A Vanished Jetliner Still Haunts Families Of The Missing

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Sarah Bajc's partner, Philip Wood, disappeared along with Flight MH370. "The issuance of the death certificate is an emotional thing," she says, "because we're not convinced that they're dead." (AFP/Getty Images)
Sarah Bajc's partner, Philip Wood, disappeared along with Flight MH370. "The issuance of the death certificate is an emotional thing," she says, "because we're not convinced that they're dead." (AFP/Getty Images)

In the first months after her partner disappeared, says Sarah Bajc, she still felt his presence.

"For a long time I felt him with me — I mean really physically felt him with me," she says.

"I feel that less frequently now."

Bajc's partner, Philip Wood, was one of 239 people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 when it vanished on March 8. The plane was on a routine trip from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing when it suddenly dropped off the radar screens of air traffic controllers.

Investigators believe the plane made a series of turns before eventually crashing in the remote, southern Indian Ocean. They've been scanning the sea for months but, so far, no trace of the wreckage has been found.

In late March, search aircraft crisscrossed the Indian Ocean looking for wreckage. But no sign of the missing aircraft was ever found.
In late March, search aircraft crisscrossed the Indian Ocean looking for wreckage. But no sign of the missing aircraft was ever found.

That has left families in limbo. "We really don't know anything different than what we knew on March 8," Bajc says. "Not for sure, we don't."

Without the physical finality of wreckage, Bajc says many families don't want to complete paperwork that would normally follow the death of a loved one. And that's leading to a different sort of crisis.

"The reality is that there are some of the families that are in desperate need of the financial closure on things like insurance," Bajc says. "But the issuance of the death certificate is an emotional thing, because we're not convinced that they're dead."

The Disappearance

Bajc and Wood met in 2011 when they were both living in Beijing. Two years later, they decided to move to Kuala Lumpur. In January, the couple found an apartment together there. Bajc returned to Beijing to wrap up their life in China, and Wood was to follow in March to help finish packing. He was flying back to her on MH370.

Investigators believe the wreckage of the aircraft may be somewhere along this vast crescent of ocean. So far, the search has come up empty.
Investigators believe the wreckage of the aircraft may be somewhere along this vast crescent of ocean. So far, the search has come up empty.

"The movers had arrived at 9 o'clock on March 8," Bajc says. "And of course Philip wasn't there, and I had just learned the news that the flight had gone missing."

The movers left her standing amid the boxes. The plane's mysterious disappearance left her stranded between her old life and the new one she'd been planning with Wood.

"Somewhere along the line in those first weeks, I made the decision that I would still come here," she says.

Today, she lives in Kuala Lumpur, in the apartment she and Wood picked out together. She's started a new job teaching at an international school.

But a big part of Bajc's life is still spent trying to understand what happened to her partner. She and other people whose loved ones disappeared on the lost plane are still searching for answers. They've hired their own private investigator.

"I spend a couple of hours on the weekends, maybe an hour or so each evening, continuing to talk to experts in the industry," Bajc says. "I speak with them; I talk to the other family members."

Like many of these families, Bajc has lost faith in the work of Malaysian investigators. She says her mistrust stems from the first days after the crash, when she received confusing, sometimes contradictory statements from authorities.

Bajc says her breaking point came one night in late March, when she received a text message from the airline saying it had definitive proof the plane had gone down and all lives were lost.

Bajc broke down that night. But in the days that followed, the plane's wreckage never turned up. Today she no longer believes the official account that, for reasons still obscure, the passenger airliner must have crashed, with no survivors.

"There is not a single thing that they have said that has been proven to be true," she says. "There are many, many, many things that they have said that have proven to be false, and/or outright lies."

An Empty Search

The head of Malaysia's investigation team did not respond to an NPR email requesting an interview. But Martin Dolan, the head of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which is assisting in the search for the plane, says he stands by the official account.

"There are a lot of people who are asserting that information is being concealed or distorted," Dolan says. "We don't believe that's the case."

He says his agency has independently reviewed all the data from radar and satellites, and they support the official account.

But that account remains improbable. Flight MH370 reported no problems in the minutes leading up to its disappearance. Thought it appears to have lost all communications during a brief window when it was somewhere between the jurisdictions of Malaysian and Vietnamese air traffic controllers, military radar shows the plane was still controllable at that point. It made a series of turns that led it back over Malaysia, and then south toward the remote reaches of the Indian Ocean. It flew for hours, according to satellite data, then ran out of fuel and crashed.

Dolan acknowledges the evidence is fragmentary: blips on military radar; brief pings from an orbiting satellite.

"If you're looking for the solution of the mystery of what happened to someone you very much love, that's not a satisfactory thing," he says. "The only way we can give that satisfaction is by finding the aircraft."

The ATSB has contracted with search vessels that are equipped with side-scan sonar to look for the plane. Even now, they are inching their way across a crescent of ocean the size of West Virginia. So far, they have found no sign of the plane, though it is likely to take until next May before they're able to cover the whole search area.

For now, Bajc holds out hope that Wood might somehow still be alive. "There is still a chance," she says. "And until that's disproven, I will continue to search for him."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

By far the biggest mystery of 2014 was the disappearance of a commercial airplane with 239 people onboard. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was on a routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible) To Beijing (unintelligible) for departure.

CORNISH: Everything seemed normal for the first 40 minutes. And as it left Malaysian airspace...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Goodnight, Malaysian 370.

CORNISH: Goodnight, Malaysian 370, the final words heard from the plane. Minutes later, it vanished from radar screens. And still, no trace of wreckage has been found. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has this story of has happened since to a woman whose partner was aboard that flight.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Sarah Bajc and Philip Wood were in the process of moving from Beijing to Kuala Lumpur. Wood has started a new job there. He was flying back to Beijing on Flight 370 to help finish packing.

SARAH BAJC: The movers arrived at 9 o'clock on March 8. And of course, Philip wasn't there. And I had just learned the news that the flight had gone missing.

BRUMFIEL: The movers turned around and left Bajc standing among the boxes. The plane's mysterious disappearance left her stranded between her old life and the new one she'd been planning with Wood.

BAJC: So somewhere along the line in those first weeks, I made the decision I would still come here.

BRUMFIEL: Today, she lives in Kuala Lumpur in the apartment she and Wood picked out together. She started a new job teaching at an international school.

BAJC: I go to work. I go out socially on occasion. I've developed some nice friends.

BRUMFIEL: But a big part of Bajc's life is still spent trying to understand what happened to her partner. She and other people whose loved ones disappeared on the plane are still searching for answers.

BAJC: I spend a couple hours, you know, on the weekends, maybe an hour or so each evening, continuing to talk to experts in the industry. You know, we've hired a private investigator. I speak with them. I talk to the other family members.

BRUMFIEL: She says she and the other families went through an emotional storm in the first month after the crash. Every twist and turn in the search was being reported on 24-hour cable news. It was like watching a real-time thriller.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Satellites capture more images of debris floating in the Indian Ocean. But the question remains, is it from the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370?

BAJC: Every time there was a new sighting of debris, you know, you have this incredible new burst of adrenaline of what might be. And, you know, then, of course, another crashing as it's all disproven over and over and over again. So that was awful.

BRUMFIEL: The ups and downs were made worse by confusing and sometimes contradictory statements from Malaysian investigators. Bajc says her breaking point came one night in late March.

BAJC: And a text message came in on my phone.

BRUMFIEL: It was from the airline. And it said they now knew everyone on board was dead.

BAJC: Irrefutably, the plane has gone down on the southern Indian Ocean, and all lives were lost.

BRUMFIEL: Bajc broke down that night. But in the days that followed, the plane's wreckage never turned up. Today, she no longer believes the investigators.

BAJC: There has not been a single thing that they had said that has been proven to be true. There have been many, many, many things that they have said that have proven to be false and/or outright lies.

BRUMFIEL: The head of Malaysia's investigation team did not respond to an NPR email request for an interview. But Australian investigator Martin Dolan says he stands by the official account.

MARTIN DOLAN: There's a lot of people who are asserting that information is being concealed or distorted. We don't believe that's the case.

BRUMFIEL: Dolan heads the Australian transportation safety bureau, which is aiding in the search for the missing plane. He says his agency has independently reviewed all data from radar and satellites. And this is what it shows. After Flight 370 vanished, the plane made a series of unexpected turns that led it south to the remote reaches of the Indian Ocean. It flew for hours, then ran out of fuel and crashed. But Dolan acknowledges the evidence is fragmentary, blips on a military radar, brief pings from an orbiting satellite.

DOLAN: And so if you're looking for a solution to the mystery of what has happened to someone you very much love, that's not a satisfactory thing, and we understand that. And the only way we can give that satisfaction is by finding the aircraft.

BRUMFIEL: Without the finality of the wreckage, Sarah Bajc says many families are in limbo. They don't want to complete paperwork that would normally follow the death of a loved one, and that's leading to a different sort of crisis.

BAJC: The reality is there are some of the families that are in desperate need of the financial closure on things like insurance and they need something in order to be able to collect on policies. I mean, you've got women who were left with children and no career. And they need help, so something's going to have to break. But the issuance of a death certificate is an emotional thing because we're not convinced that they're dead.

BRUMFIEL: When Philip Wood first disappeared, Bajc still felt his presence.

BAJC: For a long time, I still felt him with me. I mean, really physically felt him with me. That lasted for months. It lasted even through moving here. I feel that less frequently now.

BRUMFIEL: But Bajc says without wreckage, she can't give up on the possibility he's somehow alive.

BAJC: There is still a chance. And until that's disproven, I will continue to search for him.

BRUMFIEL: Meanwhile, in the southern Indian Ocean, two sonar-equipped search vessels are inching their way across the open sea. They're scanning the bottom for debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.