And Then They Were Gone: What Life Has Been Like for the Women Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Left Behind
A year ago this month, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared without a trace en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, leaving the fate of the 239 people on board unknown. With a much-criticized investigation and conspiracy theories swirling, their loved ones had nowhere else to turn but to one another.
New bride Connie Liu, 27, had a busy day planned for Saturday, March 8, 2014. Her 33-year-old husband, John—she prefers to use his English name—was due to return home to Beijing from a short business trip overseas. The Chinese couple had married one week earlier but had not yet held their wedding reception. "We wanted to wait until John's work schedule quieted down so we could celebrate properly," Liu says. She had arranged for them to spend the day visiting the capital's upscale hotels to choose a venue. She awoke at 7:30 a.m. to make breakfast, expecting him at their two-bedroom apartment in the city's northeast Shunyi district at 8 a.m. "I was surprised he hadn't called or text messaged me to say his plane had landed," says Liu, a tiny-framed woman with a ponytail. "His cell phone was off, so I assumed his flight was delayed." At 8:30 a.m., a friend rang her. "She sounded worried and told me to turn on the television," Liu says.
Sitting in a Beijing café nine months later, Liu can't describe the next few hours without tears streaming down her cheeks. "I don't want to cry," she says. "I just can't stop it." She watched, paralyzed with terror, as Chinese state media reported breaking news that an overnight flight from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing was missing. According to a press statement by airline officials, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had vanished midair five hours earlier. They had no clue where the plane, or the 239 passengers and crew on board, were. "I tried so hard to convince myself it wasn't John's flight," Liu says. "But I knew it was."
Today, an icy afternoon in December, Liu is having coffee with two other women whose husbands were also on flight MH370. After months of searching that involved multiple countries and tens of millions of dollars, at press time, the Boeing 777 aircraft was still missing without a trace. The wait for news for the relatives of passengers—amid frenzied global speculation about the plane's fate—has been excruciating. Experiencing the same anxiety, Liu bonded with Zhen Li, 31, and Liping Cheng, 38, as well as other women whose partners were on the flight. "We've formed an unofficial wives' support group to exchange information and keep one another sane," says Liu, sipping a latte that has tiny Santa cookies floating in the froth.
The women met at the Metropark Lido Hotel, a four-star hotel in northeast Beijing not far from the airport. Airline authorities used the hotel as a base to update Chinese relatives about the investigation, and to provide accommodations for those who lived outside the capital, during the desperate first two months. "We saw one another every day at the Lido and started sharing stories about our lives and husbands," says Li, a pediatric doctor by training, whose husband of three years was on the plane. "We were all trapped in the same cycle of hope and despair waiting for news. Getting to know one another really helped."
The Beijing-based women meet up to discuss their situation whenever they can. They also stay in touch with about 20 other wives now scattered around the country using a private group on WeChat, a Chinese social media app. "We can't give up trying to find answers, and we feel like we are the only people who understand one another," says Cheng, a makeup artist for historical films. Cheng has two young sons with her husband, Kun Ju, a 32-year-old martial arts expert and entrepreneur, who was returning from business in Kuala Lumpur when the plane vanished.
The café's glass doors are covered with giant insulated drapes to keep out the Beijing chill. Wrapped in fur-trimmed jackets, the three women talk in low voices to avoid attracting unwanted listeners. "Many Chinese people are still obsessed with the missing plane, but to them, it's just [pullquote align='C']"Not knowing what happened to our loved ones is something we live with every second of every day."[/pullquote]something to gossip about," says Li, who first met her husband, an engineer at a Beijing-based software company, in elementary school. "To us, not knowing what has happened to our loved ones is something we live with every second of every day."
There were 12 crew members and 227 passengers on flight MH370 when it took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 12:41 local time that morning. Of the passengers, 154, or about two-thirds, were Chinese nationals. Some were migrant construction workers returning home from jobs overseas. Others were artists who had attended a calligraphy exhibition in Kuala Lumpur. There was also a couple with a toddler son from Beijing who had been on vacation to escape the city's infamous smog. But many were men like the husbands of Liu, Cheng, and Li: ambitious professionals who belonged to the new generation of upwardly mobile, corporate Chinese spawned by the nation's rapid economic growth. (There were a number of Chinese businesswomen on board, too, most of whom were unmarried.)
Liu and John were a typical young, urban couple. They met in 2008 through a mutual friend. Liu says she was instantly smitten by "the smart, kind-faced man" six years her senior. "I joked with my friend that he looked like good husband material," she says, smiling for the first time since our conversation began. (Liu cannot mention his Chinese name or his job because he was employed by a state-owned business. The international scrutiny caused by the missing flight has irritated the Chinese government, which still censors the media at home. Liu says the authorities have warned relatives not to discuss the matter publicly. She is also employed by the Chinese government and can't reveal her job, either, although she will say she works with children.)
The couple started dating, but for the first few years, their relationship was long distance. Liu was in college in her home province of Hebei, about four hours by train southwest of Beijing, where John was based. "He wanted to save up to buy an apartment before we got married," she says. In modern China, owning property is vital for a man to prove he's a worthy catch. Liu and John finally moved in together in September 2013. "We bought all the furniture together piece by piece as we could afford it," she says. Their biggest purchase was an ornate double bed that cost 30,000 yuan (about $4,800). The smallest was a thermal cooking pot that kept food warm. "John said when I got pregnant, he would use the pot to bring me a hot lunch at work," Liu says. At the end of February 2014, their home was finished and they were ready to tie the knot. "We went to the government bureau to get our marriage license on March 1, before John went away the next day," she says. "We didn't have a big celebration, only a regular dinner together, because we believed we'd have plenty of time later. We thought the happiest part of our lives was just beginning."
Seven days later, Liu saw the unimaginable news that John's return flight had disappeared. She rushed to the airport with a jacket thrown over her pajamas. The arrivals board that had earlier shown the status of MH370 as "Delayed" was now blank. Airport staff told her all the relatives of the passengers aboard the plane were gathering to wait for news at the Lido hotel. There, in a packed ballroom turned emergency center, it was pandemonium: People were crying hysterically, or shouting furiously at officials. Some had fainted; others were hitting their heads against the walls. "The noise was deafening, and the room was thick with cigarette fumes from men chain-smoking," Liu says.
The Malaysian and Chinese authorities tried to reassure families that they were doing all they could to find the plane. But the chaos escalated daily as reports flooded in about sightings of debris and oil slicks, about a possible terrorist plot as it emerged that two passengers were traveling on stolen passports, and about satellite data that could be related to the plane's whereabouts. "Most leads turned out to be wrong, or contradictory, or couldn't be proven," says Heather Xiao, 28, a Chinese journalist who managed to get rare access inside the Lido's ballroom (Chinese officials banned all media from entering the hotel). "It was very confusing and distressing for relatives." Airline staff made matters worse, she adds, by often turning up late to give updates on the search, or failing to show up at all. Buddhist volunteers set up a comfort corner offering tea, sausage-filled buns, and sympathy, but little could alleviate the tension. "The atmosphere was so fraught it was hard to breathe," Xiao says.
After the first week, officials still knew little more than they had the first morning: that the last pilot communication with air traffic control was at 1:19 a.m., about 40 minutes after takeoff. Around that time, the aircraft's onboard communication systems had apparently been disabled. Whether this was done deliberately or was due to mechanical failure, investigators couldn't say. Conspiracy theories thrived on Weibo, China's hyperactive version of Twitter that the government tries, but often fails, to control. "One of the most popular was that the plane had been abducted by the CIA and taken to a remote U.S. air base," says Cheng, the makeup artist, who has a short bob. "Another was that it had been hijacked by Afghanistan and had landed in a small village." As far-fetched as such ideas were, Cheng says, the women were prepared to believe almost anything if it meant their husbands might still be alive.
On March 24, just over two weeks after the flight vanished, officials made a shocking announcement. New satellite data revealed that the plane had veered far off course after it lost contact, they said, and the flight was believed to have "ended" in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Hearing their loved ones were most likely lost forever, some relatives became so distraught they had to be carried out of the hotel on stretchers. Others punched airline staff and attacked members of the Chinese media who were trying to push their way past the guards into the grief-stricken room.
Soon afterward, a massive search was launched to scour 2.24 million nautical square miles of seabed—an area four-fifths the size of the United States—in the southern section of the vast Indian Ocean. The operation continues today, yet no wreckage has been found. And, as the three women point out, neither has any firm evidence that the passengers have perished. "Until we have physical proof that our husbands are dead, we will not believe anything," says Li, the pediatrician, who has long hair and dark-rimmed glasses.
But proof has been elusive, and the flow of information from official sources has now slowed to a trickle. The briefings at the Lido stopped in May—by then, the authorities claimed there was not enough fresh information to impart on a daily basis—and were replaced with a one-room "support center" on an industrial estate in Beijing's northern outskirts. "We can go there to check if there are any new developments or to write out questions to submit to investigators," says Liu. "But it's very inconvenient, and we never receive replies from officials."
When updates do come, they're mostly published in English. "It takes them about a week to translate one paragraph into Chinese and send it to us," says Liu. If they hear from authorities directly, it's often in the form of a request that makes them even more suspicious. "Recently, officials asked for samples of all the relatives' DNA, including wives and girlfriends," says Cheng. "They told us they wanted to 'be prepared' in case bodies were found, but it makes no sense. As non-blood relatives, we don't share DNA with our husbands." Believing it to be a diversionary tactic, all the wives in their circle of friends refused the request.
Liu, Cheng, and Li also believe authorities are withholding information to avoid charges of liability or for other unknown reasons. They are particularly upset that officials will not release the airport security footage of passengers boarding the flight. "What reason can they have for refusing unless they are hiding something?" Cheng asks. "It's cruel. They could be the last images of our loved ones alive."
Their own government has not helped. Cheng says she was one of around 20 relatives arrested by Chinese police outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing last September for taking part in a public protest to demand more information about the missing flight. Though she was released without being charged, other family members of passengers have also accused Chinese police of arresting them, and even beating them, for staging protests on various occasions. "Our government does not want its diplomatic and trade relations with Malaysia to suffer because of the plane," Cheng explains.
The trauma of the past months has been immense. "On top of the heartache, there's an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness and frustration," Li says. All three women have had problems such as insomnia, weight loss, and skin rashes. Cheng says she has a panic attack if she calls someone whose cell phone is switched off. "If I hear the message, 'This person is currently unavailable,' my body starts to shake," she says. "I tried calling my husband hundreds of times when the plane disappeared, and those words bring it all back." The women's friendship helps. "We can reach one another 24 hours a day if we want to talk, and there's never any need to explain," says Li.
For Cheng, explaining her husband's absence to their two sons, ages 6 and nearly 3, has been one of the hardest parts. Cheng married Ju in 2008. They met on a movie set when Ju was working as a stuntman and she was doing the cast's makeup. "I had to change our older son's school because other kids were taunting him, saying his dad had fallen from the sky," she says. The younger one knows about the missing plane, too, but doesn't fully understand. "Whenever he sees a plane overhead, he says he's going to turn into Superman to rescue his father," she adds. The effort of staying cheerful for her sons takes its toll: "I often sob in the middle of the night because it's the only time I have to myself."
Cheng has had other problems, too. Last August, her husband's bank account was hacked, along with the accounts of three other missing passengers. The bank refused to give her access to the details because Ju has not been officially declared dead. It would reveal only that more than $30,000 had been stolen from all four accounts. "I have no idea how much of that was his money," she says. She had similar difficulty when she wanted to sell their car to raise funds for her family's living expenses. (Cheng hasn't worked since the plane was lost because she wanted to stay home with her sons.) "I was unable to sell it because the registration is in his name," she says. "And I couldn't get that changed without his signature."
Li, the quietest of the three women, has also had issues at home. She's been married to her elementary school classmate for three years, but her in-laws have turned against her. (Because of this, she does not want to mention her husband's full name). "Z and I jointly rent a three-bedroom flat in Beijing," she says. "His parents have been staying there since he went missing, and they want me to move out." She explains that her husband's software company is currently paying the rent because he was on a business trip when the plane was lost. Now his parents say it is "our son's apartment" and Li should leave. "Z was their only child, so I know they are out of their minds with grief at losing him," Li says. "But so am I."
Owing to China's one-child policy, which was implemented in 1980 to limit the birthrate, most of the 60 or so Chinese passengers under the age of 35 on the plane were their parents' only children. Li is an only child, too. "Z and I were very close because we grew up together without siblings," she says, adding that their home city is Zhengzhou in Henan province, eight hours by car southwest of Beijing. "In elementary school, he sometimes teased me and made me cry. But after we got married, he told my friend that he'd been in love with me from the first day of class." They started dating when they went to college in different cities and realized how much they missed each other. After their wedding, Li gave up her job as a pediatrician in Zhengzhou to join him in the capital, and she has not been able to find work as a doctor since. (In China, it's necessary to have connections to get a job in such a coveted profession.) "We were hoping to start our own family this year," she says.
Six months after the flight's disappearance, Li grew so depressed that her worried mother enlisted a psychiatrist to visit her at home. "I told the psychiatrist that I knew he was trying to make me feel better, but words couldn't help," she says. "I had nothing to say to him." Instead, she is dealing with her grief in her own way, she says, by taking piano lessons. Her husband loves listening to piano music—Bach and Chopin are his favorites—but he's never had a chance to learn the instrument. "I prefer Chinese and Western pop, but I'm learning to play the piano in case he ever comes back," she says, with a small smile. "He'd be so impressed."
The afternoon ends when Li has to leave for her weekly lesson. Liu and Cheng say good-bye to her outside the coffee shop, hunching their shoulders against the sudden rush of winter air. The two women then discuss plans to see each other again the following day. They have agreed to meet with a lawyer from an American firm who is interested in representing Chinese relatives in potential lawsuits (some families have already signed with various firms). All next of kin are eligible for a minimum compensation of approximately $170,000 from Malaysia Airlines under the rules of the Montreal Convention, the international treaty governing air carrier liability. Depending on where liability is proven to lie, eventual damages could be far higher.
Still, the women are unenthusiastic about their meeting. "It's just something we have to do to be responsible, but we are not ready for that fight yet," Cheng says with a sigh. Malaysia Airlines has offered families a partial payment of $50,000. The women have refused to accept it, believing that taking compensation at this stage will only encourage the authorities to stop looking for the plane. "Throwing money at us is not going to bring back our husbands. It's not going to give us answers," Liu says. "The only thing we want in the world is to know where our loved ones are."
Additional research by Kaijing Xiao. This article appears in the March 2015 issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands now.
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