MELBOURNE, Australia — A search in the southern Indian Ocean for possible debris from the missing Malaysian airliner was halted Thursday because of bad weather and nightfall, but will resume Friday in what Australian authorities — citing satellite imagery — call the most credible lead in the hunt for the ill-fated plane.
The objects seen in the satellite photos are "of reasonable size and probably awash with water," John Young, general manager of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, said at a press conference in Canberra, Australia's capital, on Thursday.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing early March 8 with 239 passengers and crew aboard on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
A Norwegian merchant ship was the first vessel on the scene in a tight, 16-nautical- mile area 1,550 miles southwest of Perth, Australia, where authorities believe the possible debris was floating. Search planes were also sent to the vicinity and other ships were en route.
Australian authorities asked the St. Petersburg merchant ship, which was en route to Perth, to take a more southerly approach two days ago to the search site, officials of the Norwegian shipping company Höegh Autoliners told the Norwegian newspaper VG.
"Our mission is to be the eyes and ears in the area and to look for things in the water," said Olva Sollie, a vice president for the company. "We are doing this from the ship with our crews using binoculars and radars. This is coordinated with the Australian authorities and aircraft in the area."
Other aircraft and ships are traveling to the area to try to locate and examine the objects, one of which is believed to be almost 80 feet long. A U.S. P-8 Poseidon aircraft was already on the scene, Young said, but had problems with poor visibility.
Earlier, the crew of the Poseidon told ABC News that the aircraft was getting radar hits of "significant size" in waters beneath the surface near the objects but that it was too early to tell if these hits were related to debris from the missing plane.
"This is a lead, this is probably the best lead we have right now, but we have to find them, see them, assess them," Young said of the objects.
"If there is a positive ID (of the debris) ... then (investigators) will likely study and model currents and flows in the ocean as soon as possible to find out where to look for the black boxes. Or, rather, listen for them, as they will likely still be sending out sonar signals at this point (about 30 days after an aircraft goes down)," Sidney Dekker, an expert on aviation safety, told USA TODAY in e-mailed comments.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott informed Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak of the new development Thursday morning, according to the Malaysia's minister of defense and transport, Hishammuddin Hussein.
"Following specialist analysis of this satellite imagery, two possible objects related to the search have been identified," Abbott told parliament. Two Australians were on board the missing jet.
However, Malaysia's Hishammuddin cautioned: "At this stage, Australian officials have yet to establish whether these objects are indeed related to the search for MH370." He reiterated that call for caution during his daily news conference in Kuala Lumpur.
The AMSA's Young said visibility was poor and may hamper efforts to find the objects. He said they "are relatively indistinct on the imagery … but those who are experts indicate they are credible sightings." The images were taken on March 16. It is not immediately clear why they only surfaced Thursday.
Military planes from Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand have been covering a search region over the southern Indian Ocean that was narrowed down from 232,000 square miles to 117,000 square miles.
Separate images released by Beijing last week that appeared to indicate possible plane debris over the South China Sea were subsequently ruled out.
On Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in Washington that the FBI was working with Malaysian authorities. "At this point, I don't think we have any theories," he said.
More than 150 Chinese nationals were on board Flight 370 that disappeared March 8 on a night flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
In Beijing, Chinese relatives of the ill-fated passengers said they were troubled by the latest news but refused to give up hope.
"I am so tortured by the news these days," said Zhang Hongjie, 44, whose wife was on the plane, returning to their Beijing home after a holiday in Malaysia. "I still have hope. I wish my wife is waiting too, somewhere on earth."
A Malaysian delegation sent from Kuala Lumpur was expected to meet Chinese relatives Friday morning local time in what may prove a stormy meeting at the Lido Hotel, where many relatives have gathered since the plane disappeared.
"I hope the officials arriving from Malaysia today tell us exactly where the plane is, and whether our relatives are safe or not," said Zhang. "I want no other things from them." Zhang has remained at the Lido, while other family members, including the couple's 18 year-old daughter, have returned home, a one-hour drive away. "They will come as soon as there is news," he said.
While most Chinese relatives and friends have remained at a hotel in Beijing, some have flown to the Malaysian capital to be closer to developments. Their anger and frustration at lack of hard news boiled over in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday when at least three relatives were bundled away by security after trying to protest to journalists covering a daily press conference by the Malaysian authorities.
One woman from Shanghai, Wu Xia, asked others on WeChat to stay strong: "Thirteen days have passed, all kinds of news, like the debris found today, are gouging and cutting our hearts," she wrote. "Relatives and friends, let's pray together, we must keep a whole heart to face the waiting and life ahead of us."
In Putrajaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Selamat Omar, father one of the passengers, Khairul Amri, told USA TODAY that it is hard to pinpoint his feelings after hearing news that possible debris had been spotted.
"I don't know what I am feeling right now," he said. "I was hoping that it was a hijack because then there will be a big hope that my son is safe. But now that hope is dashed."
He said that he is unsure whether fiinding the plane will in fact bring closure.
"I lost my son in a horrible way," he said. "It's a tragedy. I am not sure if I will overcome the grief that I feel now."
If it is the flight, he added, " then it's fated that this is how it will be."
Omar is one of the few relatives of passengers who has defied attempts by Malaysia Airlines authorities to keep family members form speaking to reporters.
When news of the possible Australian breakthrough reached China Thursday, U.S. attorney Keke Feng was eating lunch in Beijing with a family whose relative was on board MH370. "Not more breaking news," they groaned. Feng, a co-counsel at Motley Rice, a U.S. law firm with expertise in aviation cases, flew to Beijing right after MH370 disappeared.
In the past four days, several relatives have approached her, said Feng, whose colleague Mary Schiavo, former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation, will also come to Beijing early next month to meet relatives.
"They are in shock and sadness, but it's a time they really need good legal advice. As wreckage is uncovered, the government may offer something soon," said Feng. "But the first offer is often only a fraction of what you get eventually," she said.
Relatives must be patient, as litigation or reaching out-of-court settlements can take many years, she said. "If you don't have an attorney, you are facing the world's most well-funded defendants," said Feng, whose firm is representing Chinese victims of the Asiana plane crash last year.
For the MH370, compensation per victim could range from $1 million to $10 million (U.S.), depending on whether the case is kept within the USA, or another legal jurisdiction, and on the age, profession and economic status within the family, she said.
MacLeod reported from Beijing. Contributing: Sunny Yang in Beijing; Mahi Ramakrishnan in Putrajaya, Malaysia; Kim Hjelmgaard in London; and Melanie Eversley in McLean, Va.