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Airline's lack of information angers relatives

Chinese relatives of passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines plane leave a hotel room in Beijing Sunday, March 9, 2014. More than a day and a half has passed since the Boeing 777 jet disappeared from radar contact in the first hour of a six-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to China’s capital. From France to Australia and China, families and friends are enduring an agonizing wait for news about flight MH370. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
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BANGKOK (AP) — The anguished hours had turned into a day and a half. Fed up with awaiting word on the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, relatives of passengers in Beijing lashed out at the carrier with a handwritten ultimatum and an impromptu news conference.

From a room set aside at a hotel near the Beijing airport, a man with a black shirt emerged with a statement signed by about 100 of the relatives, saying that unless the carrier could give them some clarity, they would take their complaints to the Malaysian Embassy.

"We don't believe Malaysia Airlines anymore. Sorry everyone, we just don't believe them anymore," the man, who refused to give his name, told a crowd of reporters Sunday.

By this time, the airline already had dispatched dozens of caregivers to Beijing and assigned one to each family, provided accommodation, food, transport and financial assistance. It said it was providing regular updates despite a lack of information about the plane, which disappeared from radar while heading from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

But the initial disorder of Malaysia Airlines' response Saturday, and its lack of official contact with relatives in the early going set the tone for the ensuing hours of waiting.

"One of the most important things to remember here," said Frank Taylor, director of an aviation safety center at Cranfield University in Britain, "is that it's much easier to stand down staff after an initial over-reaction than to play catch-up after an initial under-reaction."

Numbered 1 to 227, the passenger manifest for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet is an outwardly unremarkable document.

But behind the columns of capitalized names, nationalities and ages are 227 unique stories, part of a rich human tapestry that assembles every time a flight departs. There were middle-aged Australians with wanderlust, an acclaimed Chinese calligrapher, a young Indonesian man heading to begin a new career, and two people traveling on stolen passports.

More than a day and a half has passed since the Boeing 777 disappeared from radar screens in the first hour of a six-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Beijing. From France to Australia and China, families and friends are enduring an agonizing wait for news about Flight MH370.

The flight had a crew of 12, all from Malaysia, a melting pot nation of ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians. Passengers on the popular business and tourist route were mostly from China and Malaysia, along with smatterings of people from other corners of the world: Americans, Australians, Indians, French, Indonesians, Ukrainians and other nationalities.

Some traveled alone, some in groups. They were young sweethearts and wrinkled older couples. Some had business in mind, others thought of art. Seventy-four years separates the youngest, 2-year-old Moheng Wang, and the oldest, 76-year-old Rusheng Liu.

"I can only pray for a miracle," said Daniel Liau, the organizer of a calligraphic and painting exhibition in Malaysia attended by acclaimed Chinese calligrapher Meng Gaosheng, who boarded the flight with 18 other artists plus six family members and four staff.

"I feel very sad. Even though I knew them for a short time, they have become my friends," Liau said.

Also traveling as a group were eight Chinese and 12 Malaysian employees of Austin, Texas, semiconductor company Freescale, which said it was assembling "around-the-clock support" for their families.

Each day more than 80,000 flights take off and land around the world without incident. For seasoned Australian travelers Robert Lawton, 58, and his wife, Catherine, 54, the seemingly routine takeoff of flight MH370 was the beginning of another adventure.

"They mentioned in passing they were going on another big trip and they were really excited," Caroline Daintith, a neighbor, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television of the couple described as doting grandparents.

Sharing their adventure was another 50-something Australian couple, Rodney and Mary Burrows. Neighbor Don Stokes said the trip was intended as the beginning of the "next step in their life."

Among the family groups on board were teenage sweethearts Hadrien Wattrelos, 17, and Zhao Yan, 18, students at a French school in Beijing who were returning from the Malaysian leg of a two-week holiday along with Hadrien's mother and younger sister.

In December, Zhao changed her Facebook profile photo to one of her and Hadrien. He had commented: "Je t'aime," followed by a heart, and she had "liked" his comment.

Some boarded the plane with more serious purposes in mind.

Colleagues of Chandrika Sharma said the 50-year-old director of the Chennai chapter of an organization that works with fishermen was on her way from the southern Indian city to Mongolia for a Food and Agriculture Organization conference.

"There must still be hope," said a colleague, Venogupal, who like many in India goes by one name.

He seemed, however, to be bracing for the worst. "She was friendly and very loveable, very industrious and astute. We will miss her."

For 24-year-old Firman Chandra Siregar from Medan, Indonesia, the flight was a new chapter. In Beijing, he was to start a three-year contract with Schlumberger, an oilfield services company.

Dozens of relatives and neighbors gathered at his family's home, some tearful, praying or watching news of the search and rescue operation. Like Sharma's colleagues, they were forced to let hope ebb away.

A team from the Indonesian police's Disaster Victim Identification unit collected DNA samples and medical records from Firman's family and photographed pictures of Firman that hung on the walls of the family home.

The motivation of some on board is murky. Two passengers were traveling with stolen EU passports — fueling speculation that the plane's disappearance was not an accident.

Yet the documents are just two of at least 39 million lost and stolen passports around the world. Last year, there were more than 29.3 million flights worldwide. By chance, many of those flights would have a passenger traveling on a stolen passport. They may be criminals, people seeking a better life, or something else.

Also by chance: Liu Hongwei was not on Flight MH370.

The Beijing-based head of an investment company and friend of the calligrapher Meng said that he was invited to the exhibition and cultural exchange in Malaysia as a sponsor, but that business commitments kept him from going.

"That could have been me on that plane," he said. "We're all very worried."

The relatives had expected the plane's arrival at 6:30 a.m. Saturday. About four hours later, a handwritten note was posted on a white board in the arrival hall advising relatives to use a shuttle service to go to the Lido Hotel to await information. "It can't be good," said one weeping woman aboard the first bus.

But when the family members got there, they wandered around lost and distressed before hotel staff apparently unprepared escorted them into a private area. It was several more hours before an airline spokesman made a brief statement to reporters, providing little information.

Faced with an emergency, the airline said it was doing all it can. The uncertainty over the plane's whereabouts was frustrating relatives, but also hindering the carrier's ability to respond: It's difficult to deliver a clear message with so much still unclear.

"We're literally trying to find out what happened and until you actually find the aircraft you have no way of knowing what actually went on there," the airline's commercial director Hugh Dunleavy told The Associated Press on Sunday. "Our main focus has been to come here, meet the families, give them as much information as we can but without raising false hopes."

Still, passengers' relatives gathered in Beijing complained that the airline hasn't been forthcoming with information. Instead of hearing from the carrier, they said, they've had to rely on news reports for updates on the search.

The initial lack of word led to criticism that the airline did nothing in the five hours after the Boeing 777 jet vanished while cruising at 36,000 feet. But Dunleavy said the airline had immediately notified all planes in the nearby airspace to be on the lookout. They contacted air traffic control authorities in Malaysia, Vietnam, and China. They notified Malaysia's Civil Aviation Department and Transport Ministry.

The airline made no public announcement before the plane was scheduled to land because it would have had enough fuel to continue in the air. But by 6:30 a.m., the plane would have been out of fuel and the airline made an announcement, Dunleavy said.

"It does not mean, and is not true, that we were not doing anything in that period. It was a full ongoing investigation and search and rescue" by Malaysian authorities, he said.

By Saturday afternoon, the rumors had started flying, and airline officials had to verify each one all of which took time. Did the plane land in Nanning, a southern Chinese city? No, it did not. Was a crash off the Vietnam coast confirmed? It was not. Did Vietnamese officials detect the plane's signal? Officials later denied it.

In the Lido Hotel, meanwhile, red-eyed relatives were seeing the rumors on smartphones but not hearing the airline's verifications. Impatience grew.

After 30 hours had passed without contact with the plane, airline officials told the relatives to prepare for the worst. After about 36 hours, the relatives at the Lido issued their statement, and the man in the black shirt went before reporters.

"They're still telling us they can't find this plane," the man said. "All the information we're getting is from the media. We, who are part of the relatives, feel that this is a very improper and indifferent way to treat the family members."


McGuirk reported from Canberra, Australia. Researcher Fu Ting in Shanghai, Associated Press video journalist Isolda Morillo in Beijing and AP writers Gillian Wong in Beijing, Katy Daigle in New Delhi, Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.

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