BEIJING — A massive search was underway Sunday for a missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner, focusing on a spot off the southern coast of Vietnam where two large oil slicks were reported. But there were, so far, no clues to why the China-bound flight vanished without warning with 239 people on board.
Malaysian officials investigating the disappearance said they were not ruling out terrorism — or any other causes — as reports emerged that two Europeans listed on the passenger manifest were not aboard and their passports had been lost or stolen. Who was traveling on those passports, though, remained unclear.
At a news conference Sunday morning, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman of Malaysia's Department of Civil Aviation said searchers had "not located anything" and were expanding the search area. He said even the oil slick sighting, reportedly made by a Vietnamese military plane, had not been verified.
In Washington, the FBI said it was opening its own investigation into the plane's disappearance, but officials cautioned that there was no immediate evidence that pointed to terrorism.
"So far, what happened is a mystery," a top U.S. law enforcement official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the investigation.
The Boeing 777 was carrying 227 passengers and a dozen Malaysian crew members when it lost contact with air traffic controllers about 2:40 a.m. Saturday, two hours after departing Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, en route to Beijing, the airline said. The biggest contingent — 154 — was from China and Taiwan.
The airline's chief executive, Ahmad Jauhari Yahya, said during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur that there was no distress call or bad weather report from the pilots before the plane lost contact with air control 140 miles off the east coast of Kota Bharu, Malaysia.
Three American passport holders were listed among the passengers, and a Texas semiconductor company said 20 of its employees —12 from Malaysia and eight from China — were aboard.
"At present, we are solely focused on our employees and their families," said Gregg Lowe, president and chief executive of Austin-based Freescale Semiconductor. "Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by this tragic event."
Ships from Malaysia, China and the United States were en route to the suspected crash site early Sunday.
Two Chinese warships, the Jinggangshan and Mianyang, were deployed to the area, state-run New China News Agency said. The Jinggangshan carried helicopters, medical personnel and divers.
The U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet said it had dispatched the Pinckney, a guided-missile destroyer with helicopters aboard, and was also sending a P-3C Orion aircraft, which has long-range search, radar and communications capabilities.
Azharuddin, Malaysia's director general of civil aviation, said Saturday night that authorities had reviewed closed-circuit TV footage of passengers and their luggage and hadn't seen anything of concern. But Prime Minister Najib Razak cautioned that it was too early to come to any conclusions, and other officials said nothing was being ruled out at this point.
The U.S. law enforcement source said FBI personnel would also take a look at the video and use the bureau's vast counter-terrorism technology to look for matches with known members of Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations. But he emphasized that no known terrorist link had surfaced and no organization had claimed responsibility for downing the plane.
Speculation swirled around the two passengers who may have been using stolen passports.
The airline released a passenger list that included, among many other nationalities, one Italian and one Austrian. Shortly after the list was published, Italy's ANSA news agency reported that the Italian named on the manifest, Luigi Maraldi, 37, had phoned his family to say he was alive and well in Thailand.
Austria's APA news agency made a similar report about an Austrian citizen listed on the passenger manifest, Christian Kozel, 30. APA reported that his passport was stolen about two years ago in Thailand.
An official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the Italian's passport had been taken from his rental car when he returned the vehicle in August.
"Just because they were stolen doesn't mean the travelers were terrorists," the official cautioned, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly. "They could have been nothing more than thieves. Or they could have simply bought the passports on the black market."
Another U.S. law enforcement official said Interpol keeps a registry of lost and stolen passports that major international airlines routinely check before passengers board a flight. It would be unusual for a passenger on a major airline such as Malaysia Airlines to be able to board using a stolen passport, he said.
Azharuddin said authorities were aware of the passport discrepancies and were "doing an investigation," but he refused to respond to a reporter's assertion that the airline had failed to check passports against the Interpol list. There was no sign of any abnormality on the aircraft, he added, and "all angles" were being looked at.
Mikael Robertsson, cofounder of FlightRadar24, which tracks about 120,000 flights per day with 3,000 receivers around the world, said the last transmission it recorded from the flight was at 35,000 feet. Though it's possible the plane veered into an area too far away from receivers to track it, he said that was unlikely.
"In this case, we have quite good coverage," he said. "We had a very good stable signal, and it just disappeared…. I don't want to speculate, but something very sudden happened." FlightRadar representatives also said they believed the plane had lost radar contact about 40 minutes into the flight, not two hours as the airline said.
Malaysia Airlines said that once the whereabouts of the aircraft was determined, the company would fly members of the family to the location. Malaysia state news agency Bernama said next-of-kin in Malaysia were being taken to Kuala Lumpur International Airport to be flown to an unspecified location Sunday.
A "go team" of more than 90 people dispatched by Malaysia Airlines arrived in Beijing late Saturday to assist victims' families. The leader of the team, Ignatius Ong, said at an early morning news conference in the Chinese capital that the plane was inspected 10 days ago, was in top condition and had no history of malfunction.
Boeing 777s are considered one of the safest jets in operation. The first fatal crash in the model's 19-year history occurred last July when an Asiana Airlines jet landed short of the runway in San Francisco, killing three people aboard.
Makinen reported from Beijing and Serrano from Washington. Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing bureau and Ken Dilanian and Brian Bennett of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun