A Malaysia Airlines flight bound for Beijing and carrying 227 passengers, two thirds of them from China, was presumed to have crashed mysteriously off the Vietnamese coast on Saturday, according to reports.
In the first sign that Flight MH370 had crashed, Vietnam said its rescue planes had spotted two large oil slicks and a column of smoke near where the Boeing 777-200ER vanished from radar screens about an hour after it took off from Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur.
The airline said the plane had relayed no distress signal, suggesting that whatever happened to the plane occurred quickly and possibly catastrophically. There were no reports of bad weather, no signs of sabotage nor claims of a terrorist attack.
But news reports have said that at least two people on board may have been carrying stolen passports. An Austrian and an Italian thought to have been on the aircraft both had had their passports reportedly stolen in Thailand and are safe, officials and family members said.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said authorities were looking at all possibilities and it was too soon to speculate, when asked whether terrorism could have been a factor.
Vietnam’s army deputy chief-of-staff Vo Van Tuan told state-run VTV that military aircraft “sighted two oil slicks around 15 to 20 kilometers (10-12 miles) long, running parallel, around 500 meters apart from each other.”
“I think the two oil slicks are very likely linked to the missing plane,” Vice-Admiral Ngo Van Phat, who is helping to direct the search mission, told Agence France-Presse.
China and the Philippines also sent ships to the region to help, while the United States, Malaysia, and Singapore dispatched military planes.
“In times of emergencies like this, we have to show unity of efforts that transcends boundaries and issues,” said Lt Gen Roy Deveraturda, commander of the Philippine military’s Western Command, the Associated Press reported.
By the early hours of Sunday Vietnamese time, there was no sight of the plane or any wreckage, more than 24 hours after it went missing.
Malaysia Airlines notified next of kin of passengers to be ready with their passports in preparation to fly to the crash site, once it was identified.
Chinese President Xi Jinping sought “emergency measures” over the missing flight while Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, in a telephone call to Najib, urged Malaysia to carry out “a quick and effective search and rescue operation,” China’s official Xinhua news agency said.
According to Malaysia Airlines, 153 of the 227 passengers on flight MH370 – a codeshare with China Southern Airlines – were Chinese. People from at least 13 other nationalities, including 38 Malaysians, were on the flight.
Artists on flight
Two dozen Chinese artists and their family members were aboard, returning from an art exchange forum, including a well-known calligrapher.
Meng Gaosheng, a member of the Chinese Calligraphy Artist Association, led a 24-member delegation for an art exchange in Malaysia, Xinhua said.
It also cited Memetjan Abra as also among artists aboard the plane, saying his wife Nur Guli had said that he spoke with her briefly on Friday night, before the plane took off from Kuala Lumpur.
“He is a good painter, husband and father” she said.
The plane also carried a Chinese family of five, with the youngest Wang Moheng, 11 weeks away from his second birthday. The child was traveling with his parents and grandparents.
Wang Dongcheng, a professor at China Youth University for Political Sciences who arrived in Beijing on Saturday after a trip to Nepal, said on his twitter-like Sina Weibo account on Saturday that nine of his 22 traveling companions were aboard the missing plane.
Relatives of Chinese passengers on the plane meanwhile angrily accused Malaysia Airlines of keeping them in the dark, while state media criticized the carrier’s poor response.
Relatives were taken to a hotel near Beijing airport, put in a room and told to wait for information from the airline, but none came, Reuters news agency reported.
About 20 people stormed out of the room at one point, enraged they had been given no information, it said.
“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, who declined to give his name.
Another relative, trying to evade a throng of reporters, muttered: “They’re treating us worse than dogs,” according to Reuters
Chinese media outlets took to their official Weibo microblogs to criticize the airline for taking so long to announce what was going on and for refusing to answer questions.
If confirmed, it would be the second fatal crash in the history of the Boeing 777, a popular wide-body model. A Boeing 777-200 operated by South Korea’s Asiana Airlines skidded off the runway in San Francisco in 2013, killing three.
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