BEIJING — The Vietnamese government reported Saturday that oil slicks — thought to be from the missing Malaysian jetliner that vanished Friday — had been spotted between Malaysia and Vietnam amid growing fears for the 239 people aboard the Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Vietnamese air force planes spotted two oil slicks, each between 6 and 9 miles long, 77 miles south of the island of Tho Chu in the Gulf of Thailand, located off the southern tip of Vietnam, the Vietnamese government reported on its website. The slicks were located about one third of a mile apart and were spotted from above. Rescuers believe the slicks are consistent with those expected to be left from a crashed jetliner, the statement said.
Two passengers on the flight manifest weren’t on board the plane, CNN and Reuters reported Saturday. The Italian Foreign Ministry said no Italian citizen was on the flight. The Austrian Foreign Ministry said one of it’s citizens on the passenger list was safe and sound, adding that his passport had been stolen.
Authorities in southeast Asia launched a search-and-rescue mission but Malaysian officials said they could not confirm reports, from state media in Vietnam and China, that the plane crashed into waters near Vietnam. The plane had been flying for about 2 ½ when air traffic control reported it has lost all communications.
The plane’s location remains a mystery and Malaysia Airlines said there was no indication that the pilots sent a distress signal. No wreckage has yet been spotted.
There were also no reports of rough weather or other signs of trouble at the time of the commercial airline’s disappearance. At the time of the flight, some light rain and snow was in the area, AccuWeather Meteorologist Alan Reppert said.
Reppert said there was some light precipitation over South and Central China, but any precipitation that would have formed would have been well below the flight level at around 15,000 feet.
The airline said it has still yet “to establish any contact or determine the whereabouts of flight MH370.”
Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said there was no reason to suspect terrorism but that all possibilities were being looked into.
“We deeply regret that we have lost all contact with flight MH370 which departed Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. earlier this (Saturday) morning bound for Beijing,” Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Juahari Yahya said in a statement released Friday night ET.
“Focus of the airline is to work with the emergency responders and authorities and mobilize its full support,” Yahya’s statement read. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all affected passengers and crew and their family members.”
The twin-engine jet carried 227 passengers and 12 crew members. Malaysia Airlines said three Americans were on board.
On Saturday, the Americans on board were named on a passenger manifest as Nicole Meng, 4; Philip Wood, 51; and Yan Zhang, 2. The State Department confirmed three Americans were on board the flight, and said officials from the U.S. Embassies in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Beijing are in contact with their families.
Malaysia Airlines said the people on board represented 14 nationalities, including 152 plus one infant from China, 38 from Malaysia, seven from Indonesia, six from Australia, three from France, two plus one infant from the United States, two each from New Zealand, Ukraine and Canada, and one each from Russia, Italy, Taiwan, Netherlands and Austria. Five Indian nationals were also on the flight.
Subang Air Traffic Control reported that it lost contact with flight MH370 on Saturday at 2:40 a.m. local time (1:40 p.m. Friday ET), about 2½ hours after taking off, according to Yahya and a statement by the airline.
The Boeing 777-200 was to have landed in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. local time (5:30 p.m. Friday ET), the airline reported in its statement.
The last signal from the plane was received as the aircraft prepared to transfer to the airspace above Vietnam’s Ca Mau province.
But 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 AFP news agency reported that Malaysia has sent two helicopters, a plane and four ships to waters between Malaysia and Vietnam. The Philippine military has dispatched three ships and a surveillance plane. China has sent two ships. The U.S. Navy was also said to be assisting.
Information provided by Malaysia Airlines shows the crew in the cockpit were very experienced: the flight was piloted by Capt. Zaharie Ahman Shah, 53, of Malaysia. He has 18,365 flying hours and joined the airlines in 1981. The first officer is listed as Fariq Ab.Hamid, 27, of Malaysia. He joined the airline in 2007 and has 2,763 total flight hours.
Experts cite the plane’s strong safety record. Since it was introduced in 1995, the Boeing 777 has been involved in only two other major accidents and three hijackings, records show.
The most notable accident occurred in July 2013, when an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777-200 with 291 passengers and 16 crew members crashed as it landed at San Francisco, killing three passengers and seriously injuring 48 others. Pilot error is being investigated in that crash.
At Beijing’s airport, authorities posted a notice asking relatives and friends of passengers to gather at a hotel about 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the airport to wait for further information, and provided a shuttle bus service. A woman wept aboard the shuttle bus while saying on a mobile phone, “They want us to go to the hotel. It cannot be good!”
The search-and-rescue operation comes amid one of the safer stretches of global aviation in history. For instance, in the U.S., 2012 was the airline industry’s safest since the dawn of the jet age. An air disaster with a death toll of more than 200 hasn’t occurred since 2009, when Air France Flight 447 went down during a flight from Brazil to Paris, resulting in the deaths of all 216 passengers and 12 crew members.
Malaysia Airlines’ last fatal incident was in 1995, when one its planes crashed near the Malaysian city of Tawau, killing 34 people.
Thomas Maresca reported from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard in London, Melanie Eversley in New York, Donna Leinwand Leger in Washington, Allison Gray and Doyle Rice in McLean, Va., Michael Winter in Oakland, Calif.; Associated Press