Search for missing Malaysia Airlines plane shifts to islands far from flight path

12:38 PM, Mar 14, 2014   |    comments
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A pilot aboard an Indonesian Air Force military surveillance aircraft flies over the Malacca Strait, a sea passageway between Indonesia and Malaysia, on March 13. (Photo: Indonesian Air Force)



KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (USA TODAY) - Searchers were zeroing in Friday on a remote island chain in the Indian Ocean for a missing plane that may have flown for hours after it vanished, as China reported a "seismic event" at the time the Malaysia Airlines flight disappeared.

Indian ships and planes expanded their search to areas west of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands chain, hundreds of miles from the intended course of Flight MH370, said V.S.R. Murty, an Indian Coast Guard inspector-general.

Several media outlets have reported U.S. officials as saying the flight sent signals to a satellite for four hours after the aircraft vanished early Saturday, raising the possibility the jet with its 239 people aboard could have flown far from the current search areas.

Increasing speculation that whatever happened to the plane was a deliberate act was a report by ABC News that two U.S. officials say that two of the plane's communication systems shut down separately shortly after the plane last communicated its position.

The data reporting system, the officials said, was shut down at 1:07 a.m. as the plane was on course an hour after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. But the transponder, which transmits location and altitude, shut down at 1:21 a.m.

The officials could not say whether the mechanisms were shut down deliberately by someone in the cockpit or during a possible electrical failure in which various systems shut down one after the other.

While searchers moved ahead with the possibility that the plane flew well to the west of its intended flight path after communications ended, seismologists at a Chinese university reported Friday they had detected a slight "seismic event" on the sea floor between Vietnam and Malaysia at the spot where the plane was known to have been about the time it vanished.

SEARCH EFFORTS: How you can help find the jet

The University of Science and Technology of China's Laboratory of Seismology and Physics of the Earth's Interior said in an online statement that signals from two seismic monitor stations in Malaysia appeared to indicate that a slight tremor occurred on the sea floor at about 2.55 a.m. on Saturday, about 90 miles off the southern tip of Vietnam.

The report, first carried by the South China Morning Postnoted that the area is not an earthquake zone.

"It was a non-seismic zone, therefore judging from the time and location of the event, it might be related to the missing MH370 flight," said the statement.

Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein refused to comment Friday on the possibility that the plane had flown for hours off course. He said the investigation team will not address or release information about any of those claims, or others, until the suggestions have been verified and corroborated.

"I hope within a couple of days to have something conclusive," he told the news conference in Kuala Lumpur.

Much of the early search has focused east of Malaysia in the South China Sea, where the aircraft last communicated with air traffic base stations about an hour after departing for Beijing.

But two days ago six Indian navy and coast guard ships plus reconnaissance planes began searching eastern parts of Andaman sea. On Friday they headed west of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands near the Bay of Bengal.

There are more than 500 islands in that chain, many of which are richly forested and uninhabited.

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal quoted U.S. investigators as saying they suspected the plane stayed in the air for about four hours after its last confirmed contact, citing data automatically transmitted by the plane's satellite communication link.

A report published Friday by Reuters said that military radar-tracking evidence seen by investigators suggests an unidentified aircraft that those investigators believe is flight MH370 may have been deliberately flown toward the Andaman Islands. Reuters did not name the source of the information.

FLIGHT MH370: Communications on jet shut down

By Calum MacLeod, Kim Hjelmgaard and Doug Stanglin, USA TODAY. Calum MacLeod reported from Kuala Lumpur, Kim Hjelmgaard from London. Contributing: Associated Press

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