KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CBSNewYork/AP) — A freighter used searchlights early Friday to scan rough seas in one of the remotest places on Earth after satellite images detected possible pieces from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane in the southern Indian Ocean.
In what officials called the “best lead” of the nearly two-week-old aviation mystery, a satellite detected two objects floating about 1,000 miles off the coast of Australia and halfway to the desolate islands of the Antarctic.
The development raised new hope of finding the vanished jet and sent another emotional jolt to the families of the 239 people aboard.
One of the objects on the satellite image was almost 80 feet long – possibly a wing — and the other was 15 feet. There could be other objects in the area, said John Young, manager of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s emergency response division.
“This is a lead; it’s probably the best lead we have right now,” Young said. He cautioned that the objects could be seaborne debris along a shipping route where containers can fall off cargo vessels, although the larger object is longer than a container.
“If that’s indeed a wing, it could have hit in such a nature like so and then broken off with a fairly largely piece and then the rest of them fell into chunks,” Les Abend, a Boeing 777 captain said.
Some of the search planes need four hours to fly there and can only search for two hours before their fuel supply forces them to fly back. The distance from southwestern Australia to the debris sighting equals the distance from New York City to Nebraska.
Four military planes searched the area Thursday without success but will resume later Friday morning, Australian officials said.
The Norwegian cargo vessel Hoegh St. Petersburg, with a Filipino crew of 20, arrived in the area and used searchlights after dark to look for debris. It will continue the search Friday, said Ingar Skiaker of Hoegh Autoliners, speaking to reporters in Oslo.
The Norwegian ship, which transports cars, was on its way from South Africa to Australia, he said. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said another commercial ship and an Australian navy vessel were also en route to the search area.
The U.S. Navy is also sending a P-8A Poseidon plane, which carries technology that can scan the surface and look underwater simultaneously.
“This area of the Indian Ocean is quite turbulent,” said Michio Kaku, a physics professor at The City College of New York. “And even a gentle current of 5 miles an hour could create a debris field of hundreds of miles across.
“And remember that the black box has a beacon, but that beacon has a battery, a battery with a life of 30 days. And we’ve already lost two weeks. And so the window of opportunity is closing very rapidly.”
Satellite imagery experts said the lead is worth investigating.
“It would be very nice if you could see a whole wing floating there, then you could say, ‘OK that’s an airplane.’ When you’re looking at something like this you can’t tell what it is,” said Sean O’Connor, an imagery analyst with IHS Janes.
But another analyst said the debris is most likely not pieces of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. There have been several false leads since the Boeing 777 disappeared March 8 above the Gulf of Thailand en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
“The chances of it being debris from the airplane are probably small, and the chances of it being debris from other shipping are probably large,” said Jason Middleton, an aviation professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
The development marked a new phase for the anguished relatives of the passengers, who have been critical of Malaysian officials for not releasing timely information about the plane. While they still hope their loved ones will somehow be found, they acknowledged that news of the satellite images could mean the plane fell into the sea.
“If this debris is indeed part of that plane, then it kind of dashes that wishful thinking,” said Sarah Bajc, the partner of Philip Wood, the only U.S. adult aboard the plane.
“If it turns out that it is truly MH370, then we will accept that fate,” said Selamat Bin Omar, the father of a Malaysian passenger. The jet carried mostly Chinese and Malaysian nationals.
But he cautioned that relatives still “do not yet know for sure whether this is indeed MH370 or something else. Therefore, we are still waiting for further notice from the Australian government.”
Malaysian officials met with the relatives Thursday night in a hotel near Kuala Lumpur, but journalists were kept away. After the meeting, groups of people left looking distraught.
Hamid Amran, who had a child on Flight 370, said questions asked at the meeting made it “apparent that Malaysia’s military is incapable of protecting its own airspace.”
He said he “believes that my child and all the other passengers are still alive. I will not give up hope.”
A man who would only give his surname, Lau, said he was there to support a Chinese couple who had lost their only son.
“It appears some families are slowly accepting the worst outcome,” he said.
Malaysian Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said the relatives in Kuala Lumpur were being given updates by high-level officials “two or three times a day.”
“We do take care of the next of kin, and assuming it is confirmed, that the aircraft is located somewhere close to Australian, we will obviously make arrangements to fly the next of kin there,” he said.
A group of Malaysian government and airline officials flew Thursday night to Beijing to meet families there.
Young said the ocean in the search area is thousands of feet deep.
DigitalGlobe, a Longmont, Colo.-based company, said it provided the images to Australian officials. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority released two images of the whitish objects. They were taken March 16, but Australian Air Commodore John McGarry said it took time to analyze them.
“The task of analyzing imagery is quite difficult, it requires drawing down frames and going through frame by frame,” he said.
The hunt has encountered other false leads. Oil slicks that were seen did not contain jet fuel. A yellow object thought to be from the plane turned out to be sea trash. Chinese satellite images showed possible debris, but nothing was found.
But this is the first time that possible objects have been spotted since the search area was massively expanded into two corridors, one stretching from northern Thailand into Central Asia and the other from the Strait of Malacca to the southern Indian Ocean.
Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein made it clear Thursday that although international search efforts are continuing both on land and in sea in the northern and southern hemispheres, the effort is mostly concentrated south of the equator over the vast Indian Ocean.
Malaysian authorities have not ruled out any possible explanation for what happened to the jet, but have said the evidence so far suggests it was deliberately turned back across Malaysia to the Strait of Malacca, with its communications systems disabled. They are unsure what happened next.
Police are considering the possibility of hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or anyone else on board.
Mike Glynn, a committee member of the Australian and International Pilots Association, told CBS News on Sunday he considers pilot suicide to be the most likely explanation for the disappearance, as was suspected in a SilkAir crash during a flight from Singapore to Jakarta in 1997 and an EgyptAir flight from Los Angeles to Cairo in 1999.
EgyptAir flight 990 was schedule to make a stop at JFK Airport before it crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 217 people on board.
But if the debris is found in the far south Indian Ocean, many experts say that would tend to eliminate some of the wilder theories and re-enforce an emergency scenario, where the crew was incapacitated and the plane flew on auto-pilot until it dropped into the ocean.
The area is about where the jet would’ve run out of fuel.
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