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World News
Families Channel Grief Toward Search for Flight 370
From the Wall Street Journal of Mon, 22 Dec 2014 05:44:46 EST
In Kuala Lumpur, Sarah Bajc is still pushing to find out what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which left for Beijing more than nine months ago with her partner Philip Wood on board. Photo: Reuters.

KUALA LUMPUR— Sarah Bajc is holding on to her mementos of life with Philip Wood, an American executive who took off on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 more than nine months ago and never came home.

They include a gold-painted Agamemnon mask, adorned with a knit hat from Mr. Wood’s childhood, and a photo of the trim 51-year-old Texan on a trip in Thailand, shot in the low light of a mountain shrine where they once sheltered during a typhoon warning.

Now, Ms. Bajc rises early and has coffee alone on the balcony of the Malaysian apartment the two picked out in January. On a recent day, she scrolled through a spreadsheet with some 300 tips about the plane submitted by the public.

One was from a person claiming to have seen an object flaming in the sky the day Flight 370 disappeared. Another alleged there has been a coverup, with proof in a laptop in London.

“I haven’t grieved yet,” said Ms. Bajc, who says she is determined to find out what happened to her partner, a smiling man with salt-and-pepper hair and blue eyes. “I haven’t accepted that he’s dead.…I owe it to him to find out the truth.”

Sarah Bajc, with her cat Bourbon, lives in the Kuala Lumpur apartment she picked out with her partner, Philip Wood, who was on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Sarah Bajc, with her cat Bourbon, lives in the Kuala Lumpur apartment she picked out with her partner, Philip Wood, who was on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Te-Ping Chen/The Wall Street Journal

Since Flight 370, carrying 239 people, vanished on March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, its fate has remained a mystery. A costly search effort that mapped thousands of miles of ocean and involved some 100 days of scouring for debris has yielded nothing.

That has left the field open for family members, independent analysts and conspiracy theorists to pursue their own inquiries. It is also making it hard for people to let go.

I haven’t accepted that he’s dead…I owe it to him to find out the truth.

—Sarah Bajc

Like many with loved ones aboard the doomed flight, Ms. Bajc—a 49-year-old schoolteacher and divorced mother of three who was born in Utah—is deeply skeptical of the official investigation, which says Flight 370 crashed in the Indian Ocean after running out of fuel. With no debris yet found, she said she is confident the plane isn’t in the water.

Ms. Bajc isn’t alone in pushing for answers. One volunteer group has set up a website called The Hunt for 370 to gather clues. Another group of family members, Voice 370, has pushed for Malaysia to release more information on the plane’s cargo, which they hope might contain insights.

Philip Wood, seen in front of Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers in a photo provided by his family, was among the 239 people who went missing on Flight 370.
Philip Wood, seen in front of Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers in a photo provided by his family, was among the 239 people who went missing on Flight 370. Associated Press

Steve Wang, a Beijing IT salesman whose mother was on board, said he still thinks there might be survivors, and that many Chinese family members feel similarly.

The families remain in communication via groups on the social-messaging application WeChat . They also maintain a public account with news about the plane on Sina Weibo , a Chinese Twitter -like service. Its main image is a plane flying, with the words: “You come back soon.”

“I could accept [the plane] is missing, but I cannot accept it has crashed,” Mr. Wang said. “It is still just like a dream.”

Malay Mukherjee, whose son and Chinese daughter-in-law were aboard Flight 370, said he and his wife have been busy trying to care for their orphaned grandsons, ages 3 and 8, who now live with them in Mumbai.

Since losing his son, Mr. Malay, 67, has had to navigate a bureaucratic maze to assume guardianship over his grandchildren and obtain a death certificate, a process that required three trips to Chicago, where his son once lived.

“There are so many theories and it’s very difficult for laypeople like us to make any informed conjectures,” he said.

Robert Brotherton, a visiting research fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London who studies conspiracy theories, says it is normal for people to look for alternative explanations when there is an information vacuum.

But that doesn’t make them true.

“Conspiracy theories resonate nicely with our intuition: Something big and shocking happens, like a plane full of people disappearing,” he said, “and our brains are biased towards thinking it’s because of something big and intentional.”

Others are just hoping to help improve the odds the plane is found. The Independent Group, a collection of some 20 interested amateurs, aviation experts and scientists, has produced multiple reports offering its own analysis of data tracking the plane.

Conspiracy theories resonate nicely with our intuition: something big and shocking happens…and our brains are biased towards thinking it’s because of something big and intentional.

—Robert Brotherton

In October, the group felt vindicated when the search area designated by authorities off the coast of Australia was redirected into an area it had recommended.

Duncan Steel, a New Zealand-based member with an astronomy background, said it isn’t surprising debris hasn’t been found, given the remoteness of where the flight is thought to have ended, and the sparsely populated nature of the nearest Australian coastline.

“I understand Sarah is hanging on to the last straws of hope—that indeed the plane was hijacked and landed somewhere and passengers are alive,” he said of Ms. Bajc. “We can’t get anything from the satellite data that’s anything but a terminus in the ocean.…I’m not going to argue with somebody who’s lost a loved one.”

Still, Mr. Steel, who doesn’t have a personal connection to Flight 370, is critical of Malaysian authorities for what he described as their failure to release full satellite logs of the plane’s movements, as well as other data such as details on engine performance.

A Malaysia Airlines official said the carrier has done “its best to share all information available” to people affected by the tragedy.

The flight plan of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is seen on a computer screen.
The flight plan of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is seen on a computer screen. Reuters

Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation, which is leading the government’s investigation, didn’t respond to requests to comment.

Ms. Bajc said her relationship with Mr. Wood—a scuba diver and outdoor adventurer who she says radiated warmth and calm—changed her life, opening her eyes to the possibility of a happy relationship after a rocky marriage that ended in divorce.

The two met in 2011 in Beijing, at a local music venue called Nashville. Ms. Bajc hadn’t initially planned to join friends there, but the pleasantness of the air on an October evening as she rode her bike prompted her to stop by.

On encountering each other inside, the two felt an immediate pull, she said.

They took holidays across Asia, with Mr. Wood often plugging away at his laptop on the beach. They were obsessive about being prepared: When they traveled, they took an emergency bag with different currencies, insect repellent and other supplies.

Passengers’ loved ones, like Sarah Bajc at her Kuala Lumpur apartment in November, have been frustrated by a lack of closure.
Passengers’ loved ones, like Sarah Bajc at her Kuala Lumpur apartment in November, have been frustrated by a lack of closure. Te-Ping Chen/The Wall Street Journal

Early in their relationship, they bonded over a shared affinity for the same kind of flashlight.

On the day Flight 370 disappeared, Ms. Bajc was waiting for Mr. Wood to arrive in Beijing to help pack their apartment. They were moving to Kuala Lumpur, where Mr. Wood planned to take a job with IBM . Ms. Bajc had lined up a job teaching in a high school.

These days, Ms. Bajc, a former Microsoft executive accustomed to working long hours, is channeling much of her energy toward the search.

As she peered at the spreadsheet of tips on her computer, a newly adopted kitten—named Bourbon, for the drink she was sipping when she first met Mr. Wood—scampered by her feet.

“This appears to be aircraft wreckage [in] the Cambodian jungle,” she read out, as she scrutinized tips collected from the Hunt for 370 site. Ms. Bajc marks such tips on a scale of one to five, based on her assessment of credibility.

Chinese relatives at an April prayer service in Beijing
Chinese relatives at an April prayer service in Beijing Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“This is a three—a satellite image isn’t proof, but it could be validated,” she said.

Ms. Bajc said her campaign has helped keep her going since March 24, the day she got a text message from Malaysia Airlines saying it had concluded Flight 370 crashed in the ocean. She sank onto her couch, sobbing.

After about an hour, her then-17-year-old son came home. He told her, “They’re just trying to close the case,” she recalled.

The next day, lying in bed, Ms. Bajc grew steadily more convinced her son was correct. “I got mad. Anger is a motivating feeling.”

Ms. Bajc’s efforts have included a Facebook page, Finding Philip Wood, which she has used to appeal for tips. She has made numerous media appearances, attracting notes from psychics to astrologists.

In September, Ms. Bajc and a handful of others hired a private investigative firm to do additional sleuthing.

The firm, which Ms. Bajc declined to identify, is conducting interviews in multiple countries, funded by an Indiegogo campaign Ms. Bajc and others launched that raised about $100,000.

A worker at a school in Makati, Philippines, cleaned a mural depicting the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on April 8.
A worker at a school in Makati, Philippines, cleaned a mural depicting the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on April 8. Associated Press

The firm hasn’t yet made findings, Ms. Bajc said.

In the absence of evidence, Ms. Bajc said she is convinced authorities are covering up aspects of the case, and that the ocean search may be a distraction.

One of the more plausible conspiracy theories, she said, is that the pilot was trying to extract demands from the government and Malaysian authorities shot the plane down over the jungle on the Malay peninsula, covering up the evidence.

Malaysia Airlines has denied any coverup.

Ms. Bajc said she understands the odds of passengers’ survival—perhaps on a remote Indonesian island, cut off from communication—have faded. But that doesn’t mean that authorities shouldn’t be held to account, she said.

Most important, she said, she wants to bring Mr. Wood home, in “whatever form that is.”

She said she is slowly building a new life in Kuala Lumpur. The tide of tips coming in regarding the plane’s location has slowed to more of a steady drip.

But she isn’t not giving up.

“Once you take hope away, it’s like turning off the siren on the ambulance—it’s an admission there’s no hope anymore,” she said. “So we have to just keep pushing.”

Write to Te-Ping Chen at te-ping.chen@wsj.com



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