Thursday 23 October 2014

Hijack suspect's father fights to keep hope alive (and insists his son is innocent)

Published 19/03/2014 | 20:04

Selamat Omar shows a picture of his son, flight engineer Mohd Khairul Amri Selamat who was onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. Reuters/Stringer
Selamat Omar, centre, speaks to journalists after watching a live broadcast of a press conference by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. Photo: AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin
Chinese family members of passengers onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 are escorted away from the media. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

He looked as if he had never slept in his life. His eyes were red, his face haggard. Yet somehow Selamat Omar was trying to exude a sense of hope, if only for his own sanity.

Some13 days ago, the 60-year-old received a frantic, sobbing call from his daughter-in-law.

His son Khairul, the third of his four children, had been aboard a Malaysian Airlines flight to China that morning which had failed to arrive.

Nobody knew what to think.

In the days since, Mr Selamat and his family have ensconced themselves in a hotel with other relatives of the 239 passengers and crew from Flight MH370, trying to lend support to one another.

Yet what has made Mr Selamat’s pain all the more intense has been the announcement that police believe his son may have had something to do with the plane’s disappearance.

“I will stay here until they find the plane,” he said, saying he believed his son was still alive.

“I’m confident that once they find the plane, everything will be back to normal.”

Mr Selamat’s son has come under scrutiny from investigators because of his job as an aviation mechanic.

Officials have been prising open the backgrounds of all of those who boarded the Boeing 777, trying to unlock the riddle over its disappearance.

They have reportedly found nobody with flying experience but looked hard at Mr Selamat’s son because of his experience with aircraft.

“The focus is on anyone else who might have had aviation skills on that plane,” a senior police official recently said.

At the Everly hotel in Putrajaya, an administrative satellite town south of Kuala Lumpur, Mr Selamat said police had not questioned him about his son, but that the family was happy to help if needed.

As a boy, his son had enjoyed sport, especially football, and he supported both Liverpool and Manchester United, he said.

But his son had always wanted to be an an engineer and Mr Selamat had taken out a loan to put him through school and then college.

He said his son was married, to Erny, and that he had a 15-month-old grandson, Hizat.

For the past three years his son had been working for the Malaysian branch of the Swiss-based ExecuJet Aviation Group, which sells and charters aircraft.

According to the company’s managing director, Graeme Duckworth, Mr Selamat’s son worked as as an airframe and engine engineer.

He often worked on Learjet and Bombardier Challenger planes.

“He is an excellent employee, well respected,” Mr Duckworth said.

Mr Selamat, who comes from Pahang state, to the north-east of Kuala Lumpur, said that in the days since Flight MH370 went missing he had tried to maintain a routine, getting up early and switching on the television news and then going for a walk.

“I am waiting for the latest news,” he said, dressed in a short-sleeved pink shirt. “If I go home, I will not be able to get the latest news.”

He said he had been told that Malaysian Airlines, which is currently paying for the family members to stay in the hotel, had said they would end these payments on Friday.

A spokesman for the airline said the matter was still being decided.

Mr Selamat said he made his living off a small piece of agricultural land given to him as part of a government scheme in the 1980s.

The land was used to grow palm oil, and he got a percentage of the profits.

He had left the hotel just once since 8 March.

“I have a good rest or walk,” he said, explaining his typical day in the hotel, where the air conditioning was turned up fiercely cold and the theme tune from Titanic piped from hidden speakers.

“I walk around the hotel. I feel more comfortable if I move around because there are people I know.”

Mr Selamat’s son had been dispatched to Beijing to work on a jet. His father said he and the 10 or so family members with him, told themselves that if the plane had crashed, some piece of wreckage would have been found by now.

“We still have hope. We are praying that all the passengers are safe.”

He said that a government psychologist, Dr Abdul Halim Mohommaed Hussin, dispatched by the prime minister’s office, came to speak to them with regular updates about twists in the search operation.

“He also gives us some emotional support.”

There are hundreds of relatives in a similar position to Mr Selamat, all waiting for a scrap of information, many trying to contain both anger and grief.

Some of that anger poured over today when two relatives of Chinese passengers on the plane waved a banner outside a press conference about to be addressed by Malaysia’s Transport Minister.

The Chinese families have been stridently critical of the Malaysian authorities for the lack of information.

Those who have flown to Kuala Lumpur have been put up at a separate hotel, where police are said to have kept reporters at bay.

At the Everly hotel, a banner bearing a prayer for the passengers and crew of MH370 was attached to the wall.

As the days since it was placed there have steadily slipped past, so the number of relatives remaining at the hotel has fallen. Most of those who do, do not wish to speak.

“As you know, the other family members are not willing to face the media,” said Mr Selamat.

“For me, if I’m not talking to the media, nobody will know how I am feeling.”

Independent News Service

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