By Jim Clancy and Mark Morgenstein
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CNN) — A “strange object” floating in the South China Sea is not debris from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a U.S. official told CNN on Sunday.
A U.S. reconnaissance plane “thought it saw something like debris but it was a false alarm. It was not debris,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, as multiple mysteries swirl around the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and around some of its passengers, a growing multinational fleet of dozens of ships and planes is pursuing a potentially promising lead.Late Sunday afternoon, Vietnam sent a boat to investigate a “strange object” spotted by a Singaporean search plane in the area, said Hung Nguyen with the Vietnamese National Search and Rescue Committee.
Two reconnaissance aircraft from Australia have joined in the search, Malaysian acting Minister of Transportation Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters Sunday. In addition, the Chinese navy dispatched a frigate and an amphibious landing ship, according to a online post by the Chinese navy. The ships are expected to arrive on site Monday morning (Sunday night ET).
Those reinforcements join 40 ships and 22 planes already scouring the South China Sea, near the Gulf of Thailand, on Sunday for any sign of where the flight, operated by Malaysia’s flagship airline, might have gone down, Malaysian authorities said.
The area in focus, about 90 miles south of Vietnam’s Tho Chu Island, is where a Vietnamese search plane reportedly spotted oil slicks that stretched between 6 and 9 miles.
Malaysian authorities have not yet confirmed the report of the oil slicks, which came from Vietnam’s official news agency.
Big questions far outweigh the few fragments of information that have emerged about the plane’s disappearance.
What happened to the plane? Why was no distress signal issued? Who exactly was aboard?
The flight may have changed course and turned back toward Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian military officials said at a news conference Sunday.
But the pilot appears to have given no signal to authorities that he was turning around, the officials said, attributing the change of course to indications from radar data.
As the search continues, the agonizing wait goes on for relatives of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members on board the plane.
Among the passengers, there were 154 people from China or Taiwan; 38 Malaysians, and three U.S. citizens. Five of the passengers were younger than 5 years old.
Two people who traveled on the missing passenger jet, using the stolen passports of an Italian and an Austrian citizen, appear to have bought their tickets together.
The tickets were bought from China Southern Airlines in Thailand’s baht currency at identical prices, according to China’s official e-ticket verification system Travelsky. The ticket numbers are contiguous, which indicates the tickets were issued together.
Here’s where the mystery deepens: Italy and Austria have said that none of their citizens were on board the plane. And officials say the Italian and Austrian whose names were on the passenger manifest both had their passports stolen in Southeast Asia in recent years.
The two tickets booked with China Southern Airlines both start in Kuala Lumpur, flying to Beijing, and then onward to Amsterdam. The Italian passport’s ticket continues to Copenhagen, the Austrian’s to Frankfurt.
Authorities say they are investigating the identities of some of those on board who appear to have issues with their passports.
Passenger manifest questioned
A fuller picture of what happened may not become available until searchers find the plane and its flight data recorder.
“We have not been able to locate anything, see anything,” Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, the director general of civil aviation in Malaysia, told reporters Sunday.
Confusion over who exactly was on the plane has drawn particular attention, notably the case of the Italian and Austrian passports.
The passport mystery raised concerns about the possibility of terrorism, but officials cautioned that it was still too early to arrive at any conclusions.
A U.S. intelligence official said that no link to terrorism had been discovered so far, but that authorities were still investigating.
Another possible explanation for the use of the stolen passports is illegal immigration.
There are previous cases of illegal immigrants using fake passports trying to get into Western countries. And Southeast Asia is known to be a booming market for stolen passports.
Malaysian authorities have been in contact with counterterrorism organizations about possible passport issues, Hussein said earlier.
He didn’t specify how many potential passport issues there were, saying authorities are looking at the whole passenger manifest.
The U.S. government has been briefed on the stolen passports and reviewed the names of the passengers in question but found nothing at this point to indicate foul play, said a U.S. law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Of the two passports in question, the Italian one had been reported stolen and was in Interpol’s database, CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes said, citing sources at Interpol.
Additionally, no inquiry was made by Malaysia Airlines to determine if any passengers on the flight were traveling on stolen passports, he said. Many airlines do not check the database, he said.
Rahman, the Malaysian aviation official, declined to say whether the airline or Malaysian authorities had checked the database.
The National Transportation Safety Board announced late Saturday that a team of its investigators was en route to Asia to help with the investigation, the agency said.
Disappearing during cruise
There is a precedent for a modern jetliner to fall from the sky while “in the cruise” and lie hidden for months, according to CNN aviation correspondent Richard Quest.
On June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447 was en route from Rio De Janeiro to Paris when communications ended suddenly from the Airbus A330, another state-of-the-art aircraft.
It took four searches over the course of nearly two years to locate the bulk of flight 447′s wreckage and the majority of the 228 bodies in a mountain range deep under the ocean. It took even longer to find the cause of the disaster.
In May 2011, the aircraft’s voice recorder and flight data recorder were recovered from the ocean floor after an extensive search using miniature submersible vehicles.
It was not until July 2012 that investigators published their report, which blamed the crash on a series of errors by the pilots and a failure to react effectively to technical problems.
If all those on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 are found to have died, it will rank as the deadliest airline disaster since November 12, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into a New York neighborhood, killing all 260 people on board and five more on the ground.