Malaysian Search Tops Two Weeks as Families Seek AnswersFrederik Balfour
At midnight March 8, Daniel Liau made one last call to his friend Hou Bo, who was about to board a plane to Beijing with 18 Chinese artists who had been visiting Malaysia for an exhibition.
Liau, who had hosted the visit, had gotten his guests to Kuala Lumpur International Airport five hours before the 12:41 a.m. departure of Malaysian Air Flight 370. Liau, 42, wished Hou and his companions well. “Good luck,” he said.
At 7 a.m., 30 minutes after the plane was scheduled to land, Liau’s phone rang. An artist told Liau there was a “problem.” The plane hadn’t arrived. Evasive responses Liau said he got from Malaysian Air prompted him to think the worst.
“Hou was my best friend,” Liau recalled days later. “I was in shock. I said, ‘Can this be real?’ ”
Almost two weeks later, Liau is still seeking answers to what happened to the Malaysian Airline System Bhd. flight that vanished without a trace. It’s become the longest disappearance of a passenger-airline flight in modern aviation, as friends and relatives of the 239 people on board try to make sense of conflicting information, false leads and fanciful theories.
Australian authorities yesterday said planes scouring the southern Indian Ocean 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) southwest of Perth switched to a visual search after radar scans came up empty. News that at least two objects had been spotted by satellite in an area known for rough seas had kindled optimism of a breakthrough.
As the search stretched into its 14th day, Malaysia’s Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said yesterday: “This is going to be a long haul.”
What’s known for certain is that the Boeing Co. 777-200ER took off 12:41 a.m. March 8 and climbed to a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, heading northeast.
The final words from the cockpit came at 1:19 a.m. as the plane left Malaysian airspace, heading across the Gulf of Thailand toward Vietnam. “All right, good night,” one of the two men in the cockpit, believed to be First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid, told air-traffic controllers.
At the same time, the jet made a 15-degree turn to the right over one minute to point it toward the next navigation point in its flight plan, tracking the heading other planes on that route had followed in recent days.
Those were the last indications of a normal flight.
Flight 370 disappeared from civilian radar at 1:21:03 a.m. local time, 85 miles north of the Malaysian city of Kuala Terengganu, as the plane’s transponder, which emits information about its location, altitude and heading, went dark. The Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System, or ACARS, which sends text and data to the ground, blanked out. It failed to operate as scheduled at 1:37 a.m.
What happened next remains a mystery. Malaysian authorities have entertained many possibilities, including hijacking, technical failure, pilot suicide and terrorism.
Izzat Nazli, whose uncle Wan Swaid Wan Ismail was a crew member, first learned from his sister that the plane had gone missing when he woke up March 8. He switched on the television news and saw his uncle’s name.
“Everyone is shocked,” he wrote in a March 12 Facebook message to Bloomberg News. “My mum was in the kitchen and she doesn’t know her brother is on the plane. My mum was crying and can’t believe what happened.”
The first clue to Flight 370’s possible fate was a 12-mile-long oil slick spotted by a Vietnamese navy plane between Thailand and Malaysia. It turned out to be marine fuel.
The discovery a day later that two Iranian nationals were traveling on passports stolen from citizens of Austria and Italy spurred speculation that terrorists hijacked the plane. The two men, captured on video going through immigration, were later identified as Delavar Seyed Mohammad Reza, 29, and Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad, 19, who had onward tickets to Europe. Interpol Secretary General Ron Noble told reporters March 11 it was unlikely they had any terrorist connections.
As information dripped out in briefings by Malaysian officials who sometimes contradicted themselves, and later through leaks to the media from U.S. investigators called in to assist, it emerged that Flight 370 had followed anything other than a routine flight path after the last conversations with air-traffic control.
First, it emerged that military radar had tracked the plane to the other side of Peninsular Malaysia, hundreds of miles off course, by 2:15 a.m. on March 8. A week after the plane vanished, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak confirmed reports that Flight 370 emitted pulse-like signals to a satellite for about seven hours after last making voice contact, shifting the focus of the search over an arc extending from Kazakhstan to the southern Indian Ocean.
The movements of the plane were “consistent with deliberate action by someone on the plane,” Najib said.
Engineers at Inmarsat Plc calculated that the jet flew at cruising speed for the full seven hours, Chris McLaughlin, a spokesman for the London-based satellite provider, said in an interview. That would rule out that Flight 370 landed on an island or crashed after a fire, while not explaining why the plane flew so long or what happened to it.
Police searched the homes of Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and Fariq, renewing questions about the junior pilot’s judgment and attention to security requirements.
Photographs from a previous flight showed him posing with two South African women in the cockpit. One told Channel Nine television in Australia that Fariq smoked on the flight deck and let them remain there during takeoff and landing during a one-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur from the Thai island of Phuket.
At the home of Zaharie, who has logged 18,365 flying hours, investigators confiscated a flight simulator he’d created. The data log was cleared on Feb. 3, Malaysia’s police chief said, as forensics experts from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation were asked to help retrieve it.
Zaharie, 52, was as passionate about politics as aviation. He expressed support on YouTube and in Facebook postings for the opposition People’s Justice Party, whose leader, Anwar Ibrahim, was sentenced by a Malaysian court to five years in jail after a 2012 acquittal of a sodomy charge was overturned. Anwar was sentenced hours before Flight 370 took off.
Whoever flew the jet after it was diverted would have needed extensive knowledge of the 777’s flight systems to understand how to disable all of the plane’s communications systems.
The hunt shifted focus several times with the search area growing to as much as 2.24 million square nautical miles (7.68 million square kilometers).
An extensive search involving ships and aircraft from several nations initially focused on the area beneath the jet’s original flight path in the South China Sea. Phu Quoc, a holiday isle off Vietnam’s west coast best known for pepper farming, fish sauce and pristine beaches, was transformed into the command center for the air and sea search off its coast in the early stages of the hunt.
Vietnamese fisherman Tran Van Binh heeded a call from the government for help. The boat he was working on pushed further out into the azure waters of the Gulf of Thailand to search for signs of debris while fishing. He returned with little hope that search vessels would find any trace of the plane.
“You can’t see anything clearly out there,” said Binh, a 43-year-old mechanic on the two-story aqua-green vessel that returned to Phu Quoc island in darkness on March 12 after five days at sea. “Even if you see something, you will easily lose track of it because of the waves.”
The twists and turns in the investigation have taken relatives and friends of those aboard the flight through cycles of disbelief, hope, despair, frustration and anger.
Relatives have camped out in the Grand Ballroom on the second floor of the Metropark Lido Hotel, just off the Airport Expressway in eastern Beijing.
On the evening of March 11 a scuffle broke out at the entrance to the room as an old man shouted “Malaysian Airlines are liars.”
Shi Xianlai was among those grasping for any scrap of news. His 27-year-old cousin, Shi Xianwen, was returning home from a business trip in Perth, via Kuala Lumpur. Shi recalled when reports came in on March 10 saying that Vietnamese helicopters had sighted an object resembling a life raft.
“Suddenly one of the next-of-kin jumped up holding her cellphone, he said, sitting in a cafe in the hotel’s lobby. ‘‘She said, ‘Part of the aircraft wreckage has been found.’’’
Hours later, Vietnam’s civil aviation authority identified the object as a moss-covered cable covering. ‘‘Fake news,’’ Shi recalled, describing one of many moments of disappointment.
While Malaysia has set up a temporary center for passengers’ immediate relatives, Shi said his patience was wearing thin. ‘‘They say they are looking for the aircraft, but what have they found?’’ he said. ‘‘That’s why we families are very angry.’’
Criticism of the official handling of the search grew louder as concrete clues proved scarce. China, which had more than 150 nationals on board, repeatedly called on Malaysia to step up the search and release more accurate information.
The first indication the plane was still aloft after seemingly vanishing surfaced on March 11, when a Malaysian newspaper reported that the nation’s military had radar data showing the aircraft reached the Strait of Malacca.
That led Malaysian authorities to consider the possibility that the plane deviated from its planned route, and may have attempted an ‘‘air turn-back,’’ Malaysian Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein later said.
Then the most likely location of the last satellite transmission was traced to the Indian Ocean in a zone about 1,000 miles west of Perth, according to a person familiar with the analysis. That was far from where searches had been taking place and would mean the plane may have flown as many as 3,000 miles, about the maximum distance it could have gone with its fuel load.
In the absence of facts, the plane’s disappearance spawned wide and sometimes wild speculation about what happened, from being landed in the Maldives to catching fire or being shot down. Social-media users opined on everything from a Sept. 11-style hijacking to alien abduction to the possibility the plane was obliterated by a meteor.
On March 16, Strobe Talbott, a former U.S. deputy secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, posted on Twitter: ‘‘Malaysian #370 as hijack: 1 of many theories. Speculation: hijackers headed toward India but crashed like UA#93 on 9/11.’’
For relatives of passengers who have seen many leads come to nothing, the disclosure about the possible wreckage off Australia was greeted with skepticism.
In Kuala Lumpur, Liau, who follows news on the Internet and on CNN, said he hoped the objects weren’t from the plane.
‘‘I am waiting for the result,’’ he said by phone. ‘‘I hope there is a chance they can survive.’’
In China, Shi gave up waiting at the Lido hotel to return to his home in Henan province.
‘‘I won’t believe the news until it’s confirmed,” he said by phone March 20. “I still hope the airplane has been hijacked and my cousin is still alive.”