An international search for clues about the disappeared Malaysia Airlines passenger jet intensified Monday, with dozens of ships searching a vast expanse of sea and investigators chasing down leads. But authorities acknowledged that they were stymied.
“Until now, with all of our efforts, there is very little hope for any good news about this plane,” said the head of Vietnam’s search and rescue effort, Pham Quy Tieu.
The hunt was widened on Tuesday to a larger area of the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, around where the plane lost radio contact and vanished from radar screens.
China, which has expressed mounting frustration with the Malaysia-led investigation, said on its Defense Ministry Web site that it has deployed 10 satellites to help in the search, purging them of their original commands.
On Monday, hopes briefly centered on a rectangular orange object that authorities said might have been a life jacket. But when a Vietnamese helicopter recovered the piece of flotsam, it was identified as “a moss-covered cap of a cable reel,” the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam said on its website. Two oil slicks, between 10 and 15 kilometres long, consistent with fuel left by a downed jetliner, were tested and found to not be connected to the plane.
A senior source involved in preliminary investigations in Malaysia said the failure to find any debris indicated the plane may have broken up mid-flight, which could disperse wreckage over a very wide area.
“The fact that we are unable to find any debris so far appears to indicate that the aircraft is likely to have disintegrated at around [10,500 metres],” said the source.
In a vacuum of evidence about what went wrong aboard the flight, speculation turned to the possibility of pilot suicide, an extraordinarily rare occurrence.
“You have to ask the question,” said a U.S. aviation official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
There have been two cases in recent years in which a pilot or crew member is believed to have intentionally caused a plane to crash: the disaster involving SilkAir Flight 185, which spiraled into the ground in Indonesia in 1997, killing 97 passengers and seven crew members. And the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990, which plunged into the Atlantic south of Nantucket in 1999, killing 217 people, reports the Washington Post.
Interpol said on Sunday at least two passengers on board had used stolen passports, raising suspicions of foul play. But Southeast Asia is known as a hub for false documents that are also used by smugglers, illegal migrants and asylum seekers.
The men were using passports stolen in Thailand in 2012 that belonged to Luigi Maraldi, 37, of Italy and Christian Kozel, 30, of Austria.
“We haven’t ruled it out, but the weight of evidence we’re getting swings against the idea that these men are or were involved in terrorism,” Supachai Puikaewcome, chief of police in the Thai resort city of Pattaya, told Reuters.
About two-thirds of the 227 passengers and 12 crew now presumed to have died aboard the plane were Chinese. Other nationalities included 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, four French and three Americans.