Southeast Asian nations dispatched ships and planes to scour the seas between Malaysia and Vietnam on Saturday in search of a missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that disappeared with 239 people on board.
Flight MH370 left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing early Saturday morning, but vanished off radar screens less than an hour later. As night fell in the region, there still was no sign of the missing jet — and increasing likelihood that it had crashed into the sea.
Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said there was no indication that the pilots had sent a distress signal, suggesting that whatever happened to the plane occurred quickly and possibly catastrophically.
Two-thirds of the plane’s passengers were from China, while others were from elsewhere in Asia, North America and Europe.
At Beijing’s airport, authorities posted a notice asking relatives and friends of passengers to gather at a nearby hotel to wait for further information, and provided a shuttle bus service. A woman wept aboard the bus while saying on a mobile phone, “They want us to go to the hotel. It cannot be good.”
Relatives and friends of passengers were escorted into a private area at the Lido Hotel, and reporters were kept away. A man in a gray hooded sweatshirt later stormed out complaining about a lack of information. The man, who said he was a Beijing resident but declined to give his name, said he was anxious because his mother was on board the flight with a group of 10 tourists.
“We have been waiting for hours and there is still no verification,” he said.
The plane was last detected on radar at 1:30 a.m. (1730 GMT Friday) around where the South China Sea meets the Gulf of Thailand, authorities in Malaysia and Vietnam said.
Lai Xuan Thanh, director of Vietnam’s civil aviation authority, said air traffic officials in the country never made contact with the plane.
The plane “lost all contact and radar signal one minute before it entered Vietnam’s air traffic control,” Lt. Gen. Vo Van Tuan, deputy chief of staff of the Vietnamese army, said in a statement.
The South China Sea is a tense region with competing territorial claims that have led to several low-level conflicts, particularly between China and the Philippines. That antipathy briefly faded as China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia all sent ships and planes to the region.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said late Saturday that searchers would widen their area of coverage after initial efforts were unsuccessful. It’s not uncommon for it to take several days to find the wreckage of aircraft floating on the ocean. Locating and then recovering the flight data recorders, vital to any investigation, can take months or even years.
“In times of emergencies like this, we have to show unity of efforts that transcends boundaries and issues,” said Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda, commander of the Philippine military’s Western Command.
Thanh said Malaysian, Singaporean and Vietnamese search officials were coordinating operations in an 11,200-square-kilometer (4,324-square-mile) area where the plane was last known to be. He said Vietnamese fishermen in the area were asked to report any suspected sign of the missing plane.
The air search was suspended for the night and was to resume Sunday morning, while the sea search was ongoing, the airline said.
The plane was carrying 227 passengers, including two infants, and 12 crew members, the airline said. It said there were 152 passengers from China, 38 from Malaysia, seven from Indonesia, six from Australia, five from India, three from the U.S., and others from Indonesia, France, New Zealand, Canada, Ukraine, Russia, Italy, Taiwan, the Netherlands and Austria.
In Kuala Lumpur, family members gathered at the airport, but were kept away from reporters.
“Our team is currently calling the next of kin of passengers and crew. Focus of the airline is to work with the emergency responders and authorities and mobilize its full support,” said Yahya, the airline CEO. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all affected passengers and crew and their family members.”
Fuad Sharuji, Malaysia Airlines’ vice president of operations control, told CNN that the plane was flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet (10,670 meters) and that the pilots had reported no problem with the aircraft.
Asked whether terrorism was suspected, Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said authorities had “no information, but we are looking at all possibilities.”