Vietnamese air force planes have spotted two large oil slicks in the area where a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 vanished, the first sign that the aircraft carrying 239, including six Australians, has crashed.
The air force planes were part of a multinational search operation launched after Flight MH370 fell off radar screens less than an hour after it took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing early on Saturday morning.
A Vietnamese government statement said the slicks were spotted late on Saturday off the southern tip of Vietnam and were each between 10km and 15km long.
There was no confirmation that the slicks were related to the missing plane, but the statement said they were consistent with the kinds that would be produced by the two fuel tanks of a crashed jetliner.
Two-thirds of the missing plane’s passengers were from China, while others were from elsewhere in Asia, North America and Europe.
The missing Australians were Mary and Rodney Burrows and Catherine and Robert Lawton, all from Brisbane. The two couples were reportedly travelling together.
Li Yuan and Gu Naijun, believed to be from Sydney, were also missing.
Two New Zealanders were also aboard the flight.
One of the Lawtons’ neighbours described them as a lovely couple who enjoyed travelling.
Australians used social media sites to express hope for all the passengers’ survival.
“Praying for a miracle,” one person wrote.
There was no indication that the pilots had sent a distress signal, suggesting that whatever happened to the plane occurred quickly and possibly catastrophically.
Australian authorities said they “feared the worst” for all aboard flight MH370.
“Consular officials are currently in touch with Malaysian Airlines and with the families of the missing Australian passengers,” Senator Brett Mason, parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, said in Sydney.
“At the moment there is no clarity as to what has occurred.
“But can I just add that the families of the … missing Australian passengers must be desperately concerned and the thoughts of the Australian government and I’m sure all Australians go out to them at the moment.”
Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said there was no indication that the pilots had sent a distress signal, suggesting that whatever happened to the plane occurred quickly and possibly catastrophically.
The plane was last detected on radar at 1.30am on Saturday (0430 AEDT) around where the South China Sea meets the Gulf of Thailand, authorities in Malaysia and Vietnam say.
Lai Xuan Thanh, director of Vietnam’s civil aviation authority, said air traffic officials in the country never made contact with the plane.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said that Malaysia had dispatched 15 planes and nine ships to the area, and that the U.S. Navy was sending some planes as well. Singapore, China and Vietnam also were sending aircraft.
It’s not uncommon for it to take several days to find the wreckage of aircraft floating on the ocean. Locating and then recovering the flight data recorders, vital to any investigation, can take months or even years.