AirAsia passenger families show quiet dignity in the face of unimaginable loss

First AirAsia crash victim identified
First AirAsia crash victim identified

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Story highlights

  • CNN crew watches as passengers' families wait for news
  • Crew notices stoic dignity of the family members
  • As the days wore on, more and more began to voice their frustration
It was a stark and painful reminder. The sound of fireworks echoing through the streets of Surabaya as the clock dragged toward midnight underlining the fact that so many of the victims of QZ8501 were on their way to Singapore to celebrate the new year there.
They never made it. And for the past four days, the CNN crew has witnessed the shock, disbelief, frustration, and finally the devastating realization from the families of those missing.
Since Sunday evening, we have been staffing our live camera position 24 hours a day just a few paces from the crisis center at Surabaya International Airport.
We have spoken to family members and friends, trying to negotiate the fine line between prying and reporting, trying to show the human side of a disaster without gross intrusion into private grief.
What has been noticeable has been the stoic dignity of the family members we have met.
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AirAsia search hampered by bad weather
AirAsia search hampered by bad weather

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Family loses 7 in AirAsia disaster
Family loses 7 in AirAsia disaster

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Of course there have been scenes of raw emotion. We met Oei Endang Sulsilowati late on Sunday evening, leaning on the arm of her daughter for support.
Her brother Oei Jimmy Sentosa Winata, his wife and two children were on 8501. As she told us her story, she repeatedly broke down. Her brother, she said always flew Garuda, the national airline. But this time for some reason he had chosen AirAsia.
She paused and broke down again as the awful truth hit home.
But she managed to contain her grief and resume her quiet, dignified wait for news. And that was how most family members we saw at the crisis center dealt with their situation.
The atmosphere inside the center as they gathered for regular updates was restrained. They were shielded from the media but windows lining the building allowed the media to look inside.
Up to 100 family members sat quietly, grim-faced. Some talked but most just stared ahead and waited.
Not all though. One image that stuck with me: a man, head bowed and tears streaming down his face, his hand resting on the shoulder of a boy in front, most likely his son.
But as the days wore on, more and more began to voice their frustration about the lack of information.
Authorities set up video links and Skype calls with search and rescue headquarters in Jakarta, and tried to increase the number of briefings, but there was little concrete news to relate.
Until Tuesday afternoon. A press conference from search and rescue in Jakarta broke the news everyone had feared but needed to know.
The mystery of Flight 8501 had been solved. Debris had been found, and authorities were 95% certain it was part of the AirAsia flight.
As if the news itself wasn't bad enough, the local broadcaster carrying the press conference live began showing pictures of a body, with few clothes remaining, floating in the water.
Our cameraman Paul Devitt was filming and he described the scene as chaos as relatives broke down. Stretchers were brought for at least two people who fainted.
One close friend of a passenger described scenes of hysteria, screaming and people collapsing at the news of the debris and compounded by the brutal pictures carried on television.
But apart from that one outpouring, the scene at the airport has mostly been one of quiet dignity in the face of unimaginable loss. Many on board were families. In one case seven members of the same family, now thought to have perished.
The waiting goes on as the weather conditions obstruct search operations to locate the main fuselage, thought to contain most of the passengers.
The grieving goes on, too, but behind closed doors. And it will continue long after the last of the passengers' remains are finally brought to this city, identified and buried.