KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Two large oil slicks spotted Saturday by the Vietnamese air force offered the first sign that a jetliner carrying 239 people had crashed into the ocean after vanishing from radar without sending a single distress call.
An international fleet of planes and ships scouted the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam for any clues to the fate of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777, which disappeared less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing.
The oil slicks sighted off the southern tip of Vietnam were each between 10 kilometers (6 miles) and 15 kilometers (9 miles) long, the Vietnamese government said in a statement.
There was no immediate confirmation that the slicks were related to Flight MH370, but the government said they were consistent with the kind of slick that would be produced by the jet's two fuel tanks.
After the oil was spotted, authorities suspended the air search for the night. It was to resume Sunday. A sea search continued in the darkness, the airline said.
The jet's disappearance was especially mysterious because it apparently happened when the plane was at cruising altitude, not during the more dangerous phases of takeoff or landing.
Just 9 percent of fatal accidents happen when a plane is at cruising altitude, according to a statistical summary of commercial jet accidents done by Boeing.
Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said there was no indication the pilots had sent a distress signal. That might mean that whatever trouble befell the plane happened so fast the crew did not have time to broadcast even a quick mayday.
The lack of a radio call "suggests something very sudden and very violent happened," said William Waldock, who teaches accident investigation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.
The plane was last inspected 10 days ago and found to be "in proper condition," Ignatius Ong, CEO of Malaysia Airlines subsidiary Firefly airlines, said at a news conference.
Two-thirds of the jet's passengers were from China. The rest were from elsewhere in Asia, North America and Europe.
Asked whether terrorism was suspected, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said authorities were "looking at all possibilities, but it is too early to make any conclusive remarks."
Contributing to fears of foul play was word from foreign ministries in Italy and Austria that the names of two citizens listed on the flight's manifest matched the names on two passports reported stolen in Thailand.
Italy's Foreign Ministry said an Italian man who was listed as being a passenger, Luigi Maraldi, was traveling in Thailand and was not aboard the plane. It said he reported his passport stolen last August.
Austria's Foreign Ministry confirmed that a name listed on the manifest matched an Austrian passport reported stolen two years ago in Thailand. It said the Austrian was not on the plane, but would not confirm the person's identity.
A long wait for answers could lie ahead. Finding the wreckage of aircraft that go down over deep ocean waters can often take days. Locating and then recovering the flight-data and cockpit-voice recorders can take months or even years.
At Beijing's airport, authorities posted a notice asking relatives and friends of passengers to gather at a nearby hotel to await further information. A woman aboard a shuttle bus wept, saying on a mobile phone, "They want us to go to the hotel. It cannot be good."
Passengers' loved ones were escorted into a private area at the hotel, but 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 aboard the flight with a tourist group.
"We have been waiting for hours and there is still no verification," he said.
In Kuala Lumpur, family members gathered at the airport, but were also kept away from reporters.
The plane was last seen on radar at 1:30 a.m. (1730 GMT Friday) above the waters where the South China Sea meets the Gulf of Thailand, authorities in Malaysia and Vietnam said.
Lai Xuan Thanh, director of Vietnam's civil aviation authority, said air traffic control in the country never made contact with the plane.
The South China Sea is a tense region with competing territorial claims that have led to several low-level conflicts, particularly between China and the Philippines. That antipathy briefly faded Saturday as China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia all sent ships and planes to the region.
Malaysia had dispatched 15 planes and nine ships to the area, Najib said.
The U.S. Navy was sending a warship and a surveillance plane, while Singapore said it would send a submarine and a plane. China and Vietnam also sent aircraft to help in the search.
The plane was carrying 227 passengers and 12 crew members, the airline said. It said there were 152 passengers from China, 38 from Malaysia, seven from Indonesia, six from Australia, five from India, three from the U.S., and others from Indonesia, France, New Zealand, Canada, Ukraine, Russia, Taiwan and the Netherlands.
Malaysia Airlines has a good safety record, as does the 777, which had not had a fatal crash in its 19-year history until an Asiana Airlines plane crashed last July in San Francisco, killing three passengers, all teenagers from China.
If wreckage is found, a top priority will be recovering the airliner's "black boxes," which are equipped with "pingers" that emit ultrasonic signals that can be detected underwater. Under good conditions, the signals can be detected from several hundred miles away, said John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
If the boxes are trapped inside the wreckage, the sound may not travel as far. If the boxes are at the bottom of an underwater trench, that also hinders how far the sound can travel. Signals can weaken over time.
The circumstances of the disappearance called to mind Air France Flight 447, which went down with 228 people on board over the Atlantic Ocean while flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on June 1, 2009.
Some wreckage and bodies were recovered over the next two weeks, but it took nearly two years for the main wreckage of the Airbus 330 and its black boxes to be located and recovered.
The 53-year-old pilot of Flight MH370, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, has more than 18,000 flying hours and has been flying for the airline since 1981. The first officer, 27-year-old Fariq Hamid, has about 2,800 hours of experience and has flown for the airline since 2007, Malaysia Airlines said.
A wingtip on the same Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777-200 broke off Aug. 9, 2012, as it was taxiing at Pudong International Airport outside Shanghai. The wingtip had collided with the tail of a China Eastern Airlines A340 plane. No one was injured.
NEW YORK (AP) — The most dangerous parts of a flight are takeoff and landing. Rarely do incidents happen when a plane is cruising seven miles above the earth.
So the disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines jet well into its flight Saturday morning over the South China Sea has led aviation experts to assume that whatever happened was quick and left the pilots no time to place a distress call.
It could take investigators months, if not years, to determine what happened to the Boeing 777 flying from Malaysia's capital city of Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
"At this early stage, we're focusing on the facts that we don't know," said Todd Curtis, a former safety engineer with Boeing who worked on its 777 jumbo jets and is now director of the Airsafe.com Foundation.
If there was a minor mechanical failure — or even something more serious like the shutdown of both of the plane's engines — the pilots likely would have had time to radio for help. The lack of a call "suggests something very sudden and very violent happened," said William Waldock, who teaches accident investigation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.
Instead, it initially appears that there was either a sudden breakup of the plane or something that led it into a quick, steep dive. Some experts even suggested an act of terrorism or a pilot purposely crashing the jet.
"Either you had a catastrophic event that tore the airplane apart, or you had a criminal act," said Scott Hamilton, managing director of aviation consultancy Leeham Co. "It was so quick and they didn't radio."
No matter how unlikely a scenario, it's too early to rule out any possibilities, experts warn. The best clues will come with the recovery of the flight data and voice recorders and an examination of the wreckage.
Airplane crashes typically occur during takeoff and the climb away from an airport, or while coming in for a landing, as in last year's fatal crash of an Asiana Airlines jet in San Francisco. Just 9 percent of fatal accidents happen when a plane is at cruising altitude, according to a statistical summary of commercial jet airplane accidents done by Boeing.
Capt. John M. Cox, who spent 25 years flying for US Airways and is now CEO of Safety Operating Systems, said that whatever happened to the Malaysia Airlines jet, it occurred quickly. The problem had to be big enough, he said, to stop the plane's transponder from broadcasting its location.
One of the first indicators of what happened will be the size of the debris field. If it is large and spread out over tens of miles, then the plane likely broke apart at a high elevation. That could signal a bomb or a massive airframe failure. If it is a smaller field, the plane probably fell from 35,000 feet intact, breaking up upon contact with the water.
"We know the airplane is down. Beyond that, we don't know a whole lot," Cox said.
The Boeing 777 has one of the best safety records in aviation history. It first carried passengers in June 1995 and went 18 years without a fatal accident. That streak came to an end with the July 2013 Asiana crash. Three of the 307 people aboard that flight died. Saturday's Malaysia Airlines flight carrying 239 passengers and crew would only be the second fatal incident for the aircraft type.
"It's one of the most reliable airplanes ever built," said John Goglia, a former member of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
Some of the possible causes for the plane disappearing include:
— A catastrophic structural failure of the airframe or its Rolls-Royce Trent 800 engines. Most aircraft are made of aluminum which is susceptible to corrosion over time, especially in areas of high humidity. But given the plane's long history and impressive safety record, experts suggest this is unlikely.
More of a threat to the plane's integrity is the constant pressurization and depressurization of the cabin for takeoff and landing. In April 2011, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-300 rapidly lost cabin pressure just after takeoff from Phoenix after the plane's fuselage ruptured, causing a 5-foot tear. The plane, with 118 people on board, landed safely. But such a rupture is less likely in this case. Airlines fly the 777 on longer distances, with much fewer takeoffs and landings, putting less stress on the airframe.
"It's not like this was Southwest Airlines doing 10 flights a day," Hamilton said. "There's nothing to suggest there would be any fatigue issues."
— Bad weather. Planes are designed to fly though most severe storms. However, in June 2009, an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed during a bad storm over the Atlantic Ocean. The Airbus A330's airspeed indicators were giving false readings. That, and bad decisions by the pilots, led the plane into a stall causing it to plummet into the sea. All 228 passengers and crew aboard died. The pilots never radioed for help. But in the case of Saturday's Malaysia Airlines flight, all indications show that there were clear skies.
— Pilot disorientation. Curtis said that the pilots could have taken the plane off autopilot and somehow went off course and didn't realize it until it was too late. The plane could have flown for another five or six hours from its point of last contact, putting it up to 3,000 miles away. This is unlikely given that the plane probably would have been picked up by radar somewhere. But it's too early to eliminate it as a possibility.
— Failure of both engines. In January 2008, a British Airways 777 crashed about 1,000 feet short of the runway at London's Heathrow Airport. As the plane was coming in to land, the engines lost thrust because of ice buildup in the fuel system. There were no fatalities. Such a scenario is possible, but Hamilton said the plane could glide for up to 20 minutes, giving pilots plenty of time to make an emergency call. When a US Airways A320 lost both of its engines in January 2009 after taking off from LaGuardia Airport in New York it was at a much lower elevation. But Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger still had plenty of communications with air traffic controllers before ending the six-minute flight in the Hudson River.
— A bomb. Several planes have been brought down including Pan Am Flight 103 between London and New York in December 1988. There was also an Air India flight in June 1985 between Montreal and London and a plane in September 1989 flown by French airline Union des Transports Aériens which blew up over the Sahara Desert.
— Hijacking. A traditional hijacking seems unlikely given that a plane's captors typically land at an airport and have some type of demand. But a 9/11-like hijacking is possible, with terrorists forcing the plane into the ocean.
— Pilot suicide. There were two large jet crashes in the late 1990s that investigators suspected were caused by pilots deliberately crashing the planes.
— Accidental shoot-down by some country's military. In July 1988, the United States Navy missile cruiser USS Vincennes accidently shot down an Iran Air flight, killing all 290 passengers and crew. In September 1983, a Korean Air Lines flight was shot down by a Russian fighter jet.
SEBEC, Maine (AP) — Bill Irwin, the first blind hiker to complete the Appalachian Trail without assistance, has died in Maine at the age of 73.
A posting on Irwin's website says he died of prostate cancer on March 1, the anniversary of the start of his historic 1990 journey.
In November 1990, Irwin arrived at a campground in Millinocket, Maine, with his sole companion, his guide dog Orient. After nine months and 2,167 miles, he became the first blind person to make the solo hike from Georgia to Maine.
At the time, he said he felt "an indescribable feeling of gratitude" and credited his faith for carrying him along the trail.
A memorial service was set for Saturday in Bangor.
Irwin is survived by his wife, Debra, and four children.
SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Russia on Saturday was reported to be reinforcing its military presence in Crimea as Moscow's foreign minister ruled out any dialogue with Ukraine's new authorities, whom he dismissed as puppets.
CONROE, Texas (AP) — Now that prosecutors have persuaded a judge that a Texas man accused of setting an 8-year-old boy on fire as a teenager can be tried as an adult for murder, securing a conviction in a case where the victim died 13 years after the attack could prove difficult, legal experts say.
Don Willburn Collins was 13 when Robert Middleton was attacked in 1998 on his eighth birthday, near the younger boy's home in Splendora, about 35 miles northeast of Houston. Middleton was burned across 99 percent of his body and endured years of physical therapy before he died in 2011 from skin cancer blamed on his burns.
Collins was always a suspect but never indicted as prosecutors in Montgomery County said they didn't have enough evidence. The case was reopened after Middleton gave a videotaped deposition shortly before his death in which he accused Collins for the first time of sexually assaulting him two weeks before the attack. Prosecutors charged the now 28-year-old Collins with murder last year, but they needed to move the case from juvenile to adult court to take him to trial.
After a three-day hearing this week, state District Judge Kathleen Hamilton ruled Thursday that prosecutors could do just that.
But legal experts say securing a conviction will be difficult.
Houston criminal defense attorney Grant Scheiner, who is not involved in the case, noted prosecutors lack direct evidence against Collins. He also said that alleged confessions Collins made to others could come under heavy scrutiny at trial.
But the biggest hurdle for prosecutors will be linking Middleton's death in 2011 from cancer to the attack in 1998, he said.
"I think (prosecutors) are going to face an uphill battle here," Scheiner said.
Anthony Sabino, a law professor at St. John's University in New York City, said he wonders if the judge's decision to transfer the case to adult court will ultimately hold up on appeal.
Collins' attorney, E. Tay Bond, had argued the case should not be transferred to adult court because in 1998, a juvenile had to be at least 14 years old for a capital felony offense case to be transferred to adult court in Texas. The law was changed in 1999 to lower that age to 10.
But prosecutors argued the murder didn't take place until 2011, well after the law was changed.
Collins can't appeal Hamilton's ruling until after he goes through a trial.
Sabino said he thinks there are constitutional concerns about whether trying Collins as an adult is wrong.
"There is a long-standing legal precedent that laws are not applied retroactively," Sabino said.
"This (case) is fraught with peril for the prosecution," Sabino said.
Montgomery County Attorney J.D. Lambright said he was pleased with the ruling but acknowledged the judge's decision was "step one in a lengthy process." The prosecution will now be turned over to the county district attorney's office, which will work to indict Collins. Lambright's office is responsible for matters involving juveniles.
Several witnesses testified at this week's hearing that Collins had confessed to them or others that he was responsible for the attack on Middleton. Part of Middleton's taped deposition also was shown. A detective did testify that 13 pieces of evidence in the case had been mistakenly destroyed.
Bond, Collins' attorney, questioned the reliability of Middleton's statements, as well as secondhand statements made by other witnesses.
"There is no physical evidence that links Don Collins to this case," Bond said. "There are no eyewitnesses."
Collins, who is being held on a $1 million bond, will remain jailed. He also faces a charge in neighboring San Jacinto County of failing to register as a sex offender.
Colleen Middleton, Robert Middleton's mother, said she is happy her son will finally get his day in court.
"''When Robert died we were thinking maybe nothing will ever happen, maybe someone is just going to get away with what they did to him," she said. "It's been a long road."
BEIRUT (AP) — Once a vibrant, religiously mixed community, Syria's eastern city of Raqqa is now a shell of its former self, terrorized by hard-line militants who have turned it into the nucleus of their vision for the Islamic caliphate they hope one day to establish in Syria and Iraq.
In rare interviews with The Associated Press, residents and activists in Raqqa describe a city where fear prevails. Music has been banned, Christians have to pay an Islamic tax for protection, people are executed in the main square and face-veiled women and pistol-wielding foreigners in Afghan-style outfits patrol the streets enforcing Shariah restrictions.
Raqqa, on the banks of the Euphrates River, is now the only city in Syria fully under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the al-Qaida breakaway group that is considered the most ferocious of the militant factions that have latched onto the revolt against President Bashar Assad's rule. Black Islamic banners flutter on street corners and atop buildings — including churches — as the extremists put their strict Islamic stamp on the city.
"They have taken us back to medieval times," said one resident. He and three other residents — all in the city except one who recently fled to Turkey — spoke to the AP by Skype on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by militants.
It was exactly a year ago that an alliance of Islamic brigades and other rebel groups swept into the city, cheering as they brought down the bronze statue of the late President Hafez Assad. Others tore down a huge portrait of his son Bashar, the current president, hitting it with shoes in euphoric scenes captured by activists and posted online.
Raqqa, a city of 500,000, became the first and only provincial capital to fall into rebel hands, drawing comparisons to Benghazi, the first major city in Libya to revolt against Moammar Gadhafi and become a rebel stronghold. The city had been considered a bastion of support for Assad, with its tribal leaders firmly in his camp. Residents were wary about the takeover, some happy to be free of Assad's control, but many worried about how rebels would rule.
Now residents and anti-government activists say Raqqa has come to symbolize everything that has gone wrong with the revolution meant to achieve freedom and democracy after 40 years of rule by the Assad family.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known by its acronym ISIL, was formed last spring by the head of al-Qaida's branch in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to expand his operations into neighboring Syria. His barging into the Syria conflict sparked bloody clashes with other rebel factions and prompted al-Qaida's central command to kick him out of the terror network.
Flush with cash, weapons and experience, the group has capitalized on the weaknesses and divisions of the Western-backed opposition, and the world's failure to take decisive action to help the rebels.
In early January, ISIL fighters expelled rival rebel factions from Raqqa, including militants from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front. Their numbers swelled as ISIL fighters and loyalists pulled out of some areas it controlled further west in Syria and moved to Raqqa in the face of assaults and threats from rival rebels.
Now around 5,000 ISIL loyalists are in the city, almost all foreigners, including Iraqis who seized most of the key administrative positions, Tunisians, Gulf Arabs and Chechens, residents said.
"Raqqa is the nucleus for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's nascent Islamic state," said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "Their laws govern virtually every aspect of public and private life."
Al-Baghdadi, he said, has "delusions of grandeur and believes that he is the rightful new Caliph."
Residents say the situation has become suffocating.
"People are scared of the Islamic State the way they used to be scared of intelligence agencies," said one resident. "You walk in the streets of Raqqa and feel that you are in Chechnya."
Once the call for prayers starts, shop owners are forced to close down to head to the mosque. Some unfurl prayer mats in front of their shops to save time.
Veiled female Islamic State loyalists bully women in the street who don't cover themselves in the all-encompassing niqab, the black robes and veil that leave only the eyes exposed, said another resident, who asked to be identified only as Abu Ibrahim. Women in niqab are accosted if they don't wear gloves to hide their hands. Abu Ibrahim said he saw an elderly woman shoved by ISIL women when she lifted her veil off her face to catch her breath.
Cafes once packed with smokers puffing on cigarettes and water pipes have been closed down. Music has been banned. Alcohol bottles are smashed and cigarettes are confiscated and burned. Street posters lecture against smoking and urge women to cover up.
The city's main square, Clock Square, has been turned into an execution ground. The militants beheaded a man there in late January, accusing him of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. A number of people accused of being Assad spies have been shot to death. Last month, a man and a woman accused of adultery were publicly stoned — though not to death. The militants pelted them with stones, but let them live as warning to others and imprisoned them, several of the residents said.
A report this week by the U.N.'s Commission of Inquiry on Syria cited war crimes committed by both government and opposition forces, particularly the Islamic State.
It cited several incidents that occurred in Raqqa last year. In June, a woman was tortured and threatened with rape for "disrespecting" the Shariah Council, the body set up to impose Islamic law. In October, a 26-year-old man was detained, beaten and hung up by his arms on the grounds of his sexual orientation. A school headmistress was publicly lashed for not wearing a headscarf.
In October, ISIL fighters knocked the cross off the Church of Saidat al-Bishara, replacing it with the group's black banner, and established an Islamic outreach center in the building.
More recently, the group imposed an Islamic tax on Christians in Raqqa. The Islamic State said in a statement that the Christians opted for paying the tax when they were told to choose one of three options: convert to Islam, remain Christian and pay the tax or "refuse and be considered warriors who will be confronted with the sword of the Islamic State."
The residents said most Christians, who made up about 10 percent of Raqqa's population, have long fled. One resident said around 20 families remain.
Abu Ali, a secular anti-government activist from the central city of Palmyra, moved to Raqqa and bought an apartment last year after it was "liberated," thinking he would be safer there. He recently fled to Turkey after Islamic State militants ransacked his apartment, confiscated his laptop, telephone and a pistol he carried for his own protection.
"I had to leave. Was I to wait until they kill me?"
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Diaa Hadid contributed to this report.