2 weeks in, no sign of Malaysian airliner — intense search off Australia turns up zero

Posted at 5:35 AM, Mar 21, 2014
and last updated 2014-03-21 17:34:52-04
By Michael Pearson and Jethro Mullen


(CNN) — Two weeks. Two gut-wrenching, frustrating, mysterious weeks.

That’s how long it’s been since 227 passengers and 12 crew members boarded Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, destined for Beijing. A routine trip, it seemed, to catch up relatives in time for the weekend, start on a work assignment or just get away.

Where they got to, still unknown. An exhaustive search — over a mind-boggling 2.97 million square miles, which is nearly the size of the continental United States — has yielded some clues, but no proof of where the Boeing 777 is or definitively what happened to it.

The latest, most notable lead revolved around two large objects detected by satellite Sunday floating on waters over 1,400 miles off of Australia’s west coast.

Military surveillance planes, a commercial jet and two merchant ships combing the area failed to find any trace of the objects Friday, before authorities called off the search for the day.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Friday defended the decision to announce the find, saying that Australia owes it to families of those missing “to give them information as soon as it’s to hand.” But he didn’t make any promises.

“It could just be a container that has fallen off a ship,” Abbott said during a visit to Papua New Guinea. “We just don’t know.”

On Friday, Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s interim transportation minister, tried to reset expectations for a quick resolution to the mystery after the satellite discovery.

“This is going to be a long haul,” he said.

Search intensifies

Conditions for the southern Indian Ocean search improved since Thursday, said John Young, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s emergency response manager. This time around, flight crews could look with their eyes rather than relying all on radar, he said.

“That’s encouraging,” said Young. “But we have no sightings yet.”

Given the distance, search aircraft had about two hours in the area before having to return to base. Patrol aircraft may have to repeat flights like those taken Thursday and Friday “a few times” before authorities area confident they’ve covered the whole area, Young said.

The United Kingdom was sending the HMS Echo to the scene to aid a growing international flotilla searching the southern Indian Ocean. The ship is an ocean surveying vessel, according to the UK Defense Ministry website.

Australia is sending a ship, the HMAS Success, while Chinese and Malaysian vessels are also steaming to join a massive Norwegian cargo ship diverted there Thursday at Australia’s request plus a motley collection of merchant ships heading to the search area.

The window for finding the objects could be narrow. Another round of bad weather like the one that hampered the initial day of searching Thursday could rake the area, according to CNN meteorologists.

Locator beacons are also an issue. They are designed to sound for at least 16 more days and could continue to go off for a few more after that, according to the company that believes it made the device installed on the missing plane.

But the depths of the search area could make finding them very difficult, experts say.

Hishammuddin put out a call for underwater listening devices called hydrophones to aid the search.

Search continues elsewhere

The United States, which has a P-8 aircraft working out of Perth, Australia, and previously had Navy ships involved in the search, has so far spent $2.5 million on the entire effort, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steven Warren said Friday.

The Defense Department has allocated $4 million for the search, funding that could last through early April, Warren said.

Countries from central Asia to Australia are also engaged in the search along an arc drawn by authorities based on satellite pings received from the plane for hours after it vanished. One of those arcs tracks the southern Indian Ocean zone that’s the focus of current attention.

The other tracks over parts of Cambodia, Laos, China and into Kazakhstan, where authorities said Thursday they had found no trace of the plane.

Hishammuddin said Friday that Malaysian authorities were awaiting permission from Kazakhstan’s government to use the country as a staging area for the northern corridor search.

That clearly signals that Malaysian authorities are not ready to give up on the possibility the plane could still be found far from the focus of current search efforts.

“Obviously, the search now has taken a global perspective,” Hishammuddin said.

More details emerge

At Friday’s daily news briefing, Hishammuddin said authorities knew of news reports that Flight 370’s pilot, Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, placed a cell phone call shortly before his plane departed.

He said they had passed the information to investigators. The significance of the call was unclear.

As to other communications, The Telegraph reported Friday it had a transcript documenting 54 minutes of back-and-forth between the cockpit and ground control from taxiing in Kuala Lumpur to the final message of “All right, good night.” CNN hasn’t confirmed that this reported transcript it genuine, and The Telegraph said Malaysia’s prime minister said the transcript wouldn’t be officially released.

The Telegraph told CNN the alleged transcript appears to have technical conversation. One unexplained element, according to the British newspaper, is a call made minutes before the last message, in which someone in the cockpit stated the aircraft was at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet — something that had been done just six minutes earlier.

Another wrinkle: Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya acknowledged the plane was carrying a cargo of lithium-ion batteries, although he didn’t specify the volume of the shipment.

Lithium-ion batteries are commonly used in laptops and cell phones and have been known to explode, although that occurs rarely.

They were implicated in the fatal crash of a UPS cargo plane in Dubai in 2010, and lithium-ion batteries used to power components on Boeing 787s were blamed for fires in those planes.

There’s no evidence the batteries played a role in the plane’s disappearance, and Yahya said they are routine cargo aboard aircraft.

“They are not declared dangerous goods” he said, adding that they were “some small batteries, not big batteries.”

Deleted files sought

Malaysian authorities say they believe the missing plane was deliberately flown off course on its scheduled flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. But they haven’t so far found clear evidence to indicate who might have changed the plane’s path and why.

The pilot and first officer have come under scrutiny, especially in light of information suggesting a sharp turn had been programmed into the plane’s flight management system before one of the pilots gave a routine sign-off to Malaysian air traffic controllers.

Plus, question marks remain over data authorities say was deleted from the hard drive of a flight simulator found at Zaharie’s home.

A U.S. official familiar with the investigation told CNN on Thursday that an FBI team is confident it can retrieve at least some of the deleted files.

On Friday, law enforcement officials told CNN files were removed closer to the flight’s departure than was previously indicated. Malaysia’s Hishammuddin had said items were deleted before February 3, but American investigators now say such deletions happened after that date.

Law enforcement officials aren’t drawing any conclusions about the subsequent deletions — or the earlier ones — just two days into reviewing the hard drive substantial contents. It is still not clear, for example, who erased the files, why they did and what was in them.

Investigators are also analyzing websites that Zaharie and the first officer, Fariq Ab Hamid, may have visited recently, the official said on the condition of anonymity.

Passengers also continue to be investigated. On Friday, Hishammuddin said Ukraine told Malaysia that background checks on its citizens aboard the plane had come back clear.

Families frustrated

The length of the search and the lack of concrete information has angered many family members. Some have accused Malaysian officials of withholding details, or at the very least failing to update them.

For the first time since the plane disappeared, Malaysia sent a high-level delegation to Beijing to brief relatives who had opted not to travel to Malaysia to wait out the search.

Hishammuddin said the 3½-hour meeting went as well as could be expected, given the little known about what happened to the plane.

“Although we answered most of the questions they raised, we could not answer them all,” he said.

“The one question that they really want to know is the answer to which we do not have,” he said, “which is: ‘Where are their loved ones, and where is the airplane?'”

Selamat Omar, whose son was on board the plane, told CNN’s Kate Bolduan the wait for answers has been agonizing.

“I do feel sad, it’s been 14 days,” he said. “I’m still waiting for answers from the government. The sadness is still there, but I’m just going to stay strong.”

Omar’s son, Khairul Amri, has attracted the attention of authorities because of his experience as a flight engineer. Omar said authorities have not contacted him and he is confident his son had nothing to do with the plane’s disappearance.

Michael Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta. Jethro Mullen reported and wrote from Hong Kong. CNN’s Mitra Mobasherat, Kyung Lah, Mike Ahlers, Chelsea J. Carter, Greg Botelho, Brian Walker, Elizabeth Joseph, Evan Perez and Shimon Prokupecz contributed to this report.

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