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Pings heard again in plane search

– An Australian official says equipment on a ship searching for the missing Malaysian jet has relocated an underwater signal that is consistent with a plane’s black boxes.

Angus Houston, the head of a joint agency coordinating the search in the southern Indian Ocean, said early today that the Australian navy’s Ocean Shield has picked up two more underwater signals that could be from Flight 370.

The Ocean Shield first detected the sounds late Saturday and early Sunday before losing them, and Houston said the ship relocated the signals twice Tuesday.

The ship is equipped with a U.S. Navy-towed pinger locator that is designed to pick up signals from the so-called black boxes, which contain the plane’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders. Investigators have not found any explanation yet for why the plane lost communications and veered far off its Beijing-bound course, so the black boxes are key to learning what went wrong.

Finding the sound again is crucial to narrowing the search area so a submarine can chart a potential debris field on the seafloor. If the autonomous sub was used now with the sparse data collected so far, covering all the potential places from which the pings might have come would take many days.

“It’s literally crawling at the bottom of the ocean, so it’s going to take a long, long time,” Houston said.

The locator beacons have a battery life of only about a month – and Tuesday marked exactly one month since the plane vanished. Once the beacons blink off, locating the black boxes in such deep water would be immensely difficult, if not impossible.

At a hotel in Beijing, around 300 relatives of the flight’s passengers – most of whom were Chinese – wait for information about the plane’s fate.

One family lit candles on a heart-shaped cake to mark what would have been the 21st birthday of passenger Feng Dong, who had been working in construction in Singapore for the past year and was flying home to China via Kuala Lumpur. Feng’s mother wept as she blew out the candles.

A family member of another passenger said staying together allowed the relatives to support one another.

“If we go back to our homes now, it will be extremely painful,” said Steve Wang. “We have to face a bigger pain of facing uncertainty, the unknown future. This is the most difficult to cope with.”

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