Giving up Flight 370 search would be bitter pill for many
SYDNEY (AP) — She wakes up every morning and reaches for the smartphone on her nightstand, searching for the same jumble of letters and numbers that have consumed her life for a year: MH370. She scrolls through the news results, hoping for something — anything — that could explain what happened to her husband and the other 238 people on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
But every day, there is nothing. And so Danica Weeks puts down her phone and reaches instead for Paul’s wedding ring, which she wears on a chain around her neck. He gave it to her the day he said goodbye to her and their two young sons in Perth, Australia — just in case something happened to him on his trip.
“People say, ‘How are you coping?’” Weeks says. “I’m not coping. I’m existing.”
Punctuating that existence is a gnawing worry about an unspecified day in May. It’s the day crews on board four ships that have been scouring a remote patch of the Indian Ocean for the plane, which vanished on March 8, 2014, are expected to finish their search.
What happens if Australian officials overseeing the hunt haven’t found the aircraft by then remains unknown. They could search someplace else. They could go back to the drawing board. Or they could simply give up.
It is that last prospect that fills families, search officials and the aviation industry with dread. Because while the ships are out there, Weeks says, she has hope. While the ships are out there, she has a chance, however slim, of finding Paul.
If the search stops...
“It would destroy me,” she says. “I’ve always said 50 percent of my soul was on that plane with Paul, and each day a little bit has been edging away. And that would be, really, the end of me.”
Officials are quick to offer reassurances that they remain committed to finding the plane. But there is an uncomfortably practical concern facing Australia and Malaysia, which have each contributed $60 million to the hunt: Who will pay to keep on looking?
“I can’t promise that the search will go on at this intensity forever,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott acknowledged Thursday. “But we will continue our very best efforts to resolve this mystery and provide some answers.”
If the plane isn’t found by May, one option is to expand the hunt beyond the current search zone into a wider area surrounding it, Australian Transport Minister Warren Truss said. The trouble is, that larger area is a staggering 1.1 million square kilometers (425,000 square miles). That’s nearly 20 times the size of the current search zone, which itself is expected to take more than seven months to cover. Searching such a vast stretch of ocean would take an incredible amount of time and money.
The plane, of course, could be found at any moment. But officials must prepare for the possibility that it won’t be.
Ministers from Australia, China and Malaysia will meet next month to decide whether and how to fund another phase of the search. But if the search continues to come up empty, funds and options will one day dry up.
“If it’s a search that has no hope, then there has to be a line drawn in the sand where ultimately somebody’s going to have to make that decision,” says U.K.-based airline security analyst Chris Yates. “There’s going to have to be some soul-searching.”
There will be soul-searching, too, for the crews scouring the sea for the plane, says David Gallo, who helped lead the successful hunt for Air France Flight 447 after it crashed in the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. In the coming months, he says, the Flight 370 search crews are likely to face tough questions about their performance.
Gallo’s team faced a flurry of similar queries, from government officials weary of the ballooning search costs to frustrated families who wondered if they were qualified for the job.
“As the days tick by — nothing the first day, nothing the second day ... your morale starts to dip, the criticism starts to grow, people are looking at budgets and saying, ‘You obviously missed it.’ And your self-doubt is growing, too, saying, ‘DID we miss it?’” Gallo recalls. “It was horrible. That’s what they’re facing now, coming to the end of this. ... I think that the pressure mounts pretty quickly because it’s not cheap.”
Though it’s impossible to predict what will happen if the plane isn’t found by May, Gallo suspects the search will be put on hold for at least a year so officials, and possibly an outside team of experts, can go back over the data and ensure their calculations of the likeliest crash site are correct.
“We would hope that the search went on until the plane was found,” Gallo says. “The families are number one, but there’s also the flying public that needs to know what happened to that aircraft. No one is exempt from that — it could have been anybody. So we need to have answers. And I don’t know how you just say it’s gone forever.”
That’s exactly what troubles the aviation industry. If the plane is never found, experts will never know if it disappeared due to a design flaw, or pilot error, or a hijacking — or any of the other myriad theories.
“Right now, we really can’t answer what happened, we really can’t answer why it happened and we definitely can’t answer what do we do to prevent it from happening again,” says air safety investigator Anthony Brickhouse, who teaches accident investigations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “Without finding the wreck and without finding the evidence, it’s really impossible to make progress.”
Then there are the legal issues. An unsuccessful search for the plane won’t stop families from filing lawsuits against Malaysia Airlines. But it presents an emotional dilemma: In order to sue, they have to acknowledge their loved ones are dead and that the plane crashed.
“A lot of the families are like, ‘I don’t want to make a claim, I don’t want to apply for a death certificate, I don’t want to file a lawsuit that says my loved one is dead,’ until they know what happened and there’s actually some proof,” says Justin Green, a U.S. attorney representing the relatives of two dozen Flight 370 passengers.
Under international law, lawsuits must be filed within two years of a plane’s disappearance, whether or not it’s found. But without the plane, it would be difficult for families to blame the manufacturer, Boeing, or anyone involved in the aircraft’s maintenance.
Among those under the most pressure to find Flight 370 is Martin Dolan, who as chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau is heading up the search, and who won’t even entertain the question of what to do if they don’t find it by May.
“Our focus isn’t so much on the idea that we may not find the aircraft,” he says. “Our focus is on what we would expect to do when we do find it.”
And he wants to find it, badly.
“Occasionally, I think it keeps me awake at nights because I know that there are a range of families who are still grieving the loss of their loved ones and have no certainty about what happened,” he says. “And we collectively bear a large responsibility for that.”
Yet, there’s no certainty that there ever WILL be certainty. And that is agony for many of the passengers’ families.
Danica Weeks’ thoughts are consumed by her husband and what became of him. Some days, after she drops 4-year-old Lincoln and 1-year-old Jack at daycare, she has to crawl back into bed.
“I’m still stuck on March 8,” she says. “I haven’t moved from that. With having no proof or no evidence, I’m still there.”
Last month, she was allowed on board one of the search ships while it was in port getting supplies. She found it comforting to see the sophistication of the crew and the equipment, and felt fresh confidence in the officials’ repeated assurances that: “If it’s out there, we will find it.”
Still, she wonders: IS it out there? Or is it someplace else?
She hopes search crews won’t give up the hunt. But in a life now plagued by uncertainties, she is sure of one thing.
“If they do stop searching,” she says, “I will keep searching forever to find him.”