Still no certainty about fate of missing Malaysia Airlines flight

Stuart LeavenworthMcClatchy Foreign Staff

Nearly 20 hours have passed since Malaysia Airlines lost track of one of its Boeing 777 airliners carrying 239 people. Even so, friends and relatives of those on board remain in the dark about what happened to the flight, worrying, wishing and questioning why clarity is taking so long.

Most aviation experts and some media have concluded that the plane, which took off from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital, early Saturday bound for Beijing, crashed in the ocean, possibly off the coast of Vietnam or China.

Several search and rescues were launched but then suspended as night fell on Saturday. Vietnam’s state website reported late that day that its search aircraft have spotted oil slicks that could be from the engines of the plane, but that report could not be independently confirmed.

Late Saturday, questions abounded about some passengers listed on the flight who had had their passports previously stolen.

After Luigi Maraldi was listed by Italian media as among the passengers, the Italian citizen reportedly called his parents to say he was safe in Thailand. He had had his passport stolen there last year, before being issued new documents.

“One hypothesis therefore is that he was listed because someone boarded the plane using his stolen passport,” the Corriera della Serra reported.

There were also reports from Austrian media that an Austrian listed among the passengers had subsequently been found to be safe. According to the Austrian foreign ministry, his passport had been stolen in Thailand two years earlier.

Given the amount of time that has lapsed, it seems nearly certain that MH370 has crashed somewhere, most likely in the ocean, where rescue and recovery is most difficult.

Yet those odds don’t help bring closure to family and friends who rushed to Beijing’s airport Saturday morning after hearing about the flight’s disappearance and were then separated by authorities from the horde of journalists who'd also descended on the airport and taken to a hotel in northeast Beijing.

At least three Americans were among the passengers on the flight, along with 38 Malaysians, 12 Indonesians, 7 Australians and 32 people from France, according to the airline. But the bulk of the passengers -- 153 -- were Chinese, which is why this flight’s fate is now this nation’s most closely watched news story.

Air traffic controllers reported at 2:40 a.m Saturday they had lost contact with the flight, which was scheduled to land here at 6:30 a.m. local time.

“We deeply regret that we have lost all contacts with flight MH370 which departed Kuala Lumpur at 12.41 am earlier this morning bound for Beijing,” the airline said in a statement released at 9:05 a.m. Saturday.

At the Lido Hotel in Beijing, some of the sequestered relatives burst from their rooms to air complaints about the lack of information they were getting from the Malaysia Air and Chinese authorities.

“There’s no one from the company here, we can't find a single person. They've just shut us in this room and told us to wait,” said one middle-aged man, reported Reuters.

“We want someone to show their face. They haven't even given us the passenger list,” said the man, who declined to give his name.

Malaysia Airlines has a generally good safety record, in spite of financial troubles the airline appears to be recovering from.

The last major accident involving a Malaysia Airlines flight was in 1995, when a Fokker 50 (9M-MGH) crashed during approach in Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia, killing 34 people. In 1977, a Malaysia Airlines flight was hijacked and crashed in Tanjung Capping, Johor, Malaysia, killing all 100 people aboard.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia have all dispatched ships and rescue crew to search for the plane and its passengers. A Vietnamese newspaper reported Saturday afternoon that the Vietnamese Navy had confirmed that the plane crashed into the ocean. According to the reports, the plane's crash was detected by Vietnamese military radar.

Malaysia Airlines or the Malaysian government did not confirm the report, however.

Clarity will likely need to wait until daylight, when search and rescue operations are expected to resume in full strength.

By Stuart Leavenworth
McClatchy Foreign Staff