MH370: Reunion Island thrust into spotlight

A piece of debris that washed up on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion Image copyright AFP
Image caption The piece of plane wing found on the beach has been taken from Reunion to France for closer inspection

As French officials all but confirm that the "flaperon" or piece of plane wing discovered on an Indian Ocean beach last week belongs to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, the people of Reunion Island are still a little stunned by it all.

They've been thrust into the global spotlight on a scale never seen before. The recent volcanic eruption here and the damage caused by the Asian tsunami in 2004 have been eclipsed by this astonishing find, says Camile Sudre, a former doctor and politician who now runs Radio Freedom.

It all began last week when the radio station took a phone call from a council worker, Jonny Begue, which left production staff wondering whether it was a hoax.

"He gets through to the operator, who doesn't believe him," Sudre recalls. "She says: 'You must be joking - a piece of wing?' And so she was hesitant about putting him on air."

What followed what may be an extraordinary revelation: the discovery of a piece of plane wing, encrusted in barnacles, washed up on the beach more than 3,700km (2,300 miles) away from the main search site in the southern Indian Ocean.

A week later, the French territory of Reunion was holding its breath - its precious cargo now in the custody of French, Malaysian and American experts gathered at a defence facility in Toulouse, southern France.

Checks are being made on the portion of plane wing, on the barnacles that cling to its surface, and the manufacturer's markings that match the numbers listed in manuals for the Boeing 777 model of plane.

News that the fragment is from MH370 has opened the possibility of more debris still to be found. But the chances that more fragments of plane will end up on Reunion are "unlikely", according to an oceanographer on the island, Dr Roland Trouadec.

He tells me that the direction of the powerful Southern Equatorial current was influenced by a multitude of factors. Water temperature, salinity, wind speed, water density and the rotation of the Earth all determine the direction of travel. So does the depth at which "wreckage" ends up in the sea, and we don't know precisely how or where flight MH370 went down.

"If you look at Reunion on a map, it is only a pinpoint in the ocean. For the piece of the plane to arrive on this island is remarkable," Dr Trouadec says.

He adds that the probability of finding wreckage "increases if the island's coastline is bigger. I'm thinking for example of Madagascar, which is a long thin island from north to south".

Madagascar has been mentioned by other experts as a possibly destination for drifting debris, but its infrastructure is relatively poor and there are concerns that less sophisticated communication facilities mean that people may have only heard the initial news reports 16 months ago of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, and nothing since.

The tragedy of the disappearing aircraft left the families of those who simply vanished facing an agonising wait for the truth, marine geologists puzzling over the science of the sea, and the rest of the world baffled by an astonishing find on an island far the main MH370 search zone.