Mystery still surrounds disappearance of MH370

23:35, Apr 03 2014
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Journalists attempt to interview a woman who is the relative of a passenger on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, as she crouches on the floor crying, at the Beijing Capital International Airport.
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A relative of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries, surrounded by journalists, at the Beijing Capital International Airport on March 8, 2014.
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The Malaysia Airlines flight carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew lost contact with air traffic controllers early on Saturday en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the airline said in a statement.
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An aerial view of an oil spill is seen from a Vietnamese Air Force aircraft in the search area for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane, 250 km from Vietnam and 190 km from Malaysia, in this handout photo from Thanh Nien Newpaper taken on March 8.
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A spokesman (centre) of Malaysia Airlines is surrounded by journalists as he gives a briefing about Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at a hotel in Beijing March 8, 2014.
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A relative (front) of a passenger of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries as she walks past journalists at a hotel in Beijing March 9, 2014. The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER aircraft carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew was presumed to have crashed off the Vietnamese coast on Saturday.
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Malaysia Airlines Commercial Director Hugh Dunleavy (centre) speaks to journalists about information of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
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Vietnamese Air Force officers sit in the cockpit of a search and rescue aircraft as they fly over the search area for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
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Volunteer rescue workers and religious organisations pray during multi-religion mass prayers for the passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang.
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A view of oil slicks (pale line near the bottom right) spotted in an area of the South China Sea about 100 nautical miles (185 km) from Tok Bali Beach in Malaysia's Kelantan state.
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Admiral Datuk Mohd Amdan Kurish, Director General of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, looks at a radar screen while searching for a missing Malaysia Airlines plane in the South China Sea.
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A relative (left) of a passenger of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is escorted by a caregiver from Malaysia Airlines as they walk in a corridor at a hotel in Beijing.
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Indian sand artist Sudarshan Patnaik applies the final touches to a sand art sculpture he created wishing for the well being of the passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, on a beach in Puri, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.
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Life vests and lifesavers are seen onboard a Vietnam Air Force search and rescue aircraft on a mission to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, off Tho Chu island.
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Journalists place their recorders as they get ready for the first briefing of the day at a news conference at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on March 10.
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Relatives of a passenger onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cry inside a hotel they are staying, in Putrajaya. China has urged Malaysia to step up the search for the jetliner that went missing with 239 people on board, about two-thirds of them Chinese, and said it has sent security agents to help with an investigation into the misuse of passports.
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An officer looks out of a helicopter during a mission to find the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that disappeared from radar screens in the early hours of Saturday, near Tho Chu Island.
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A map of a flight plan is seen on a computer screen during a meeting before a mission to find the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that disappeared from radar screens in the early hours of Saturday, at Phu Quoc Airport.
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A woman stands in front of a giant screen showing the number hours since Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing, in Beijing on March 10.
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A family member of a passenger from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 waits for news at Lido Hotel on March 10, in Beijing, China. Investigative teams continue to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the 293 passengers that were travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
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Dato' Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation briefs the media over latest updates on missing Malaysia Airline MH370 on March 10, in Kuala Lumpur.
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Clouds hover outside the window of a Vietnam Air Force search and rescue aircraft An-26 on a mission to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, off Vietnam's Tho Chu island.
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People believed to be relatives of passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 are escorted to the VIP section of the Beijing Capital International Airport prior to flying to Kuala Lumpur.
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A Chinese relative of a passenger of Malaysia Airlines MH370 is comforted by a staff member of the airport as she shields her face from journalists at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
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A combination photo shows two men whom police said were travelling on stolen passports onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane.
Military personnel look out of a Singapore Air Force plane during the search
Military personnel look out of a Singapore Air Force plane during the search.
General Khalid Abu Bakar
Malaysia's police chief, Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar, addresses a news conference.
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Students from an international school in east China city Zhuji pray for the passengers onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
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LOOKING FOR ANSWERS: Family members of missing passengers leave a meeting in a Beijing Hotel.
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MESSAGE OF HOPE: A Vietnamese tourist writes a message of hope for missing passengers and crew.
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MESSAGES FOR THE MISSING: Tying a message of hope on a message board for passengers and crew.
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A relative of a passenger aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 answers media questions at Lido Hotel.
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A charity worker comforts an emotional relative of a passenger.
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Indian sand artist Sudarshan Pattnaik works on a sand sculpture of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at golden beach at Puri in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.
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Satellite images reveal a possible crash site for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, where three large objects were seen in the water.
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An object sits in the water in satellite imagery released by China.
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The zone where the mystery objects were found.
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What appears to be fuel sits on the water in the area where three large objects were found.
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A crew member from the Royal Malaysian Air Force looks through the window of a Malaysian Air Force CN235 aircraft during a Search and Rescue operation to find the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
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The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Kidd and USS Pinckney are seen en transit in the Pacific Ocean in this US Navy picture taken May 18, 2011. Kidd and Pinkney have been searching for the missing Malaysian airliner and are being re-deployed to the Strait of Malacca off Malaysia's west coast as new search areas are opened in the Indian Ocean.
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Students watch as a group of artists put the finishing touches to a three dimensional artwork at a school in Makati city, metro Manila. According to the artists, the artwork is their way of expressing sympathy towards the relatives of passengers onboard the missing Boeing 777-200ER.
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Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein shows two maps with corridors of the last known possible location of the missing plane.
Selamat Omar shows a picture of his son, flight engineer Mohd Khairul Amri Selamat
Selamat Omar shows a picture of his son, flight engineer Mohd Khairul Amri Selamat who was onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.
Chinese relatives of the missing passengers
Chinese relatives of the missing passengers who were travelling onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 watch a television displaying a Malaysian press conference at Lido Hotel in Beijing.
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A family member of a passenger onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries as he watches a message board dedicated to passengers.
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Satellite photos from March 20 show the objects "possibly associated" with the search for the missing plane. The images were released hours after Australia announced it had "credible" leads in the search for flight MH370.
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Satellite photos from March 20 show the objects "possibly associated" with the search for the missing plane. The images were released hours after Australia announced it had "credible" leads in the search for flight MH370.
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A still image taken from video shows an image of an object spotted in the southern Indian Ocean by the Gaofen-1 high-resolution optical Earth observation satellite of CNSA.
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Pilot Dave Smith (R) gives a pre-flight briefing aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft before taking off to search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, at RAAF base Pearce near Perth, March 22, 2014.
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Family members of passengers onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 raise their fists as they shout "return our families" to protest against the lack of new information after a routine briefing given by Malaysia's government and military representatives at Lido Hotel in Beijing March 22, 2014.
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Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein holds up a note that he has just received on a new lead in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, during a news conference at Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 22, 2014.
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Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (bottom C) takes part in a special prayer for passengers onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at the Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin mosque in Putrajaya March 21, 2014.
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A woman writes on a banner of well wishes for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport March 14, 2014.
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A family member of a passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 covers her face as she cries after a routine briefing given by Malaysia Airlines at Lido Hotel in Beijing, March 22, 2014.
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A girl reads some of the messages of hope and support for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 at a mall outside Kuala Lumpur March 22, 2014.
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A crew member aboard a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) AP-3C Orion uses binoculars as it flies over the southern Indian Ocean during the search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 March 22, 2014.
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A woman writes another message of hope and support for the passengers of the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 at a mall outside Kuala Lumpur March 22, 2014.
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Map of the southern Indian Ocean locating site where a satellite may have found debris related to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370; includes satellite images of possible debris. MCT
Search for MH370
Solid matter is pictured floating in the southern Indian Ocean seen from a Royal New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft searching for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.
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INDIAN OCEAN - This handout Satellite image made available by the AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) shows a map of the planned search area for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 on March 24, 2014.
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Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein holds satellite images as he speaks about the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on March 26.
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A satellite photo, showing the locations and co-ordinates of unknown objects reported by the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency (MRSA) in the Indian Ocean. The images were taken on March 23 and released on March 26.
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A satellite photo, showing the location of unknown objects reported by the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency (MRSA) in the Indian Ocean. The images were taken on March 23 and released on March 26.

At the time - the evening of March 24 - it seemed like the breakthrough the world was waiting for.

In a hastily called speech, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that an unprecedented analysis of satellite signals concluded that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 "ended" deep in the Indian Ocean, far from any possible refuge for the 239 souls aboard.

Finally, there was a solid explanation for what happened to the aircraft. A much more focused search could begin, and so perhaps could the grieving process for families from 14 countries. Najib's announcement quieted wild speculation about desert islands and terrorists and covert operations.

But four weeks after the plane disappeared, the apparent pivot in the search is proving to be not much of a pivot at all.

Not a single piece of wreckage from the lost plane has been found, not even after a new analysis led investigators to change the focus of their search yet again.

The latest search area is based on extremely limited satellite data combined with radar data taken some five hours before the plane is believed to have gone down. It is, as one search official said, "a very inexact science."

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose country is coordinating the current search effort, spoke of "very credible leads" and "increasing hope" a day before Najib's announcement. But on Thursday he said the search has become "the most difficult in human history."

Up to 14 planes and nine ships will search for the missing plane, the Australian government's Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) has announced.

The aircraft could indeed still be in the area planes and ships from several countries have been combing for nearly a week. Currents change the area each day, but on Thursday it was a 223,000-square kilometre (86,000-square mile) patch of ocean 1,680 kilometres (1,040 miles) northwest of Perth.

Each unsuccessful day adds to the scepticism.

"Without any kind of proof, uncertainty rules the day," said Tim Brown, a satellite imagery expert at GlobalSecurity.org in Alexandria, Virginia. "People still can't wrap their head around how a modern airplane that big could just go missing in the modern world."

The focus of the search has changed repeatedly since air traffic controllers lost contact with the Boeing 777 between Malaysia and Vietnam. It began in the South China Sea, then shifted toward the Strait of Malacca to the west, where Malaysian officials eventually confirmed that military radar had detected the plane.

Then came evidence that the plane had continued flying for at least five hours after contact was lost. The plane automatically sent hourly signals to a satellite belonging to Inmarsat, a British company, after the plane's transponder and all communication systems had shut down.

The "pings" did not include specific location information, but the team of experts who studied them said they must have come from one of two vast arcs that ran through both the Southern and Northern hemispheres.

Najib's announcement reflected a further refinement of that data that determined the aircraft could only have flown south, where it most likely crashed into the sea when it ran out of fuel. Days of costly and fruitless searches off the coast of Perth since then have employed satellites, advanced aircraft and ships, but so far there have only been dead ends.

Last week, using revised estimates of how fast the plane was travelling when it left the Malacca strait, investigators moved the search area hundreds of kilometres north. But there's no guarantee that the plane maintained that speed for hours before going down.

"The problem is, we're dealing with probabilities - estimates," Brown said of the Inmarsat data. "It's where they THINK the plane went down."

Or as Captain Ross "Rusty" Aimer, a former pilot who now runs Aero Consulting Experts, put it: "Until we find a positive concrete shred of evidence - a piece of the aircraft - everything else is just conjecture, and it could be totally wrong. So far, the satellite calculations have only directed us to oceanic garbage dumps."

Australian officials have expressed increasing pessimism in recent days. Angus Houston, who heads the joint agency coordinating the multinational search effort out of Australia, said investigators are using computer modelling to determine the plane's final location, but two key variables needed to calculate that more precisely are unknown: the aircraft's altitude and speed.

"The starting point whenever you do a search and rescue is the last known position of the vehicle or the aircraft," Houston said on Tuesday (local time). "In this particular case, the last known position was a long, long way from where the aircraft appears to have gone."

Satellite images taken from the previous search area captured hundreds of possible objects in the water, but searchers in planes and ships found nothing related to Flight 370. In the current search area, even those clues have been lacking.

"We have not had any satellite data, I'd have to say, that has given anything better than low confidence of finding anything so far," Mick Kinley, deputy CEO of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, said on Tuesday. But he also said plane and ship crews "have by no means exhausted" the search area.

Affected families, particularly those of some of the 153 Chinese passengers, have lashed out at Malaysian authorities for essentially declaring their loved ones dead without any firm proof.

Najib said on Thursday that everyone involved in the search is thinking of the families and their suffering.
"I know that until we find the plane, many families cannot start to grieve," he said. "We will not rest until answers are indeed found. In due time, we will provide a closure for this event."

Malaysia's government on Wednesday organised a closed-door briefing for the families in Kuala Lumpur with officials and experts involved in the hunt. Steve Wang, a representative of some of the Chinese families who were also briefed in Beijing via video link, said most relatives remain sceptical.

"They said themselves that there are many different possibilities, but they are judging on the basis of just one of them. We all know this can't convince us," Wang said. "Hope dwindles by the day and sadness grows. I believe the plane must be somewhere and someone must know, but we do not know who knows it.

"What else can I do but wait in bitterness?" he said. "Two sleeping pills may get me two hours of sleep if I am lucky."

Doctor Michael Phillips, a Shanghai-based Canadian psychiatrist, said that without bodies or even wreckage, families are caught in an emotional "no man's land."

"A whole bunch of things can complicate grief, but in this situation it's clearly complicated because they're not sure the people are dead," Phillips said. "Your logical head would say, 'Oh, of course they're dead,' but your heart will say, 'No, no, no, I don't know.'"

The lack of physical evidence also weighs on the investigation into the crash. Just like on day one, every theory remains on the table, including electrical or mechanical failure, terrorism, hijacking and pilot murder-suicide.

On Wednesday, Malaysian Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar sounded the most pessimistic note yet, warning that although investigations will go on, at the end of it "we may not even know the reason" the plane veered off course.

The most vital clues are trapped inside the plane's black boxes, or are hoped to be. Information from the flight data recorder will show what the jetliner was doing, but it may not explain why. The cockpit voice recorder, which only records audio from the flight's final couple of hours, could simply be silent if the pilots were incapacitated before the plane went down.

Wherever those boxes are, they are pinging. Their batteries are designed to last a month. That month runs out on Tuesday.

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AP