Mourning Interrupted: The Heartbreaking Search for a Missing Plane

"Of course you're going to hold onto hope and look for a miracle. That's really all you can do."


Cynthia Fackrell said it's easy to believe the unbelievable when it comes to the fate of Malaysia Air Flight MH370. As days turn into weeks--and conspiracy theories abound--believing the unbelievable offers families of the missing some amount of hope.

"I read an article that said investigators were considering Einstein's [String Theory] as an explanation for what happened," said Fackrell. "And if you want to go off further to the left, there's even a UFO theory."

Maintaining hope, even if it means considering the extraordinary, is a scenario Fackrell knows all too well, having endured her own drama 22 years ago with the disappearance of her brother's single-engine plane.

Tim Young was 32 years old when he took off from Fairbanks, Alaska, bound for Homer, nearly 400 miles to the south. Grounded for several days by weather, he was eager to get home. Finally, on Friday, Oct. 9, 1992, conditions were good enough to allow the Visual Flight Rules-certified pilot to get home safely--or so he hoped. He took off into clear skies, headed south and was never seen again.

His disappearance triggered a 10-month search. Through it all, Fackrell said she never gave up hope that her brother was alive.

"Of course you're going to hold onto hope and look for a miracle," she said. "That's really all you can do."

More than two decades later, Fackrell, of Meridian, has chronicled the events in Gravity's Embrace: A True Unsolved Mystery Surrounding an Alaskan Pilot. Published by Stellar Bound Publishing in November 2013, Gravity's Embrace details how Fackrell's family was "stuck" in the mystery surrounding her brother's disappearance. It would be nearly a year before hikers would find the wreckage of the plane along with human remains, but Fackell's brother was never formally identified by dental records or DNA.

Did his plane catch fire in mid-air? Did the plane's rear stabilizer--found far from the crash site--fall off or collide with trees? The questions still haunt Fackrell--and they're the types of questions haunting the families of those who went missing with the March 8 disappearance of Malaysia Flight MH370.

"It strikes a chord because I've been there," said Fackrell. "I want to talk to [survivors] and say that I understand."

A full month after it disappeared from radar, very little is known about the fate of MH370; the facts are limited to what time the plane lost contact and who was on board. Nearly everything else remains a mystery, including how and why the plane was lost.

That vacuum of information has yielded to ample speculation across cable news channels. Ten days into the crisis, presumably legitimate news outlets began to include a string of theories and/or conspiracies, ranging from the plausible to the wildly improbable:

• The plane secretly landed on an island (more than a few news organizations referenced the ABC drama Lost).

• The plane somehow made it to Pakistan, where it is being hidden.

• The plane hid in the radar "shadow" of another airliner, until safely reaching Afghanistan air space.

• Terrorists overtook the plane while cooperating with various ground control personnel (part of the greater plot) in order to hide the plane's path of travel and ultimate destination.

• The plane was accidentally shot down and the responsible government is reluctant to come forward.

"I still tend to have a bit of hope in the terrorist theory," Fackrell told BW. "Since I've been in that situation, I want to believe the plane is hiding somewhere. Which sounds like a really unlikely scenario, but when you're in the situation, you want so badly for there to be a good outcome that you wish for the best."

She's hardly alone in taking this approach. In fact, Idaho recently experienced its own roller coaster of hope and denial during a highly publicized missing plane drama that began Dec. 1, 2013. That's when a single-engine BE-36 Beech Bonanza, piloted by Dale Smith and carrying four additional family members, disappeared northwest of Cascade.

More than a month into the search, Janis Smith, wife of the lost pilot, said, "I feel like just staying in this state of denial. My family is still missing. They truly are just missing."

Despite the decreasing odds of finding survivors in the rugged terrain of Valley County's backcountry during some of winter's harshest conditions, Smith refused to give up hope.

"In my mind, I'm going to keep them as missing until we find evidence," she said. "I could never forgive myself if I gave up on them and they came walking out of the forest."

The search progressed through numerous stops and starts due to inclement weather, and an official search was called off by mid-December. It wasn't until mid-January, when a search party--primarily of volunteers--spotted the wreckage, that survivors of the crash victims could have closure. In all, five members of Smith's family were killed.

Fackrell said Smith's reaction made sense because giving up hope was simply not an option:

"How can you bury them if there's a possibility that they're still alive? You feel like you're doing a disservice to the person--like you're losing faith in them--like you're the one killing them, by giving up."

For Fackrell, advanced technologies and an increasingly connected global community offer real hope for families in limbo as they search for their missing loved ones.

"When I was trying to find out more about that crash near McCall, I found a Facebook page devoted just to maps--satellite maps that allowed people all over the world to help them look for wreckage," she said. "When I saw that, I was so jealous. All these people [with the resources] to help them--that's totally opposite from my experience."

Twenty years ago, the lack of cellphones, media coverage, websites and readily accessible satellite images made for a more difficult (and lonely) search.

"We actually had to go seek out the media," said Fackrell. "They didn't come to us."

Fackrell is having a hard time believing Malaysia Air Flight MH370 has disappeared forever. Instead, she insists modern technology will eventually win out.

"Even though tragedies happen, within them there are still things to be thankful for. Like having technology that we didn't have 20 years ago--and knowing that, at some point, they'll probably find out what happened."

In the meantime, she stresses the emotional hardships imposed on the families in limbo, especially when they refuse to give up hope of finding their loved ones alive.

"What happened with me is that I could sense the people around me were feeling sorry for me--thinking I was a poor fool for believing [my brother] was still alive when everyone else knew he was dead. It was infuriating. I felt like saying: 'How dare you--you don't know anything more than I do.'"

For Fackrell, it feels impossibly cruel to provide false information to the families in Malaysia, in lieu of simply admitting the truth: Nothing is known for certain.

"They just want the truth," said Fackrell, "but if the government doesn't know anything, they should just say that. They shouldn't say things like, 'everyone's dead' until they know for sure. You have to have that proof."

Until proof is found, one way or the other, Fackrell will continue to hold out hope, both for the passengers of Flight MH370 and their distraught families. Because, in her mind, the worst part is the not knowing: "Honestly, it's better to know. It's better to know where they are and what happened. The unknowing drives you crazy."

Taking a long breath, she added quietly, "It can literally make you crazy."