SAINT-ANDRE, Reunion – Johnny Begue was out collecting stones on the French Indian Ocean island he calls home when he says he saw part of an airplane wing washed up in the sand.
The fragment may be the first clue to what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared last year with 293 people aboard. Massive search efforts have failed to find any sign of the plane, and authorities are analyzing the piece to see if it matches the missing plane.
"I knew immediately it was part of an aircraft, but I didn't realize how important it was, that it could help to solve the mystery of what happened to the Malaysian jet," Begue, 46, told The Associated Press on Thursday.
Begue is the supervisor of workers who maintain the paths to the beaches in the Saint-Andre area, keeping them from being overgrown by the lush tropical shrubs.
He said he called several of his workmates and they carried the wing fragment out of the water so that it would not be battered by the surf against the volcanic rocks that make up most of the beach.
Authorities wouldn't comment Thursday on whether Begue was the first to report discovering the component. Colleague Teddy Riviere corroborated his account, and praised him for the discovery. Members of Begue's soccer team kidded him on his new fame in local media.
Begue said he also discovered a piece of a suitcase nearby. But it's unclear whether there is any link between that and the plane part.
Though authorities are still determining whether the plane piece came from Flight 370, Begue said Thursday night, "We are going out in the morning to start making a memorial. We will use stones and maybe plant some flowers at the site."
"We want to show respect for the people who died," he said.
He said he called Radio Freedom, his favorite station in Reunion, and the police after he found the wing part. And within hours the world came to the realization that the aircraft debris on the desolate beach on the island of Reunion was possibly from Flight 370.
"I was walking on the beach, looking for stones that are used to grind spices," said Begue. "And there it was. It was very big, you couldn't miss it."
Begue is still getting used to the significance of the find.
"At first we didn't know what it was. But now I understand. I am proud that Reunion is known for this big event."