Hong Kong: Investigators trying to find out what happened to a Malaysia Airlines jet that disappeared somewhere over the Gulf of Thailand on Saturday morning were examining the usual causes of plane crashes: mechanical failure, pilot error, bad weather. But the discovery that two of the passengers were carrying stolen passports also raised the unsettling possibility of foul play.
By early Sunday morning, there was little to go on: no wreckage of the jet, a Boeing 777-200 with 239 people aboard, and other than a 12-mile oil slick on the surface of the gulf, no clue that a crash had even taken place. The airline said the plane had recently passed inspection, and Malaysia’s deputy minister of transport, Aziz bin Kaprawi, said the authorities had not received any distress signals from the aircraft. The plane was flying at 35,000 feet with no reports of threatening weather.
After officials in Rome and Vienna confirmed that the names of an Italian and an Austrian listed on the manifest of the missing flight matched the names on two passports reported stolen in Thailand, officials emphasized that the investigation was in its earliest stages and that they were considering all possibilities.
“We are not ruling out anything,” the chief executive of Malaysia Airlines, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, told reporters at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia on Saturday night. “As far as we are concerned right now, it’s just a report.”
Using a system that looks for flashes around the world, the Pentagon reviewed preliminary surveillance data from the area where the plane disappeared and saw no evidence of an explosion, said a U.S. government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the subject matter is classified. A team of aviation experts led by the National Transportation Safety Board was expected to leave for the area Saturday night.
If all aboard were killed, it would be the deadliest commercial airline crash since Nov. 12, 2001, when an American Airlines Airbus crashed just after takeoff from Kennedy Airport en route to the Dominican Republic.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said law enforcement and intelligence agencies were investigating the issue of the stolen passports.
U.S. authorities were scrutinizing the flight manifest closely, the official said, noting that forged travel documents are also used routinely by smugglers and illegal immigrants.
“At this time, we have not identified this as an act of terrorism,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing inquiry. “While the stolen passports are interesting, they don’t necessarily say to us that this was a terrorism act.”
Operating as Flight MH370, the plane left Kuala Lumpur just after midnight Saturday, headed for Beijing. Air traffic control in Subang, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, lost contact with the plane around 1:30 a.m., Malaysia’s civil aviation department said.
China Central Television said that according to Chinese air traffic control officials, the aircraft never entered Chinese airspace.
A European counterterrorism official said the Italian man whose passport was stolen, Luigi Maraldi, 37, called his parents from Thailand, where he is vacationing, after discovering that someone by the same name was listed on the passenger manifest. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Maraldi reported the theft in August to the Italian police. The official said the passport of the Austrian man, Christian Kozel, 30, who is currently in Austria, was stolen about two years ago.
The European official said he was surprised that it had been possible to check in with stolen passports at the Kuala Lumpur airport and that an alert should have popped up on the airline agent’s computer.
At a late-night news conference in Beijing after the arrival of a team of employees to assist families of the passengers in China, an official of Malaysia Airlines said the missing plane had no history of malfunctions. “It was last inspected 10 days ago, well before scheduled service,” said the spokesman, Ignatius Ong. “It was all in top condition.”
When pressed about possible security lapses, he repeated several times that the airline had no confirmation from the Malaysian authorities that passengers had boarded with stolen passports.
Malaysia, the United States and Vietnam dispatched ships and aircraft to the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand on Saturday to join an intensive search, and the state-run Xinhua news agency said China was sending a coast guard vessel and two naval ships. The Chinese Ministry of Transport said a team of scuba divers who specialize in emergency rescues and recovery had been assembled on Hainan, the southern island-province, to prepare to go Sunday to the area where the airliner may have gone down.
On Saturday evening, a Texas-based company, Freescale Semiconductor, confirmed that 20 of its employees had been passengers on the flight. They included 12 workers from Malaysia and eight from China. The company, which makes microprocessors, said in a statement, “Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by this tragic event.”
Lai Xuan Thanh, director of the Civil Aviation Administration of Vietnam, said a Vietnamese navy AN26 aircraft had discovered the oil slick toward the Vietnam side of the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand. The oil slick is suspected to have come from the missing plane, he added.
Xinhua reported that China’s prime minister, Li Keqiang, called his Malaysian counterpart, Najib Razak, telling him, “The urgent task now is to quickly clarify the situation and use a range of means to enhance the intensity of search and rescue.”
Malaysia Airlines said the plane had 227 passengers aboard, including two toddlers, and an all-Malaysian crew of 12. According to the manifest, the passengers included 154 citizens from China or Taiwan, 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, four French and three Americans, as well as two citizens each from Canada, New Zealand and Ukraine and one each from Austria, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia – although the true nationalities of the passengers carrying the Austrian and Italian passports are still unknown.
The family of one of the Americans aboard the flight, Philip Wood, an IBM employee in Kuala Lumpur, said they had little information beyond what had been reported in the news media.
“We’re relying on our Lord,” Wood’s father, Aubrey, said from his home in Keller, Texas. “He’s the one who carries the load.”
The tickets to the holders of the stolen Austrian and Italian passports were sold by China Southern Airlines, which has a code share agreement with Malaysia Airlines, according to China Southern’s account on Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblog platform. China Southern said it had sold five other tickets to the flight, to the Dutch passenger, the Ukrainians, and one Malaysian and one Chinese passenger.
Arnold Barnett, a longtime Massachusetts Institute of Technology specialist in aviation safety statistics, said that before the disappearance of the plane, Malaysia Airlines had suffered two fatal crashes, in 1977 and 1995. Based on his estimate that Malaysia Airlines operates roughly 120,000 flights a year, he calculated that the airline’s safety record was consistent with that of airlines in other fairly prosperous, middle-income countries but had not yet reached the better safety record of airlines based in the world’s richest countries.
Malaysia has not been targeted in terrorist attacks in recent decades, although the 1977 crash was attributed to a hijacking. But some of the planning for the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States was done in Malaysia, which has a relatively lax visa policy. The country is a major trading nation and a natural meeting place for a variety of groups involved in illicit activities.
The crash took place at the end of the annual National People’s Congress in Beijing, and comes at a time of rising concern in China about terrorism.
Ahmad of Malaysia Airlines said in a statement that there had been early speculation the plane had landed safely somewhere along the route to Beijing. But in a telephone interview before reporting the sighting of the oil slick, Lai expressed concern about the aircraft’s fate.
“The possibility of an accident is high,” he said.