NEW YORK/BEIJING/PERTH, AUSTRALIA – Over an extraordinary 17 days and nights, until the moment Malaysia’s prime minister stepped to a lectern to deliver investigators’ sobering new findings, the fate of vanished Flight MH370 hung on morbid conjecture and fragile hope.
Many previous tragedies have transfixed us by revealing their power in cruel detail. But the disappearance of the Beijing-bound Boeing 777 without warning or explanation captivated imaginations around the world in no small part because of the near vacuum of firm information or solid leads.
Nothing solid, that is, until late Monday night, when Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that an analysis of the plane’s last-known signals to a satellite showed that it went down somewhere in the desolate waters of the southern Indian Ocean — and that all on board perished.
It was a turning point of sorts in one of the most perplexing mysteries of modern times. Najib’s statement offered some resolution — the plane has surely crashed — but little else. No one has found the plane, or the passengers, or the answer to why all this happened in the first place. And solving those riddles involves a search that looms dauntingly across a vast expanse of unforgiving ocean.
Lack of facts
The puzzle of Flight MH370 has been complicated by a frustrating lack of hard facts since it vanished on a night flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8. Who could say what might have happened in the cockpit or the cabin — or who or what was responsible? Who knew where the plane had gone — up or down, north or south — or what had become of its 239 passengers and crew?
Hungry for answers, officials and investigators, relatives and reporters focused their questions fruitlessly on the two Iranian passengers who boarded the plane with stolen passports; then on the oil slicks in the Gulf of Thailand; then on the rumors that a Uighur passenger might have harbored anti-Chinese motives; then on the pilot’s home flight simulator.
The reluctance of Malaysian officials to reveal what they knew and sometimes to offer conflicting information only seemed to feed the doubts, even after many of the nefarious scenarios suggested early on were dismissed. And with limited evidence and not even a bit of confirmed wreckage, everyone from experts on aviation and terrorism to armchair travelers was left to speculate.
Abundance of theories
It may have been hard to take rocker Courtney Love seriously when she posted a photo on Facebook showing an oil slick off the coast of Malaysia and suggested that it revealed the location of the missing plane.
But when a fake news story showed up online supposedly quoting Sarah Palin as saying she believed the plane had flown directly to heaven, its plausibility hinged not on the former Alaska governor, but on the fact that just about anybody seemed to have an opinion on the flight’s fate.
That’s probably because most people felt connected to it and, therefore, invested in it. As Australia’s opposition leader Bill Shorten put it, “There is something about a plane disappearing which links all the citizens of the globe. These people who disappeared on this flight could be any of us.”
While many of the theories presented were well-informed speculation based on deep experience and thoughtful analysis, they all had one flaw or another, and could not dispel the void. With so little to go on, families of those aboard grasped at the clouds of uncertainty, which allowed them to maintain a sense, however shaky, that the plane might possibly be found intact, their relatives found alive.
“Dearest love, I hope you are able to get some rest where you are, and that they are feeding you,” Sarah Bajc wrote last week in a Facebook post to her boyfriend, Philip Wood, a native of Texas who was on board. “Any chance they include a glass of wine with dinner?”
It was one of a heartbreaking string of love notes she sent out into the electronic ether, as she clung to the hope that her partner was still alive. A few days later: “Hi baby, It has been a lazy Sunday here. I cannot imagine what you must be going through.” Later still: “Good morning baby, how are you holding up? I’m doing my best to bring you hope and courage to continue the fight.”
And fight the families did — for any scrap of information that might reveal their loved ones’ fate. Gut-wrenching grief, frustration and, eventually, rage bubbled over among some of the family members, who accused the Malaysian government of withholding information. Before a news briefing in Kuala Lumpur, two Chinese relatives of passengers held up a banner demanding the truth.
“I want to see my son!” one of the women cried, before being carried away by security as she wept and screamed.
And then, at last, came a break — or, at least, what seemed like one. On March 20, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott stunned the world when he stood up during what had been a routine session of parliament, slipped on his glasses and began to read from a statement:
“New and credible information has come to light in relation to the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean,” he began. “The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has received information based on satellite imagery of objects possibly related to the search.”
The objects — two blurry, whitish blobs captured in a satellite image — were located in a patch of the Indian Ocean, near absolutely nothing. The closest major body of land was Australia’s west coast, 2,500 km away.
The hunt was on in earnest. Military planes from Australia, the U.S. and New Zealand had already been searching the area and more planes from China and Japan were sent to help, while an Australian Navy supply ship, the HMAS Success, scoured the waters, some of the roughest and remotest in the world.
More potential clues began popping up: A civil aircraft taking part in the search Saturday spotted several small objects floating in the water, including a wooden pallet surrounded by straps. Could it have been from the aircraft?
Malaysia Airlines confirmed the flight did, indeed, have wooden pallets on board. But pallets are also commonly used in the shipping industry. A New Zealand military aircraft tried to find the objects for closer inspection, but found only clumps of seaweed.
The sense that searchers were getting close grew when more satellite data emerged; China announced it had captured a large object within the search zone on one of its satellites, and France said it had satellite data that may have identified debris from the missing plane.
More objects of potential interest were spotted by the search planes crisscrossing the skies: a gray or green circular object and an orange rectangular object. A white, square object glimpsed through a break in the clouds.
The U.S. sent a Towed Pinger Locator to the region in case a debris field was found, in the hopes it could locate the plane’s so-called black box. An Australian Navy support vessel, the Ocean Shield, equipped with acoustic detection equipment, was also moving into the search zone.
But except for analysts’ fresh conclusion based on satellite data that the flight had gone down, there are still no hard answers. And finding the jet remains far from a certainty.
Search planes have been flying out of Australia for a week, looking without any success for objects spotted in vague satellite images. On Thursday, search operations for possible debris from the downed plane were suspended due to bad weather, Australian officials said, after the latest satellite images revealed 122 objects floating in the turbulent Indian Ocean.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority said all planes that headed for the search area in the southern Indian Ocean earlier Thursday were now returning to Perth. Ships, too, were leaving the area about 2,500 km southwest of Perth that was buffeted by heavy rains and strong winds that brought low clouds and reduced visibility.
For Bajc, the woman who has all along refused to give up hope that her boyfriend is still alive, Malaysia’s fatalist announcement offered little resolution.
“I need closure to be certain but cannot keep on with public efforts against all odds,” she wrote in an email. “I STILL feel his presence, so perhaps it was his soul all along.”