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Ocean hunt for missing jet focuses on floating pallet

05:03 AM March 24, 2014

PERTH, Australia—Planes and a ship scrambled on Sunday to find a pallet and other debris in a remote patch of the southern Indian Ocean to determine whether the objects were from the Malaysia Airlines jet that has been missing for more than two weeks.

The pallet was spotted by a search plane on Saturday but has not been closely examined. Wooden pallets are commonly used in shipping but can also be used in cargo containers carried on planes.

It was the latest in a series of clues experts and searchers are trying to run down to solve the mystery of what happened to Flight MH370 when it disappeared over the Gulf of Thailand on March 8 with 239 people on board en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing.

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Malaysia said on Sunday it had received new satellite images from France showing floating objects in the search area for the missing jetliner.

The images include “potential objects in the vicinity of the southern corridor,” the Malaysian transport ministry said in a statement.

It added that the images had been passed on to Australian authorities who are coordinating the search for the plane.

Wooden pallet

Mike Barton, chief of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s (Amsa) rescue coordination center, told reporters in Canberra, the capital of Australia, that the wooden pallet was spotted by a search aircraft on Saturday and that it was surrounded by several other objects, including what appeared to be strapping belts of different colors.

A New Zealand P3 Orion military plane was then sent to find it but failed, he said.

“So we’ve gone back to that area again today to try and refind it,” Barton said. An Australian Navy ship was also involved in the search.

Amsa said the aircraft that spotted the pallet was unable to take photos of it.

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“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 e-mail for comment on whether Flight MH370 had wooden pallets aboard when it disappeared. There was no immediate response.

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.

Air search

In Australia, eight search planes departed from a military base near the southwestern city of Perth on Sunday to scour an area about 2,500 kilometers away in an extremely isolated part of the southern Indian Ocean.

Satellite images, the most recent released by China on Saturday, have shown large objects floating in the area that experts want to check to see whether they came from the jetliner.

Air and sea searches since Thursday have not produced any results.

John Young, manager of Amsa’s emergency response division, said Sunday’s search was mainly relying on human eyes.

“Today is really a visual search again and visual searches take some time. They can be difficult,” he said.

Barton said that while the weather was not as good at the start of the day, with sea fog and low clouds, it cleared up later on Sunday.

Despite the frustrating lack of answers, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was upbeat.

“Obviously, we have now had a number of very credible leads and there is increasing hope—no more than hope, no more than hope—that we might be on the road to discovering what did happen to this ill-fated aircraft,” Abbott told reporters in Papua New Guinea.

Amsa said it had refined the search based on the latest clue from the Chinese satellite showing an object that appeared to be 22 meters by 13 meters. It said the object’s position fell within Saturday’s search area but was not sighted.

Sunday’s search was split into two areas within the same proximity, covering 59,000 square kilometers. The areas were determined by drift modeling, Amsa said.

‘Prayer, please’

Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein posted a message on his Twitter account on Sunday asking those in churches around the country to offer a “prayer, please” for the passengers and crew on Flight MH370.

More than 300 Malaysian cycling enthusiasts rode their bikes to the Kuala Lumpur airport to remember the people aboard the jet. The cyclists decorated the bikes with small Malaysian flags and stickers that read “Pray for MH370.”

The latest satellite image is another clue in the baffling search for the plane, which was carrying 153 Chinese passengers.

“China hopes that these data will be helpful for searching and rescuing efforts,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said in a statement.

After about a week of confusion, Malaysian authorities 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.

The discovery of the initial two objects by a satellite led several countries to send planes and ships to a stretch of the Indian Ocean southwest of Australia.

Two military planes from China have arrived in Perth and Amsa said it would join the search on Monday. They joined Australian, New Zealand and US aircraft. Japanese planes are also expected soon.

Because the search area is a four-hour flight from land, some of the planes can search for only about two hours before they must fly back. Others may be able to stay for up to five hours before heading back to the base.

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.—Reports from AP and AFP

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TAGS: floating pallet, Malaysia Airlines, missing jet, Search
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