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Day of hope in Malaysian flight search ends in uncertainty

Search ends with uncertainty

Michael Pearson, Jethro Mullen and Mitra Mobasherat

CNN

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CNN) -- A day that began with high hopes ended with uncertainty late Thursday in Australia as darkness put an end to the search for two objects captured on satellite and described as possible debris from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Aircraft from Australia, New Zealand and the United States, along with a Norwegian merchant ship, will resume the search Friday, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

Hindered by poor weather in a wild, remote area of the southern Indian Ocean, neither the surveillance planes nor the massive Norwegian cargo ship managed to spot the debris photographed Sunday by a commercial satellite.

Even before suspending the search for the day, authorities cautioned the objects could be something other than plane wreckage, such as shipping containers that fell off a passing vessel.

But they said they represent the best lead so far in the search for the missing airliner, which vanished 13 days ago with 239 passengers and crew aboard.

"At least there is a credible lead," Malaysia's interim Transportation Secretary Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters. "That gives us hope. As long as there's hope, we will continue."

Australian officials first announced the news to the world in a briefing closely watched by relatives of some of the missing at the Lido hotel in Beijing. They gathered around a large-screen television to watch the Australian news conference, leaning forward in their chairs, hanging on every word. Some sighed loudly.

"I have hope," said one man who said his son was aboard the missing flight. "From the very beginning, I firmly believe that everyone on board is alive."

While Hishammuddin said efforts are intensifying around the site of the Australian discovery, he said the search will continue across the massive search zone until authorities can give the families answers.

"For the families around the world, the one piece of information that they want most is the information we just don't have: the location of MH370," he said.

The objects

Satellites captured images of the objects about 14 miles (23 kilometers) from each other and about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) southwest of Australia's west coast. The area is a remote, rarely traveled expanse of ocean far from commercial shipping lanes.

The commercial satellite images, taken Sunday, show two indistinct objects of "reasonable size," with the largest about 24 meters (79 feet) across, said John Young, general manager of emergency response for the Australian maritime agency.

They appear to be "awash with water and bobbing up and down," Young said.

The objects could be from the plane, but they could be also something else -- like a shipping container -- caught in swirling currents known for creating garbage patches in the open ocean, he said.

"It is probably the best lead we have right now," Young said. "But we need to get there, find them, see them, assess them to know whether it's really meaningful or not."

It took four days for the images to reach the authority "due to the volume of imagery being searched, and the detailed process of analysis that followed," the agency said in a prepared statement.

The size of the objects concerned David Gallo, one of the leaders of the search for Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.

"It's a big piece of aircraft to have survived something like this," he said, adding that if it is from the aircraft, it could be part of the tail.

The tail height of a Boeing 777, the model of the missing Malaysian plane, is 60 feet.

Mary Schiavo, a CNN aviation analyst and former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said she believes Australian officials would not have announced the find if they weren't fairly sure of what they had discovered.

"There have been so many false leads and so many starts and changes and then backtracking in the investigation," she said. "He wouldn't have come forward and said if they weren't fairly certain."

Although the overall search area spans a huge expanse of 3 million square miles, U.S. officials have been insistent in recent days that the aircraft is likely to be found somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.

Wide search continues

Until searchers make a confirmed find of debris from the aircraft, the search and rescue operation will continue throughout the search zone, Hishammuddin said.

Even as the focus shifted to the southern Indian Ocean, Hishammuddin said Malaysia was sending two aircraft to search Kazakhstan in central Asia. That's one of the locations along a northern corridor described as a possible location for the aircraft based on satellite pings sent by the plane after air traffic controllers lost contact with it in the early hours of March 8.

Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and China were searching their territories, Hishammuddin said.

Meanwhile, 18 ships, 29 aircraft and six helicopters were taking part in the search in the southern corridor, where search efforts were intensifying in the area around the Australian satellite find.

Following the Australian announcement, China said it had redirected some of its ships to the southern Indian Ocean. The closest of the ships was 2,300 nautical miles from the search area, Navy spokesman Liang Yang said in a statement on the Chinese navy's website.

In addition to the Australian and U.S. surveillance planes that flew over the area Thursday afternoon, two other planes were being dispatched to the region, including a New Zealand Air Force Orion and an Australian C-130 Hercules. That aircraft was tasked by Australian authorities to drop marker buoys in the area, Young said.

"The first thing they need to do is put eyes on the debris from one of the aircraft," said aviation expert Bill Waddock. The buoys will mark the place and transmit location data.

In addition to the Norwegian vehicle carrier Höegh St. Petersburg, which arrived Thursday afternoon, a second merchant ship and the Australian naval vessel HMAS Success were steaming to the site. The Success was "some days away," Hishammuddin said.

The Malaysian navy has six ships with three helicopters heading to the southern Indian Ocean to take part in the search, a Malaysian government source said.

"Verification might take some time. It is very far and it will take some time to locate and verify the objects," the source said.

Families want answers

The lack of progress has angered and frustrated families, who have accused Malaysian officials of withholding information.

Some family members staged a protest Wednesday at the Kuala Lumpur hotel where members of the media covering the search are staying. Their efforts were cut short by security guards who removed them through a crush of reporters, dragging one as she screamed.

"I don't care what your government does," one woman shouted, referring to the Malaysians. "I just want my son back."

The agony of the wait is also felt by families in Beijing, the scheduled destination for Flight 370. They gather daily for a briefing with officials.

Ye Lun, whose brother-in-law is on the missing plane, says every day is the same. He and his group leave the hotel in the morning for a daily briefing, and that's it. They go back to the hotel to watch the news on television.

Sarah Bajc, the partner of Flight 370 passenger and American Philip Wood, told CNN on Thursday that she hopes the debris in the southern Indian Ocean is not from the plane. "I keep hoping that somebody took this flight for a reason, which means they would have preserved it and ... took it someplace," she told CNN's Chris Cuomo.

Mitra Mobasherat reported from Kuala Lumpur. Jethro Mullen wrote and reported from Hong Kong. Michael Pearson reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Chelsea J. Carter, Ben Brumfield, Pamela Brown, Pedram Jahaveri, Pauline Chiou, Yuli Yang, Jim Clancy, David Fitzpatrick, Kyung Lah, Atika Shubert, Evan Perez and Shimon Prokupecz contributed to this report.

Tom Watkins and Ben Brumfield

CNN

(CNN) -- What if this is it?

After more than 12 days of searching amid fears that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 may never be found, investigators said Thursday that satellites have beamed down a ray of hope -- images of a debris field floating in the southern Indian Ocean that may show wreckage of the jet.

It was not immediately clear just how long it would take before investigators could track down just what those images are.

Still, "It is probably the best lead we have right now," said John Young, a spokesman for the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Australian authorities poring over images that were shot Monday spotted the debris floating in one of the world's most remote places -- the southern Indian Ocean more than 1,400 miles off the southwest coast of Australia.

The find warranted attention from the Australian Prime Minister. "Two possible objects related to the search have been identified," Tony Abbott told parliament.

But satellites have been wrong about Flight 370 before. And Australian authorities warn that the pictures, too, could end in a goose chase and disappointment.

If the photographs do show wreckage of the Boeing 777-200ER that departed Kuala Lumpur on March 8 and never arrived in Beijing, what would be next?

Locate

The first mission is to find the "blob," as Young called it. One piece of the debris is 24 meters (79 feet) long.

"The size and fact that there are a number located in the same area really makes it worth looking at," he said.

He urged caution. "Our experience is that there is debris out there -- from ships, for example, falling overboard," he said. "I don't want to speculate about what they are until we get there and we see them."

One expert said that might happen soon.

"I would say a day -- guessing," said Capt. Timothy Taylor, president of Tiburon Subsea Services and an ocean search expert.

Time is critical, given that the batteries powering the pings emanating from the plane's voice and data recorders go dead after about 30 days.

"There's a clock ticking," Taylor said. "Maybe 18 days left."

Overcome complications

Complicating the search -- which the Australian Maritime Safety Authority suspended Thursday night -- is the fact that the debris field is probably far away from where it was when it was spotted in satellite images shot four days ago. "It could have drifted a thousand miles," he said.

And he noted, too, that the debris may be unrelated. "It could be just a false lead," Taylor told CNN's "New Day."

John Blaxland, senior fellow at Australian National University and an an expert on Australian radar, agreed. "I'm a little bit pessimistic," he told "New Day."

He said the debris might be one of the ubiquitous cargo containers carried by ships around the world.

"It's not at all inconceivable that that's exactly what it is," he said, adding that other satellites have been steered to the area to get a better view.

"The problem now is we don't know exactly where" it is, he said. And poor visibility has not helped. "It's still really hard, in this kind of environment, to pick out these little semi-submerged blips," he said. "You're looking for something that is potentially not even there any more."

Search

An Australian plane has flown over the area, and more planes were on their way, including at least one from the United States and one from New Zealand.

But the planes burn much of their fuel just to get to the remote spot, leaving them little time to search.

"We are in the most isolated part of the world," Australian Defense Minister David Johnston told Sky News.

If pilots do find the field, they would drop a buoy to mark the spot and to transmit data to help ships find it, aviation expert Bill Waddock said.

But the area is known for high winds, and white-capped waves could obscure any debris, he added.

And on top of that, a storm in the area may have foiled one flyover.

The crew of a Royal Australian Air Force P-3 Orion was unable to find the objects, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said in a tweet.

Clouds and rain made things hard to see.

Eyeball

"What we're looking for is a confirmation that it does belong to the aircraft, or it does not," Young said.

If a ship reaches the suspected wreckage, it would take some of it back to land for inspection, he said.

But the expanse of ocean contains a mass of floating garbage from around the world, which could mingle with any plane parts.

Recover

In a stroke of luck for investigators, a Norwegian merchant cargo vessel carrying 19 sailors and a cargo of cars reached the suspected debris location and is pitching in on the search.

"All men are on deck to continue the search," said Erik Gierchsky, a spokesman for the Norwegian Shipowners Association, in a telephone interview with CNN, adding that they were planning to work through the night in shifts. "They are using lights and binoculars."

The 755-foot (230-meter) Hoegh St. Petersburg is owned by Hoegh Autoliners. It had been headed to Melbourne, Australia, from South Africa when it diverted to help in the search, he said.

Its presence opens great possibilities, said former CIA counterterrorism expert Jeff Beatty.

It could serve as a base for the salvage teams, especially if it is equipped for helicopter landings.

If refueled in the air, the choppers could carry divers to the ship, and they could search for any debris.

The issue of the remaining lifetime of the batteries powering the cockpit recorder and flight data recorder looms. They were stored inside the tail of the jetliner. If the tail is found, it may have to be disassembled.

French rescuers have underscored to Malaysia's leaders the importance of finding the recorders quickly, said Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia's acting transportation minister. After Air France Flight 447 went down in the Atlantic in 2009, it took two years and a special submarine for investigators to find them.

Malaysia does not have that submarine technology, which makes finding the data recorders before the signals fail all the more important, he added.

Analyze

The recorders could be invaluable to investigators trying to find out what happened to the flight.

The flight data recorder holds about 17,000 pieces of information, said David Soucie, author of "Why Planes Crash: An Accident Investigator Fights for Safe Skies."

And then there is the cockpit recording. Though it keeps only two hours of recordings, it too could prove key. "The last two hours of what happened before this aircraft impacted could be really important to determine whether or not there was foul play," he said.

The-CNN-Wire

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