NUMBERED 1 to 227, the passenger manifest for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet is an outwardly unremarkable document.
But behind the columns of capitalised 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 agonising 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 organiser 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,’’ Mr 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 ABC television of the couple described as doting grandparents.
Sharing their adventure was another 50-something Australian couple, Rodney and Mary Burrows. Neighbour 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 organisation 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 Ms 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 Mr Firman’s family and photographed pictures of Mr 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 Mr 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.’’