A Malaysia Airlines flight carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew went missing off the Vietnamese coast yesterday as it flew from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and was presumed to have crashed.
There were no reports of bad weather and no sign why the Boeing 777-200ER, powered by Rolls-Royce Trent engines, would have vanished from radar screens about an hour after take-off.
By nightfall in the region, there were no signs of the plane or any wreckage, some 17 hours after it went missing, reports Reuters.
A large number of planes and ships from several countries were scouring the area where the plane last made contact, about halfway between Malaysia and the southern tip of Vietnam.
The area of focus has been in the South China Sea, where the Malaysian airspace and Vietnamese airspace meet.
"We have no idea where this aircraft is right now," Malaysia Airlines Vice President of Operations Control Fuad Sharuji told CNN.
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters, "The search and rescue operations will continue as long as necessary."
He said 15 air force aircraft, six navy ships and three coast guard vessels had been pressed into service by Malaysia.
Vietnam yesterday dispatched two navy boats from Phu Quoc Island and sent two jets and one helicopter from Ho Chi Minh City to search for the missing airliner. It was readying a further seven planes and nine boats to join the search effort.
Vietnam also said its search planes spotted oil slicks in the sea near where the aircraft mysteriously vanished and was presumed lost.
The announcement came more than 18 hours after flight MH370 slipped off radar screens.
"Two of our aircraft sighted two oil slicks around 15 to 20 kilometres (10-12 miles) long, running parallel, around 500 metres apart from each other," the army's deputy chief-of-staff, Vo Van Tuan, told state-run VTV.
"We are not certain where these two oil slicks may have come from so we have sent Vietnamese ships to the area."
The news was the first hint authorities may be nearing confirmation of the fate of the twin-engine jet, which was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
China and the Philippines have also sent ships to the region to help. The United States, the Philippines, and Singapore also dispatched military planes to help in the search.
China has also put other ships and aircraft on standby, said Transport Minister Yang Chuantang.
Vietnamese state media, quoting a senior naval official, had reported that the plane had crashed off south Vietnam. Malaysia's transport minister later denied any crash scene had been identified.
"We are doing everything in our power to locate the plane.
We are doing everything we can to ensure every possible angle has been addressed," Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein told reporters near the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
"We are looking for accurate information from the Malaysian military. They are waiting for information from the Vietnamese side," he said.
Vietnamese Admiral Ngo Van Phat later qualified his earlier remarks about a crash site having been identified and told Reuters he was referring to a presumed location beneath the plane's flight path, using information supplied by Malaysia.
A crash, if confirmed, would likely mark the US-built airliner's deadliest incident since entering service 19 years ago.
The plane, aged over 11 years, disappeared without giving a distress signal - a chilling echo of an Air France flight that crashed into the South Atlantic on June 1, 2009, killing all 228 people on board. It vanished for hours and wreckage was found only two days later.
Search and rescue vessels from the Malaysian maritime enforcement agency reached the area where the plane last made contact at about 4:30pm local time (0330 ET) but saw no sign of wreckage, a Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency told Reuters.
ON STOLEN PASSPORTS
The mystery of the plane's disappearance was compounded as reports confirmed that two passengers were travelling on stolen passports.
Two passengers who were listed on the plane's manifest - an Italian and an Austrian - were not actually on the flight.
They both reportedly had their passports stolen in Thailand.
Asked whether terrorism was suspected as a reason for the plane's disappearance, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said: "We are looking at all possibilities, but it is too early to make any conclusive remarks."
A senior US official told NBC News: "We are aware of the reporting on the two stolen passports. We have not determined a nexus to terrorism yet, although it's still very early, and that's by no means definitive."
VANISHED AFTER REACHING 35,000 FEET
Flight MH370 last had contact with air traffic controllers 120 nautical miles off the east coast of the Malaysian town of Kota Bharu, Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said in a statement.
The airline said people from 14 nationalities were among the 227 passengers, including at least at least 152 Chinese, 38 Malaysians, seven Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, four French and three Americans.
Flight tracking website flightaware.com showed the plane flew northeast over Malaysia after takeoff and climbed to an altitude of 35,000 feet. The flight vanished from the website's tracking records a minute later while it was still climbing.
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Airlines told passengers' next of kin to come to the international airport with their passports to prepare to fly to the crash site, which has still not been identified.
About 20-30 families were being kept in a holding room at the airport, where they were being guarded by security officials and kept away from reporters.
The flight left Kuala Lumpur around 12:40am (1640 GMT Friday) and was due to land in the Chinese capital at 6:30 a.m. (2230 GMT Friday) the same day.
Malaysia Airlines has one of the best safety records among full-service carriers in the Asia-Pacific region.
It identified the pilot of MH370 as Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a 53-year-old Malaysian who joined the carrier in 1981 and has 18,365 hours of flight experience.
Chinese state media said 24 Chinese artists and family members, who were in Kuala Lumpur for an art exchange program, were aboard. The Sichuan provincial government said Zhang Jinquan, a well-known calligrapher, was on the flight.
If it is confirmed that the plane crashed, the loss would mark the second fatal accident involving a Boeing 777 in less than a year and by far the worst since the jet entered service in 1995.