Vietnamese searchers looking for a missing Malaysian Airline Boeing Co. 777-200 said they found a suspected window or door fragment as efforts to learn the plane’s fate extended to scrutiny of security camera images of two passengers using stolen passports.
Le Van Minh, a Vietnamese coast guard commander, said in a telephone interview today that the fragment is suspected to be part of a plane’s emergency door or window, and that rough seas and darkness were preventing crews from retrieving it. Ships are still searching the area for the piece, which was spotted by helicopter 90 kilometers (56 miles) south of Vietnam’s Tho Chu Island, Minh said.
Malaysian Airline System Bhd.’s Flight 370 vanished two days ago with 239 people on board. An air search resumed yesterday after Vietnam’s military found two oil slicks as long as 15 kilometers off its south coast. The prospect of terrorism arose after Austria and Italy said passports used by two male passengers were stolen from their citizens.
“There’s no sign of the aircraft,” Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation, said yesterday at a news conference. “Although we have confirmed reports of oil spills, that has not been confirmed by the authorities.”
Interpol said in a statement that at least two passports recorded in its database, one Austrian and one Italian, were used by passengers on the flight after being reported stolen in Thailand. Two people using stolen Italian and Austrian passports had consecutive ticket numbers, suggesting the tickets were issued together, Cable News Network reported, citing the Chinese e-ticket verification system Travelsky.
All the passengers on the flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur are being investigated, with a specific focus on four names, Malaysian Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said separately yesterday without elaborating.
“I’m in touch with the international intelligence agencies” concerning the passports, he said at a briefing.
The airline’s policy states that cockpit doors must be electronically locked and can be opened only from the inside. All of its planes have cameras to identify people outside the cockpit, according to the carrier’s media center.
The search radius was expanded to 50 nautical miles from 20 nautical miles, with ships continuing the effort after dark, Azharuddin said.
A team from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board was heading to Malaysia to be in place once the wreckage of the plane is located. The team was being joined by experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
Closed-circuit television footage exists of the two people who used the false passports, Azharuddin said.
“There are only two passengers on record that flew on this aircraft that have false passports,” he said before the press conference. “We have the CCTV recordings of those passengers from check-in right through the departure point. These records of CCTV are now being used for investigation of this matter.”
The aircraft may have made an “air turn-back,” according to Hishammuddin. That means the plane may have deviated from its planned route, said Malaysian Air Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya.
A wing on the plane was damaged after a minor collision with another aircraft in 2012 but had been fully repaired, the Washington Post reported without citing the source of the information.
There is no indication of terrorism at this point, said a U.S. official following the case, asking not to be identified because the investigation is still in its early stages. The U.S. is working with authorities in the region to explore all possible causes, the official said.
The Austrian passport used to board the flight belonged to a 30-year-old who reported the theft in 2012 in Thailand, while the Italian was Luigi Maraldi, who disclosed the theft of his documents in August, according to the countries’ foreign ministries. Neither man was on the Malaysian aircraft, their governments said.
The missing plane was a code-share service with China Southern Airlines Co., which said it sold seven tickets on the flight, including to people of Austrian and Italian nationality, according to the company’s microblog.
When asked about the passengers who boarded with stolen passports, Chairman Si Xianmin told reporters in Beijing, “the key is with border control and immigration departments on the ground.”
Flight 370 departed the Malaysian capital at about 12:41 a.m. local time March 8 and was scheduled to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. Security screening was performed as usual at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd. said.
The twin-engine, wide-body plane carried 227 passengers and 12 crew members, with Chinese travelers accounting for the largest group by nationality at 153, including an infant, the airline said. Also aboard were three U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. State Department. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is monitoring the situation.
China and the U.S. are assisting efforts, with the destroyer USS Pinckney from the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet among vessels in the search. President Barack Obama was briefed while on a weekend family vacation in Key Largo, Florida, said Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman.
The oil slicks discovered by Vietnamese military aircraft were about 140 kilometers south of Tho Chu Island in a body of water known as the Gulf of Thailand, off the South China Sea.
While Muslim-majority Malaysia hasn’t seen any recent major terrorist attacks on home soil, it has been used as a transit and planning hub, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. State Department. China, the plane’s destination, has occasionally suffered what it calls terrorist attacks by Uighurs, a mainly Muslim ethnic group from the nation’s northwest Xinjiang region.
If terrorism was involved, the flight’s disappearance over water may not be a coincidence, said John Magaw, a former top U.S. law-enforcement and transportation-security official who now works as a consultant. Magaw, who formerly was director of the U.S. Secret Service and led the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as well as the Transportation Security Administration, said bringing down an airliner at sea helps obscure any evidence.
U.S. Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, said he’s seen no indication the U.S. had picked up evidence of a mid-air explosion of the plane. The lack of such evidence “is certainly adding to the mystery,” Rogers said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” program.
The presence of two passengers with stolen passports signals possible terrorism, said Magaw, citing intelligence warnings that multiple attackers might seek to elude detection by smuggling different parts of bombs onto planes and then assembling the pieces in restrooms.
In the case of Air France Flight 447, which disappeared en route to Paris from Rio de Janeiro on June 1, 2009, Brazilian search teams began finding pieces within a day. The wreckage was discovered 3,900 meters (12,800 feet) deep in the Atlantic Ocean.
Malaysian immigration officers check foreign passports with biometric features by swiping outbound travelers’ documents to see details of their histories and compare thumb prints and faces to on-screen photo identifications, said an immigration official at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
When the Malaysian system isn’t working, slows or freezes, officers enter passport details manually without taking thumb prints, said the official, who asked not to be identified because of a lack of authorization to speak publicly.
Information is keyed in manually for passports without biometric enhancements, the official said. Outbound travelers’ passports also are checked to ensure that they show stamps proving entry into Malaysia, said the official, who was commenting on procedures in general rather than Flight 370.
The stolen Austrian passport had biometric features, said Thomas Weiss, a spokesman for the nation’s Foreign Ministry.
Malaysia began an internal investigation of its Immigration Department, the Malaysian National News Agency reported. The inquiry will focus on operations at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, it said.
U.S. officials will work closely with counterparts in China and Malaysia, with a focus on how airport checkpoints worked and whether passengers’ shoes were scanned properly for explosives, said Kip Hawley, a former chief of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration who is now a consultant.
Malaysia’s last communication with the plane, just before a handoff to Vietnamese authorities, was “normal,” according to Azharuddin. Contact was lost a minute before the aircraft entered Vietnam’s airspace, its government said on its website.
The plane disappeared from Malaysian radar at 1:30 a.m. The carrier said the last radar contact with the plane was about 120 nautical miles east of Kota Bahru, near the South China Sea. FlightAware, a Houston-based compiler of global air-traffic information, gave the jet’s last known altitude as 35,000 feet as it flew a northeasterly course at 539 mph.
Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, and First Officer Fariq Ab. Hamid, 27, were the pilots, according to an airline statement. The captain had 18,365 flying hours and joined the company in 1981, while his first officer had 2,763 hours of flying. The first officer joined the Subang Jaya-based airline in 2007.
The 777 has been involved in only three accidents serious enough to destroy a plane. The only fatalities occurred in last year’s Asiana Airlines Inc. crash in San Francisco, where investigators have focused on pilot error.
U.S. Representative Peter King, a Republican from New York who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, said yesterday that so far no terror link has been found.
“There is a full court press going on” by intelligence and security officials to find out what happened, said King, who was briefed by intelligence officials.
“The two stolen passports have them concerned,” King said in an interview. “It happened in Malaysia, where there has been al-Qaeda activity over the years. And the plane just disappeared without a mayday or distress call. All of those are potential terrorist indicators.”