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Families of Missing Jet Passengers Vent Ire at Backtracking Officials

6 minute read

The last words Malaysian air traffic control heard from the cockpit of Flight MH370 were “All right, good night.” Around 400 Chinese relatives of passengers on the doomed flight heard this news from Malaysian government officials in Beijing on Wednesday morning.

They had been hoping for considerably more. The hunt for the missing Boeing 777-200, now in its fifth day, remains a helter-skelter of contrary evidence. Wreckage has been spotted, oil slicks tested, a mumbled radio communication here and glimpse on military radar there, but nothing more than elaborate theories abound.

And the culmination of myriad claims and counterclaims means that Malaysian authorities were forced to admit Wednesday that they did not know where the plane was or in which direction it was heading when it disappeared.

“We once again request and urge the Malaysia side to enhance and strengthen rescue and searching efforts,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in Beijing.

At the outset, Malaysian authorities were praised for their compassionate handling of relatives of the 239 passengers and crew — compared with near-riotous scenes in Beijing (around two-thirds of passengers were Chinese), where officials suffered abuse and a hurled water bottle as distraught families pleaded for information.

Increasingly, however, fingers have been pointed at the Southeast Asian nation. The scene at the Metropark Lido Hotel on Wednesday was a fraught affair as one representative of the families expressed anger at “delayed and opaque” rescue efforts and others demanded an apology.

When asked if military-grade radar had picked up the plane, a Chinese speaking Malaysian official replied that “now is not the time” to reveal what information had been received, according to the Straits Times, prompting incredulous shrieks from the families present.

And so with minimal hard evidence, conspiracy theories are gaining steam. Some suggest the plane may have disintegrated and the sudden loss of oxygen rendered both passengers and crew unconscious. Investigators were apparently looking for any suspicious life insurance payments from among the passenger manifest. Could the pilot have committed suicide by flying it straight down into the sea?

An Australian TV station reported that the first officer on the missing plane, Fariq Abdul Hamid, two years previously had invited two women into his cockpit for a flight from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur. “Throughout the entire flight, they were talking to us and they were actually smoking throughout the flight,” said Jonti Roos, who described her experience on A Current Affair, prompting theories about a possible hijacking.

Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar says that hijacking, sabotage and psychological issues are all being investigated. But, needless to say, the credibility of the Malaysians authorities has been seriously undermined by all these contradictions.

“We have to say, the information Malaysia released to the public is very chaotic,” China’s state-run Global Times wrote in an editorial Wednesday. “Is the Malaysia military hiding anything on purpose?”

Amid the uncertainty, here are four striking contradictions:

1. Missing passengers: Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) director-general Azharuddin Abdul Rahman initially claimed that five passengers who had checked in did not actually board the flight. However, on Tuesday, Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar refuted these claims in a press conference. “Only one person missed the flight, and it was a lady,” he said. “She had called Malaysia Airlines to cancel the ticket because she had mistaken the date.”

2. Stolen passports: Late on Sunday, Malaysia’s Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, criticized border officials who let though two passengers on stolen passports. “I am still perturbed. Can’t these immigration officials think? Italian and Austrian but with Asian faces,” he said, as quoted by state news agency Bernama. However, the matter was hardly cleared up by Azharuddin. When prompted by reporters to describe the two men, he replied: “Do you know a footballer by the name of Balotelli?” referring to the AC Milan striker of Ghanaian heritage. (He later claimed to be making a reference to how facial characteristics are irrespective of nationality.) It now appears that both the stolen passport users were asylum-seekers from Iran.

3. Last location: Flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur at 12:41 a.m. on Saturday, bound for Beijing. Contact with Malaysian authorities was lost about 40 minutes into the flight at around 35,000 ft over the Gulf of Thailand. Vietnamese air traffic control says the plane never entered its airspace. On Tuesday, Air-force chief General Rodzali Daud said a military base near the Strait of Malacca had detected the aircraft at 2.40 a.m. near Pulau Perak, several hundred miles north of Kuala Lumpur. “After that, the signal from the plane was lost,” he told a local newspaper. But then Tengku Sariffuddin Tengku Ahmad, a spokesman for the prime minister’s office, said in a telephone interview that senior military officials denied there was any evidence the plane had crossed to the west of the Malaysian peninsula. “As far as they know, except for the air turnback, there is no new development,” he said, adding that the reported remarks by the air force chief were “not true.” Rodzali has himself distanced himself from his earlier remarks.

4: Where to search: Azharuddin on Sunday indicated that the search was to be expanded to Malaysia’s west coast, based on the assumption the plane could have turned back. At least 40 ships and 34 aircraft from 10 different countries have joined the effort. But many now seem confused. Indonesia air force Colonel Umar Fathur said on Wednesday that official information from Malaysian authorities was that the plane was above the South China Sea, about 10 nautical miles from Kota Bharu, when it turned back toward the busy shipping strait and vanished. On Tuesday, Vietnam Transport Deputy Minister Pham Quy Tieu told reporters on Phu Quoc Island, where his nation’s operations were being coordinated, that his forces would widen their search to include mountainous and forest areas. But then on Wednesday, he admitted: “We’ve decided to temporarily suspend some search and rescue activities, pending information from Malaysia.” Later that afternoon, there were reports that the search was back on.

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Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com