KUALA LUMPUR – Vietnamese air force planes have spotted two large oil slicks that officials believe are from a Malaysia Airlines flight that suddenly vanished from air traffic control screens and was presumed to have crashed early Saturday.
A Vietnamese government statement says the slicks were spotted off the southern tip of the country and were consistent with the kinds that would be left by fuel from a crashed jet, according to AP.
The airline said the flight had gone missing in the early hours of Saturday as it flew from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, without sending a distress signal.
Ships and aircraft from Malaysia and Vietnam were searching across a 4,300 square mile area, officials said, with help from Singaporean authorities.
The Philippines sent air force planes and navy patrol ships, and China dispatched two rescue ships to assist in the search, according to officials and state media. Vietnamese fishermen have also been put on alert.
Flight MH370 lost contact with Malaysia air traffic control at 2:40 a.m. Saturday (1:40 p.m. EST Friday), less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur, and as it was still climbing. It vanished on the borders of the territorial waters of Malaysia and Vietnam, where the Gulf of Thailand meets the South China Sea. It had been due to land at Beijing at 6:30 a.m. (5:30 p.m. EST Friday).
On board were 227 passengers and 12 crew, from 14 countries. They included 154 citizens of China or Taiwan, including one infant, and 38 Malaysians. The three Americans on board also included one infant.
In Beijing, relatives and friends of those on board were taken by minibus from the airport to a hotel in the city to wait for news.
Grief was mixed with anger at the lack of information, with Malaysia Airlines insisting it was still investigating the incident and not releasing the passenger manifest. Earlier it had cited that the plane might have landed in Vietnam, although this was later denied.
“I haven’t even met a single person from Malaysia Airlines, just Chinese volunteers,” a 30-year old man who had come to meet his cousin told a throng of reporters. “I just need to confirm one thing: they told me it landed, does that mean a crash? Because I heard a crash from the news, and it drives me crazy.”
A little later, a small group of relatives left the hotel.
“Let us out, let us out,” one man shouted as he left. “We have been here for more than three hours. They are keeping 200 family members in a room and only giving us information released at 10:30 a.m. This is not fair. They didn’t even give us the full list of passengers on the plane, so we are not staying any more.”
Relatives of a 34-year-old migrant worker, returning home from Singapore, rushed to the airport by train as soon as they heard his plane was missing. His wife wept as she waited for news. “We don’t know what to think,” the man’s brother said. “The only thing left for us is waiting.”
Later, the man’s wife said she was still clinging to hope that he had not boarded the plane. “If they don’t confirm the manifest, that still leaves me with a slight hope he is still alive,” she said.
Malaysian search and rescue vessels reached the area around 4:30 p.m. on Saturday afternoon but found no sign of wreckage, a Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency official told the Reuters news agency.
The plane’s sudden disappearance, without calling for help, brought back memories of an Air France flight that disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on June 1, 2009.
While some wreckage and bodies were found in subsequent weeks, it took nearly two years for the main wreckage and the plane’s black box flight recorders to be recovered.
Malaysia Airlines said in a statement that its focus was on working with emergency responders and authorities. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all affected passengers and crew and their family members,” it said. Meanwhile, Malaysian authorities denied a Vietnamese report that the plane had definitely crashed into the sea.
“We are doing everything in our power to locate the plane. We are doing everything we can to ensure every possible angle has been addressed,” Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein told reporters near the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, according to Reuters. “We are looking for accurate information from the Malaysian military. They are waiting for information from the Vietnamese side.”
There were no reports of bad weather in the area. Asked whether terrorism was suspected, Hussein said authorities “had no information but were looking at all possibilities.”
The South China Sea is a tense region of competing territorial claims among a number of countries, but the plane disappeared well away from the disputed waters, and countries in the region appeared to put aside their differences in their search for the plane.
“In times of emergencies like this, we have to show unity of efforts that transcends boundaries and issues,” said Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda, commander of the Philippine military’s Western Command, according to the Associated Press.
In Beijing, authorities conferred with the ambassadors of Malaysia and Vietnam to coordinate search and rescue efforts.
“We are extremely worried,” China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters in Beijing, according to state media. “The news is very disturbing. We hope everyone is safe.”
The Boeing 777-200ER last had contact with air traffic controllers 120 nautical miles off the east coast of the Malaysian town of Kota Bharu, Malaysian Airlines said in a statement. The deputy chief of staff of Vietnam’s army, Lt. Gen. Vo Van Tuan said the plane’s radar signal had vanished “one minute before it entered Vietnam’s air traffic control,” in a statement carried by the Associated Press.
Col. Dou Kai of Vietnam’s Navy was reported by Chinese state media as having said the plane had crashed into the sea at the junction of the territorial waters of Malaysia and Vietnam. But Navy Admiral Ngo Van Phat told Reuters only that the plane “could have” crashed in Malaysian waters, 150 miles off the coast of Vietnam’s Tho Cuo island.
While Malaysian Airlines earlier suggested the plane could have landed in Vietnam, Boeing China President Marc Allen said on his Sina Weibo account that reports that the plane had been found in Southeast Asia were “in error.”
“The search continues. Our deepest concerns remain with the families of those on board,” he wrote.
If the plane is found to have crashed, it would mark the second fatal accident involving a 777 since it was introduced into service in 1995. In July 2013, an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777-200ER crash-landed in San Francisco, killing three passengers and injuring more than 180.
The United States could have a role in any investigation as the plane was built there, according to Kelly Nantel , a spokeswoman for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. “We won’t know who would lead the investigation until the location is identified,” she told the Associated Press.
Boeing said it was assembling a team to help with the investigation. “It’s too early to make any speculation on the causes of the accident,” said Boeing China spokesman Wang Yukui.
Chinese state media reported that the plane, a codeshare with China Southern Airlines, was nearly 12 years old. But Boeing’s Wang said there was no link between the safety of an airplane and its service life.
“Each aircraft is required to meet airworthiness standards before they come into service. Even for the old aircraft, they will need periodic evaluations to make sure they still meet the standards,” he said.
In February, Reuters reported that state-owned Malaysia Airlines was awaiting government approval to buy 100 new planes from Boeing and Airbus, to retire older, less fuel-efficient planes.
Although the airline recently reported its fourth straight quarterly loss, it had a good safety record. Its latest fatal accident came in 1995, when 34 people died in a crash near the Malaysian city of Tawau. In 1977, a domestic Malaysia Airlines flight crashed after being hijacked, killing 100 people.
Liu Liu, Gu Jinglu and Xu Jing contributed to this report.