Massive Search for Malaysian Plane Proves Fruitless
Monday’s fruitless air and sea search for a vanished Malaysia Airlines flight left investigators with no concrete evidence of what happened to the plane or the people aboard.
The frustrations mounted in the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam, where the search was concentrated, and in hotels where the families of the missing passengers congregated in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing.
“We are bewildered” with the disappearance, said Hishamuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s acting transport minister.
Flight MH370, carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members, vanished early Saturday after departing Kuala Lumpur for Beijing. The plane disappeared from radar over Malaysian and Vietnamese airspace less than an hour after takeoff.
No distress signals were recorded.
On Sunday, planes and ships chased down floating debris south of Vietnam’s southern Tho Chu island, but the debris turned out not to be part of the plane.
“If it hits land, it stays there. But in water, you have currents, tides and waves that will move the debris around,” said Martin Eran-Tasker, a security expert with the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines. “Even if an aircraft sees something, it needs to be verified.”
The investigation on land found that five passengers who had checked in didn’t board the aircraft, said Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation. Those passengers’ checked bags were removed before the plane departed in accordance with rules laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organization, the global aviation safety regulator.
Malaysia hasn’t disclosed details about the five people. They checked in individually, a Malaysia government official said, adding that the individuals weren’t in custody because they aren’t suspected of committing a crime.
The flight’s disappearance invited parallels with the 2009 crash of an Air France Airbus A330, a similar-size plane that vanished over the Atlantic, but Mr. Eran-Trasker said that without any wreckage to examine, the chief similarity so far is that both disappearances occurred at night and at cruising altitude, generally considered the safest phase of flight.
Aviation safety experts said the area between Malaysia and Vietnam is relatively shallow so it should be easier to recover debris than in the case of the Air France flight, which went down in very deep, remote waters.
The search has been frustrating. Malaysian officials said that a pair of objects sighted by a Vietnamese seaplane before darkness fell Sunday didn’t turn out to be a composite inner door and a tail section of the Boeing 777-200 as had been suspected. Instead, the suspected tail piece ended up being logs lashed together as a pontoon, said Mr. Azharuddin.
A Vietnamese rescue helicopter later found what had been believed to be the door—seen in a photograph released by the information ministry Sunday—and discovered it was a “moss-covered cap of a cable reel,” the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam said on its website.
Later, Vietnam sent a pair of ships toward a sighting by Singapore aircraft of another object, which Malaysian officials said could have possibly been a flipped-over life raft. A couple of hours later, Vietnamese ships arrived, secured the object and said it wasn’t a life raft nor did it belong to the plane.
Malaysia later reported that samples taken from an oil slick found in Malaysian waters proved not to be of aviation fuel but bunker fuel used in ships.
Vietnamese search teams later inspected an area 60 kilometers southeast of the city of Vung Tau where a passing pilot reported spotting a large piece of floating debris but determined “we haven’t found anything abnormal there” said Lai Xuan Thanh, chief of the Civil Aviation Authority.
The failure of one sighting after another to produce any real evidence forced investigators to widen their search to a radius of 100 nautical miles (185-kilometer) from 50 nautical miles of the last known position of the plane. Malaysian air force officials said they would continue the search at night for the first time as aircraft with special capability had joined the operation. He didn’t give details.
Mr. Eran-Tasker said rescuers typically expect to find personal effects, shoes, seat cushions and other aircraft parts floating together, not isolated bits of random debris as have been spotted.
Mr. Hishamuddin, the acting transport minister, said that a statement by a previously unknown group describing the disappearance as the result of a political act didn’t appear to be credible. The statement referenced last week’s attack by ethnic Uighur separatists in China but stopped short of an explicit claim of responsibility.
Mr. Hishamuddin said Malaysian investigators weren’t ruling out any possibility, but Uighur attacks in China have been relatively unsophisticated in relation to what would be needed to take down an airliner.
Two passengers managed to board the flight using passports previously reported stolen in neighboring Thailand. Their identity was unknown, but they used passports apparently stolen from an Italian and Austrian.
Thai police investigators Monday visited travel agencies, which arranged the issue of the tickets to the two passengers in Pattaya, east of Bangkok. Police said the owner of the Grand Horizon Travel agency told him that a man called to request cheap tickets to Copenhagen and Frankfurt.
The owner, Benjaporn Krutnait, told police that she found that the cheapest flights were via Malaysia and Beijing to Amsterdam, where the two men would have separated ways and headed on to the different destinations. Ms. Benjaporn then arranged for a larger agency, Six Stars Travel, to issue the tickets, police said. Neither of the agencies were aware that the two passengers were using stolen passports, and the illicit documents weren’t used to enter or exit Thailand.
Thailand has a thriving trade in stolen and altered passports. The documents are often sold to people wanting an easy way into the European Union. Authorities in Bangkok say there has been a surge in Syrian nationals attempting to use stolen passports in recent months.
The families of the MH370 passengers in Kuala Lumpur huddled in conference rooms at a hotel, cordoned off from the press and public. Selamat Omar, a 60-year-old Malaysian whose son was on the missing aircraft, prepared himself for bad news. “I am sad, but as a Muslim I accept what has happened,” he said. His son, 29-year-old Mohamad Khirul Amri, is employed by a private jet company as an engineer and was traveling to Beijing to work on an aircraft in need of repair.
in Bangkok and Jake Maxwell Watts in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this article.