Flight 370: Stories of That Final Day - 8NEWS - WRIC | News Where You Live

Flight 370: Stories of That Final Day

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- One morning, many stories.

The three women woke before sunrise that day, leaving their hotel while it was still dark and boarding a small plane in Katmandu, Nepal, for a look at Mount Everest. They were Chinese retirees, avid photographers ending a two-week tour of the Himalayan nation. Late that night, after a stopover in Kuala Lumpur, they would head home to Beijing.

The Indonesian couple woke up at home, a tidy two-story concrete-walled house down a small alley in the city of Medan. A taxi arrived a few hours later to take them to the airport, starting them on a journey to a long-anticipated vacation without their children, a trip to China to see the Great Wall and Beijing's Forbidden City.

In Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown, the artists and calligraphers headed down to breakfast about 8 a.m. Some had been celebrating the night before, downing shots of the powerful Chinese liquor called Xifengjiu at the end of almost a week exhibiting their work. But they gathered early in the hotel restaurant, ready for a day of sightseeing and shopping before the late-night flight back to Beijing.

And in Perth, in western Australia, the 39-year-old mechanical engineer woke up early in his red-roofed bungalow, leaving his wife and their two young boys for a 28-day mining job in Mongolia. Just before he headed to the airport, on his way to connecting flights in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, Paul Weeks gave his wife his wedding ring and watch for safekeeping. If anything happened to him, he said, he wanted the boys to have them someday. "Don't be stupid!" she told him.

It was Friday morning, March 7.

By that evening, they would all be together in a departure lounge in Kuala Lumpur's airport, with its granite floors and soaring ceilings and tiny plot of transplanted, living rainforest. And a little after midnight on March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took off for Beijing, carrying 239 people inside its meticulously engineered metal shell.

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We know only the broadest outlines of what happened next.

Soon after takeoff, Flight 370 disappeared. Its transponders had been switched off. Soon, the blip was gone from radars. This past week, after more than two weeks of searches across tens of thousands of square miles, Malaysia's prime minister announced that satellite data showed the plane's last known position to be in a remote corner of the Indian Ocean, far from its destination and far from any possible landing sites.

How it happened, and why, remains unclear. Perhaps it was a hijacking, perhaps pilot suicide, perhaps a catastrophic malfunction.

It had been a heavily Asian passenger list, reflecting both the locale of the flight and the changing face of the continent, home to a new generation of 21st-century people who form an emerging tourist and traveling class. Some of those aboard were heading home, others just making a quick stopover. Some were returning from their first trip abroad. For others, foot soldiers in Asia's growing economies, it was just one more connecting flight in a lifetime of connecting flights.

The people at airports, those who get dropped off, proceed through security and make their way to their gates, are usually right in the middle of the business of their lives. Much of what happens is not even memorable. But now, for many who knew the people aboard Flight 370, that last full day looms so large. Everyday details, now loaded with the ballast of hindsight, take on fresh weight.

But does it mean anything that Liu Rusheng, at 76 one of the oldest of the 19 Chinese artists and calligraphers, argued with his wife shortly before their plane took off? Does it mean anything that Zhao Zhaofang, known for her delicate paintings of peonies, bought Malaysian chocolates that afternoon to take home as a present?

Is it important that Paul Weeks told his wife that his wedding ring should go to the first of his sons to get married, or that Chandrika Sharma, an Indian social activist on her way to a conference in Mongolia, called her elderly mother just before the plane took off?

It's only in retrospect that what happened that Friday now seems anything more than prosaic, more than just another passing day.

"By the time we arrived at the (Katmandu) airport, the sun had already risen, so we flew over the mountains as we embraced the rising sun," said Wang Dongcheng, 65, a retired professor of Chinese literature who was on the Everest flight with the three women who would disappear with Flight 370. Most of those on the tour were retired Chinese academics. Only some had chosen to take the Everest tour. Many had been put off by the small plane or the $230 price tag. The three women, though, had carefully prepared, putting on bright clothing and scarves, ready for when the plane landed with Mount Everest in the background.

"They loved to be photographed, and they were dressed for photos," Wang said. "They were very beautiful."

Wang declined to reveal the full names of the women, but The Associated Press confirmed their identities independently.

One, 62-year-old Ding Ying, had been a happy, talkative presence throughout the tour, always telling jokes. Another, Chen Yun, said one of her Everest photos might be the best she had ever taken. Yang Xiaoming spoke about how much she'd learned in Nepal, and how she was thinking of going on an upcoming tour to England, Ireland and Iceland.

Plans for future trips, though, suddenly seem almost disrespectful. "I don't think anyone is in the mood to think about it now," Wang says.

Of the 23 people on the tour, he said nine walked onto the Malaysia Airlines flight when boarding was announced.

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In Medan, on the east coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island, Sugianto Lo had dreamed for years of a vacation alone with his wife, Vinny Chynthya Tio. But the couple - he was an electrical contractor, she a mechanical engineer - had had little time for vacations. They had worked their way onto the lower rungs of Indonesia's new middle class, and they had three children to send to college.

So when a friend gave them the gift of a trip to China, they were thrilled to accept.

"It was like a dream come true," said Santi Lo, Sugianto's younger sister, who with her mother is now caring for the children left behind. "They were so happy and excited to go."

Leaving turned out to be difficult. The couple, both 47, worried about their children, from whom they had never been separated, and called repeatedly from the airports in Medan and Kuala Lumpur. They worried their oldest, 17-year-old Antonio, might not come home before dark while they were gone, and they called and sent him text messages, reminding him of his responsibility to his younger brother and sister.

"They asked Antonio to be a good example to his siblings, and take care of them," Santi said, weeping.

For the 19 artists and calligraphers, the visit to Kuala Lumpur was their first trip to Malaysia. While the exhibition had gone well, many had suffered badly with the city's heat. So that Friday - a day spent largely in air-conditioned malls and the Petronas Twin Towers - was in many ways a respite. In the afternoon there was a stop at the Oz-like royal palace, where many took photos with the scarlet-clad cavalry guards.

They left early for the airport, since many had delicate artwork to pack, and they stopped at a Chinese restaurant not far away for a last meal in Malaysia. They chose a restaurant that served halal food to make things easier on the group's lone Muslim, who had rarely been able to eat with the larger contingent.

Liu, the elderly calligrapher, sang for the bus as they headed to the airport. Many clapped along. The mood was spirited. At the airport, though, Liu complained to his wife that she had done a poor job packing his paintings, said Xu Lipu, an artist on the trip who took a separate flight back to China.

"They were a little bit angry with each other," he said.

Xu, who had gone to the airport to drop off the travelers, said there were no heartfelt partings. And as with so many planes leaving so many airports on an increasingly connected planet, Flight 370 went on its way - another routine departure beginning a trip that would be anything but.

"We and the other artists did not really say goodbye," Xu said. "I went to the toilet and came back, and I didn't see the artists again."

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Sullivan reported from New Delhi, Ng from Kuala Lumpur. Associated Press writers Didi Tang, Gillian Wong and Ian Mader in Beijing, Fu Ting in Shanghai, Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Binaj Gurubacharya in Katmandu, Nepal, contributed to this report.

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© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE

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PERTH, Australia (AP) -- A day after the search for the Malaysian jetliner shifted to a new area of the Indian Ocean, ships on Saturday plucked objects from the sea to determine whether they were related to the missing jet. None were confirmed to be from the plane, leaving searchers with no sign of the jet three weeks after it disappeared.

Meanwhile, a Chinese military plane scanning part of the search zone, which is roughly the size of Poland, spotted several objects floating in the sea, including two bearing colors of the missing jet.

It was not immediately clear whether those objects were related to the investigation into what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing, and officials said the second day of searching in the new area ended with no evidence found of the jet.

Dozens of relatives of passengers on the missing plane were to fly from Beijing to Kuala Lumpur on Sunday to seek answers from Malaysia's government as to what happened to their loved ones. Two-thirds of the 229 passengers aboard Flight 370 were Chinese, and their relatives have expressed deep frustration with Malaysian authorities since the plane went missing.

Ships from China and Australia on Saturday scooped up items described only as "objects from the ocean," but none were "confirmed to be related" to Flight 370, said the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is overseeing the search.

A Chinese Ilyushin IL-76 plane spotted three floating objects, China's official Xinhua News Agency said, a day after several planes and ships combing the newly targeted area, which is closer to Australia than the previous search zone, saw several other objects.

The three objects spotted by the Chinese plane were white, red and orange in color, the Xinhua report said. The missing Boeing 777's exterior was red, white, blue and gray.

Investigators have been puzzled over what happened to Flight 370, with speculation ranging from equipment failure and a botched hijacking to terrorism or an act by one of the pilots.

The latter was fueled by reports that the pilot's home flight simulator had files deleted from it, but Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said checks, including one by the FBI, had turned up no new information.

"What I know is that there is nothing sinister from the simulators, but of course that will have to be confirmed by the chief of police," he said.

Newly analyzed satellite data shifted the search zone on Friday, raising expectations that searchers may be closer to getting physical evidence that the plane crashed into the Indian Ocean.

That would also help narrow the hunt for the wreckage and the plane's black boxes, which could contain clues to what caused the plane to be so far off-course.

The U.S. Navy has already sent equipment that can detect pings from the back boxes, and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters in Sydney that the equipment would be put on an Australian naval ship soon.

"It will be taken to the most prospective search area and if there is good reason to deploy it, it will be deployed," he said, without giving a time frame. Other officials have said it could take days for the ship - the Ocean Shield - to reach the search area.

The newly targeted zone is nearly 1,130 kilometers (700 miles) northeast of sites the searchers have crisscrossed for the past week. The redeployment came after analysts determined that the Boeing 777 may have been traveling faster than earlier estimates and would therefore have run out of fuel sooner.

The new search area is closer to the southwestern Australian city of Perth than the previous one, with a flying time of 2 1/2 hours each way, allowing for five hours of search time, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Malaysia Airlines' commercial director, Hugh Dunleavy, said in Beijing late Saturday that around 40 to 45 Chinese relatives of passengers on the missing plane would fly to Kuala Lumpur early Sunday morning.

Steve Wang, a representative of some of the Chinese families in Beijing, said the relatives wanted to go to Malaysia to seek more answers because they have been unsatisfied by the responses provided by Malaysian government representatives who have met them in China.

"We have demanded that we meet with the prime minister and the transportation minister," said Wang Chunjiang, whose younger brother, lawyer Wang Chunyong, was on Flight 370. "We have questions that we would like to ask them in person."

If investigators can determine that the plane went down in the newly targeted search zone - which spans about 319,000 square kilometers (123,000 square miles) - recovery of its flight data and cockpit voice recorders could be complicated.

Much of the sea floor in the area is about 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) below the surface, but depths may reach a maximum of up to 6,000 meters (19,685 feet).

The hunt for the plane focused first on the Gulf of Thailand, along the plane's planned path. But when radar data showed it had veered sharply west, the search moved to the Andaman Sea, off the western coast of Malaysia, before pivoting to the southern Indian Ocean, southwest of Australia.

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Wong reported from Kuala Lumpur. Associated Press writers Scott McDonald and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur; Kristen Gelineau in Sydney; Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia; Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand; and Aritz Parra and Didi Tang in Beijing contributed to this report.

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about our PRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

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