An innocent blunder or another sign that Malaysian authorities are withholding something about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370? According to Chinese state media reports, the official statement released by Malaysia Airlines at 10:15pm on March 24 informing relatives that everyone on flight MH370 likely died in a crash made a reference to “226 passengers and 13 friends and colleagues.”
Up until that point, all 22 official statement released by the airline since the plane disappeared on March 8 had stated that there were 227 passengers and 12 crew on board.
The discrepancy has fueled conspiracy theories that the mystery “13th crew member” was the person who hijacked or assisted in the hijack of the plane, and that Malaysian authorities are withholding the truth from the public.
On Wednesday, a staff member in Malaysia Air’s media department, told the Beijing Youth Daily that the mysterious 13th crew member is a Chinese employee for the airline who happened to be on the flight as a passenger. Due to the overlap the man was categorized as a “passenger” in earlier press releases, the staff member said before denying requests to identify the individual.
The newspaper also stated that a written response provided later by an airline staffer named Adlina Azharuddin explained that there were 226 passengers, 12 crew and an additional Malaysia Airline staff member on board the flight, but did not elaborate on the earlier verbal response.
A further mystery lies in flight MH370’s cargo manifest, which has still not been made public. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority told the Beijing Youth Daily that it had requested a copy of the cargo manifest some time ago from Malaysia Airlines in order to match potential debris discovered during the search, but has yet to receive any response.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government has requested that Malaysia immediately turn over all data leading to its conclusion that flight MH370 had crashed into the southern Indian Ocean despite no physical evidence of the wreckage being retrieved thus far from multinational search efforts.
Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, declared at a press conference Tuesday that the latest analysis of satellite data indicated that flight MH370 was still 30,000ft in the air when it delivered its last “ping” at least five hours after it disappeared off radar screens. As the plane was in a remote part of the Indian Ocean with no landing strips and was out of fuel, investigators concluded that the plane crashed, with the loss of all 239 lives on board.
US State Department spokersperson Marie Harf said at a news briefing that US experts are cooperating with Malaysia and are working to verify the satellite data and analysis used to conclude the plane’s fate, adding that there is “no reason to believe it’s not true.”
In China, hundreds of relatives of passengers have refused to accept the announcement, condemning Malaysia for pronouncing the loss of everyone aboard the flight before any conclusive evidence of its wreckage has been discovered. A protest was organized outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing on Tuesday with demonstrators holding banners with messages such as “Return my family” and “We want the truth.” A statement released to media accused Malaysia of being the “executioner” of their loved ones through trying to “delay, conceal, cover up and deceive.”
Malaysia Airlines said it will pay US$5,000 to the family of each passenger on flight MH370, not as compensation but as a “condolence,” and will organize flights for relatives to Perth, where the search is being coordinated, as soon as debris from the plane is located and confirmed.
Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, also announced that his government would waive visa fees for families of the plane’s passengers should they want to travel to Australia. The search for debris has currently been suspended due to bad weather conditions but efforts will continue with a focus on finding the remains of the plane and the cause behind the crash, he said.
While the prevailing theory is that a catastrophic mechanical failure incapacitated everyone on flight MH370 before it crashed, investigators are continuing to target the flight’s 53-year-old captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, despite a preliminary probe failing to link anyone on board in a potential hijack or sabotage motive. There are reports that police are currently looking into claims that the captain received a two-minute call from a mysterious woman using a number obtained from a false identity shortly before take off, and that the FBI is pressuring Malaysian authorities to interview Shah’s estranged wife, who reportedly moved out of the family home with their three children a day before the flight.
On Wednesday, an Indian aviation security expert lended support to the pilot suicide theory. In an article published in the local daily the Hindu, captain A Ranganathan said the sequence of events surrounding flight MH370 “has an eerie similarity” to two previous air tragedies — Indonesia’s SilkAir flight MI185 in 1999 and EgyptAir flight 990 in 2009 — in which all passengers died after the pilot deliberately crashed the plane into water.
Ranganathan theorized that a pilot of MH370 may have killed all people on board by causing depressuraization which would lead to “brain death” within 15 seconds of all in the cabin, while the cockpit had unlimited access to oxygen.