KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia said Friday it was dramatically expanding the already vast scope of its search for a missing passenger plane, admitting it was no closer to solving the agonizing aviation mystery a week after the jet vanished.
“The aircraft is still missing, and the search area is expanding,” said Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.
“Together with our international partners, we are pushing further east into the South China Sea and further into the Indian Ocean.”
Hishammuddin said he could offer no new information on the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared from radar screens over Southeast Asia last Saturday, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board.
He also refused to address U.S. media reports in which unidentified American officials said the Boeing 777 may have flown for an additional four or five hours after vanishing from civilian radar.
They said a satellite had continued to detect the plane’s communication system long after it vanished from radar between Malaysia and Vietnam, fuelling speculation that the plane might have banked west off its intended path and headed out over the Indian Ocean.
A US Navy official told AFP the destroyer USS Kidd had been sent towards the Indian Ocean to investigate the latest in a series of tantalizing leads that have pulled the search in multiple directions and deepened one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history.
‘Not a normal investigation’
“A normal investigation becomes narrower with time, as new information focuses the search,” said Hishammuddin.
“But this is not a normal investigation,” he said, lamenting that the lack of success in the search so far “forces us to look further and further afield.”
A total of 57 ships and 48 aircraft from 13 countries are now deployed across the entire search zone, he added.
The Indian Ocean is the world’s third largest with an average depth of nearly 3,900 meters (12,800 feet).
It is like going “from a chessboard to a football field”, Commander William Marks of the U.S. 7th Fleet told CNN.
White House spokesman Jay Carney had appeared to support the U.S. media reports of a potential Indian Ocean breakthrough, citing “new information” while adding that it was “not necessarily conclusive.”
Dressed in his traditional Malay Islamic dress and oval cap following Friday prayers, Hishammuddin refused to comment on the host of theories swirling around the plane’s fate.
“Anything is possible” he said, stressing that he would confirm only what could be verified.
The lack of results from the investigation has created a volatile mix of grief, anger, frustration and speculation that the Malaysian authorities have struggled to control.
‘More confusing each day’
The government has stressed the “unprecedented” nature of the challenge, with the search parameters expanding daily and the focus swinging wildly from the east to the west of the Malaysian peninsula.
“It’s almost got to the point where it gets more confusing with each day that goes by. That’s really atypical of an investigation,” said Anthony Brickhouse, a member of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators.
The Boeing 777 vanished early Saturday over the South China Sea with no indication of distress. The night was clear and the weather was fine. The plane has one of the best safety records of any jet, and the airline also has a solid record.
“There are so many stories swirling around. This morning one man told me the plane had landed in Africa,” said Subramaniam Gurusamy, a 60-year-old Malaysian security guard whose son was on the flight.
“How am I going to explain to my grandchildren that nobody knows where their father is?” he told AFP.
Adding to the anguish of relatives — most of whom are Chinese — has been a succession of false leads, mixed signals, a paucity of clear information from authorities, and miscommunication between the various countries involved in the hunt.
“We are racing against time. If the search area is increased soon then our family members’ chances of survival will rise,” said a Chinese man, surnamed Gao, who waited at a Beijing hotel where passengers’ relatives have gathered.
“I hope Malaysia is a country that can keep its promises.”
China kept up the pressure, with foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei urging Malaysia to release any information they might have “in an accurate and timely fashion.”
Gerry Soejatman, an independent aviation analyst based in Jakarta, was sceptical that the plane could have flown undetected to the Indian Ocean given the number of military radars operated in the region by Malaysia, India, Thailand and Indonesia.
“How could it get past all of that?” said Soejatman. “And if it did, how many people in the military are going to lose their jobs?”
ABC news said US investigators believe the aircraft’s data reporting system and its transponder — which reports its position in flight to ground-based radar — shut down separately.
The 14-minute interval suggests they may have been deliberately disabled or at any rate did not fail as a result of a sudden catastrophic airframe incident, the U.S. network said.
Coupled with radar data that Malaysia said indicates a “possibility” that the plane may have inexplicably started to turn back, the sequential shutdown could lend credence to the theory of a cockpit takeover.
But Soejatman said the time lag could have been the result of a fire, “and then the systems go down one by one”.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be deliberate,” he said.
The plane lost radar contact at around 1:30 a.m., less than an hour after takeoff, according to Malaysian officials.
Inmarsat, the satellite operator cited in U.S. media reports, said: “Routine, automated signals were registered on the Inmarsat network from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 during its flight from Kuala Lumpur.”
The information had been relayed to the airline, the British company said, refusing to comment further.