Officials investigating the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jet carrying 239 passengers as it approached Vietnam early Saturday morning have little to go on and are not currently ruling out any explanation. After initially looking into the usual causes of plane crashes, such as pilot error, mechanical failure, or bad weather, the finding that two of the passengers used stolen passports adds to the mystery.
Other than the two large oil slicks stretching across about 12 miles of the Gulf of Thailand, there is no sign of wreckage. The Pentagon joined the search effort by employing a system that looks for flashes around the world to detect if there were any explosions in the area where the jet disappeared but preliminary data found nothing.
The jet was reportedly in top condition, a reliable Boeing 777 that had passed inspection just 10 days prior to the disappearance and was not scheduled for service in the immediate future. Authorities did not receive any distress signals from the jet prior to losing contact with the aircraft two hours into the flight around 2:40 a.m. The flight left Kuala Lumpur shortly after midnight on Saturday on it way to Beijing, where it was scheduled to land at 6:30 a.m. local time, and according to Chinese air traffic control officials, the jet never entered Chinese airspace. The last signal received placed the jet near the Ca Mau province as it approached the southern tip of Vietnam.
There has been confirmation that the names of an Italian man and an Austrian man that appeared on the manifest of the missing jet match the names of passports that were reported stolen in Thailand. The missing flight has not been labeled an “act of terrorism,” as Malaysia Airlines officials stress that the investigation is still in its early stages and they are not ruling out any explanation for the disappearance. As of now, law enforcement officials know that the Italian man reported his passport stolen last August, while vacationing in Thailand. The Austrian man had his passport stolen two years ago in 2012.
There is concern over the lapses in security that would allow stolen passports to process without registering as stolen, but authorities said that in that area of the world, stolen passports and counterfeit passports are regularly used to smuggle drugs. The two passengers using the stolen passports bought the airline tickets from China Southern Airlines, which works in conjunction with Malaysia Airlines. China Southern Airlines said that they also sold five other tickets on the flight.
The U.S., Malaysia, and Vietnam have sent rescue ships and search planes to the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand. China will be sending two naval ships to assist in the search. China is also assembling a team of divers who specialize in emergency rescue and recovery.
Among the 227 passengers and the all-Malaysian crew of 12, there were three Americans. According to the manifest, the three Americans have been identified as Yan Zhang, 2, Nicolechd Meng, 4, and Philip Wood, 51.
At present, Malaysia Airlines is not ruling out any explanation, but what is known is that weather was most likely not a factor. Some light rain and snow fell over southern China but would not have affected the jet cruising at 35,000 feet. The flight also had experienced pilots. Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, had logged over 18,000 hours since he joined the airline in 1981. First Officer Fariq Hamid, 27, had just shy of 2,800 hours. A representative for the Beijing International Airport told friends and family of the passengers to head to the Lido Hotel to await any information gathered on the flight.
By David Tulis