Malaysia Flight 370: Relatives and friends recall the final few hours before the jet’s departure

For many who knew the people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, that last full day looms large. Everyday details, now loaded with the ballast of hindsight, take on fresh weight.

Suwarni, the mother of Sugianto Lo, who was on the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with his wife Vinny, shows portraits of her son's family at her home in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia. Indonesians Sugianto Lo and his wife, Vinny Chynthya Tio, were taking a short break away from their three children, their first in more than 17 years as parents. It was hard. Family members had to convince them the children would be fine while they were gone. Binsar Bakkara / AP photo / March 25, 2014
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KUALA LUMPUR // One morning, many stories.

The three women woke before sunrise that day, leaving their hotel while it was still dark and boarding a small plane in Kathmandu for a look at Mount Everest. They were Chinese retirees, avid photographers ending a two-week tour of the Himalayan nation.

Late that night, after a stopover in Kuala Lumpur, they would head home to Beijing.

The Indonesian couple woke up at home, a tidy two-story concrete-walled house down a small alley in the city of Medan. A taxi arrived a few hours later to take them to the airport, starting them on a journey to a long-anticipated holiday without their children, a trip to China to see the Great Wall and Beijing’s Forbidden City.

In Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, the artists and calligraphers headed down to breakfast about 8am. Some had been celebrating the night before at the end of almost a week exhibiting their work. But they gathered early in the hotel restaurant, ready for a day of sightseeing and shopping before the late-night flight back to Beijing.

And in Perth, in Western Australia, the 39-year-old mechanical engineer woke up early in his red-roofed bungalow, leaving his wife and their two young boys for a 28-day mining job in Mongolia.

Just before he headed to the airport, on his way to connecting flights in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, Paul Weeks gave his wife his wedding ring and watch for safekeeping. If anything happened to him, he said, he wanted the boys to have them someday. “Don’t be stupid!” she told him.

It was Friday morning, March 7.

By that evening, they would all be together in a departure lounge in Kuala Lumpur’s airport, with its granite floors and soaring ceilings and tiny plot of transplanted, living rainforest. And a little after midnight on March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 took off for Beijing, carrying 239 people inside its meticulously engineered metal shell.

We know only the broadest outlines of what happened next.

Soon after take-off, Flight MH370 disappeared. Its transponders had been switched off. Soon, the blip was gone from radars. This past week, after more than two weeks of searches across tens of thousands of square miles, Malaysia’s prime minister announced that satellite data showed the plane’s last known position to be in a remote corner of the Indian Ocean, far from its destination and far from any possible landing sites.

How it happened, and why, remains unclear. Perhaps it was a hijacking, perhaps pilot suicide, perhaps a catastrophic malfunction.

It had been a heavily Asian passenger list, reflecting both the locale of the flight and the changing face of the continent, home to a new generation of 21st-century people who form an emerging tourist and travelling class. Some of those aboard were heading home, others just making a quick stopover. Some were returning from their first trip abroad. For others, foot soldiers in Asia’s growing economies, it was just one more connecting flight in a lifetime of connecting flights.

The people at airports, those who get dropped off, proceed through security and make their way to their gates, are usually right in the middle of the business of their lives. Much of what happens is not even memorable. But now, for many who knew the people aboard Flight 370, that last full day looms so large. Everyday details, now loaded with the ballast of hindsight, take on fresh weight.

But does it mean anything that Liu Rusheng, at 76 one of the oldest of the 19 Chinese artists and calligraphers, argued with his wife shortly before their plane took off? Does it mean anything that Zhao Zhaofang, known for her delicate paintings of peonies, bought Malaysian chocolates that afternoon to take home as a present?

Is it important that Paul Weeks told his wife that his wedding ring should go to the first of his sons to get married, or that Chandrika Sharma, an Indian social activist on her way to a conference in Mongolia, called her elderly mother just before the plane took off?

It’s only in retrospect that what happened that Friday now seems anything more than prosaic, more than just another passing day.

“By the time we arrived at the (Kathmandu) airport, the sun had already risen, so we flew over the mountains as we embraced the rising sun,” said Wang Dongcheng, 65, a retired professor of Chinese literature who was on the Everest flight with the three women who would disappear with Flight MH370.

“They loved to be photographed, and they were dressed for photos,” Mr Wang said. “They were very beautiful.”

For the 19 artists and calligraphers, the visit to Kuala Lumpur was their first trip to Malaysia.

Mr Liu, the elderly calligrapher, sang for the bus as they headed to the airport. Many clapped along. The mood was spirited. At the airport, though, Mr Liu complained to his wife that she had done a poor job packing his paintings, said Xu Lipu, an artist on the trip who took a separate flight back to China.

“They were a little bit angry with each other.”

Mr Xu, who had gone to the airport to drop off the travellers, said there were no heartfelt partings. And as with so many planes leaving so many airports on an increasingly connected planet, Flight MH370 went on its way — another routine departure beginning a trip that would be anything but.

“We and the other artists did not really say goodbye,” Mr Xu said. “I went to the toilet and came back, and I didn’t see the artists again.”

* Associated Press