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(VIDEO) Flight 370: Careful not to project 'false hope' as days go by since last pulses

(CNN) -- By air and by sea, searches resumed Wednesday for evidence of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 -- the latest focus stemming from underwater pulses, possibly from the plane, that have yet to pan out.

Authorities haven't given up hope of finding something, nor have they discounted the possibility that the focus on the so-called pings may prove a fruitless lead, like so many others before it.

"We need to maintain respectful optimism and be responsible," U.S. Navy Capt. Mark M. Matthews told CNN's Anderson Cooper from Australia. "Because we certainly do not want to project false hope."

Hours earlier, Navy Cmdr. William Marks acknowledged that the lack of new signals since those detected Saturday aboard an Australian navy ship does make searchers "more cautious."

These pulses, detected approximately 1,100 miles (1,750 kilometers) northwest of Perth, are consistent with those sent by a flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, explained Angus Houston, head of the Australian-led search effort.

"As hours pass," Marks said, "our optimism is fading away, ever so slightly."

This sentiment is in contrast to the cheers that arose when the pulses were first detected. Search aircraft from several nations haven't found any debris on the vast ocean surface from the Boeing 777-200ER.

It's been 33 days since the jetliner mysteriously disappeared from radar screens, a stretch marked by loads of speculation, lots of heartache from relatives of the 239 people aboard the plane and few solid facts about what happened.

It's also three days since the date which the batteries powering the flight recorders' locator beacons were certified to be working. Stored in a plane's tail, they are designed to begin sending off distinct, high-pitched signals as soon as they come in contact with water.

Authorities are still listening, mindful the pulses could last a few days longer and that sending in submersibles could ruin chances of hearing them again. Retired Lt. Col. Michael Kay of the Royal Air Force told CNN the batteries can operate up to 40 days.

"We need to continue ... for several days right up to when the point at which there's absolutely no doubt that the pinger batteries will have expired," said Houston.

Four reasons to believe; six reasons to doubt

Discovery of possible 'locator beacon' pulses gives hope

Wednesday's search includes up to 11 military planes, four civilian aircraft as well as 14 ships -- three of which, Australia's Ocean Shield further north and the British HMS Echo and Chinese Haixun 01 to the south -- will be focusing underwater.

All told, everyone involved will be scouring a 29,000-square-mile zone centered about 1,400 miles northwest of Perth, according to Australia's Joint Agency Coordination Centre. That's large and challenging, but still pales in comparison to the once nearly 3 million miles, at sea and on land, the searchers were scouring for signs of the lost aircraft a few weeks ago.

Kevin McEvoy, a New Zealand air force commodore involved in the effort, noted that authorities once "didn't even know which haystack" to look in for the aircraft.

"I think we have got a much clearer picture around the areas that we need to concentrate on," McEvoy told CNN's Erin Burnett from Auckland.

Authorities greatly shrank that area after analyzing satellite data to determine Flight 370 had set off from Kuala Lumpur toward Beijing, turned around to go back over the Malay Peninsula, then ended up in the southern Indian Ocean.

Why? No one really knows.

The best chance to answer that question may rest wherever the plane -- and its so-called black boxes, with their trove of information about the plane and its movements -- now resides.

Search planes dispatched day after day looking for evidence of the missing airliner -- a floating wing, a seat cushion, anything -- thus far have come up empty.

The latest, greatest hopes have come from crews listening underwater for signs of Flight 370.

The first such possible breakthrough came last Friday and Saturday, when a Chinese ship detected pulses that may have been from the plane. No more have been heard since.

According to McEvoy, "the main focus" centers around the site of Saturday's discovery from Australia's Ocean Shield. It used more advanced detection gear than that aboard the Chinese vessel and was found some 375 miles away, leading Houston to believe they are separate signals.

The first signal, detected by a towed pinger locator, persisted for more than two hours; a second went on for about 13 minutes.

"The audible signal sounds to me just like an emergency locator beacon," Houston said. "We are encouraged that we are very close to where we need to be."

Big decisions on search could be coming

That's why so much focus in recent days has been placed on locating the flight recorders.

Not that it will be easy. Beyond the dwindling battery life, there's all the ocean to contend with: The Ocean Shield signals were in water about 2.6 miles deep, meaning a number of things could literally get in the way of or otherwise disrupt the pulses.

Searchers' intent not to roil the waters any further is why air and seaborne traffic in that find area is being limited, and why there is no rush to put in underwater drones to take photos.

"Until we have stopped the pinger search, we will not deploy the submersible," Houston said.

What happens after the Malaysian plane's pingers die?

And it's not as if, if more pulses are detected, they'll lead down in a straight line to the flight recorders. As is, the pings that were heard could have emanated from anywhere within a 5-mile radius, said Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Finding more signals could narrow the search area. Without them, authorities could then start the painstaking process of using side-scanning sonar to try to find the aircraft on the ocean's bottom.

Matthews, from the U.S. Navy, said he still believes "the pingers are still active" and could remain so for another 12 or so days. After that, he acknowledged, authorities will have decide whether to put an underwater vessel that will use sonar -- and proceed slower that the current "pinger locators" -- to survey the ocean floor.

"I think we're in a very critical stage of the search, and some big decisions are going to have to be made in the next week or so," said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.

If the Chinese and Australian pulse detections are to be believed -- but no more such signals are found to focus the search -- Matthews said the submersibles would have to cover about a 19-mile by 6-mile area. David Gallo, who co-led the search for downed Air France Flight 447, said that "respectable area" could be covered in about a week's time.

That assumes, though, that the "pings" actually came from the plane, which is no guarantee, given all the obstructions and other possibility.

"It certainly is promising having detections in the water," acknowledged Matthews. "I need more confidence to say it's an acoustic beacon."

Meanwhile, the air search continues. As McEvoy explained, this area is "slightly different" than that being probed for pings because it is focused on surface debris, which would have shifted over the past few weeks -- thanks in part to a cyclone packing winds in excess of 160 mph that pushed through two weeks ago.

So far, none of the aircraft that have been sent out has found anything. And even if it is narrowed, Wednesday's air search area is still roughly the size of South Carolina.

As Wing Cmdr. Andy Scott of New Zealand stated: "It's a large task that's still ahead of us."

Next steps in underwater search

Pings without wreckage 'befuddling'

The absence of wreckage near these detected signals leaves some skeptical, worried that the Chinese and Australian ship's finds could be yet another false lead in an investigation that's been full of them.

Acknowledging "a very high-speed vertical impact" could explain the lack of aircraft remnants, CNN aviation analyst Miles O'Brien said there's reason to be cautious.

"It's either the most extraordinary event, or those pings weren't real," O'Brien said. "It's somewhat befuddling."

Sarah Bajc, the partner of American passenger Philip Wood, isn't convinced about anything. She told CNN's Erin Burnett she thinks the plane was hijacked. Whether that proves true, one thing she won't believe are the Malaysian officials heading the investigation.

"All of us pretty well agree that until there's the bulk of the plane, the bulk of the bodies discovered, and a black box intact, we won't believe that it's final evidence," Bajc said early Wednesday from Beijing. "... I don't think the authorities have given us much confidence of their investigative skills so far."

The lack of clarity makes it hard to "grieve properly and ... move on," -- something that she's not yet willing to do.

"I want to fight to find him, in whatever form that ends up being," said Bajc, who is coordinating with other passengers' kin to press for answers. "And I think most of the families feel the same way."

Until they get answers, women and men like Steve Wang -- whose mother was on the Malaysia Airlines plane -- are clinging to hope while trying to hold themselves together.

"We're just going through so many kinds of emotion," said Wang. "... Desperate, sad and helpless -- something like that. Everything."

COPYRIGHT (C) Greg Botelho and Tom Watkins, CNN. Retrieved 4/9/14 at 11:00am

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