Relatives of passengers on missing flight in purgatory at Beijing hotel
In Beijing hotel rooms sometimes used for weddings, relatives of the lost passengers prepare for the worst as best they can
It is 10am, and the makeshift TV room for relatives of passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 already smells of smoke.
About 30 people sit in rows watching a medium-sized screen broadcasting Phoenix InfoNews Channel, where a female reporter is stating - for the umpteenth time in the past four days - that the missing plane has not been found.
Sometimes the screen goes black. A man in his late 20s wearing black-rimmed glasses sits in the first row. He clutches a cell phone and bounces his right leg, his eyes riveted to the screen.
Anxiety pulses throughout Beijing's Metropark Lido Hotel, transformed this week into a purgatory.
Rooms meant for reception and banquets have a new purpose, marked with paper signs. One says, "Prayer Room and Information Update Room"; another, "Secretariat". The main banquet hall, now called "Family Assist", was once a place for happy times. Weddings have left the carpet threadbare.
Since the Boeing 777 lost contact last Saturday while flying over the Gulf of Thailand, Hugh Dunleavy, the commercial director of Malaysia Airlines, has warned family members to "prepare for the worst". But how, exactly, does one prepare for the unknown?
In the hotel's main hall, the crowd is divided about journeying to Kuala Lumpur. Some believe being closer to the plane's last known location and the airline's headquarters will lend comfort. Others are sceptical.
"They've been looking for too many days," a middle-aged woman says.
"Even if they're alive, they've starved to death," a man says into his cell phone.
Twelve Chinese relatives took the airline's offer and arrived in Kuala Lumpur yesterday, a Beijing official said.
The relatives were hurried to a special exit to avoid reporters waiting outside.
Malaysian officials are trying to help. Liow Tiong Lai, president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, said more than 300 volunteers were ready to give emotional support.
At the Metropark Lido, the main hall has stations for registration, passports, passport photos, flight, hotel booking and visa services. "Number 20," an assistant calls on the intercom for visa processing.
A woman sitting in the corner cries silently. A female volunteer wearing a jacket labelled "Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation" in block letters sits next to her, patting her back.
People huddle in groups, eyebrows furrowed.
"When will they give us the money?" an older man asks.
"I read online this morning that we'll get it by tonight," someone answers.
A fight breaks out between two families, and volunteers rush in.
They are separated and given meal tickets.
Later in the afternoon, the relatives grow weary of waiting. They demand 24-hour assistance from Malaysia Airlines, a five-relative quota to fly to Malaysia for every missing passenger, improved food and lodging, and no preconditions on their consolation money.
Most importantly, they want the Malaysian government to step in.
The man with the black-rimmed glasses remains before the TV. He's found a cigarette to puff on while watching and waiting, his leg still bouncing.