A Chinese government website posted satellite images Wednesday of suspected debris from a missing Malaysian airliner, offering the first potential lead for investigators frustrated by the fruitless and haphazard search effort.
The satellite images, which were captured Sunday, appear to show “three suspected floating objects” between Malaysia and Vietnam, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported, adding that one of the objects measured 79 feet by 72 feet.
That location was approximately along the planned flight path for the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, though the images were 3 days old and the debris may have drifted far from that spot.
Wednesday’s release of the satellite images by China’s State Administration for Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense provides the first break in the disappearance of the jet, which vanished early Saturday with 239 people onboard. It was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
However, Li Jiaxiang, chief of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, cautioned Thursday that Beijing “cannot confirm that they belong to the missing plane.”
Malaysian officials said Wednesday that they again expanded the search area to encompass 35,000 square miles.
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On Thursday, News Corp Australia reported that a New Zealand oil man, working on a rig southeast of Vietnam’s southern coast, saw a fire burst in the sky Saturday morning and told his employers that he thought it was the Malaysian jet.
The time and the rig’s location at least plausibly fit the planned flight path and the site of the Chinese image’s debris, according to the News Corp website. Mike McKay’s employers reportedly passed his account on to the Vietnamese government.
But neither Vietnam nor Malaysia has officially corroborated the Xinhua report, and Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s civil aviation chief, said Thursday that China had not officially informed his country and he knew about the satellite images only from watching the news.
“If we get confirmation, we will send something,” he told reporters in Kuala Lumpur before counseling caution early Thursday. “There have been lots of reports of suspected debris.”
Meanwhile, aviation industry analysts and officials are blaming Malaysia for ineptitude.
Malaysian officials’ uncertainty about the plane’s flight path, conflicting information given to the public and overall lack of transparency in the investigation have made the five-day search frustrating and chaotic. Authorities were unclear whether the plane went down off the coast of Vietnam or made a sharp turn and flew for 70 minutes — without its transponders — over the Strait of Malacca, hundreds of miles off course.
The lack of clarity is mind-boggling, said Mark Rosenker, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board who worked on the 2009 disappearance of an Air France flight over the Atlantic Ocean.
If the plane did make a sharp turn and was picked up by military radar over the strait, the fact that Malaysia’s air force did not intercept and investigate it is troubling, he said.
“In the Western world — or really any other place in the world — jets would’ve gone up to see what was going on with the airplane, and yet we have no information that they did that. It’s extraordinary,” Mr. Rosenker said. “If this flight went down over U.S. airspace, we certainly would’ve been a lot more transparent. It would’ve been a much more organized, efficient effort.”
According to the Kuala Lumpur newspaper Berita Harian, Malaysian air force chief Gen. Rodzali Daud said radar had tracked the jetliner as it changed course early Saturday. Hours later, the general denied making the comments.
“Why is there so much misinformation? Is the Malaysian government that messed up?” said John Goglia, a former NTSB member. “I have no speculation as to what happened because I don’t trust any of the data that’s come out. I’ve lost faith in who’s in charge of this investigation and how it’s being run.”
According to international protocol, Malaysia remains in control of the investigation because the plane took off from its airport. The investigation will change hands only if debris is found in another country — wherein that country would take the helm.
But China — home to two-thirds of the passengers on the jet — has begun expressing impatience with Malaysia’s investigation.
“There’s too much information and confusion right now. It is very hard for us to decide whether a given piece of information is accurate,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in Beijing.
U.S. agencies, such as the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration, are assisting in the investigation but cannot take action until the Malaysian government makes an official call or when the plane is found.
Only the Malaysian government has access to radar signals, air traffic control calls and flight tracking information. It is up to government officials to share that information.
“There’s a real concern, in that part of the world, of losing face,” said James Hall, a former NTSB chairman who has assisted Taiwan and South Korea with aviation safety protocol. “There’s worries that the Malaysian civil and military investigators [won’t] provide all the information needed for a thorough investigation.”
Malaysia’s search and rescue effort has turned into one of the most frustrating on record. In the Air France case, baggage and bodies were found five days after the flight disappeared.
Another difference: The Air France plane sent a series of automated alerts to authorities signaling it was in trouble. No such alerts were recorded by the Malaysian jetliner.
“I’m stymied, I’m stumped. There really should be more information out there,” Mr. Rosenker said.
Aviation specialists doubt that all of the communications stopped working — especially in a state-of-the-art jetliner.
Malaysian authorities are continuing to search the waters on both sides of their nation and said Wednesday that they trying to draw in more international help.
“We are now working with many experts, including from Boeing, the U.S. federal aviation authority, and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board,” said Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.
That effort may be too little, too late.
“The fact that they may have been looking in the wrong ocean for four days isn’t very promising,” said Kirk Koenig, president of Expert Aviation Consulting. “Debris will continue to float further and further away. They really have no clue as to where that plane is.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.