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Tuesday, March 20 Opinion

In the Suburbs / The gnawing anxiety of not knowing a loved one's fate

The expressions on their faces ranged from bewilderment to angst, shock and grief.

I was overwhelmed last weekend by the images of people waiting for word about loved ones and friends aboard a Malaysian Airlines jumbo jet that had vanished without a trace. I tried to imagine how it would feel if my wife and I were part of that group.

What would we be thinking as airline representatives escorted us to a secluded room in the airport or an off-site location, away from the growing numbers of reporters anxious to shove microphones in our faces?

I have no idea how we would react.

The passengers probably are lost forever, which, tragically, happens when jetliners go down. But the more disturbing thing is that a Boeing 777 seems literally to have disappeared from thin air. And as of midweek, authorities had few clues as to what happened.

As I write this, five days have passed with no wreckage sighted, no "pings" from the flight recorders heard. The mystery got more bizarre by the day, as officials established that the plane had turned west from its original flight plan and was flying hundreds of miles off course.

I can only hope that the pieces of this puzzle begin to fall into place. I found myself wondering about the 239 passengers and how the last harrowing minutes -- or hours -- of their lives must have been.

I recalled a friend telling me 20 years ago how he prepared for a potential crash landing that ultimately was averted. As the plane shuddered and pitched and he was preparing mentally for death, my friend started introducing himself to everyone he could yell out to while hoisting a leftover scotch. His rationale was that if they were all going to die together, why not die as friends.

But I'm not sure the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 even had the opportunity to become friends. If the plane exploded suddenly or nose-dived into the sea, I can only hope there was little or no suffering. If there were terrorists or air pirates aboard, I can only surmise they acted swiftly and few, if any, passengers ever knew their fate.

Other theories include pilot error or even pilot suicide.

The plight of passengers' families is somewhat reminiscent of 9/11, when people wandered the streets of Manhattan, clutching photographs and going in and out of hospitals and makeshift morgues, hoping to find information about loved ones. They wanted answers, but nobody had any.

Flight 370 was scheduled to land in Beijing, where families have now waited nearly a week. All they know is that 239 souls have vanished and may never be found. In an instant, the lives of the living were shattered. Some may never pick up the pieces. A parent may have to explain to a child that not only is the other parent not coming home, that parent possibly won't be found.

Search and recovery operations reportedly cover 14 countries and thousands of air and sea vessels. When authorities discovered the flight had been off course, the search shifted.

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I recalled two other air disasters that bore some similarity to this incident. One was in 1983 when Soviet fighter jets shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007. The airliner had veered 200 miles off course and entered Soviet air space on the last leg of its flight from New York to Seoul. That plane carried 269 passengers to a watery death in the Sea of Japan, and the incident precipitated a major outcry from the United States.

In 2009, Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic of on a flight from Rio De Janeiro bound for Paris. In that accident, it took almost five days for searchers to find a wreckage site; it was almost two years before the first bodies were recovered.

As for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, I can only pray that the wreckage is found soon, and these families have some sense of closure.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.