Nightly News   |  March 08, 2014

What Happened to Malaysia Flight 370?

The jetliner disappeared over the South China Sea. Now there are concerns about whether terrorism or equipment malfunction was the cause.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> sunday in southeast asia where in the light of a new day, a massive, multi-national search is in full swing for a malaysian jetliner that vanished not quite 36 hours ago with 239 people on-board, including three americans. the malaysia airlines 777 was traveling from kuala lampur to beijing when all contact was lost over open water roughly half-way between malaysia and the southern tip of vietnam. the air and sea search now includes an american navy warship. the hunt for wreckage now centered on fuel slicks spotted on the surface of the sea while the cause for a cause, including the possibility of foul play, is now partly focused on two mystery passengers traveling on stolen passports. there are a lot of angles to cover here. we begin with tom costello in our washington newsroom.

>> malaysia airlines says this plane was last inspected just ten days ago and it was in proper condition. their words. at this hour those naval units from several countries are listening for the pinging sound that should be coming from the plane's emergency transmitters in an area where the vietnamese military believes it has found an important clue. off the coast of vietnam, two fuel slicks on the water may provide the best hope for finding malaysia airlines flight 370. the plane left kuala lampur at 12:40 a.m . saturday, the red eye flight to beijing with 239 flew and passengers on-board. two to two hours into the flight at 35,000 feet, air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane somewhere over the gulf of thailand. veteran crash investigators say it all points to an abrupt end to a you routine flight.

>> whatever happened was catastrophic and it incapacitated the airplane such that the crew couldn't get a mayday call off.

>> reporter: the plane, a boeing 777 200 series , nearly 12 years old. middle aged for planes. in august 2012 it lost the tip of a wing after clipping another wing on the ground in shanghai. the wing was fixed, but did that contribute to the accident? nbc news aviation analyst captain john cox.

>> one of the early things that is already under way is a thorough review of all of the maintenance records of the airplane. and if the airplane has sustained damage, as it did in this ground incident, that is something that certainly the investigators are going to look at.

>> reporter: we do know the captain was experienced. he was 53 years old with 18,000 hours of flying time. when he wasn't in a real cockpit, you could find him in the advanced simulator he built at home. on a website for simulator enthusiasts, he quote wrote, "time to take to the next level of simulation. motion. looking for buddies to share this passion." the 1st officer was 27-year-old fa reek hamid with 2,800 hours of experience. to add to the mystery, two passengers on the manifest are actually safe and sound on the ground. both reported their passports stolen in thailand one to two years ago. u.s. and malaysian authorities are now looking into who used those stolen passports to board the plane and what were they up to.

>> to have two people traveling on false passports when a plane disappears from radar really gets people's attention, as it should.

>> reporter: the plane itself has a very strong safety record. crash of arabian that 214 in sfraensan francisco last july was the 777's first fatal accident . investigators believed that was pilot error now. this is eerily similar to the crash of air france flight 447 which disappeared, you may recall, over the atlantic in 2009 . it took two years to find the wreckage at the bottom of the ocean. while search teams will be looking for those black boxes we hear so much about, they're also going to be examining the size of the debris field, if they find one. if it is wide, that would suggest the plane broke up in flight. if it is more condensed, that could mean the plane remained intact until it impacted the water, or perhaps the ground. lester?