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SAINT ANDRE, Reunion — As MH370 investigators prepare to analyze a Boeing 777 wing component at a French laboratory, the coastal town where it was found is looking for ways to cement its place in aviation history.
If experts confirm the flaperon is from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, it will be the first piece of wreckage found since the jet disappeared 16 months ago. That would mean the farming town of Saint Andre played a critical role in solving one of the greatest aviation mysteries of modern times.
Saint Andre's mayor, Jean-Paul Virapoullé, wants to give relatives of MH370 passengers a place to grieve and has suggested installing a plaque with the names of the 289 people aboard the doomed jet.
"I think we should respect the pain of the [MH370] families. It is their tragedy," he told local news channel Antenne Reunion. "This town will work on it hand in hand with the families and the governments concerned."
Boer Lesbeu, manager of the town's civic outreach office, said a plaque would be "a way to show that we are thinking of the relatives, to express our concern."
"People here are kind and they want to show that," Lesbeu said.
She said the plan for a memorial was an example of “something positive that we can do” around a tragedy and praised locals for demonstrating compassion in the wake of the debris discovery.
"They were quick to mobilize, getting out onto the beach to look for other possible debris,” Lesbeu said. “The town has been in the eyes of the world and people have responded.”
Tourism leaders also have embraced this French island’s moment in the spotlight, offering to take television crews on helicopter rides over its active volcanoes.
Visitor numbers to the island were dented by the strong euro currency and the financial crisis, but have partly recovered, with a 10 percent increase over the past two years.
“This is a tragedy, undoubtedly, but also an opportunity for us,” said Patrick Serveaux, president of the Reunion tourism committee. “We have a reputation for our hospitality and we want to make people welcome, including people brought here because of the Malaysia Airlines plane.
“People had heard of Mauritius but maybe not Reunion. Now we are on the map,” he said.
Local residents, though, were divided over what role Reunion should play in the MH370 drama.
“People can come here and grieve, we will welcome them,” said Juan Cortes, 36, who works as a gardener in the Parc du Colosse, municipal park overlooking the beach where the wing component was found. “They should have a place where they can go.”
However, Christian Tirel, 48, a local security guard, was not convinced.
“I think it should be in Malaysia or China,” said “The passengers are not from here, they are from other countries. This is just where the piece happened to come. We are not the main part of this incredible story.”