Wednesday, December 13, 2017
News Roundup

'Best lead' in plane search: 2 objects seen in sea

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Search planes flew out of Australia today to scan rough seas in one of the remotest places on Earth for objects that may be from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.

In what one official called the "best lead" of the nearly 2-week-old aviation mystery, a satellite detected two large objects floating off the southwest coast of Australia about halfway to the desolate islands of the Antarctic.

The area in the southern Indian Ocean is so remote that it takes aircraft longer to fly there — four hours — than it allows for the search.

The discovery raised new hope of finding the vanished jet and sent another emotional jolt to the families of the 239 people aboard.

A search Thursday by four planes in clouds and rain found nothing, and Australian authorities said early today that efforts were resuming with the first of five aircraft — a Royal Australian Air Force P3 Orion — leaving at dawn for the area about 1,400 miles from western Australia.

A civilian Gulfstream jet and a second Orion were expected to depart later in the morning, and a third Orion was due to fly out in the early afternoon to search more than 13,000 square miles of ocean.

A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft was scheduled to leave the base later in the afternoon, but like the other planes, it will have enough fuel for only a few hours before returning to Perth.

Warren Truss, Australia's acting prime minister while Tony Abbott is overseas, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that weather conditions in the area were poor and may get worse.

"And so, clearly, this is a very, very difficult and challenging search. Weather conditions are not particularly good and risk that they may deteriorate," Truss said.

John Young, manager of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's emergency response division, cautioned that the objects could be seaborne debris along a shipping route where containers can fall off cargo vessels, although at nearly 80 feet, the larger of the two objects is longer than a container.

"This is a lead. It's probably the best lead we have right now," Young said.

Truss said officials are working to get more satellite images and stronger resolution to help searchers get a better sense of where the objects are and how far they've shifted since the initial images were captured.

"They will have moved because of tides and wind and the like, so the search area is quite broad," Truss said, adding that marker buoys were dropped to help get a better understanding of what drift is likely to have occurred.

The Norwegian cargo vessel Hoegh St. Petersburg, with a Filipino crew of 20, arrived in the area and used searchlights after dark to look for debris. It will continue the search today, Ingar Skiaker of Hoegh Autoliners told reporters in Oslo.

The ship, which transports cars, was on its way from South Africa to Australia, he said. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said another commercial ship and an Australian navy vessel were also en route to the search area.

Three Chinese naval ships also were heading to the area. China's search and rescue agency also said it had asked the country's Oceanic Administration to dispatch the icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon), which was in Perth after a voyage to Antarctica in January, to take part in the search.

The development marked a new phase for the anguished relatives of the passengers, who have been critical of Malaysian officials for what the relatives say has been the slow release of timely information. While they still hope their loved ones will be found, they acknowledged that news of the satellite images could mean the plane fell into the sea.

"If it turns out that it is truly MH370, then we will accept that fate," said Selamat Bin Omar, the father of a Malaysian passenger. The jet carried mostly Chinese and Malaysian nationals.

Malaysian officials met with the relatives Thursday night in a hotel near Kuala Lumpur, but journalists were kept away. After the meeting, groups of people left looking distraught.

Hamid Amran, who had a child on Flight 370, said questions asked at the meeting made it "apparent that Malaysia's military is incapable of protecting its own airspace."

He believes "that my child and all the other passengers are still alive. I will not give up hope."

DigitalGlobe, a company in Longmont, Colo., said it provided the satellite images to Australian officials. The images were taken March 16, but Australian Air Commodore John McGarry said it took time to analyze them.

"The task of analyzing imagery is quite difficult. It requires drawing down frames and going through frame by frame," he said.

The hunt has encountered false leads previously. But this is the first time possible objects have been spotted since the search area was massively expanded into two corridors, one stretching from northern Thailand into Central Asia and the other from the Strait of Malacca to the southern Indian Ocean.

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein made it clear Thursday that although international search efforts are continuing both on land and at sea in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, the effort is mostly concentrated south of the equator over the vast Indian Ocean.

Malaysian authorities have not ruled out any possible explanation for what happened to the jet, but have said the evidence so far suggests it was deliberately turned back across Malaysia to the Strait of Malacca, with its communications systems disabled. They are unsure what happened next.

Police are considering the possibility of hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or anyone else on board.

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