For 12 days they waited for news — and finally, a scrap arrived. Families of the mostly Chinese passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 have spent almost two weeks camped out at a hotel in Beijing, desperate for any information about the fate of their loved ones.
On Thursday, Australia offered them some. It announced that debris that may—or may not—be related to the aircraft had been spotted: satellite images showed two large objects bobbing in the Indian Ocean some 2,500 km southwest of Perth. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott called it “the first tangible breakthrough in what has been an utterly baffling mystery.”
The world sat up, and some media outlets described the grainy satellite images as a sign of hope. But not for the families of the passengers, who have been gathered for the last 13 days at Beijing’s Metropark Lido Hotel, and the Everly Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, living in an emotionally draining limbo.
They didn’t want to be confronted with evidence of a crash. They had been told that communications on the plane were cut by human agency and that the plane had performed a mysterious U-turn over the Malay Peninsula. They were told it could be a terror plot. Then, perhaps, a hijacking. Every day the story changed—an onboard fire, a pilot suicide—but the families clung to the idea of human involvement, because a hijacking offered the most hope of their loved ones still being alive and held hostage in some secret location.
“All I can say is I’m sure they are still alive,” Sarah Bajc, whose partner Philip Wood was on the plane, told TIME on March 17. “I am absolutely convinced.”
A search is now underway. A sea and air convoy from 12 countries has set out to locate the debris spotted by satellite. It includes 25 aircraft, 6 helicopters, 19 ships and at least one commercial vessel, a Norwegian cargo ship. The multinational team will be working in rough seas in a vast area measuring some 2,400 km sq.
But even so, doubts are starting to creep in. Perhaps the objects are simply two of the 10,000 odd shipping containers that are lost each year, staying float for up to six months, imperiling yachts around the globe. (At 24 m, or 80 ft. long, at least one chunk of debris would seem far too big for this, but it could be some other kind of flotsam.)
Bad weather is also hampering search operations. Thursday’s shoppy conditions were described as “extremely bad” by the pilot of the first Australian Air Force Orion on the scene. The forecast for the next 36 hours is better, but rain and strong winds are expected thereafter.
And the weather is just one of the challenges. Because of fuel capacity, each search aircraft only has two hours search time before needing to return to land. Even if the crash site can be positively identified, the waters currently being surveyed are two to three kilometers deep—the length of up to eight Empire State Buildings. Add in the muffling roar of a tempestuous ocean, and the task of locating a briefcase sized flight recorder becomes even more arduous. Its signal battery only has 15-odd days left to run.
Locator beacons are being dropped in the ocean, but on Friday the Malaysian authorities complained that more were desperately needed. Even if the flight recorder is discovered—and it took two years to find the device from Air France 447, which crashed into the Atlantic in 2009 killing all onboard—it may not hold all the answers. Only two hours of cockpit conversation are recorded, meaning much of what transpired on this mysterious flight may remain locked in mystery.
For the families, therefore, the agony goes on. After a four-hour briefing in Beijing on Friday morning, red-eyed and exhausted relatives shuffled out, heads down, through a pack of journalists, past camera crews, and satellite trucks, toward the same café where they have eaten for 13 days. On the wall outside the smoky hotel ballroom, someone posted a poem. “Our only wish is your safe return,” a line read.
After days of constantly changing theories and explanations, that wish—a tired one now—remains the only constant.
—With reporting from Chengcheng Jiang and Gu Yongqiang / Beijing