HANOI: Rescuers from several nations including the Philippines mounted an air and sea search Saturday for a Malaysia Airlines jet that has gone missing over Southeast Asia, with grave fears for the 239 people on board.
Vietnam authorities said contact with Flight MH370 was lost near its airspace, but its exact location and fate remained a mystery more than 14 hours after it slipped off air-traffic control screens.
The Philippines said it was sending three navy patrol boats and a surveillance plane and Singapore dispatched an air force C130 transporter on a “search and locate mission”.
Frustrated officials and passenger’s relatives struggled to make sense of the disappearance of the Boeing 777-200 which—like the Malaysian national carrier—has a solid safety record.
Malaysia Airlines said the plane, on an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, relayed no distress signal, indications of rough weather, or other signs of trouble.
“The plane lost contact near Ca Mau province airspace as it was preparing to transfer to Ho Chi Minh City air traffic control,” the Vietnamese government said in a statement.
Its signal never appeared to Ho Chi Minh City controllers, it said. Ca Mau province is in southernmost Vietnam, next to the Cambodian border.
The disappearance triggered a search effort centred on the South China Sea, involving vessels from several nations which are rival claimants to the contested region.
China, which has 153 of its nationals on the missing plane, said it had ordered maritime patrol vessels to begin scouring the area.
Vietnam’s defense ministry launched a rescue mission, the government said, and a Malaysian maritime official said the country had sent a plane, two helicopters and four vessels.
It was not clear if the nations were cooperating in the search. Overlapping claims to the South China Sea, a resource-rich region criss-crossed with vital shipping lanes, have been a growing source of tensions between China and its neighbors.
Contact with the aircraft was lost at 2:40 am Malaysian time (1840 GMT Friday), about two hours after take-off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport, the carrier’s CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said.
“Our focus now is to work with emergency responders and authorities, and mobilise full support,” he told a press conference, adding the airline’s “thoughts and prayers” were with those affected.
If a crash is confirmed, it would be only the second fatal crash in the history of the Boeing 777, a popular wide-body model. A Boeing 777-200 operated by South Korea’s Asiana Airlines skidded off the runway in San Francisco in 2013, killing three.
Indonesia-based aviation analyst Gerry Soejatman said the clock was ticking on a “24-hour golden window” for search and rescue efforts.
“You can’t assume that there are no survivors, and if there are any, it is absolutely crucial that they are picked up within a day, or the chances of survival drops significantly,” he said.
The plane carried 227 passengers and 12 crew members from 14 nationalities.
There were 153 Chinese nationals including an infant, 38 Malaysians, and 7 Indonesians, the airline said.
Six Australians also were aboard, along with three French nationals, and four Americans including an infant.
Malaysia Airlines has an admirable safety record. Its worst-ever crash occurred in 1977, when 93 passengers and seven crew perished in a hijacking and subsequent crash in southern Malaysia.
The pilot of MH370 had flown for the carrier since 1981, it said. The plane is more than 11 years old.
“This news has made us all very worried,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in Beijing.
“We hope every one of the passengers is safe. We are doing all we can to get more details.”
Malaysia’s transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he had “no information” or confirmation on the plane’s fate, and was pressing Vietnam’s navy for details after state media quoted an official as saying it had crashed into the sea.
The lack of information sparked fury among anguished relatives in Beijing.
“They should have told us something before now,” one visibly distressed man in his 30s said at a hotel where passengers’ families were asked to gather.
“They are useless,” another young man said of the airline. “I don’t know why they haven’t released any information.”
At Kuala Lumpur International Airport, distraught family members trickled in to a designated waiting area for loved ones, escorted by authorities.
Hamid Ramlan, a 56-year-old Kuala Lumpur police officer, said his daughter, 34, and son-in-law, 24, were on the flight for an intended holiday in Beijing.
“My wife is crying. Everyone is sad. My house has become a place of mourning,” he said.
“This is Allah’s will. We have to accept it.”
“Being a policeman over 33 years, this is my worst day.”
An accident would be a huge blow for Malaysian Airlines, which has bled money for years as its struggles to fend off competition from rivals such as fast-growing Malaysia-based AirAsia.
Analysts have blamed poor management, government interference, and union resistance to reform of the airline.
This handout photo released by the Philippine Military Western Command shows a Fokker F27 plane arriving at Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa in the Philippines after conducting an air search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane on March 8, 2014. AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPINE MILITARY WESTERN COMMAND