An American who discovered an aircraft part in Mozambique that may be from missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 says he initially thought it was from a much smaller plane.
Blaine Gibson, who has been searching the region's beaches for the debris, said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday that a boat operator who took him to a sandbank named Paluma called him over after seeing a piece of debris with "NO STEP" written on it.
He 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.
The location of the debris turned up in a spot that matches investigators' theories about where wreckage from the plane would have ended up, according to Australian officials.
The plane is believed to have crashed somewhere in a remote stretch of the southern Indian Ocean far off Australia's west coast and about 6000 kilometres to the east of Mozambique.
But 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.
Gibson, from Seattle, said the piece of debris that he discovered is in the hands of civil aviation authorities in Mozambique, and that he expects it to be transferred to their Australian counterparts.
"It's important to keep it in perspective," Gibson said. "This is about the families of the 239 victims, who haven't seen their relatives for two years now."
Photos of the debris appear to show the fixed leading edge of the right-hand tail section of a Boeing 777, said a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Flight 370 is the only known missing 777.
Australian Transport Minister Darren Chester said Thursday the location of the debris in Mozambique matches investigators' drift modelling and would therefore confirm that search crews are looking in the right part of the Indian Ocean for the main underwater wreckage.
Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai also said the location of the debris lines up with investigators' predictions.
Malaysian representatives from the nation's Civil Aviation department and Malaysia Airlines were heading to Mozambique to discuss the find, Liow said.
From the pictures shown, it's a high probability that the plane debris is from Boeing 777, Liow told reporters. He did not know how long it would be before the part was sent to Australia. Meanwhile, authorities in Mozambique were searching the area where it was found for other potential debris, Liow said.
Some have expressed scepticism that the part could be from the missing aircraft because it appears to be remarkably clean and free of sea life - unlike the barnacle-encrusted wing part that washed ashore on the French island of Reunion last year. That part, known as a flaperon, remains the only confirmed trace of Flight 370.
But Charitha Pattiaratchi, an oceanographer with the University of Western Australia, said if the part was discovered on a sandbank, the motion of the waves pushing it against the abrasive sand may have shaved any sea life off it.
"If somebody actually found it in the middle of the ocean while they were sailing and picked it up, I would say, 'Well, that should have some barnacles,"' he said. "But if it's been on a beach, it's basically been sandblasted."
Also, the part appears to be very flat and barnacles need something to grip, he said.
Last year, Pattiaratchi met with Gibson. Pattiaratchi has used computer modelling to predict where floating debris might end up and Gibson wanted to get Pattiaratchi's opinion on where to look. Pattiaratchi's models showed it would likely end up around Madagascar or Reunion Island, and possibly in the Mozambique Channel.