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Missing Jet Clue or More Trash? Sheet Metal Washes Onto Australia Shore

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is examining photographs of "material" washed ashore.
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Another turn in the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — what looked like sheet metal with rivets that washed ashore on the coast of Australia — appears destined to be another false lead.

Australian authorities said Wednesday that they were examining the material, and it was promising enough that Malaysian investigators alerted the families of the Chinese passengers on the flight.

But Australia quickly cast doubt on the find.

“The more we look at it, the less excited we get,” said Martin Dolan, chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. The remark, to CNN, was confirmed to NBC News by a spokesman for the bureau.

If the material turns out to be nothing, it would be yet another disappointment, both for the families of the 239 people who were on the flight and for people around the world who are still waiting for an explanation for the lost jetliner.

From the earliest days of the mystery, after the plane disappeared March 8 on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, one lead after another has crumbled. Everything spotted in the ocean has turned out to be shipping debris or garbage.

In another setback, the air search for wreckage in the Indian Ocean was called off Wednesday because of bad weather. Three planes that took off from Australia to look in a 14,600-square-mile zone were called back. Twelve ships kept looking.

Investigators said Wednesday that a robotic submarine, the U.S. Navy’s Bluefin-21, had covered more than 80 percent of the 120-square-mile seabed search zone off the Australian west coast, creating a three-dimensional sonar map of the ocean floor.

“No contacts of interest have been found to date,” said Hishammuddin Hussein, the Malaysian acting transport minister.

The underwater search area, almost 3 miles deep, centers on an area where sonar equipment picked up a signal on April 8 consistent with a plane’s black box. The batteries that send locating pings are believed by now to be dead.

Still, investigators said Wednesday that they planned to beef up the sonar equipment used in the search. The new equipment will be similar to what was deployed when submarines found the Titanic 12,500 under the Atlantic Ocean in 1985.

— Alastair Jamieson, Eric Baculinao and Erin McClam