KUALA LUMPUR – Oil slicks signaled that a missing Malaysia Airlines jet may have crashed in the Gulf of Thailand even as the mystery surrounding the plane deepened with the discovery that two passengers used stolen passports.
An air search was resuming Sunday after Vietnam’s military found twin sheens as long as 15 km off the country’s south coast Saturday. That marked the first clue in the disappearance of Flight 370 and the 239 people on board the Boeing Co. 777-200 en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur.
Six nations hunting for the plane had little to go on, with no distress calls, emergency-beacon signals, bad weather or other signs why a cruising airliner would lose touch in one of the safest phases of flight. The prospect of terrorism arose after Austria and Italy said that two passengers used passports stolen from their nationals, both of them men.
“It is very puzzling right now,” said John Cox, an accident investigator and chief executive officer at Safety Operating Systems in Washington. “We have conflicting very early lines of evidence.”
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.
An disappearance over water 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.”
While the airborne search was halted when darkness fell late Saturday, warships and other vessels continued the hunt through the night even as the passing of more than a day since air controllers lost contact dimmed hopes of avoiding a tragedy.
Malaysia is “sparing no efforts to galvanize the resources within its disposal in the ongoing search and rescue efforts,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. The government created a special center to coordinate its crisis response.
Flight 370 departed the Malaysian capital at about 12:41 a.m. local time Saturday and was scheduled to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. Security screening was performed as normal at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airports Holdings said in a statement.
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 FBI was monitoring the situation.
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, the U.S. and Singapore are assisting Malaysia’s government, with the destroyer Pinckney from the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet among vessels in the hunt. U.S. President Barack Obama was briefed while on a weekend family vacation in Key Largo, Florida, said Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman.
“We believe it is too early to comment on the causes of this incident,” said Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman. “The United States government is in communication across agencies and with international officials to provide any appropriate assistance in the investigation.”
The oil slicks discovered by Vietnamese military aircraft were about 140 km 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, according to Thailand’s Department of Marine and Coastal Resources.
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.
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.
U.S. officials will work closely with counterparts in China and Malaysia to unravel the mystery, and a particular focus will be 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,” said 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 862 kph. Such an airspeed and altitude would be typical of a 777 in cruise mode.
The sudden loss of a plane may suggest a midair breakup, which could be caused by a structural failure or an explosion, including one triggered by a bomb, said Cox, the Washington- based accident investigator. 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.
Malaysia Airline’s 777-200 was 11 years and 10 months old and had fuel to fly to Beijing and beyond, Malaysia Airline Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said.