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Chapter Three
Controlling the chaos

MALAYSIA’S top leaders were at a strategy huddle in the Janda Baik highlands at the border of Pahang and Selangor on the Saturday morning of March 8.

They were discussing their gameplan for two upcoming by-elections in the country and other political matters. Prime Minister Najib Razak was chairing the session and the group included Defence and Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, his cousin.

An emergency message from the military top brass interrupted their meeting: A Malaysia Airlines plane was missing, enroute from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board.

Soon, more worrying updates arrived from the military, the national carrier and the Transport Ministry.

Hishammuddin hurriedly left the retreat for the Sama Sama Hotel, next to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang. Stricken-faced officials had been huddled in meetings since early morning. Hordes of journalists had by then also gathered there.


Flight MH370 has “lost contact”

Malaysia Airlines MH370 was scheduled to touch down at Beijing Capital International Airport at 6.30am on March 8, but there was no sign of it. Many of the relatives who were waiting for the passengers thought it was a routine plane delay. The arrival board, after all, read: Flight delayed.

But as the clock ticked away and officials at the airport had no answers to their queries, anxiety and unease grew.

Their worst fears were confirmed only at 7.24am. In a terse, four-paragraph statement, Malaysia Airlines broke its silence on what would turn out to be one of the world’s biggest aviation mysteries: MH370 was lost.

“Malaysia Airlines confirms that flight MH370 has lost contact with Subang Air Traffic Control at 2.40am, today (8 March 2014),” said the statement.

A map of a flight plan is seen on a computer screen during a meeting before a mission to look for MH370 at Phu Quoc Airport in Vietnam on March 10, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

As news spread, heart-wrenching scenes unfolded at the Beijing airport. Some relatives who had been waiting wept. Others were slumped in chairs, stunned by news that a huge aircraft like the Boeing 777 could vanish just like that.

Disbelief soon gave way to desperation and devastation. A distraught woman in her 30s shouted to journalists who had rushed to the airport: “All we have is a piece of paper saying the same things that you guys already know! We demand the Chinese government to send rescue teams immediately!”

At Majiazhuang village in Dingzhou, Hebei province, maize farmer Zhao Qingfeng, 65, was watching television while waiting for his grandson Zhao Peng to come home.

A newsflash on the screen caught his attention: Malaysia Airlines plane disappears on its way to Beijing. A dreadful thought crossed his mind: Is my grandson on this flight? Zhao Peng had finished his one-year contract as a construction worker in Singapore and was flying home that day.

In nearby Anjiazhuang village, the wife of Wang Yongqiang, another Singapore-based worker, also heard the news. She ran to a neighbour’s house, crying hysterically that the plane had disappeared. Within hours, she, her five-year old daughter and sick father-in-law made their way to Beijing.

Thousands of miles away in Kuala Lumpur, the family of MAS chief stewardess Goh Sock Lay, 45, received a call at 8am. “We had always feared about this moment but we never talked about it,” said her sister-in-law Choi Chew Heong.

Chasing false leads

CNN was among the first to break the news that MH370 had gone missing, at about 8.20am. Within seconds, every other media outlet around the world was rushing out stories on it.

Social media, too, went into overdrive. At around 10am, news started to circulate on Facebook that the plane had actually landed in Nanning, another city in China.

At 11.14am, MAS held its first news conference at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Flanked by officials including Malaysia’s aviation chief, a solemn-looking MAS chief executive officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya repeated that MH370 had lost contact with Subang Air Traffic Control at 2.40am.

The last contact with the plane was over the South China Sea area, he said. He added that MAS was trying to verify news that the aircraft had landed in Nanning. It later proved to be false.

In practically all plane mishaps, the crash site is known. But MH370 was no clear-cut airplane tragedy. Disturbingly, the plane — or its debris — could not be found.

Later that Saturday, a report quoted the Vietnamese navy as saying that the plane had crashed into the sea near Vietnam’s Tho Chu island. This was also dismissed by the airline after checks.

The world thought it was a step closer to tracking down the aircraft when news emerged that evening that a Vietnamese search team had spotted two oil slicks and column of smoke in the sea off southern Vietnam. Again, it turned out to be a false lead as tests later showed that the oil slicks were not from MH370.

In the days and weeks that followed, more speculation emerged, along with purported sightings of the plane by people from Malaysia, Indonesia and even the Maldives. Each time, distraught families saw a glimmer of hope, only to be devastated when the sightings turned out to be nought.


Confusion and contradictions

Adding to the confusion over the missing plane were the inconsistent and at times contradictory statements from the Malaysian authorities.

In the early days of the search, there was confusion with little known about the missing plane. Officials who suddenly found themselves thrust into the spotlight struggled to keep up with questions from the journalists who packed the press conferences.

Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s chief civil aviation regulator, made one notable stumble when he referred to Italian football star Mario Balotelli in explaining why Iranian passenger Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad had cleared Malaysia’s immigration using an Austrian passport with a Caucasian name.

“Do you know a footballer by the name of Bartoli (sic)? He’s an Italian. Do you know what he looks like? Balotelli,” he told reporters on March 10. He was forced to clarify later that he had used Balotelli as an example to point out that race and nationality are two different things. Balotelli was born in Italy to Ghanaian parents.

Hishammuddin, 52, the point man coordinating the search and chairing the regular media briefings, admitted it was physically exhausting and emotionally draining.

“I hardly sleep because of the time zone. Information comes from different time zones. Information in real time is a roller-coaster of sorts for me,” he later said. “Before I intend to sleep, someone says they found oil slicks, the next day, it turns out negative. Subsequently, when I want to retire to bed, they say a life jacket was found. When I wake up the following day, it is said the information is negative.”

A meeting room near the media centre in Sama Sama Hotel was converted into a crisis management centre where officials and experts gathered for meetings, usually chaired by Hishammuddin.

Hishammuddin Hussein delivers a statement on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 during a press conference at the Sama Sama Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (right), Hishammuddin Hussein (left) and military officials finalising a statement on MH370 on March 24, 2014. -- PHOTO: MALAYSIA PM PRESS OFFICE
Hishammuddin Hussein shows two maps with corridors of the last known possible location of MH370 as he addresses reporters at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on March 17, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Those within these hectic circles told The Straits Times that the first meeting was usually held at 9am and attended by technical experts. Meetings continued all day, with Hishammuddin chairing another five or so throughout the day. The meetings grew larger as more experts arrived from around the world to try to help solve the mystery of the missing plane.

Besides coordinating the search, the flow of information also had to be managed. Communications were managed by teams from the Prime Minister’s office, Hishammuddin’s office, MAS as well as communications specialists engaged for the crisis. Information was put out via social media including behind-the-scenes photographs, statements and televised broadcasts.

Hishammuddin himself had a four-person communications team which gave him regular updates. He updated his personal Twitter account while the official Twitter and Facebook were managed by two social media managers. The team also prepared the briefing package for the daily press conferences.

To stay focused, Hishammuddin kept only one mobile phone with him and did not carry a tablet. His phone was used only to receive updates, and rarely did he make phone calls.

An insider said they also worked on getting discipline and focus into the messages put out to keep all spokesmen consistent. Hishammuddin was also briefed to remain serious and to stay on the message. He and the others were strongly advised not to evade questions with a “No comment”, and preferably not to answer “I don’t know” without making the effort to find out the answer.

The situation improved somewhat after the chaotic first few days — but not enough to appease grieving family members, especially those from China, who were frustrated by the lack of progress as the search stretched into days, then weeks.