BEIJING – Anguished relatives of the 239 people aboard the Malaysia Airlines jet that vanished after taking off from Kuala Lumpur were preparing Sunday to travel closer to the presumed crash site off the southern tip of Vietnam.
Distraught and frustrated, many relatives demanded the airline release more information regarding Beijing-bound Flight MH370, which disappeared early Saturday with passengers and crew from 14 nations.
The airline warned relatives Sunday "to expect the worst," but one Chinese family clung to faint hope that their loved one isn't dead: the sound of a ringing cellphone.
"This morning, around 11:40, I called my older brother's number twice, and I got the ringing tone," said Bian Liangwei, from Dingzhou in north China's Hebei Province. At 2 p.m., Bian rang again and heard it ringing once more.
"If I could get through, the police could locate the position, and there's a chance he could still be alive," said Bian, who passed the number to Chinese police and Malaysia Airlines.
More than 100 family members of passengers have gathered at the Beijing Lido Hotel, one of three hotels in the Chinese capital where the airline has supplied rooms. "The airline people are better now than they were Saturday, they give us more information about the plane, provide some things we need and always escort us," said Zhang Hongjie, whose wife, Zheng Ruixian, was on the flight.
The multination search for the plane has yielded little to date. A low-flying plane on Sunday spotted an object in waters off Vietnam that could be debris from the site, but no official determination had been made, authorities said.
Once the location is determined, Malaysia Airlines will set up a response control center either in Kota Bharu, Malaysia's northernmost major city, or in Vietnam, Ignatius Ong, an airline representative, told a news conference Sunday in Beijing. Vietnam is setting up a command center in Phu Quoc.
The airline will fly two family members for each missing passenger to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, or another destination if it is closer to the plane's location. Efforts by Chinese authorities to fast-track passports for relatives who lack them appeared to succeed, as some relatives reported receiving passports Sunday, when Beijing's passport office is closed, within hours of applying.
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The first flight for relatives who want to travel to Kuala Lumpur will be Monday, said Ong, while arrangements will continue for those who decide to wait in Beijing. But many relatives remained angry Sunday at the still-limited information available, after receiving very little news Saturday.
More than 80 relatives, after a midafternoon meeting with airline representatives, signed a petition demanding the airline "announce the truth of this incident" by 5 p.m., or they would go to "make representations" at the Malaysian Embassy.
"I will definitely go to that place, when the plane is found," said Zhang Hongjie, 44, who has no passport, and signed the petition Sunday. His 18-year-old daughter18 is "very sad and anxious," Zhang said.
As speculation centers on whether two passengers were using stolen passports, Zhang said "it could be a terrorist incident," when told about the reports.
Ong, from the airline, said boarding was allowed because those names matched up on the passenger list, itinerary and passports.
No sign of missing Malaysia Airlines plane more than 24 hours on but questions arise over passenger identities. Paul Chapman reports. Video provided by Reuters Newslook
The 153 Chinese nationals on board ranged from celebrated painters and calligraphers to telecom business people, tourists, builders and at least one man who dreamed of becoming a dentist. Bian Liangwei's brother Bian Liangjing, 26, defied the rough, rural stereotype of Chinese migrant workers.
A dentistry graduate of the medical college in Hebei's provincial capital, Shijiazhuang, Bian Liangjing was among several Dingzhou natives who left one year ago for their first experience of manual labor overseas. Leaving behind his wife and infant daughter, Bian bent steel for cement pillars on a Singapore building site, for a $1,500 monthly wage, said his brother.
"He wanted to earn some money first, as it's expensive to set up a dentist's clinic in China," said Bian Liangwei.
The brothers last spoke at Chinese New Year in February, when the elder Bian chided the younger for spending money on a call, instead of free texting via social media. "Don't worry, it's good here and my job is not tiring," claimed Bian Liangjing of his tough duties in hot and humid Singapore.
The younger Bian wanted to keep calling his brother Sunday, but feared it would run down the battery of his sibling's phone. Malaysia Airlines' Ong said he had tried the number several times himself, and passed the number to the Chinese government.
When Bian heard a false report that the airline said his cellphone connection was a "rumor," Bian and his uncle cursed loudly — and stormed off to find airline staff.