Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: Loved ones in China angry, frustrated

Lack of answers prompts petition for Beijing to step in

 
An upset relative of a passenger of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 approaching an official at a hotel in Putrajaya yesterday. A total of 239 people were on board when the plane disappeared over waters between Malaysia and Vietnam. A massive search operation has been under way for more than 40 hours. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

ANGER, anxiety and false hope filled a meeting room in a Beijing hotel yesterday where more than a hundred family members and loved ones of Flight MH370 passengers were gathered, wanting only one thing: answers.

Malaysia Airlines (MAS) had few, and when commercial director Hugh Dunleavy addressed the families in the afternoon with no new information, several people started shouting for him to "stop hiding the truth from us!"

One of them, a man in his 40s who gave his name only as Mr Zhang, collected signatures for a petition that he said would be given to the media. In addition to demanding the truth from MAS, the petition also asks the Chinese authorities to step in to represent the families. China has dispatched six rescue ships to help with the search, but no officials have intervened with the agonised families, say family members.

The petition was signed by about 100 people.

Mr Zhang's 56-year-old mother was on MH370, a Beijing- bound flight that has been missing since Saturday. A total of 239 people, including 153 Chinese nationals, were on board when it disappeared over waters between Malaysia and Vietnam, and a massive search operation has been under way for 40 hours.

A disturbing twist arose when the authorities confirmed that two passengers had boarded the plane with stolen passports. In the holding room of about 1,500 sq ft at Metropark Lido Hotel, rumours spread that as many as five passengers were using stolen passports.

"They are not updating us that it is a possible hijacking," said a white-haired man who gave his name as Mr Li. His daughter was on board. "This means a greater chance that they are alive."

Later, MAS spokesman Ignatius Ong told reporters that, regarding the stolen passports, the passenger list and the passports matched. That was why the passengers were allowed to board and there were no discrepancies, he said. But he did not want to comment on the stolen passports, saying this was something the Kuala Lumpur side would address.

His statement angered some Chinese journalists who shouted: "What about the appearance of the passengers? It's you who should do the security checks!"

In the holding room for families, the tension was exacerbated by claustrophobia, the lack of sufficient chairs, and the fact that of MAS' team of "special assistance" staff, some spoke no Mandarin and only rudimentary English.

Many family members lingered in the corridors smoking, but during Mr Dunleavy's two briefings, the room was packed and family members jostled and elbowed one another. They were in the room from before 9am until dinner time, and some did not want to leave although buses were waiting to take them back to their hotels.

Conflicting information also abounded as to whether the families could fly to Kuala Lumpur, and when. After first telling them that the visa processing procedure meant that the earliest they could go was tomorrow, MAS later said it would fly them out from today.

Hope was steadfast, despite the fact that MAS had been telling families to prepare for the worst since the search entered its 30th hour yesterday morning.

Several family members told Mr Dunleavy that passengers' mobile phones were ringing, although no one picked up. The connection should be used to get the Global Positioning System coordinates of the phones' locations, they said.

Mr Dunleavy said MAS was also trying the mobile phones of the crew members, and that they also rang. But it could not do more, he said, and had given the numbers to the Chinese authorities.

At one point, rumours and excitement spread that one passenger had called home, but Mr Dunleavy said this was likely a hoax.

Madam Nan, who declined to give her full name and whose husband works in Singapore and was on board the plane, caused a stir when she dialled through to her husband's mobile phone. Others present spoke to the person on the other end for her as the person could not understand her Shandong accent.

It turned out that she had entered the wrong country code and got through to a random Beijinger instead. Crestfallen, she and her six family members who had just arrived in Beijing yesterday said they were at their wits' end.

rchang@sph.com.sg

esthert@sph.com.sg