Search and rescue crews from several countries were scrambling Saturday to locate a Malaysia Airlines plane with 239 people aboard, including three Americans, that disappeared after losing contact with air traffic control on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
The airline said the Boeing 777-200 “lost contact” with Subang Air Traffic Control at 2:40 a.m., two hours into the flight. The plane had been expected to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. Saturday.
China’s state-run news agency Xinhua reported the plane was lost in airspace controlled by Vietnam, and never made contact with Chinese air traffic controllers. There have been no reports of a plane crashing into Chinese waters, and China is assisting the airline in its search for the plane.
Vietnamese air force planes on Saturday spotted two large oil slicks in the area where the plane vanished in the first sign that the aircraft carrying 239 people on board, including two infants and 12 crew members, had crashed.
The slicks were each between 6 miles and 9 miles 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.
The airline said in a statement that it is currently notifying next-of-kin about the situation. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all affected passengers and crew and their family members,” Malaysian Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said.
Those aboard included 152 passengers from China, 38 from Malaysia, seven from Indonesia, six from Australia, five from India, three from the U.S., and others from France, New Zealand, Canada, Ukraine, Russia, Italy, Taiwan, the Netherlands and Austria.
The State Department confirmed that three Americans were aboard the jet.
The department says in a statement that officials from the U.S. Embassies in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Beijing are in contact with families of the passengers. The department says it’s working to determine if other U.S. citizens may have been on the flight.
No additional information was released.
“We are extremely worried,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters in Beijing. “We are doing all we can to get details. The news is very disturbing. We hope everyone on the plane is safe.”
Vietnamese website VN Express said a Vietnamese search and rescue official reported that signals from the plane were detected about 140 miles southwest of Vietnam’s southernmost Ca Mau province. A Vietnam rescue official later denied the report.
“We have been seeking but no signal from the plane yet,” Pham Hien, director of a Vietnam maritime search and rescue coordination center in Vung Tau, told Reuters.
Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein also denied a Vietnamese state media report that the plane had crashed off south Vietnam, saying the government had not identified a crash scene. Asked whether terrorism was suspected, he said authorities had “no information but we are looking at all possibilities.”
Malaysian, Singaporean and Vietnamese search officials were coordinating operations. Lai Xuan Thanh, director of Vietnam’s civil aviation authority, said Vietnam had sent aircraft and ships scour 11,200-square-kilometer area where the plane was last known to be. Vietnamese fishermen in the area have been asked to report any suspected sign of the missing plane.
The plane “lost all contact and radar signal one minute before it entered Vietnam’s air traffic control,” Lt. Gen. Vo Van Tuan, deputy chief of staff of the Vietnamese army, said in a statement issued by the government.
More than 10 hours after last contact, officials from several countries were struggling to locate the plane. All countries in the possible flight path of the missing aircraft were performing a “communications and radio search,” said John Andrews, deputy chief of the Philippines’ civil aviation agency.
Xinhua reported that China has dispatched two maritime rescue ships to the South China Sea to help in the search and rescue efforts.
Malaysia Airlines said it is working with authorities who have activated a Search and Rescue team to locate the plane. The route would take the aircraft from Malaysia across to Vietnam and China.
The airline says the plane’s pilot is Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, a 53-year-old who has been with the airline for over 30 years. The plane’s first officer is Fariq Ab.Hamid, a 27-year-old who joined the airline in 2007. Both are Malaysians.
At Beijing’s airport, Zhai Le was waiting for her friends, a couple, who were on their way back to the Chinese capital on the flight. She said she was very concerned because she hadn’t been able to reach them.
At Beijing’s airport, authorities posted a notice asking relatives and friends of passengers to gather at a hotel about nine miles from the airport to wait for further information, and provided a shuttle bus service. A woman wept aboard the shuttle bus while saying on a mobile phone, “They want us to go to the hotel. It cannot be good!”
Relatives and friends of passengers were escorted into a private area at the Lido Hotel, and reporters were kept away. A man in a gray hooded sweatshirt later stormed out complaining about a lack of information. The man, who said he was a Beijing resident but declined to give his name, said he was anxious because his mother was on board the flight with a group of 10 tourists.
“We have been waiting for hours,” he said. “And there is still no verification.”
Malaysia Airlines has 15 Boeing 777-200 jets in its fleet of about 100 planes. The state-owned carrier last month reported its fourth straight quarterly loss.
The 777 had not had a fatal crash in its 20 year history until the Asiana crash in San Francisco in July 2013.
Boeing said on its Twitter account it is monitoring the situation, and “our thoughts are with everyone on board.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report