By Tim Sullivan and Eileen Ng
The Associated Press
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — 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.
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.
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.”
By Tim Sullivan and Eileen Ng
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