TIME Asia

As Hope Disappears, Families of Missing Jet Passengers Crave Answers

A family member of one of the passengers aboard a missing plane is consoled by a crisis counselor at a hotel in Putrjaya, outside Kuala Lumpur, on March 9, 2014.
A family member of one of the passengers aboard a missing plane is consoled by a crisis counselor at a hotel in Putrjaya, outside Kuala Lumpur, on March 9, 2014. Joshua Paul—NurPhoto/Corbis

More than 60 hours after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 vanished with 239 people on board, no trace of the airplane has yet been found

“Have hope,” reads the sign Joseph Koh brought to Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Sunday. Made in haste to support families of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, there was little else he could think to say.

More than two days after the Boeing 777-200 disappeared from the screens of air-traffic controllers over Southeast Asia, precious few hard facts have emerged about its fate. “Everyone’s waiting for crucial answers,” said Koh’s friend Joelin Lim, who joined for the 50-minute drive to the terminal. “This is such a hard situation for the families.”

Unlike most other bereaved relatives lodged at the Everly Putrajaya hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Selamat Omar takes some time to talk to the gathered horde of journalists.

“The authorities have treated us really well,” says the 60-year-old. “They give us food, a place to stay and counseling. They update us with any news.”

Selamat’s son, aircraft engineer Mohd. Khairul Amri Selamat, 27, was one of the 239 people aboard the plane on his way to Beijing for work. By now the sense of loss has already sunk in. “My only hope now is to see my son, in any condition,” he says. “I just want to find out what happened.”

The vast search-and-rescue operation expanded on Monday to involve 34 aircraft and 40 vessels from nine countries. A late-Sunday sighting in Vietnam of an object suspiciously similar to the inner part of a jetliner door arose hopes, but those were quashed by Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation, at a press conference on Monday.

“It has now gone 60 hours and unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, we haven’t found anything that appears to be an object from the aircraft, let alone the aircraft,” Azharuddin said. “Our hearts go out to the next of kin of the passengers.”

Two oil slicks discovered on Saturday were considered a possible clue to the airplane’s whereabouts, but those too have turned out to be a dead end. A Malaysian official said Monday that the oil slicks were not from Flight MA 370.

Authorities have no other option but to scan the ocean, unable to exclude any theory as to what happened. “The Prime Minister used the word perplexing and we’re equally puzzled,” said Azharuddin. “We need parts of the aircraft to analyze, to do a forensics study.”

Other than the South China Sea, the search continues in the Strait of Malacca, working on the assumption that the aircraft may have attempted to turn back to Kuala Lumpur. Despite the lack of any distress signal, theories of a possible hijacking cannot be discounted. Rumors surrounding the two passengers traveling on stolen passports were further stoked late Sunday, when Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told national news agency Bernama that an internal probe would be launched into how fraudulent documents were used to board the plane.

The International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol, confirmed that the two passports were recorded in its database as lost or stolen. The tickets were bought from China Southern Airlines — operating a code share with Malaysia Airlines — in local currency at Thailand’s resort town of Pattaya the day before the flight, reports the Associated Press. (Both documents had earlier been reported stolen in Thailand.)

The route — from Kuala Lumpur to Amsterdam via Beijing, and then the Italian passport on to Copenhagen and the Austrian passport on to Frankfurt — has also raised eyebrows. Security analysts point to the lack of visa requirements for stopovers in the Chinese capital less than 72 hours as possibly holding significance.

Azharuddin said authorities were going through “all records” of the two men. Five passengers who were previously suspected since they never made the flight are no longer under investigation, however, as their baggage was unloaded before the plane took off.

“We’re looking at every angle and aspect, we will double-check, we will comb [the sea] so that we don’t miss anything,” Azharuddin said. “We are as eager as you to get answers.”

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