“Where is Patrick?”
Jacquita Gonzales could hear the urgency in the caller’s voice when asked about her husband of 29 years. Patrick Gomes was an in-flight supervisor for Malaysia Airlines and one of its planes had disappeared. It was Saturday, March 8, 2014.
Almost a year later, it’s a question with no solid answers for the 52-year-old or anyone else. Nothing from Flight 370 has been recovered for 352 days, threatening to make it the first commercial jet ever to be lost without a trace. With no debris and no knowledge of what happened, distraught families are struggling for closure.
“There are huge holes, huge gaps in our lives,” said Gonzales, a daycare center teacher in Kuala Lumpur.
Angry at the whole search process and the lack of information coming through, families have formed self-help groups on social networks and also meet in Subang Jaya, outside Kuala Lumpur to talk in person. They yell and cry and debate the many conspiracy theories around MH370 -- it flew to Afghanistan; it was shot down by China; it caught fire. Mostly, they console each other.
Sarah Bajc, a 49 year-old American teacher, uses her knowledge of Mandarin to bring together Malaysian and Chinese relatives of those who died. She also set up a crowd-funded third-party investigation into the disappearance.
She’s still living in the Kuala Lumpur apartment she picked out with Philip Wood, a 51-year-old International Business Machines Corp. executive from Texas. He was on MH370 to pack up his home in Beijing before moving to Malaysia.
“I’ve never been to formal counseling, but I’ve stayed grounded through a strong family and dear trusted friends,” Bajc said. “I get through each day by focusing on what I can control. They have treated the investigation like a joke, and have been callous and malicious in their treatment of the families. The world should not accept their incompetent, irresponsible and selfish behavior.”
After 327 days of hunting for the plane, Malaysia’s civil aviation department on Jan. 29 finally declared Flight 370 an accident and all on board presumed dead. It was to help the families obtain assistance, including compensation. Malaysia’s government has taken the airline private, plans to cut jobs and has appointed a new chief executive to restructure the company.
“We have endeavored and pursued every credible lead and reviewed all available data,” Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of the department, said in a statement Jan. 29. The information “supports the conclusion that MH370 ended its flight in the southern Indian Ocean.”
Vanish without trace
Even after a multinational search of 4.6 million square kilometers of the Indian Ocean, or about one percent of the Earth’s surface area, the world is little closer to finding out what really happened to Flight 370 with 239 people on board. Investigators are still trying to figure out how one of the most sophisticated aircraft of modern aviation simply vanished without any trace.
“It’s really on an unprecedented scale. I can’t recall a search that’s been as difficult as this,” Ken Mathews, a former air accident investigator who’s worked with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board as well as its U.K and New Zealand peers, said by phone from Cairns, Australia. “Without anything specific to go on, it’s very difficult.”
Malaysian Airline System Bhd.’s Flight 370, with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board, vanished while on a routine commercial flight to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. The plane was deliberately steered off its course, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak has said.
Not one body
Boats, armed with sonars capable of spotting objects no bigger than a shoebox, haven’t found a single man-made item across 22,000 square kilometers of silt-covered seafloor - no seat cushion, life jacket, or any object that usually floats if a plane crashes on sea. The current phase of the investigation is likely to be completed in May, when sonar scanners will have examined an area of about 60,000 square kilometers that’s almost as large as West Virginia.
The searches not finding a single body only adds to the pain of those grieving.
Wanting to see the remains is important to convince the minds and achieve closure, according to Wallace Chan Chi-ho, who specializes in bereavement as an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Such behavior is common among people who’ve lost loved ones in disasters, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S., he said.
“It is difficult to make sense of the loss, especially when the dead bodies cannot be found. Seeing the dead bodies is part of the grieving process,” he said by e-mail. “Bereaved persons may often join together, as they can find mutual understanding. It is somehow difficult for others to understand them.”
Malaysia’s government pronouncing those on board as dead has only angered the families.
Relatives of Chinese passengers, who made up 153 of those on board, traveled to Kuala Lumpur to seek meetings with Malaysian authorities, according to the Facebook page of MH370 Families, a non-profit organization. Don’t give them a “death sentence” without hard evidence, says a Feb. 13 posting.
“So far, I cannot accept such a result, with little evidence provided to us,” Bai Jie, 23, whose mother was on board the missing flight, said by phone from Beijing Jan. 29. “They just quickly announced the result without enough communication with family members,” she said.
Wen Wancheng, 63, from Shandong province, arrived in Kuala Lumpur Feb. 12. He said about 40 relatives will be there in the city by Lunar New Year, traditionally a time when families get together for reunion. Feb. 19 was the first day of the Lunar New Year this year.
The timing of the announcement, just before the New Year, also hasn’t gone down well, he said.
“After the announcement, we family members cannot spend a good holiday as it made the sad sentiment even worse,” Wen said in a phone interview from Kuala Lumpur. They intend to stay in the city to continue their protest, Wen said.
Others are taking to social media. Gonzales and families of the nine other cabin crew members share a chatroom on messaging service Whatsapp Inc., where she’s nicknamed “boss” in reference to her late husband’s job.
“Sometimes we are up till 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., talking about our families,” she said. Chatting and meeting up with other relatives is a “form of therapy,” she said.
“In the early days, some of the MH370 families would meet when there were issues to settle, decisions to make about the government, about Malaysia Airlines,” she said. “But you know, everyone has to slowly get back to their lives, look after children. If anything, you need to do it for the children.”
Bajc, who also hasn’t resorted to any formal counseling, and has relied on family and close friends to go through the crisis, echoed the same sentiment.
“If I went back to the States I would have my family, but in Malaysia, I have the friendship and the support of the people who are in the same situation that I am in,” she said. “They say it’s socially acceptable to start dating again after a year of being a widow. But I don’t know where Philip has gone to. I can’t just move on like this. Philip needs to return, even if it is just his remains.”
In the 62 years since a De Havilland Comet flight from London to Johannesburg kicked off the modern passenger aviation industry, no scheduled commercial jet has ever disappeared without a trace.
Investigators tracked the aircraft to a remote stretch of the southern Indian Ocean based on a series of failed connections between the aircraft and an Inmarsat Plc satellite as it flew south before its fuel ran out about 2,500 kilometers southwest of Perth, Australia.
“People say it gets better, but nothing has changed for me when there are no answers,” said Grace Subathirai Nathan, 27, whose mother Anne Catherine Daisy, an executive with Axa Affin General Insurance, disappeared on the Malaysian flight.
“What I feel on March 8, I still feel it today,” she said. “I try to carry on with life but I have not moved on in life. Sometimes I find myself crying on the way to work and on the way back.”