Satellite spots 122 objects floating in Flight 370 search area, but air hunt comes up empty

The Associated Press

Malaysia's Defense Minister and acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein shows a printout of the latest satellite image of objects that might be from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, at Putra World Trade Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Wednesday, March 26, 2014. Hishammuddin said the objects were seen close to where three other satellites previously detected objects. (AP Photo/Joshua Paul)

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By TODD PITMAN and ROB GRIFFITH, Associated Press

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — They are the most tantalizing clues yet: 122 objects spotted by satellite, floating in the turbulent Indian Ocean where officials believe the missing Malaysian jetliner went down. But bad weather, the passage of time and the sheer remoteness of their location kept answers out of the searchers' grasp.

Nineteen days into the mystery of Flight 370, the discovery of the objects that ranged in size from 3 feet to 75 feet, offered "the most credible lead that we have," a top Malaysian official said Wednesday.

With clouds briefly thinning in a stretch of ocean known for dangerous weather, aircraft and ships from six countries combed the waters far southwest of the Australian coast. Crews saw only three objects, one of them blue and two others that appeared to be rope.

But search planes could not relocate them or find the 122 pieces seen by a French satellite. Limited by fuel and distance, they turned back for the night.

That echoed the frustration of earlier sweeps that failed to zero in on three objects seen by satellites in recent days. Forecasters warned that the weather was likely to deteriorate again Thursday, possibly jeopardizing the search for the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that vanished early March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Despite those weather concerns, the search resumed at first light Thursday with 11 planes and five ships scouring a search area 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of the Australian west coast city of Perth.

With the search in motion, Malaysian officials again sought to assuage the angry relatives of the flight's 153 Chinese passengers. But Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein also expressed exasperation. About two-thirds of the missing are Chinese, but Hishammuddin pointedly said Chinese families "must also understand that we in Malaysia also lost our loved ones," as did "so many other nations."

The latest satellite images, captured Sunday and relayed by French-based Airbus Defense and Space, are the first to suggest a debris field from the plane, rather than just isolated objects. The items were spotted in roughly the same area as other objects previously seen by Australian and Chinese satellites.

Clouds obscured the latest satellite images, but dozens of objects could be seen in the gaps. At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Hishammuddin said some of them "appeared to be bright, possibly indicating solid materials."

Australian officials did not say whether they received the French imagery in time for search planes out at sea to look for the objects, and did not return repeated phone messages seeking further comment. None of the three objects spotted by searchers Wednesday "were considered to be distinctive to MH370 or relevant to the satellite imagery," Australian Maritime Safety Authority officials said.

If the objects are confirmed to be from the flight, "then we can move on to deep sea surveillance search and rescue, hopefully, hoping against hope," Hishammuddin said.

But experts cautioned that the area's frequent high seas and bad weather and its distance from land complicated an already-trying search.

"This is a really rough piece of ocean, which is going to be a terrific issue," said Kerry Sieh, director of the Earth Observatory of Singapore. "I worry that people carrying out the rescue mission are going to get into trouble."

"We're facing an extremely challenging environment, and 'unprecedented' is an overused word that in this case applies," said John Cox, a former airline pilot and accident investigator who is now president and CEO of Safety Operating Systems, an aviation safety consultancy.