Loneliness and storms buffet crew in endless search for MH370

For over two years, search crews have been at sea hunting for Malaysia Airlines plane

 

For Scott Miller, part of a team searching for the remains of a doomed Malaysia Airlines flight, the worst hours in a lifetime at sea came when his 215-foot vessel was caught last year between two powerful tropical cyclones and lashed by hurricane-force winds.

The largest wave “was like an eight-story building coming at the boat”, said Miller, the chief ocean floor surveyor aboard the ship, the Fugro Equator. “It was quite scary, the waves were the biggest I’ve ever seen.”

For Micah Hunter, the supervisor of the sofa-size sonar equipment towed behind the vessel, the most difficult moments were when a tow cable began fraying as the so-called towfish was being hauled up from near the ocean floor in late April. Two of the cable’s steel strands suddenly snapped, with one of them driving all the way through his left pinkie, despite a protective glove. The other strand penetrated deep into his left index finger.

And for Rhiannon Woolhouse-Williams, an ocean floor surveyor who is the only woman on the 30-member crew and also the youngest at 23, the hardest part has been living at sea far from her home and friends in New Zealand.

For more than two years, crews aboard the Fugro Equator and other vessels have been searching the southern Indian Ocean for the remains of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8th, 2014.

Month after month, the crews braved mountainous seas and loneliness to answer a mystery that has confounded the globe, with little to show for their efforts. Woolhouse-Williams joined Fugro, a Dutch company managing the search on a contract from the Australian government, right after her graduation from college in late 2014. She soon began a series of six-week voyages to some of the most remote waters ever searched.

“Before I went there, I couldn’t understand how isolated you were,” she said in an interview on the back deck of the Equator after it arrived in Fremantle, the port that serves Perth, to pick up supplies in early May. “We didn’t see any other vessels for weeks.”

Fields of debris

Malcolm TurnbullAustralia

Each time, the Equator or one of the other vessels has sent down an unmanned, remotely operated device to examine the wreckage with high-resolution sonar and sometimes with cameras as well. But every time, the debris has turned out to be from previously unknown shipwrecks.

The shipwrecks seldom look the same, and the most recent one looked so much like a plane on images from the towed sonar device that it initially fooled Miller. “As it scuttled past on the screen, I called up everyone in Fugro,” he said. “When we went past that one, I was certain we’d found MH370.”

But it proved to be a steel vessel that had landed more upright on the ocean floor and with less damage than others they had located.

For Capt Andreas Ryanto Molyo, the commander of the Fugro Equator, the worst moment came during the same confluence of storms that alarmed Miller. Powerful gusts started forcing rain into the ship’s ventilation system through a vent on the back of the vessel, threatening to cripple the engines and electrical systems.

Engineers hurriedly opened a joint in the ventilation tubing and drained the water. The crew was lucky that the weather was cool and the intake fan in the ventilation system was off, so it did not short-circuit, Molyo said. The waves were so steep and violent that crew members who wanted to sleep tried an old sailor trick of tucking life vests under the sides of their mattresses to avoid being tossed out.

But as the ocean became even more tumultuous, Woolhouse-Williams found that even that was not enough, and she tried to stay in her bunk with one leg braced against the wall and the opposite hand against the meagre, bolted-down furniture. “You kind of sleep propped against the wee bedside table,” she said.

Seasickness

Fugro has changed its procedures since then and now provides colour maps to the crew of incoming storms instead of numerical weather information, said Steve Duffield, the managing director of Fugro’s ocean survey operations in Australia. It is also quicker to interrupt the search if a tropical cyclone threatens, he said.

Crew members said they were not ready to end the search for Flight 370. They still hope to locate the aircraft on the seafloor and its black boxes, with the goal of unlocking the mystery of why the plane went astray.

“Everyone is still really invested in finding it, and no one has given up yet on finding it,” Woolhouse-Williams said. “It would be hard to be out here if you didn’t believe.”

New York Times

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