‘Numb, sad, angry’ -- families absorb news about Malaysia Air Flight 370
Calvin Shim had waited 17 months for news about his wife, so he stayed awake well past midnight Thursday to hear the announcement that had come to seem inevitable: The wing flap that washed up on a remote Indian Ocean island came from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Shim’s wife, Christine Tan, was the lead flight attendant aboard the plane that vanished after taking off from Kuala Lumpur last year. She had worked for the airline for more than two decades.
In the morning, Shim told their 9-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter the news. They took it “OK,” he said. Since the wing part was found last week, he had let them watch the news, figuring it was best they learn about it at home instead of at school.
“My eldest was sad and wished the aircraft part was found way sooner,” Shim said. “He asked if his mother would still be alive now. I posed the question right back to him to let him understand the chances of that.”
The predawn announcement by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak offered the first hint of closure to many family members of the 239 passengers and crew members. For more than 500 days, the families have pleaded for answers about the jet, which disappeared en route to Beijing on March 8, 2014.
Yet U.S., French, Chinese and other investigators looking into the incident did not immediately confirm Malaysia’s finding, deepening the anger and confusion for many family members of the missing. French prosecutor Serge Mackowiak would say only that there was “a very strong presumption” that the flaperon — the wing part found last week, which is being examined at a defense laboratory in southern France — was from the Malaysian plane.
The discrepancy was a painful rerun of the initial days after the plane’s disappearance, when Malaysian authorities were widely criticized for a clumsy and disorganized response.
Some relatives questioned how the Boeing 777 part could have ended up on Reunion, a flyspeck French island in the southern Indian Ocean, 3,800 miles from the plane’s last known location.
“Some still believe the conspiracy theories,” said Shim, a businessman in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital. “Some were numb, sad, angry. Some just don’t know what to feel. A lot has happened in our lives as we try to deal with the tragedy.”
A Malaysian recovery team on Reunion collected an aircraft window and several other plane parts Thursday, Transportation Minister Liow Tiong Lai said, although there was no confirmation as to whether they belonged to Flight 370. Liow said the new debris was sent to the French authorities who are leading the investigation.
Even with the first sign of the plane, investigators are a long way from learning what caused it to go missing and where it may have crashed. Those findings may come only from locating the fuselage in a massive search area that has grown even wider with the recent discovery.
Lokman Mustafa, whose sister Suhaili was aboard the flight, said his family was saddened by the announcement but would not be satisfied until the fuselage is recovered.
“I have always believed that the aircraft ended in the sea,” he said. “I just hope that more parts of the aircraft are found soon, not more bottles of mineral water or torn luggage.”
After Najib’s announcement, Malaysia Airlines said it had spoken with family members of the passengers and crew members of Flight 370.
“We extend our deepest sympathies to those affected,” the airline said in a statement. “This is indeed a major breakthrough for us in resolving the disappearance of MH370.”
In China, about a dozen relatives of Chinese passengers protested outside the Malaysia Airlines offices in Beijing, complaining about the way Malaysian authorities handled the announcement and holding signs with messages such as “Malaysia hides the truth.” After several hours, the group was invited into a closed-door talk with airline officials.
Later, about 2 p.m., a group of about 20 family members went to the offices of Boeing in Beijing and demanded that the company give them a technical briefing on the debris found.
Writing on the Chinese social media site Weibo, families of Flight 370 passengers and crew said the announcement did not resolve their questions.
“Families are prepared for any eventuality,” read one post. “But … the French and Boeing must say it is from MH370 without a doubt. We are not living in denial … but we owe it to our [loved] ones not to declare them lost without 100% certainty!”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement, “We request that the Malaysian side earnestly implement its relevant commitments, continue to investigate the cause of the plane crash … and earnestly safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the families of the passengers.”
All but a few families refused Malaysia Airlines’ advance offer of $50,000 in compensation last year. Lawyers have said many families are unwilling to pursue compensation claims because the investigation is incomplete and they have not received the bodies of their loved ones.
Intan Maizura Othman, whose husband, Hazrin Hasnan, was a crew member on board, said she was “numb” at the news.
“I have accepted that my husband will never return, but I believe that Malaysia Airlines and the government still owe us an explanation on what really happened,” Othman said.
“I just cannot believe that with all the high-tech gadgets and vessels that were deployed, they still failed to trace the aircraft. And now after more than a year, suddenly a part … ended up on a small island thousands of miles away from the search area.”
Lokman Mustafa said his questions persisted.
“MH370 is not just an issue that affects the families of the people on board,” he said. “It is the biggest mystery in the aviation industry … I think everyone wants to know what really happened to the aircraft. I want to know.”
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in Kuala Lumpur for this week’s meeting of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, expressed sympathy with the families of the crash victims.
“With the discovery of the flap on Reunion Island, all the wounds have been opened again, all of the sorrow is felt even more intensely, and there are no words to express adequately our sense of loss and our sense of heartbreak to the families of the victims,” he said.
Mustafa is a special correspondent. Staff writer Julie Makinen contributed to this report from Beijing.
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