“We want proof, we want our families, we want the truth.”
— Chant of angry family members of Chinese passengers, at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on March 30, 2014
THE Metropark Lido Hotel in Beijing was once a gleaming symbol of China opening up to the world. Established in 1984 and nestled in a posh north-eastern suburb surrounded by international schools and American restaurants, it is one of the first expatriate, Western-operated hotels in the capital.
As China’s development sped ahead over the last three decades, its lustre has dimmed and its marble-and-mahogany trimmings, once the height of foreign luxe, now looked slightly dated.
But in March 2014, the four-star hotel became world-famous as ground zero of the tragedy of missing flight MH370.
It was the holding place for the 500 relatives of the 153 Chinese passengers onboard who streamed into Beijing from all over north-eastern China.
A neighbourhood security patrol cycles pass the Metropark Lido Hotel where relatives of Chinese passengers on MH370 are put up by Malaysia Airlines as the search continues for the missing plane. -- PHOTO: AFP
Relatives of passengers on MH370 leave after a meeting at the Metropark Lido Hotel in Beijing on March 25, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Relatives of passengers on MH370 console each other before a meeting with airline officials at the Metropark Lido Hotel in Beijing on March 20, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
The Chinese were the biggest group among the 239 people on board the KL-Beijing flight. Many of the passengers were Beijingers, but a good number hailed from the north-eastern provinces of Hebei, Shandong and Jiangsu. They would have taken train trips, some for up to 10 hours, to return home from Beijing’s airport.
Instead, their families made the train ride out to the capital in panic after the plane went missing on March 8. Most travelled light, not expecting that their stay would extend, as it did, to a month, and counting.
Malaysia Airlines booked out Lido Hotel and four other hotels nearby to house the family members. Each family is entitled to two hotel rooms, and MAS covers all three meals if they eat only at the hotels’ restaurants, which almost all do. In the first week of their stay, MAS also gave 31,000 yuan to each family as spending money.
The families’ main holding room is a ballroom on the hotel’s second floor. For much of March, its entrance was ringed by a pack of camera-wielding media who thrust microphones into every exiting relative’s face.
Inside, a cloud of cigarette smoke hangs over the door as mostly male relatives chain-smoke in an area to the right. A table is laid out with water, tea and coffee. The main ballroom has hundreds of chairs; at the back, a care station manned by volunteers from a Taiwanese Buddhist association has supplies of biscuits and kumquats.
In the first week, the ballroom was a humming hive of activity as MAS set up stations to help families process their passports and visas to travel to Malaysia.
In between angry meetings with Malaysian and Chinese officials that usually devolved into chaos, relatives took headshots at a makeshift photobooth, filled out paperwork, or sought legal advice from lawyers from the Bejing Legal Association.
But as the wait dragged on with no answers, the ballroom became emptier. In late March, about 50 families travelled to Kuala Lumpur. Some among those who live in Beijing have gone home, and some just stay in their hotel rooms.
Although their number has dwindled, the families have become more organised. A representative committee has sprung up, with a Weibo page, media spokesman, and professionally-printed T-shirts and banners.
They communicate through a WeChat group and show remarkable unity. A daily prayer time precedes each meeting with officials. The lights are dimmed, and at the front of the room, candles in the shape of a heart are lit. To a song whose lyrics say that “the world is full of beauty and hope,” pictures flash across the screen of messages that the families have written to their loved ones, missing for a month now.
“Come back, come back, come back,” they say.
What happened to the plane?
Intense speculation on what could have happened to the plane has added to the grief, anger and confusion.
In the initial days, speculation was rife that MH370 could have been the target of a terrorist attack after it emerged that two passengers had used stolen passports to board the plane. But it lost traction after it turned out that the duo from Iran were more likely to be illegal immigrants seeking a new life in Europe.
An Interpol panel shows a photograph of two Iranian passengers who boarded MH370 using fake European passports. -- PHOTO: AFP
Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, pilot of MH370, with his flight simulator. -- PHOTO: FACEBOOK
Attention then turned to the hijacking theory after Malaysia said it was looking into the possibility of foul play as evidence suggested the plane was deliberately flown hundreds of miles off course, with its communications system shut down.
MH370 pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid came under scrutiny. Revelation that the pilot had a flight simulator built in his home fuelled this theory.
Some were quick to jump in to offer explanations on how the plane could have flown for hours undetected by radar. MH370 could have hidden in the shadow of another aircraft, said one theory. Or it could have hugged the terrain in some areas that are mountainous to avoid radar detection, said another.
Others, however, jumped to the defence of the pilot and his first captain.
Experienced Canadian pilot Chris Goodfellow raised the possibility that a fire broke out on board MH370 and the pilot was trying to save the plane by making a sharp left turn to land on the Malaysian island of Langkawi. But the flight crew might have been overcome by smoke, and the aircraft continued flying on autopilot until it ran out of fuel, he said. Another possible scenario: The fire could have destroyed the control surfaces and the plane crashed.
Adding to the mix was Stanford computer science student Andrew Aude’s theory that a fuselage crack could have led to rapid decompression and damage to the structure of the aircraft. A slow decompression of the plane could have rendered all on board unconscious, hence no alert was raised, he reckoned. But almost as soon as a new theory surfaced, it was debunked as quickly by detractors.
“MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean”
At a dramatic news conference on Saturday, March 15, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that the plane appeared to have been flown deliberately onwards for hours, veering sharply off-route at roughly the same time that its communications system and transponder were manually switched off.
Automated satellite communications continued until 8.11am, he revealed, deepening the suspicion of foul play by someone in full control of the cockpit.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak at a press conference on March 24 where he announced that MH370 had ended its journey in the southern Indian Ocean. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Satellite data now placed the jet anywhere on one of two huge arcs — a northern one stretching into Central Asia and a southern one swooping deep into the Indian Ocean, he said.
The search in the South China Sea was called off.
With no conclusive word on the fate of MH370, the loved ones of passengers clung on to the hope, however slim, that the plane could have landed somewhere, somehow.
But on March 24, a Monday, reporters were told at about 9.15pm that Prime Minister Najib would be making an announcement at 10pm. In fact, the hastily-arranged press conference started a few minutes before the stated time.
Dressed in a dark suit and speaking slowly and clearly, Najib said that further analysis of satellite data showed the plane’s last position was in the middle of the Indian Ocean with no possible landing sites.
“It is therefore with deep sadness and regret that I must inform you that, according to this new data, flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean,” he said.
Najib’s statement offered little closure or consolation to the loved ones of the passengers. In fact, it opened further floodgates of anger and grief.
Prior to his announcement, the MAS had called or sent text messages to relatives informing them what Najib was going to say.
The text read: “Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none on board survived. As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia’s Prime Minister, we must now accept that all evidence suggests the plane went down.”
But that did little to prepare them for Najib’s announcement. Emotions erupted when he read out the prepared statement at the press conference which was beamed live to the relatives at Beijing’s Metropark Lido Hotel. Some cried hysterically and others smashed chairs. Some fainted and had to be carried away in stretchers. It was pandemonium.
“Why were they hiding the truth? Why did they not tell us everything earlier? Don’t they have children?” one man shouted. Another woman said: “The way they told us the news is too cruel... They should come out and talk to us... Malaysia is too cruel. Tell the world for us!”
Anguish quickly turned to anger.
How could they assume the plane had crashed when more than two weeks of search had failed to locate even a scrap of the plane, questioned the relatives. How dare they? We want to see real evidence, not some analysis on paper based on satellite data, they demanded.
The day after Najib’s announcement, hundreds of relatives in Beijing marched to the Malaysian Embassy and staged a protest there. Wearing identical T-shirts emblazoned with the words “MH370 come back safely”, they held placards that read “MAS, you owe us an explanation”, and chanted “Stop lying to us!” and “Return us our loved ones!”.
The consensus among the families was that there was a cover-up or conspiracy of some sort by the Malaysian government. Earlier in the day, they had issued a statement accusing the Malaysian government, its military and MAS of being the “real executioners” of their loved ones.
At the same time, the Chinese government also ramped up criticisms against Kuala Lumpur over its investigations into the incident. Tension over the missing plane was threatening to spill over to the diplomatic front.
Observers say the families reacted that way because of the unique psyche of the Chinese people who have a deep mistrust of their government. This helps explain why many relatives still believe that the Malaysian government is not coming clean on the missing plane. Many Chinese also believe in taking things into their own hands and also in the law of the jungle — only the fittest, as well as the loudest, wins.