'The most important person is gone': Heartbreak of a family of missing Malaysia Airlines passenger

Brothers Li Peng and Li Zhi ran a business together with factories in China and Malaysia; Li Zhi was aboard doomed flight MH370

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 March, 2014, 11:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 March, 2014, 9:14am

Li Zhi and his brother Li Peng were a dream team.

Zhi was the older, logical, careful, left-brained brother. Peng was the younger, eager, creative free spirit. Peng, 38, always dreamed of being an entrepreneur. But Zhi, three years older and with a wife, wanted to climb the corporate ladder. The little brother nudged his sibling for years. In 2006, Zhi quit his job as a quality control engineer for Motorola and joined his brother in business.

The duo opened two factories in China and one in Malaysia. Zhi took care of planning, structure, the legal mumbo jumbo. Peng focused on people, and his wife handled administration and accounting.

Zhi was stubborn, and he wanted his brother to be more cautious. Yet they were close. The brothers and their wives lived with their mother in the same apartment block in the northern city of Tianjin .

The next 50 years of my life will be very different. Very different

The family never imagined they'd have to go on without Zhi.

In early March, the brothers took a business trip to Kuala Lumpur to check on their factory. With a family vacation in Hainan planned for the following week, Zhi decided to fly home first.

Peng drove his brother to the airport. "En route we talked about life," Li says. He puffs a cigarette and stares at the floor. "We were very different people, but we were so close."

Zhi boarded Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on March 8. He vanished, along with 238 other people. The plane, officials believe, plunged into the vast southern Indian Ocean. The family doesn't know what to believe.

Alongside Peng sits Zhi's wife, Catherine Yong, preferring to give her English name.

She crosses her legs on a lounge chair in the airy lobby of Selangor's Bangi Putrajaya hotel. She and her in-laws travelled there from China, hoping that airline officials would keep them updated on any news.

Yong is wearing a white T-shirt, the words "live, love & laugh" scrawled in green across the front. She wears no make-up, her hair is unkempt. She didn't have time to pack. Volunteers bought them clothes at the hotel gift shop.

Except for changing hotels, she has not been outside since arriving on March 12.

She is a slave to her iPhone, checking for new evidence or rumours. "I go over every single conspiracy theory in my head wondering which makes sense. I ask questions and get no answers." Her relatives have been giving her sleeping pills. Awake, she lists between confusion, anger and despair.

"Rationally speaking, I know he's not alive any more," she says. "I don't want to be consoled. I just want the truth."

She and her sister-in-law spent days in a Beijing hotel, screaming at news updates, crying for the TV cameras. They left before hundreds of people, including passengers' kin, protested outside the Malaysian embassy. Nor did they join those who stormed a press room in Kuala Lumpur demanding answers.

They have stopped wanting to make scenes. They know it's no use.

"I am not blaming Malaysia or Malaysia Airlines for the plane's disappearance,'' Peng pipes up. "But they are obviously withholding information and that is cowardice. I blame them for their lack of communication, for their incompetence. It is because of them there are so many conspiracy theories."

They think being in Malaysia helps. The Li family can keep in close contact with search authorities, officials and lawyers.

"I see his shadow everywhere. I don't know how to go home" Yong says. Her voice breaks. There, her five-year-old daughter has been asking where daddy is.

The night before his flight back to China, Zhi told his wife he had a headache. Her last words to him were "just take some pills and come back".

"I snapped. My voice wasn't nice. I regret that so much," she says. She wipes her eyes. "I know I'm not supposed to think about that. But how can I not?"

At the time their daughter was running a fever. Yong thinks that was an omen.

Search crews found just 50 of the 228 bodies from Air France flight 447 that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009. Yong knows this. She turns over in her mind the stages of discovery: finding bits of the plane. Finding the recording devices. Not finding them.

"If they never find the black box, I'll just tell myself he survived and is living happily on an island somewhere," she says. "If they do find the black box and he's dead, then I want his body preserved at the bottom of the ocean. I don't want him back in pieces."

She reaches up to finger her gold necklace. Her husband was wearing a necklace, along with his wedding ring. "If they just return that to me one day, I'll have my closure."

Her brother-in-law eyes Yong's wedding ring.

"The most important person in my family for 38 years is gone. The next 50 years of my life will be very different," Li Peng says. "Very different, very different."