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Search intensifies for Malaysian airliner and 239 people, rescue ships head to sea

By Tom Watkins and Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
March 8, 2014 -- Updated 0519 GMT (1319 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: China deploys two rescue ships to search South China Sea
  • "We have no idea where this aircraft is," Malaysia Airlines vice president says
  • The airline is contacting next of kin
  • Flight was carrying 239 people, including 2 infants

(CNN) -- (CNN) -- Malaysia Airlines flight carrying 239 people from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing disappeared Saturday after air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane, the airline said.

"At the moment we have no idea where this aircraft is right now," Malaysia Airlines Vice President of Operations Control Fuad Sharuji said on CNN's "AC360."

Subang Air Traffic Control lost contact with Flight MH370 at about 2:40 a.m. local time (1:40 p.m. ET Friday), Sharuji said.

Map: Malaysia airliner lost contact  Map: Malaysia airliner lost contact
Map: Malaysia airliner lost contactMap: Malaysia airliner lost contact
Quest: Odd to lose contact while cruising
Plane loses contact with airline

"We tried to call this aircraft through various means," he said. The airline checked reports that the jet had landed in several places, but determined that none of the reports was true, he said.

The Boeing 777-200 departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12:41 a.m. and was expected to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m., a 2,300-mile (3,700 kilometer) trip. It was carrying 227 passengers, two of them infants, and 12 crew members, the airline said.

At the time of its disappearance, the plane was carrying about 7.5 hours of fuel, Sharuji said.

The passengers are of 13 nationalities, the airline said. They were from China and Taiwan (154), Malaysia (38), Indonesia (12), Australia (7), France (3), United States (4), New Zealand (2), Ukraine (2), Canada (2), Russia (1), Italy (1), Netherlands (1), Austria (1).

One infant from the United States and another from China were included in the tally.

By CNN's math, that adds up to 228 passengers, one more than the total cited by the airline. There was no immediate explanation offered.

"Malaysia Airlines is currently working with the authorities who have activated their Search and Rescue team to locate the aircraft," the statement said. The public can call +603 7884 1234 for further information.

"We deeply regret that we have lost all contacts" with the jet, said CEO Ahmad Juahari Yahya in a statement.

Efforts to contact the plane in the hours after it disappeared were fruitless. China deployed two rescue ships in the South China Sea to begin a search, state-run broadcaster CCTV said.

Family and friends of those missing on the flight gathered at a hotel complex in the Lido district of Beijing. People were being led in through a throng of reporters, with those friends and relatives saying nothing to the media.

One woman had her hand to her face. As the door opened, a man inside looked anxious as he talked on a cell phone.

The airline's website said the flight was piloted by Cap. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, a Malaysian. He has 18,365 total flying hours and joined Malaysia Airlines in 1981, the website said. The first officer is Fariq Ab.Hamid, 27, a Malaysian with a total of 2,763 flying hours. He joined Malaysia Airlines in 2007.

The airline said in a statement that its representatives were contacting the relatives of those aboard. "Focus of the airline is to work with the emergency responders and authorities and mobilize its full support," it said.

China's state-run Xinhua News Agency said the flight lost contact and its radar signal as it was flying over the Ho Chi Minh air traffic control area in Vietnam.

China's embassy in Malaysia formed an emergency team headed by the Chinese ambassador to deal with the incident, it said.

"We're closely monitoring reports on Malaysia flight MH370," Boeing said in a tweet. "Our thoughts are with everyone on board."

"It doesn't sound very good," retired American Airlines Capt. Jim Tilmon told CNN's "AC360." He noted that the route is mostly overland, which means that there would be plenty of antennae, radar and radios to contact the plane.

"I've been trying to come up with every scenario that I could just to explain this away, but I haven't been very successful."

He said the plane is "about as sophisticated as any commercial airplane could possibly be," with an excellent safety record.

"The lack of communications suggests to me that something most unfortunate has happened," said Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, in an interview with CNN International. "But that, of course, does not mean that there are not many persons that need to be rescued and secured. There's still a very urgent need to find that plane and to render aid."

There is one recent blemish for the Boeing jet: An Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 carrying 291 passengers struck a seawall at San Francisco International Airport in July 2013, killing three people and wounding dozens more.

Malaysia Airlines operates in Southeast Asia, East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and on the route between Europe and Australasia.

It has 15 of the Boeing 777-200 planes in its fleet, CNN's Richard Quest reported.

Part of the company is in the private sector, but the government owns most of it.

Malayan Airways Limited began flying in 1937 as an air service between Penang and Singapore. A decade later, it began flying commercially as the national airline.

In 1963, when Malaysia was formed, the airline was renamed Malaysian Airlines Limited.

Within 20 years, it had grown from a single aircraft operator into a company with 2,400 employees and a fleet operator.

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