Vanished Malaysia Airlines flight leaves relatives with anger and phantom phone calls
First came the shock. Then, with each development that has emerged, they have careened between hope and despair. But by Monday, the predominant emotion was anger.
Gathered at a hotel in northeast Beijing, many still resented Malaysia Airlines for having sent no one to explain anything during the first 15 hours after the plane’s disappearance. They blamed the Chinese government for not even meeting with them until Monday, three days into the crisis.
More than 100 of them signed a petition demanding answers and government assistance. Representatives selected from the families brought their protests to the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing.
And Monday afternoon, when Malaysia Airlines officials returned for yet another briefing with little more to offer, some relatives threw water bottles at them in frustration. The question-and-answer session Monday eventually devolved into crying and shouted demands:
“All you have to say is empty talk!”
“Why have you waited until now to show up?”
A vice director from China’s civil aviation air safety center tried to assuage the crowd.
“I am the same as everyone in that I haven’t slept for two days,” the official said. “We are still searching. There is no evidence to show the plane has had an accident.”
Another official reassured the families that they had read their petition. “Your concern is our concern.”
Beginning Saturday night, the families were kept in a conference area of the Lido Hotel in Beijing, sectioned off from a media scrum outside, where officials could address them out of journalists’ earshot.
Over the weekend, Malaysia Airlines had sent professionals to counsel and support the families.
The Chinese government, apparently anticipating anger, had also sent police and hotel staff to keep order.
On Sunday at 3 a.m., before Malaysia Airlines officials had their first meeting with the families, police entered first and tried to calm them down. Police also removed the chairs for fear that they might be thrown at the officials. But the move backfired, sparking anger over elderly relatives who were forced to stand.
When officials finally addressed the crowd, they had almost no details to offer.
“If you can’t tell us anything, what are you doing here!” shouted some.
In the absence of information, the hotel became a place of rampant rumor.
There were conspiracy theories and morbid calculation of survival odds, which grew ever darker as the days dragged on.
One of the most eerie rumors came after a few relatives said they were able to call the cellphones of their loved ones or find them on a Chinese instant messenger service called QQ that indicated that their phones were still somehow online.
A migrant worker in the room said that several other workers from his company were on the plane, including his brother-in-law. Among them, the QQ accounts of three still showed that they were online, he said Sunday afternoon.
Adding to the mystery, other relatives in the room said that when they dialed some passengers’ numbers, they seemed to get ringing tones on the other side even though the calls were not picked up.
The phantom calls triggered a new level of desperation and anger for some. They tried repeatedly Sunday and Monday to ask airline and police officials about the ringing calls and QQ accounts. However unlikely it was, many thought the phones might still be on, and that if authorities just tracked them down, their relatives might be found. But they were largely ignored.
According to Singapore’s Strait Times, a Malaysia Airlines official, Hugh Dunleavy, told families that the company had tried calling mobile phones of crew members as well and that they had also rang. The company turned over those phone numbers to Chinese authorities.
Some of the anger ebbed Monday as Chinese officials and Malaysia Airlines began shepherding relatives through the process of getting passports and visas to travel to Kuala Lumpur and to await word of the airplane.
Finally given something to do, many families busied themselves with paperwork and trips to the Malaysian Embassy and Chinese passport offices.
But by late afternoon, many were debating whether to board a flight early Tuesday morning or wait in Beijing for further news.
For the small group holding out hope over the online QQ accounts of their loved ones, evening brought yet another crushing blow.
One man said he had convinced two policemen to come to his home Sunday night to witness the active QQ account on his desktop computer. But sometime Monday afternoon, when he wasn’t paying attention, it had suddenly switched off.
Like so many involved, he was now left with even more questions left unanswered. Did the phone’s battery run out? Had sea water damaged it? Was it just a random anomaly of some Internet server? Or was the plane hijacked and still out there somewhere?
“I hope someone can answer these questions for me,” he said.