SAINT-ANDRÉ, France (AFP) - Johnny Begue had no idea as he wandered along the shore looking for a pebble to grind up chillies that he would stumble across a piece of plane wreckage which would draw the eyes of the world to his tiny island home.
Begue leads a team of eight people charged with cleaning up the coastline and a popular fitness trail in the town of Saint-Andre on the east of the French island of La Reunion, AFP reported.
During an early morning break on Wednesday he wandered off to find a pebble which he planned to use as a pestle to grind up chillies - a key feature of the melting-pot cuisine on the Indian Ocean island whose white, palm-fringed beaches are a favourite among tourists.
"It was then that I saw a weird thing on the shore," said Begue, who called his colleagues over to check it out.
"I immediately saw that it was a piece of a plane," said his colleague Cedric Gobalsoumy.
The two-metre long piece of wreckage, which experts have said appears to be from a wing, was half covered in sand and had barnacles encrusted on its edges.
The group dragged it onto solid ground "to avoid it being swept into the sea", said Gobalsoumy.
Little did they know the piece of debris would spark a storm of speculation and hope that it could be from missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and solve one of aviation's greatest enigmas.
In the moments after their discovery they thought they would just leave the piece of wreckage for "people walking along the fitness trail and tourists to see".
But Gobalsoumy said he quickly realised "we can't do that".
"A piece of a plane in the sea is not normal. We told ourselves that people could have died in this aircraft and that their families would want to know."
They decided to alert local police forces.
Further adding to the mystery, what appeared to be a piece of luggage was discovered in the same place as the plane wreckage on Thursday. “It is really weird, it gives me the shivers,” said Begue.
The fragment of material from what is believed to be the suitcase includes the closed zip. “The piece of luggage was here since yesterday but nobody really paid attention,” Begue added.
Local air transport police who have been studying the plane debris also picked up the piece of luggage on Thursday.
- 'Even CNN is talking about us' -
"Then a colleague went online with his cellphone and searched for information on plane accidents and found the Malaysian story," said Begue.
The small group of cleaners were not the only ones to make the connection with the missing Malaysian flight and the news quickly spread around the world as investigators scrambled to inspect the debris.
"I didn't know that by going to find a pestle to crush my chillies I would become famous," said Begue.
Many are amused by the sudden attention of the world's media to the sleepy island most often cited in relation to its 18 shark attacks - seven deadly - since 2011.
"For once they are not talking about us because of shark attacks, it is good," said 23-year-old student Anna Grondin.
"It is crazy, even CNN in America is talking about us and showing the island on a map. It will stop mainlanders (in France) from situating La Reunion among the French Antilles" in the Caribbean said Jean-Marc Alagama, 43.
Malaysian experts have been sent to the island, but authorities have urged caution in jumping to conclusions about the origin of the wing.