By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times
BEIJING — Crews continued searching for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in the Indian Ocean west of Australia on Tuesday as authorities emphasized ramped-up efforts to determine what happened to the airliner that went missing March 8.
Officials said an Australian military ship towing a pinger locator — which can scan the sea for the sounds of a beacon attached to the plane’s flight data recorder — left port for the search zone Monday night. It was expected to arrive in the search area about 1,250 miles west of Perth, Australia, on Thursday.
Searchers want to find debris from the Boeing 777, which was carrying 239 passengers and crew members, to narrow their quest for the flight data recorder. The pinger locator’s range extends only about a mile, and Australia said Tuesday’s search area was over 46,000 square miles. The beacon’s battery is designed to last only about a month, though experts say it could endure a week or two longer.
Australian officials said a Joint Agency Coordination Center, led by retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston and staffed by 20 people, was established to help coordinate the international search effort and investigate any debris that is found.
“The magnitude of our operations is increasing, not decreasing,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Monday at Pearce air force base near Perth, adding that investigators are “well short” of the point of scaling back operations.
“We owe it to the grieving families of the 239 people on board, we owe it to the anxious governments of all of the countries who had people on board that aircraft … to do whatever we reasonably can to get to the bottom of this mystery,” he said, calling the quest an “extraordinarily difficult exercise.”
Australian Defense Minister David Johnston said Monday that 1,000 sailors were searching by sea and 100 personnel from 10 countries — including the U.S., China, Japan and South Korea — were searching by air. Flight 370 was traveling from Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, to Beijing when it disappeared.
Abbott said Australia would bear the costs of the new coordination center, saying it was “only reasonable” that it would foot the bill as the country in whose search and rescue zone the aircraft had probably come down. However, he added that “at some point there might need to be a reckoning; there might have to be some kind of tallying” of the expenses of the overall search.
The search effort will be a prime topic at a meeting of Southeast Asian defense ministers beginning Tuesday in Hawaii.
Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Monday that he would discuss the search with his colleagues from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and raise the possibility of deploying more “specific military assets” — such as possible deep-sea search-and-recovery technology — “in the event that we need to embark on a more complex phase of the operation.”
The majority of passengers on Flight 370 were Chinese nationals. A group of them arrived over the weekend in Kuala Lumpur from Beijing, and Hishammuddin said the Malaysian government would soon hold a high-level briefing — including “international experts who were not available during the briefings in Beijing … including experts from China” — for them.
Hishammuddin held a session Saturday with Malaysian and Chinese families in Kuala Lumpur, calling it “the most difficult meeting I’ve ever attended.”
“The families are heartbroken. For many, the strain of the past few weeks has been unbearable. But the one message they delivered to me again and again is not to give up hope,” he said.
In a statement late Monday, the Malaysian government said the final words received by ground controllers at 1:19 a.m. on March 8 were, “Good night, Malaysian three-seven-zero,” The Associated Press reported. Earlier the government had said the final words were, “All right, good night.” The statement said investigators were still trying to determine whether the pilot or co-pilot spoke the words.