By: Tim Sullivan and Eileen NG
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 Kathmandu, Nepal, for a look at the 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 two-storey house in the city of Medan. A taxi arrived 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, artists and calligraphers headed down to breakfast about 8 am. 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 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 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.
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It was Friday morning, March 7.
By that evening, they would all be together in a departure lounge in Kuala Lumpur’s airport. And a little after midnight on March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took off for Beijing, carrying 239 people.
Soon after takeoff, Flight 370 disappeared. Its transponders had been switched off. Soon, the blip was gone from radars. After 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 travelling 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.
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 (Kathmandu) 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. “They loved to be photographed, and they were dressed for photos,” Wang said. 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.
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. So when a friend gave them the gift of a trip to China, they were thrilled to accept. 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.
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 was in many ways a respite. 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.
Xu Lipu, an artist, who had gone to the airport to drop off the travellers, said there were no heartfelt partings. “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.”