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Malaysia Boosts Efforts to Find Plane as Boats Scour Sea

By Chong Pooi Koon and Alan Levin
March 09, 2014 4:15 AM EDT 26 Comments
A man stands beside the arrival board showing the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. flight MH370, top in red, at the Beijing Airport on Saturday, March 8.
Photographer: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
A man stands beside the arrival board showing the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. flight MH370, top in red, at the Beijing Airport on Saturday, March 8.

Malaysia stepped up efforts to locate a jet that may have crashed in the Gulf of Thailand, focusing on oil slicks and two passengers who used stolen passports, with officials examining television footage.

While the sighting of the slicks is confirmed, there’s still no sign of debris from Malaysian Airline System Bhd.’s Flight 370, with 239 people on board, Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said today. All the passengers on the flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur are being investigated, with a specific focus on four names, he said without elaborating. The airline said today that it is fearing the worst.

The search for the plane, missing since early yesterday, now encompasses the western coast of Peninsula Malaysia amid speculation the jet may have altered course. The prospect of terrorism arose after Austria and Italy said two passengers used passports stolen from their nationals, both of them men. While nations hunting for the plane had little to go on -- with no distress calls or emergency-beacon signals -- dozens of ships and aircraft were directed to step up the sweep.

“I’m in touch with the international intelligence agencies” on the issue of the passports, Hishammuddin said at a briefing. “At the same time, our own intelligence have been activated and, of course, the counter-terrorism units from all the relevant countries have been informed.”

Twin Sheens

The air search resumed this morning after Vietnam’s military found twin sheens as long as 15 kilometers (9 miles) off the country’s south coast yesterday. The search area is being widened, and all possibilities are being looked at, Hishammuddin told the briefing. While the plane lost contact off Peninsula Malaysia’s east coast, there’s now a search on the west coast too, including in the Strait of Malacca.

A team from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is heading to Malaysia to be in place once the wreckage of the Boeing Co. 777-200 is located. That NTSB team is being joined by experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

There’s closed-circuit television footage of the two people who used the false passports, said Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation. Investigations are following all angles, he said.

“There are only two passengers on record, that flew on this aircraft that have false passports,” said Azharuddin. “We have the CCTV recordings of those passengers from check-in right through the departure point. These records of CCTV are now being used for investigation of this matter.”

Command Center

There’s a possibility the aircraft may have made an “air turn back,” according to Hishammuddin. That means the plane may have deviated from its planned route, said Malaysian Air Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya. The company will set up a command center at Kota Bahru, Malaysia or in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam as soon as the location of the aircraft is established, with a disaster-recovery management specialist from Atlanta offering support, it said in a statement today.

Singapore’s air force said it dispatched extra aircraft, including a helicopter. Additional boats have been sent, said Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.

Vessels from Vietnam are at the site of the area of the slick, said Dinh Viet Thang, head of country’s search-and-rescue steering committee. Indonesia dispatched one corvette, four fast-patrol boats and a maritime-patrol aircraft to the Malacca Strait, said Untung Suropati, a spokesman. The strait separates the Indonesian Island of Sumatra from Peninsula Malaysia.

Early Stages

There is no indication of terrorism at this point, said a U.S. official following the case who asked not to be identified because the investigation is still in its early stages. The U.S. is working with authorities in the region to explore all possible causes, the official said.

The stolen Austrian passport used to board Flight 370 was from a 30-year-old who reported the theft in 2012 in Thailand, while the Italian was Luigi Maraldi, who disclosed the theft of his documents in August, according to the countries’ foreign ministries. Neither man was on the jet, their governments said.

The missing plane was a code-share service with China Southern Airlines Co, which said it sold seven tickets on the flight, including to people of Austrian and Italian nationality, according to the company’s microblog. When asked about the two passengers who boarded with stolen passports, Chairman Si Xianmin told reporters in Beijing: “The key is with border control and immigration departments on the ground.”

‘Red Flags’

An over-water disappearance and stolen passports “raised huge red flags,” said John Magaw, a former top U.S. law enforcement and transportation-security official who now works as a consultant. “Those two things right there are highly, highly, highly suspicious.”

Flight 370 departed the Malaysian capital at about 12:41 a.m. local time yesterday and was scheduled to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. Security screening was performed as normal at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd. said.

On board the twin-engine wide-body were 227 passengers and 12 crew members, with Chinese travelers -- 153, including an infant -- accounting for the largest group of nationals, the airline said. Also on the plane were three U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. State Department. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is monitoring the situation.

China and the U.S. are also assisting Malaysia, with the destroyer Pinckney from the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet among vessels in the hunt. President Barack Obama was briefed while on a weekend family vacation in Key Largo, Florida, said Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman.

Oil Slicks

The oil slicks discovered by Vietnamese military aircraft were about 140 kilometers south of Tho Chu Island in a body of water known as the Gulf of Thailand, off the South China Sea. Its maximum depth is about 80 meters (.05 mile), according to Thailand’s Department of Marine and Coastal Resources.

While Muslim-majority Malaysia hasn’t seen any recent major terrorist attacks on home soil, it has been used a transit and planning hub, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. State Department. China, the destination of the plane, has occasionally suffered what it calls terrorist attacks committed by Uighurs, a predominately Muslim ethnic group from the Xinjiang region of the country’s northwest.

If terrorism was involved, a watery grave for the plane may not be a coincidence, said consultant Magaw, who formerly was director of the U.S. Secret Service and led the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as the Transportation Security Administration. Bringing down a jet at sea helps obscure any evidence, he said.

Two Passengers

The presence of two passengers with stolen passports is an indicator of possible terrorism, said Magaw, citing intelligence warnings that multiple attackers may seek to elude detection by smuggling different parts of bombs onto planes and then assembling the pieces in bathrooms.

Malaysia immigration officers check foreign passports with biometric features by swiping outbound travelers’ documents to see details of their histories and check thumbprints and faces against on-screen photo identifications, said an immigration official at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

When the system isn’t working, is slow or freezes, officers enter passport details manually to verify a traveler without taking a thumbprint, said the official, who asked not to be identified because of a lack of authorization to speak publicly.

Information is keyed in manually for passports without the biometric enhancements, the official said. Outbound visitors’ passports also are checked to ensure that they show stamps proving entry into Malaysia, said the official, who was commenting on procedures in general, not Flight 370.

Scanned Properly

U.S. officials will work closely with counterparts in China and Malaysia, with a focus on how airport checkpoints worked and whether fliers’ shoes were scanned properly for explosives, said Kip Hawley, a former chief of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration who is now a consultant.

Malaysia’s last communication with the jet, just before a handoff to Vietnamese authorities, was “normal,” according to Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director-general of the Department of Civil Aviation. Contact was lost a minute before the plane entered Vietnam’s airspace, its government said on its website.

The plane disappeared from Malaysian radar at 1:30 a.m. The carrier said the last radar contact with the plane was about 120 nautical miles east of Kota Bahru, near the South China Sea.

FlightAware, a Houston-based compiler of global air-traffic information, gave the jet’s last known altitude as 35,000 feet, as it flew a northeasterly course at 539 mph. Such an airspeed and altitude would be typical of a 777 in cruise mode.

Sudden Loss

The sudden loss of a plane may suggest a mid-air breakup, which could be caused by a structural failure or an explosion, including one triggered by a bomb, said John Cox, an accident investigator and chief executive officer at Safety Operating Systems in Washington. A violent breakup would shred the jet into pieces, many of them small and light enough to float, creating a prominent debris field.

Cox said he was unaware of any reports of such wreckage. A plane descending intact after an inflight emergency, whether caused by mechanical failure or pilot error, would leave less surface debris and be harder to spot, he said. In those cases, the crew typically would have time to radio a distress call.

Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and First Officer Fariq Ab. Hamid, 27, were the pilots, according to an airline statement. The captain had 18,365 flying hours and joined the company in 1981, while his first officer had 2,763 hours of flying. The first officer joined the Subang Jaya-based airline in 2007.

Boeing’s 777 has been involved in only three accidents serious enough to destroy a plane. The only fatalities occurred in last year’s Asiana Airlines Inc. crash in San Francisco, where investigators have focused on pilot error. The Chicago-based company is assembling a team to provide technical aid.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Chong Pooi Koon in Kuala Lumpur at pchong17@bloomberg.net; Alan Levin in Washington at alevin24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anand Krishnamoorthy at anandk@bloomberg.net Jake Lloyd-Smith

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