POSTED: 03:00 a.m. HST, Mar 23, 2014
PERTH, Australia >> France provided new satellite images Sunday showing possible debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, Malaysian officials said, as searchers combing a remote part of the southern Indian Ocean tried to locate a pallet that could be a key clue in solving one of the world’s great aviation mysteries.
The imagery given to Malaysia’s government and forwarded to searchers in Australia “show potential objects” in the same part of the ocean where previous satellite images released by Australia and China showed objects that could be debris from the plane, Malaysia’s Ministry of Transport said in a statement.
Flight 370 went missing over the Gulf of Thailand on March 8 with 239 people on board en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, setting off a multinational search effort that has turned up nothing conclusive so far on what happened to the jet.
The French satellite images themselves had not been released or described by Malaysia, France or Australia hours after the announcement of their existence. In an emailed statement, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority declined to offer details about what they showed or where the objects were located and did not respond to multiple requests by The Associated Press for access to the images.
“Any satellite images or other new information that comes to AMSA is being considered in developing the search plans,” the agency said.
But a Malaysian official involved in the search mission said the images were captured Friday and pinpointed objects about 930 kilometers (575 miles) north of the spots where the objects in the images released by Australia and China were located.
One of the objects in the French imagery was estimated to be about the same size as an object captured Tuesday by the Chinese satellite that appeared to be 22 meters (72 feet) by 13 meters (43 feet), said the official, who declined to be identified because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media. But the official said the French satellite image was unclear and fuzzy, making it difficult to determine precise dimensions.
Information about the fresh images emerged as authorities coordinating the search, which is being conducted about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth, sent planes and a ship to try to “re-find” a wooden pallet that appeared to be surrounded by straps of varying lengths and colors. It was spotted Saturday by spotters in a search plane, but no images were captured of it and a military PC Orion military plane dispatched to locate the pallet could not find it.
“So, we’ve gone back to that area again today to try and re-find it,” said Mike Barton, chief of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s rescue coordination center. An Australian navy ship was also involved in the search.
Wooden pallets are commonly used in shipping, but can also be used in cargo containers carried on planes.
AMSA said the aircraft that spotted the pallet was unable to take photos of it.
“We went to some of the expert airlines and the use of wooden pallets is quite common in the industry,” Barton said. “They’re usually packed into another container, which is loaded in the belly of the aircraft. ... It’s a possible lead, but we will need to be very certain that this is a pallet because pallets are used in the shipping industry as well.”
Sam Cardwell, a spokesman for AMSA, said the maritime agency had requested a cargo manifest from Malaysia Airlines, but he was unsure whether it had been received as of Sunday night.
Malaysia Airlines asked The Associated Press to submit questions via email for comment on whether Flight 370 had wooden pallets aboard when it disappeared. The airline had not responded by Sunday night.
When Brazilian searchers in 2009 were looking for debris from Air France Flight 447 after it mysteriously plunged into the Atlantic Ocean, the first thing they found was a wooden pallet. The military first reported that the pallet came from the Air France flight, but then said six hours later that the plane had not been carrying any wooden pallets.
Eight planes took part in Sunday’s search, with most involving spotters peering out the windows and looking for signs of debris.
“Today is really a visual search again, and visual searches take some time. They can be difficult,” said John Young, manager of AMSA’s emergency response division.
The southern Indian Ocean is thought to be a potential area to find the jet because Malaysian authorities have said pings sent by the Boeing 777-200 for several hours after it disappeared indicated that the plane ended up in one of two huge arcs: a northern corridor stretching from Malaysia to Central Asia, or a southern corridor that stretches toward Antarctica.
Malaysian authorities have not ruled out any possible explanation for what happened to the jet, but have said the evidence so far suggests it was deliberately turned back across Malaysia to the Strait of Malacca, with its communications systems disabled. They are unsure what happened next.
Authorities are considering the possibilities of hijacking, sabotage, terrorism or issues related to the mental health of the pilots or anyone else on board.
McDonald reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Associated Press writers Todd Pitman and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur and Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.