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On the first anniversary of flight MH370’s disappearance, the Malaysian government’s report into its fate offers a wealth of data but nothing to explain to the families of the missing what happened. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Report offers little hope for families of MH370 victims

Catherine Gang, whose husband was onboard flight MH370, at a gathering outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing.
Credit: REUTERS / Kim Kyung Hoon

“Goodnight, Malaysian Three Seven Zero,” was the routine signoff one year ago, as the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 left one airspace and flew into what Prime Minister Tony Abbott characterised this week as one of history’s greatest aviation mysteries. One year ago that the families of the passengers and crew were crushed by the cruel unknowingness. One year ago that immodest speculation strained the credibility of cable news, and an unreasonably large search area strained the international recovery operation. 

And… nothing. No luggage, oil slick, floating seat covers. No acoustic pings. No definitive eyewitness accounts. And now, after a nearly 600-page report released by the Malaysian government this week, not much else. Comprising the document are exhaustive maintenance histories, maps of electronic circuits and details of the cargo consignments. The latter includes 4500 kilograms of mangosteen, 2200 kilograms of books and 200 kilograms of lithium ion batteries – the Malaysian government has since banned the transport of such batteries by plane, but doesn’t believe they contributed to the missing craft.

We learn that the “empty” weight of the plane was 139,000 kilograms and added to that was 50,000 kilograms of fuel – enough for the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and two hours of reserves. We learn that the combined passenger and cargo weight was within prescribed limits, but that the batteries on the underwater locator beacon fixed to the flight data recorder expired in 2012. 

Reading the report, journalists faced a swell of information but no stories. As the search area had yielded nothing, so too the report, and scribes pounced upon the dead locator beacon battery. But it is likely meaningless, as we also learn that – as with most aircraft – there were two black boxes: one containing flight data, the other the cockpit voice recorder. On the latter, the batteries are presumed to be still functional. And so we also learned that the ghosts of the cockpit have their voices embalmed in a six-kilogram box that can endure deep-sea pressure up to 20,000 feet and fire temperatures of up to 1100 degrees centigrade. We just have little idea where it is. 

Perhaps most interesting about the report were the granular, if prosaic, portraits of the crew. In the early weave of speculation, suspicion fell upon the pilot, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah. Perhaps a failing marriage induced a murderous funk? Perhaps the flight simulator found at his home indicated clandestine preparation for a terrorist mission? The report indicates both are unlikely, but it cannot be conclusive. Conclusiveness seems to be the province of the black boxes. 

The report notes that Shah was 53 and married with three children. That he began flying in 1981 and reached the rank of captain in 1998. When he sat behind MH370’s yoke and eased the nose up from the runway, he had amassed more than 18,000 flight hours. In 2007 he suffered a paragliding accident, smashing his second lumbar vertebra. He was in hospital for a week, but six months later was deemed fit to fly. As far as the report could tell, he only took an occasional analgesic for pain. There was no chronic pain.

Authorities, with the help of families, studied CCTV footage of Shah and his co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid. There are myriad cameras in airports, and they went through months of tape capturing them entering screening points and chatting in lounges. They watched their gait, facial expressions and interactions with others. With the aid of their intimates, they sought to detect a deviation from their behavioural norm. They couldn’t. “There was no known history of apathy, anxiety, or irritability,” the report states. “There were no significant changes in [Shah’s] lifestyle, interpersonal conflict or family stresses. There were no behavioural signs of social isolation, change in habits or interest, self-neglect, drug or alcohol abuse of the captain, first officer and the cabin crew.” 

Meanwhile, their emails and bank accounts were being forensically audited, but with the same result. Nothing. 

It is imagined that either nihilistic despair or terrorist plotting would leave some trace. Something. 

Rather than comfort bereaved families with its thoroughness, the report has pressed their cynicism. The 584 pages – navigable only with patience and its long glossary – are a heavy proof of regulatory awareness. Yet it adds, rather that subtracts, from many families’ incredulity. Not only do we live in a vastly surveilled time, they might say, but a highly regulated and technical one. How can you map weather, know the mechanical history of tiny plane components and interpret satellite data with incredible algorithms and not tell me where the mother of my children is? How is it possible to amass so much information and possess so little knowledge? 

“It’s just taking a lot of people’s emotion on a big merry-go-round. It’s a bit cruel,” said one family member, believing the Malaysian government is suppressing information. For many families, their loved ones are unmournable – strung someplace between living and dead.

Clinging to hope

“Hope springs eternal,” wrote Alexander Pope, “in the human breast.” It’s one of the most popularly looted lines in literature, grabbed from its context, intent and attribution. We have long forgotten all of that. The line is contained in Pope’s “An Essay on Man”, his variation on Milton’s attempt to “vindicate God’s way to man”. Caught between animals and gods, man has the vanity to demand – but not the intelligence to possess – the answers to a violent and inscrutable world. But it is not necessarily for us to know, wrote Pope, rather we ought to trust in a divine architecture while striving for self-knowledge and improvement anyway. 

Modern psychology has its own formulations on our burning need to interpret the tragic and mysterious. As it does about grief and how it is enlarged by irresolution. For these families, Pope’s eternal hope becomes an awful thing. “Now and then, every once in a while I call his phone and it goes to voicemail,” the wife of one of the missing passengers said this week. “You never know, he might pick it up, or someone who has them would let them have the phone. And you know, the hope is still there.”

There is a family I know. Ten years ago their young daughter was murdered. The who and how was established swiftly – the why never was. They were told the news one morning, and that evening sat benumbed on their patio with a detective assigned as their keeper. They drank. They smoked. They wept. And then the father would speak and try again. “Are you sure it’s her?” And then he would try to trap the detective into an admission that they’d got it wrong. He would restate her comments, gnawing at them, trying to find logical weaknesses. He would argue that the police investigation was faulty. The detective was accustomed to such disbelief. She knew her role was to gently, repeatedly disabuse them of their hope. 

The family thought the suspension of their pain might come from an admission of police error. The detective knew that there was no such suspension, only palliatives, and she drove them to the nearest hospital for hard sedatives. And as she drove, she knew that despite her experience and sworn powers the greatest palliative couldn’t be prescribed. Time. 

They returned to their home. The detective suggested the two boys take their half of the pill. The father, trembling and nauseous, still desired for his boys the most gentle ingestion of the drug. He warmed some milk on the stove, then poured it into two glasses. He handed them to his sons, along with the pill. “Enough to knock a horse out,” the doctor had said. They swallowed and were shepherded to bed. 

“It’s your turn now,” the detective told the parents. But they didn’t want it. To be unconscious was to forfeit being told the police had got it all wrong. To be unconscious was to forfeit being able to will the news false with prayer. To want to be unconscious was to accept that there was something to escape from. 

And the detective intuitively knew all this. Knew all about the elaborate games of peekaboo that grief plays with the irreversible. Knew the tricks and sorrowful contortions of hope. Knew that in an anguished mind, hope springs eternal. She made them take their pill. 

Many families of those on MH370 don’t want to take their pill. The inconclusiveness of this report might not promise survival, but it doesn’t rule it out. Perhaps there’s a cover-up? Something rotten and vast, something against which their anguish might push. Because now, there is nothing. A sense of loss with nothing to define it. So a framework must be found. 

The family I know never got a reason. But they had a body. Later, they recognised that as something. The father made a box out of jarrah for his daughter’s ashes. The hardest thing he ever did. The mystery will always aggravate their grief, but possession of their daughter’s body was important. And that grand, implacable feature of time proved to be the best palliative. For there is no solution. 

But the families of those on the vanished flight have less, while the rest of us distantly indulge an ever declining interest in “one of history’s greatest aviation mysteries”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2015 as "Searching for hope". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.