PERTH, Australia (CBS News/CBSDC/AP) — A cluster of orange objects spotted by a search plane hunting for any trace of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet turned out to be nothing more than fishing equipment, Australian officials said Monday, the latest disappointing news in a weekslong hunt that Australia’s prime minister said will continue indefinitely.
The Ocean Shield, an Australian warship which is carrying a U.S. device that detects “pings” from the flight recorders, left Perth on Monday evening for the search zone, a trip that will take three to four days. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is coordinating the search, said it conducted sea trials on Monday afternoon to test the search equipment on board.
The crew of an Australian P-3 Orion search plane spotted at least four orange objects that were more than 6 feet in size on Sunday, and the pilot, Flight Lt. Russell Adams, dubbed the sighting their most promising lead in the search for Flight 370. But on Monday, Jesse Platts, a spokesman for the AMSA, said the objects had been analyzed and officials had confirmed “they have nothing to do with the missing flight.”
It’s a frustrating pattern that has developed in the hunt for the Boeing 777, which vanished on a night flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 with 239 people aboard: Search crews have repeatedly spotted multiple objects floating in remote patches of the southern Indian Ocean, only for officials to later confirm they aren’t linked to the missing plane.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Monday acknowledged the search was incredibly complex, but said officials were “well, well short” of any point where they would scale the hunt back.
The search for Flight 370 has evolved over the past three weeks as experts sifted through a limited set of radar and satellite data, moving gradually from the seas off Vietnam, to waters west of Malaysia and Indonesia, and then to several areas west of Australia.
“This is an extraordinarily difficult exercise …. we are searching a vast area of ocean and we are working on quite limited information,” Abbott said, adding that the best brains in the world and all the technological mastery is being applied to the task.
“If this mystery is solvable, we will solve it,” he said.
He said the search that has been going on for more than three weeks is operating on guestimates “until we locate some actual wreckage from the aircraft and then do the regression analysis that might tell us where the aircraft went into the ocean.”
Meanwhile, officials on Monday said that the last communication from the cockpit was “Good night Malaysian three seven zero.” In a statement, the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation said “authorities are still doing forensic investigation to determine whether those last words from the cockpit were by the pilot or the co-pilot.”
Earlier, authorities had said the last words from the cockpit were “All right, good night.” The reason for the discrepancy was not clear.
Ten planes were either over the search zone or heading there by late Monday afternoon, and another 10 ships were scouring the area, about 1,150 miles west of Australia. More than 100 personnel in the air and 1,000 sailors at sea were involved in Monday’s hunt, with some sections of the 98,000 square mile search zone expected to experience low clouds and rain. It takes planes about 2 1/2 hours to get to the area, allowing a five-hour search before they must return to Perth.
Former Australian defense chief Angus Houston on Monday began his job of heading the new Joint Agency Coordination Center, which will oversee communication with international agencies involved in the search. The Perth-based center will position Australia to shoulder more of Malaysia’s coordination responsibilities as the search drags on.
Houston will also play a prime coordination role when victims’ families travel to Australia in the weeks ahead.
Abbott said he was not putting a time limit on the search. “We owe it to everyone to do whatever we reasonably can and we can keep searching for quite some time to come … and, as I said, the intensity of our search and the magnitude of operations is increasing, not decreasing.”
CBS News’ Holly Williams reported Monday that the search area remains vast — essentially still “the entire Indian Ocean,” according to one American commander in Perth — so the Ocean Shield crew is hoping confirmed debris from Flight 370 will be found floating on the ocean surface before their arrival on Thursday, to help them hone in on the right patch of ocean to drop in the ping detector.
Meanwhile, several dozen Chinese relatives of Flight 370 passengers visited a Buddhist temple near Kuala Lumpur on Monday to pray for their loved ones. They offered incense, bowed their heads in a moment of silence, knelt several times during the prayers and lowered their heads in kowtows. Buddhist nuns handed out prayer beads to them. “You are not alone,” one nun said. “You have the whole world’s love, including Malaysia’s.”
Several of the relatives were overcome with emotion, tears streaming down their faces.
The family members later made a brief statement to journalists, expressing their appreciation to the Chinese government and the people of Malaysia and the volunteers who have been assisting them. They bowed as a show of gratitude, but also said they were still demanding answers.
“To those who are guilty of harming our loved ones, hiding the truth, and delaying the search and rescue, we will also definitely not forgive them,” said a family representative, Jiang Hui.
The relatives’ comments Monday were seen as a small conciliatory move after they staged an angry protest in front of reporters on Sunday at a hotel near Kuala Lumpur. At the time, they chanted slogans, raised banners and called on the Malaysian government to apologize for what they dubbed missteps in the handling of the disaster.
During a press conference last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said terrorism could not be ruled out.
“I don’t think at this point we can rule anything in or out. I think we have to continue to search, as we are,” Hagel said. “And you know the United States continues to stay committed.”
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