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Worst Feared for 239 People Aboard Missing Malaysian Airlines Flight

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Updated: 8:20 a.m. EST on Saturday

All morning, a line of red text topped the international arrivals board at Beijing’s Capital International Airport. Flight MH370, from Kuala Lumpur, STA 6:30. Delayed. Curious bystanders, journalists, and police officers, gathered below the sign, waiting for word. None came. Then, just after 13:00, the red line disappeared without a trace.

Little hope remains for the 239 people aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. The Boeing 777-200 lost contact over the South China Sea early Saturday morning en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. A 12-mile long oil slick has been discovered in the Gulf of Thailand between Vietnam and Malaysian, which Vietnamese authorities suspect is a crashed Boeing aircraft. It is the first sign that the plane was unable to make a safe landing and went down in the ocean.

“I’m very, very worried now,” Zhai Le, who was meeting friends off the plane before setting off on holiday, told gathered reporters.

The red eye took off at 12:41 a.m., local time, scheduled to arrive at 6:30 a.m. It did not. Malaysia airlines later confirmed that contact with air traffic control was lost at 2:40 a.m. Aboard the flight, a total of 239 passengers and crew, of 14 nationalities. There were 153 Chinese nationals, 38 Malaysians, 7 Indonesians, six Australians, five Indians, four French, four Americans, among other passengers. A dozen crew and two infants are among the missing. The flight was a codeshare with China Southern.

Fuad Sharuji, Malaysian Airlines’ vice president of operations control, told CNN that the aircraft was flying at an altitude of 35,000ft (10,700m) and no problems had been reported from the cockpit.

“The fact that there was no distress signal is very disturbing,” Ross Aimer, an aviation consultant, told Al-Jazeera. “It’s almost unprecedented.”

Ships and helicopters from nations closest to the flight path were dispatched to scour a large expanse of ocean for signs of any wreckage. But as darkness fell on Saturday evening, search and rescue teams still had not located any crash site.

“The aircraft had not been at altitude long and that strikes me as very, very odd,” aviation expert Captain J.F. Joseph, who has 44 years flying of experience, tells TIME. “It’s too early to say if there was a bomb or terrorist activity, but it lost contact just as it began to level off at 35,000 ft. It would give some indication that what occurred was catastrophic or somewhat instantaneous.”

The sudden communications blackout drew parallels with the Air France disaster of in June 2009, which fell out of the sky while flying from Rio de Janiero in Brazil to Paris, claiming the lives of all 228 people on board.

“Our team is currently calling the next-of-kin of passengers and crew. Focus of the airline is to work with the emergency responders and authorities and mobilize its full support,” Malaysia Airlines CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all affected passengers and crew and their family members.”

The plane’s pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, had been with the airline since 1981. The weather along the route was reportedly good.

A statement posted on the official Vietnamese government website said the flight disappeared in “Ca Mau province airspace before it had entered contact with Ho Chi Minh City air traffic control.” News media reported Vietnamese authorities saying it had crashed in the Gulf of Thailand in the waters between Malaysia’s northeastern coast and Ca Mau, Vietnam’s southernmost province. Malaysian officials said they had received no confirmation of what had happened to the plane.

All countries in the vicinity of the flight path were performing a “communications and radio search,” said John Andrews, deputy chief of the Philippines civil aviation agency, reports AP.

Authorities at Beijing airport provided buses for relatives to go to a hotel about 10 miles away to await further briefings. But as the waiting continued tensions became heated, and a cameraman was reportedly punched by a distraught relative. Others complained about the lack of information. “There’s no one from the company here, we can’t find a single person. They’ve just shut us in this room and told us to wait,” said one middle-aged man who declined to be named, according to Reuters.

Hamid Ramlan, a 56-year-old policeman living in Kuala Lumpur, told AFP that his daughter and son in law were on the flight. “My wife is crying. Everyone is sad. My house has become a place of mourning,” he said. “This is Allah’s will. We have to accept it.”

Boeing told CNBC that it was monitoring the situation. More than 1,000 777 aircraft have been put into service since 1995, with the only previous fatalities reported during the Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport in July. State-owned Malaysia Airlines has 15 Boeing 777-200 jets in its fleet of around 100 aircraft. —With reporting by Emily Rauhala/Beijing

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Write to Emily Rauhala / Beijing at emily_rauhala@timeasia.com and Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com