gibson
HONG KONG — The search for the Malaysia Airlines jet that vanished almost two years ago has involved ships scanning thousands of square miles of the Indian Ocean seabed. But what could be the most promising development in months was the result of a lone man’s search, one that took him to an uninhabited sandbank along the coast of Mozambique.
Blaine Alan Gibson’s discovery of a triangular piece of fiberglass composite and aluminum, if it is confirmed to be from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, could add to the scant concrete evidence of what happened to the Boeing 777. The plane, with 239 people aboard, disappeared on March 8, 2014, during a flight from Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, to Beijing.
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Like much of the world, Mr. Gibson, a lawyer from Seattle, said he had become intrigued by the fate of the plane while watching the intensive news coverage after its disappearance. He attended events in Kuala Lumpur marking the first anniversary of the flight, and after meeting with families of missing passengers, he decided to pursue his own investigation.
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“I’m intrigued by mysteries that need to be solved and am also touched by the families who have had two years with almost no answers at all,” Mr. Gibson said by telephone from Bangkok, where he had flown en route to Kuala Lumpur for an event Sunday marking the second anniversary of the disappearance.
“I had some spare time and spare money, so I decided to travel to a few places to get an idea of what may have happened,” he said.
The quest has taken him to Myanmar, to look for debris in the Andaman Sea and examine local radar capabilities. He went to the Maldives to speak with people who claimed to have seen a low-flying plane on the day of the flight. He visited the French island of Réunion, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, where the only confirmed debris from the plane to date, a part of an airplane wing called a flaperon, was found in July.
Mr. Gibson, 58, said that his travels were part of a lifelong desire to visit all of the world’s countries, and that he tried to investigate mysteries along the way. He traveled to Russia in the early 1990s to investigate the so-called Tunguska event, in which a meteor is believed to have struck a Siberian forest in 1908. He has volunteered on archaeological projects in Belize and Guatemala to study the collapse of the Maya civilization. And he visited Ethiopia on a quest to find out what happened to the Ark of the Covenant.
“I was going to some monasteries and at the same time traveling in an interesting and beautiful country,” he said of his Ethiopia trip. “I love to travel, but I like to have some sort of reason. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is another one of those.”
He joined a Facebook discussion group on the missing flight, which spurred his interest in researching its fate. He went to East Africa in February, after an Australian oceanographer told him that debris from the aircraft could eventually wash ashore in Mauritius, Madagascar and Mozambique. Mozambique became the 177th country he has visited, he said. After touring Maputo, the capital, he went to the beach town of Vilankulo, where he hired a boat to take him any place where debris from the open ocean washed ashore.
On the morning of Feb. 27, he sailed with Suleman Valy, who is known as Junior and runs a local beach hotel and guide service, and a boat captain to a sandbar called Paluma.
“We landed on an island with, like, no vegetation and walked around, up and down,” Mr. Gibson said. “Most of the stuff there was just regular beach junk that I always see — plastic bottles, sandals, cigarette lighters. Suddenly Junior calls out.”
The piece they discovered, about a meter long, is fiberglass composite with honeycombed aluminum inside. The words “No Step” are written on one side. Investigators told NBC News, which first reported the discovery, that it could be from the horizontal stabilizer on the tail of the plane.
Mr. Gibson returned to Maputo and handed over the object to the authorities there. Officials in Australia, which has been coordinating the Indian Ocean search, said it would be sent there for testing.
Liow Tiong Lai, the Malaysian minister of transport, wrote on Twitter that based on early reports, there was a “high possibility” that the debris belonged to a Boeing 777, but he cautioned it had yet to be verified. Darren Chester, the Australian minister for infrastructure and transport, said in a statement that the location of the discovery “is consistent with drift modeling commissioned by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau and reaffirms the search area” in the Indian Ocean.
Australia has been leading a search of about 46,000 square miles in the southern Indian Ocean, where transmissions between Flight 370 and a satellite indicate the plane crashed into the water, after veering off its initial course and flying south for hours. The search is expected to be finished by the middle of this year; if no more data is uncovered to suggest a new search area, the effort will be called off, officials have said. It has cost more than $100 million, with contributions from Australia, Malaysia and China. (Most of the passengers on the flight were Chinese.)
Like the officials, Mr. Gibson expressed caution about concluding that the object he found is from Flight 370. The sooner “it gets to Australia and they determine it’s one thing or another, the better,” he said.
As for his personal quest to discover what happened to the plane, he is still far from drawing a conclusion.
“I don’t think there’s sufficient evidence to support any theory,” he said. “I try to look at the evidence, try to find evidence rather than come up with a theory. And there’s some crazy ones out there.”