BEIJING – The two-day, multination search for a vanished Malaysia Airlines passenger jet has turned up an unconfirmed fragment of debris but delivered few other clues about one of the most confounding aviation disasters in recent memory.
Malaysian authorities said Sunday that the plane might have turned around before disappearing from radar without a distress call. But other aviation experts said the aircraft probably plummeted suddenly or disintegrated at cruising altitude.
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official said there were no indications of an act of terrorism, although nothing had been ruled out. At least two of the 227 passengers had boarded with stolen passports.
Forty ships and 34 aircraft from eight countries have combed Southeast Asian waters for any sign of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, and Sunday the search expanded into areas well beyond the plane’s intended flight path. In the late evening, a Vietnamese aircraft located possible debris from the plane – a rectangular object that could be a door – but there was no confirmation.
The possible debris was found in an area near two large oil slicks, between six and nine miles long, consistent with fuel left by a downed jetliner. If emergency workers can determine that the flotsam came from the plane, it would mark the first break in an investigation that has left despairing relatives frustrated about the lack of news.
On Sunday in Beijing, where the flight was to have landed, some people hurled water bottles at a Malaysia Airlines team as they arrived to share information.
Every minute counts, as the plane has lost contact for about 40 hours, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Malaysian counterpart in a phone conversation described early today by Chinese state media.
Investigators focused Sunday on two men who boarded the plane with stolen passports, one of the few leads that have been made public. Malaysian authorities examined closed-circuit television footage of the men at the airport. The international police agency Interpol said in a statement that the passports – Austrian and Italian – had been stolen in Thailand within the past two years and were not checked against an Interpol database as the passengers boarded the red-eye from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Whilst it is too soon to speculate about any connection between these stolen passports and the missing plane, it is clearly of great concern that any passenger was able to board an international flight using a stolen passport listed in Interpol’s databases, Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said in a statement.
Noble expressed frustration that few of Interpol’s 190 member countries systematically search the database to determine whether documents being used to board a plane are registered as lost or stolen.
Luigi Maraldi, 37, of Italy and Christian Kozel, 30, of Austria had initially been listed as among the plane’s passengers, but both men were subsequently found to be safe – and to have had their passports stolen.
Flight booking information accessed through the KLM website showed that the passengers using those passports had adjacent ticket numbers and that both were booked on a subsequent flight from Beijing to Amsterdam. One, traveling under Maraldi’s name, was due to continue on to Copenhagen and the other to Frankfurt, Germany. Their itineraries were separately confirmed by an employee of China Southern Airlines, which was a code-share partner on the flights and had sold them the tickets.
Nevertheless, Clive Williams, a counterterrorism expert at Australia’s Macquarie University, said it seemed unlikely that terrorists would target a Malaysia Airlines flight. Interpol statistics show that there were 39 million lost or stolen passports as of the end of last year.
The incident has been hard to piece together in large part because the airliner’s transponder, which broadcasts the plane’s position and location, went dark while the plane was cruising at a steady 35,000 feet. The flight lost contact with Malaysian air traffic control at 1:20 a.m. Saturday, less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur and as it was completing its ascent. It vanished on the border of the territorial waters of Malaysia and Vietnam.
It had been due to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. Saturday.
It can’t vanish from primary radar unless it is a stealth bomber, said Mikael Robertsson of Flightradar24, a flight-tracking service. Everything indicates it must have lost altitude suddenly.
The fact that the plane was cruising at a steady altitude in decent weather and apparently did not emit a distress signal before disappearing also were possible indications of a sudden catastrophic event.
I think this is a criminal act of some kind, said Scott Hamilton, an aviation expert and founder of Leeham News and Comment in Seattle. If both engines had failed, the pilots would have had plenty of time to call and say, We have a problem.’