Families of AirAsia flight passengers gather at airports to wait, hope

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SURABAYA, INDONESIA — A woman grieving for her brother and his family. Two teenage girls looking for their parents. A woman hoping her fiance is still alive.

They are among the distraught families of passengers and crew on AirAsia Flight QZ8501 who are gathering at airports in the region, hoping that their relatives are safe. The plane carrying 162 people disappeared Sunday morning traveling from Surabaya to Singapore.

Oei Endang Sulsilowati and her daughter arrived at the Juanda international Aiport in Surabaya looking for news of her brother, Oei Jimmy Sentosa Winata, his wife and their 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.

“We saw what had happened on the television, and we are coming here to find out what is happening,” Sulsilowati said.

Her brother’s family was traveling to Japan via Singapore, she said.

“I knew about this incident from watching TV and tried to get more information from my family. But my brother never flew with AirAsia, so I kept calm. Then someone told me that they saw his name on TV.

“Then I saw it,” she said, breaking down in tears.

“We are just waiting for news”

Now they just wait.

“We don’t know what to do,” she said. “We are just waiting for news.”

Two young teenage schoolgirls arrived at Juanda International in the early hours.

According to relatives and school officials who were traveling with the girls, they are friends whose parents were on the flight. The parents were traveling to Singapore to spend New Year’s with their daughters. That flight never arrived, so the girls traveled to Surabaya to find out what had happened to their parents.

They sat at a desk staffed by AirAsia officials, looking lost and bewildered, as they waited for information.

At Changi Airport in Singapore, Louise Sidharta told Channel NewsAsia her fiance and his family were on the plane.

“When I was on the way to the airport, I listened to the radio and they said his plane was missing,” she said.

“It was supposed to be his last vacation with his family” before the wedding, she said.

Indonesia is by far the hardest hit in this mystery because 149 of the 155 passengers were from that country. Surabaya is the crisis center. AirAsia Group CEO and founder Tony Fernandes flew in late Sunday night.

‘It’s unbelievable’

His first words at the news conference: “We are very devastated by what’s happened, it’s unbelievable.

“Our concern right now is for the relatives and for the next of kin — there is nothing more important to us, for our crew’s family, and for the passengers’ families.”

AirAsia staff has been taking families from Juanda International to the nearby Ibis Hotel to keep them together and, critically, to keep them informed.

Many family members are in shock. They’re teary-eyed, exhausted, confused and afraid.

Some are grieving; others exude pure despair. Children are among them, in some cases clearly too young to grasp what’s going on.

“I should have gone with them but I canceled it two weeks ago as I had something to do,” one relative of a passenger said, sobbing, according to a translation by Channel NewsAsia.

Speaking at Juanda International Airport, the relative — whose name was not given — said, “This morning before I went to pray, one of them called me and jokingly said, ‘See you in the new year and goodbye forever.’ That’s all, and then the bad news came.”

‘We still have hope’

William Kai, waiting in Surabaya for news of his brother-in-law and three other relatives who were on the flight, said he’s hopeful the plane will be found soon, according to the BBC.

“This flight is only from Surabaya to Singapore, so it’s not like it’s missing in the Indian Ocean or the big seas,” he said. “It’s just there. So it should be easier to find.”

He also said he’s not giving up hope for the safe return of his relatives.

“We still have hope,” he said. “We cannot lose hope.”

The losses will be felt around the world. While nearly everyone on the flight is from Indonesia, there are also three South Koreans, one Malaysian, a French co-pilot, one Briton and one Singaporean, the airline said. Sixteen passengers were children and one was an infant.

The British national is Indonesia-based energy executive Choi Chi Man, and the Singaporean citizen is his 2-year-old daughter, Zoe, Channel NewsAsia reported.

Their names are on a flight manifest released by the airline.

Airline vows to help families through the ‘nightmare’

Sunu Widyatmoko, the CEO of AirAsia Indonesia, said the company’s “main priority is keeping the families of our passengers and colleagues informed on the latest developments.”

“We will do everything possible to support them as the investigation continues and have already mobilized a support team to help take care of their immediate needs, including accommodation and travel arrangements,” he said.

Fernandes took to Twitter to console families and offer more information.

“I am touched by the massive show of support especially from my fellow airlines,” he wrote. “This is my worse nightmare. But there is no stopping.”

The company switched its logo on its Twitter and Facebook pages from bright red to gray.

Families first

Peter Goelz, a CNN aviation analyst, chaired a task force that wrote the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act of 1996, which the U.S. Congress passed to provide guidance on how to deal with families when responding to these types of crises.

That legislation “set the worldwide standard” in aviation disaster response, according to Goelz, and iterations of it have been adopted by “virtually every country” — including Indonesia.

“The key is families need to hear it first. They need to hear what’s going on, and they need to hear it from the investigators,” Goelz said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “If you don’t get the information to the families, it’s just torturous.”

Pope Francis said Sunday his thoughts “are with those on board the missing AirAsia plane” and with their loved ones.

By Andrew Stevens, Joshua Berlinger and Ralph Ellis