WATCH: Possible debris from missing flight spotted in South China Sea.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -Vietnamese authorities searching waters for the missing Boeing 777 jetliner spotted an object Sunday that they suspected was one of the plane’s doors, as international intelligence agencies joined the investigation into two passengers who boarded the aircraft with stolen passports.
More than a day and half after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 went missing, no confirmed debris from the plane had been found, and the final minutes before it disappeared remained a mystery. The plane, which was carrying 239 people, lost contact with ground controllers somewhere between Malaysia and Vietnam after leaving Kuala Lumpur early Saturday morning for Beijing.
WATCH: Families of passengers on missing Malaysian airlines plane are demanding answers. Robin Stickley reports
The state-run Thanh Nien newspaper cited Lt. Gen. Vo Van Tuan, deputy chief of staff of Vietnam’s army, as saying searchers in a low-flying plane had spotted an object suspected of being a door from the missing jet. It was found in waters about 90 kilometers (56 miles) south of Tho Chu island, in the same area where oil slicks were spotted Saturday.
“From this object, hopefully (we) will find the missing plane,” Tuan said. Thanh Nien said two ships from the maritime police were heading to the site.
— Vu Trong Khanh (@TrongKhanhVu) March 9, 2014
The missing plane apparently fell from the sky at cruising altitude in fine weather, and the pilots were either unable or had no time to send a distress signal – unusual circumstances under which a modern jetliner operated by a professional airline would crash.
Military radar indicates that the missing Boeing 777 jet turned back before vanishing, Malaysia’s air force chief said Sunday as authorities were investigating up to four passengers with suspicious identifications who may have boarded the flight.
Vietnamese air force jets spotted two large oil slicks Saturday, but it was unclear if they were linked to the missing plane, and no debris was found nearby.
Air force chief Rodzali Daud didn’t say which direction the plane might have taken or how long for when it apparently went off route.
“We are trying to make sense of this,” he told a media conference. “The military radar indicated that the aircraft may have made a turn back and in some parts, this was corroborated by civilian radar.”
Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said pilots were supposed to inform the airline and traffic control authorities if the plane does a U-turn. “From what we have, there was no such distress signal or distress call per se, so we are equally puzzled,” he said.
Two-thirds of the jet’s passengers were Chinese. The rest were from elsewhere in Asia, North America and Europe.
The flight manifest identifies the two Canadians as Xiaomo Bai, 37, and Muktesh Mukherjee, 42.
Mukherjee and Bai were married and lived with their two children in Beijing, where Mukherjee was working for Pennsylvania-based Xcoal Energy & Resources, CEO Ernie Thrasher said in an email to The Canadian Press.
After more than 30 hours without contact with the aircraft, Malaysia Airlines told family members they should “prepare themselves for the worst,” Hugh Dunleavy, the commercial director for the airline told reporters.
Authorities were checking on the suspect identities of at least two passengers who appear to have boarded with stolen passports. On Saturday, the foreign ministries in Italy and Austria said the names of two citizens listed on the flight’s manifest matched the names on two passports reported stolen in Thailand.
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This, and the sudden disappearance of the plane that experts say is consistent with a possible onboard explosion, strengthened existing concerns about terrorism as a possible cause for the disappearance. Al-Qaida militants have used similar tactics to try and disguise their identities.
The thefts of the two passports — one belonging to Austrian Christian Kozel and the other to Luigi Maraldi of Italy — were entered into Interpol’s database after they were stolen in Thailand, the police body said. Kozel’s passport was stolen in 2012 and Maraldi’s last July.
Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that authorities were looking at two more possible cases of suspicious identities. He said Malaysian intelligence agencies were in contact with their international counterparts, including the FBI. He gave no more details.
“All the four names are with me and have been given to our intelligence agencies,” he said. “We are looking at all possibilities.”
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Interpol says no country checked its database that held information about two stolen passports that were used to board an ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight with 239 people on board.
In a sharply worded criticism of shortcomings of national passport controls, the Lyon, France-based international police body said information about the thefts of an Austrian passport in 2012 and an Italian passport last year was entered into its database after they were stolen in Thailand.
A total of 22 aircraft and 40 ships have been deployed to the area by Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, China and the United States, not counting Vietnam’s fleet.
Finding traces of an aircraft that disappears over sea can take days or longer, even with a sustained search effort. Depending on the circumstances of the crash, wreckage can be scattered over many square kilometres. If the plane enters the water before breaking up, there can be relatively little debris.
A team of American experts was en route to Asia to be ready to assist in the investigation into the crash. The team includes accident investigators from National Transportation Safety Board, as well as technical experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, the safety board said in a statement.
Malaysia Airlines has a good safety record, as does the 777, which had not had a fatal crash in its 19-year history until an Asiana Airlines plane crashed last July in San Francisco, killing three passengers, all Chinese teenagers.
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Investigators will need access to the flight data recorders to determine what happened.
Aviation and terrorism experts said revelations about stolen passports would strengthen speculation of foul play. They also acknowledged other scenarios, including some catastrophic failure of the engines or structure of the plane, extreme turbulence or pilot error or even suicide, were also possible.
Jason Middleton, the head of the Sydney-based University of New South Wales’ School of Aviation, said terrorism or some other form of foul play seemed a likely explanation.
“You’re looking at some highly unexpected thing, and the only ones people can think of are basically foul play, being either a bomb or some immediate incapacitating of the pilots by someone doing the wrong thing and that might lead to an airplane going straight into the ocean,” Middleton said. “With two stolen passports (on board), you’d have to suspect that that’s one of the likely options.”
Just 9 per cent of fatal accidents happen when a plane is at cruising altitude, according to a statistical summary of commercial jet accidents done by Boeing. Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said Saturday there was no indication the pilots had sent a distress signal.
The plane was last inspected 10 days ago and found to be “in proper condition,” Ignatius Ong, CEO of Malaysia Airlines subsidiary Firefly airlines, said at a news conference.
© 2014 The Canadian Press