'Best lead' yet sparks hunt for debris in Indian Ocean
The search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight moved to one of the remotest spots of ocean on the planet yesterday after new satellite images located a possible crash site for the plane some 1,500 miles south-west of Australia.
Boats and aircraft were combing the southern Indian Ocean following what Australian officials described as "credible sighting" of possible wreckage of the plane, which vanished without trace 13 days ago.
One of the pieces of debris was 78 feet long – close to the size of the plane's wing – and another was 16 feet. Officials described the satellite images as "the best lead we have" in the hunt for the plane, but stressed that they were now looking in "one of the most hostile environments in the world".
As well as contending with wild seas, foul weather and poor visibility, the search area is in water some 13,000 feet deep.
Were the wreckage to be found here, it would also raise further baffling questions about the plane's final hours. It would apparently have been heading straight into the open ocean, with the next dry land being Antarctica.
As details of the search were disclosed, suggestions also emerged that the Malaysian authorities had been made aware of the possible lead as early as Sunday and yet chose not to inform the passengers' families.
The captain of the Hoegh St Petersburg, a Norwegian cargo vessel that was diverted to take part in the search, said that he had first received a request from the Australian authorities to take part in the search at 8.50pm GMT on Sunday.
A spokesman for the ship in Norway later claimed that the initial call was simply a general alert broadcast to all vessels in the area, and that a specific request to the Hoegh St Petersburg had not come until Tuesday.
As of last night, the search had not met with success.
The two floating objects were originally captured as blurry blobs in satellite imagery taken on March 16. But early flyovers late yesterday by four military aircraft found nothing.
A source close to the investigation said that the objects were in the exact corridor that had been pinpointed as the most likely endpoint for the plane.
"It is where we were expecting it to be," the source added. "If you assume the plane remained at a constant height and speed, given its fuel load, it takes you down to the southern part of the southern corridor."
The source said investigators still believe the plane was deliberately flown off course after its communications system was disabled.
They have largely dismissed speculation that the pilot diverted the aircraft because of an on-board fire.
"We're still on the notion of a deliberate act, but who it was is unknown and for what reason is unknown," the source said.
The possible wreckage was identified as a potential lead by Australian defence officials yesterday morning after they magnified the images and assessed the size of the floating objects.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said the images suggested "a possible object that might indicate a debris field".
John Young, the authority's spokesman, said: "We have to locate it, confirm that it belongs to the aircraft, recover it, and then bring it a long way back to Australia. We may get a sighting, we may not.
"The indication to me is of objects that are a reasonable size and probably awash with water bobbing up and down under the surface."
The sighting prompted mixed emotions among the families of passengers, who have been desperate for a sign of the missing aircraft and have clung to the hope that those on board may still be alive.
"If it turns out that it is truly MH370 then we will accept that fate," said Selamat Omar, the father of a Malaysian passenger on the jet.
A family member of one of the missing Malaysian passengers expressed anger at the lack of information on the apparent sighting: "No information has been provided," the family member said. "I think the news from Australia is a bit more reliable, because the satellite image was provided by America. We are in a bad mood."
Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia's acting transport minister, urged caution but admitted that "every lead is a hope".
He said: "These sightings while still credible are still to be confirmed. There remains much work to be done." (© Daily Telegraph, London)