Oil Slicks Spotted Off Vietnam Suggest Malaysian Airlines Flight Carrying 239 Crashed Into Sea

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
March 8 2014 11:17 AM

Oil Slicks Spotted Off Vietnam Suggest Malaysian Airlines Flight Carrying 239 Crashed Into Sea

477251553-relative-of-a-passenger-onboard-malaysia-airlines
A relative of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries at Lidu Hotel on March 8, 2014 in Beijing

Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

As the hours pass, hope is increasingly vanishing and now two large oil slicks spotted off the southern tip of Vietnam appear to be the first clear evidence that the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 flight with 239 people on board had crashed. The slicks, which were reportedly between six and nine miles each, were spotted by Vietnamese air force planes as part of a multi-nation operation to search the South China Sea for the jet, reports the Associated Press.

Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Singapore and the Philippines are working on the search mission for the redeye flight that was scheduled to arrive in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. but vanished shortly after taking off from Kuala Lampur. There were 14 nationalities among the 227 passengers, the majority of whom—153 people, including one infant—are Chinese. There were also 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, three (including one infant), three French, and three Americans on board, among others. The Americans listed on the passenger manifest were one 51-year-old, one two-year-old, and one four-year-old, according to USA Today.

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The 11-year-old plane seemed to disappear off the map without giving a distress signal, which Reuters describes as “a chilling echo”  of the Air France flight that crashed into the South Atlantic in June 2009 killing all of the 228 people who were on board. The wreckage of that plane was only found two days later.

There was some initial discrepancy as to when the plane went missing that may have delayed rescue efforts. The airline first claimed it had lost contact with flight MH370 at 2:40 a.m. local time (1:40 p.m. Eastern or 6:40 p.m. GMT), or two hours after takeoff. But Flightradar24, an online aircraft tracking service, says the plane went missing 40 minutes after takeoff. “It took 11 hours until about 03:00 UTC until a search and rescue operation was started in the area of Gulf of Thailand where Flightradar24 reported lost radar contact,” notes the website in a Facebook post. “It feels very frustrating that the incorrect reports of lost contact after 2 hours has made that Flightradar24 data of lost contact after 40 minutes, has been ignored for so many hours.” The Associated Press notes the plane was last seen on the radar at around 1:30 a.m. local time (12:30 p.m. Eastern) right before it entered Vietnam’s air traffic control.

If the crash is confirmed it would mark the deadliest incident in the airline’s history. The last time Malaysian airlines had a fatal accident was in 1995, when a Fokker50 crashed and killed 34 people, while the deadliest incident was a December 1977 crash that took place after an apparent hijacking attempt and killed 100, reports the Wall Street Journal. It isn’t just the airline that has a good safety record. A financial analyst tells Bloomberg the Boeing 777 is the safest aircraft in the world. It is one of the most popular models for long-haul flights and hadn’t had a fatal accident in its 19-year history until July, 2013, when a Boeing 777 operated by Asiana Airlines crashed in San Francisco, killing three passengers.

477258801-fishing-boat-is-anchored-near-a-local-naval-base-at-phu
A fishing boat is anchored near a local naval base at Phu Quoc island, in the waters off southern Vietnam, where a Malaysian Airlines jet was presumed lost

Photo by LE QUANG NHAT/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.

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