KUALA LUMPUR: OF all nights, March 7, 2014, was one of the rare moments that his handphone battery ran out of juice.
The then chief of the Civil Aviation Department, who was feeling a bit under the weather, was about to hit the sack after a late-night engagement. It had been a long day and he was exhausted. He charged his phone without waiting for it to start up and went to bed.
It was only after Subuh prayers that he switched on his phone. Almost immediately, the torrent of messages started streaming in. They came in a flurry of “pings” that seemed to go on forever.
He stared at the screen in disbelief as hundreds of messages came in quick succession.
Datuk Seri Azharuddin Abdul Rahman thought his heart would stop beating.
Four years on, Azharuddin never thought that the story of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 would become one of the greatest enduring aviation mysteries of all time.
Now chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority Malaysia (formerly DCA), Azharuddin recalled the early hours of March 8 when the Beijing-bound flight vanished from radar screens at 1.19am when it was about to enter Vietnamese airspace.
In the days and weeks and months that followed, Azharuddin would be thrust into the centre of the global media frenzy to shed light on how a 223.5 tonne jetliner, with 239 souls on board, had just... disappeared.
“I made some calls, told some of my senior officers to meet me at the Sama-Sama Hotel where the first press conference was to be held… but at the same time, my mind was racing.
“I, too, wanted answers.
“On the way to the hotel, I received a call, confirming that the missing plane was a Boeing 777. I said to myself: ‘My God, a Triple Seven… that’s a big jet’.
“Initially, I thought it was just another airplane that went off our radar scopes… but, in this industry, we are trained to prepare for the worst-case scenario,” he told the New Straits Times.
As soon as he arrived at the press briefing area, where representatives from local and the international media had converged, he huddled with officials from Malaysia Airlines to discuss their approach to this unfolding drama. They knew that the eyes of the world were on them.
Those who are familiar with Azharuddin know him to be unflappable, a cool customer. But that day, as he fielded questions amid the glare of strobe lights and camera flashes, questions that he barely had answers to, one thing was obvious to the huddled masses in front of him. He was sweating.
He admitted now that, as much as he tried, he could not focus on the flurry of questions coming from the jam-packed room.
“The reporters started asking us (him and then Malaysia Airlines chief executive officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya) questions, like what were the pilot’s last words, how many people were on board, who were they and how come the plane went missing.
“I wanted answers to those question as well,” he said, wearing the same expression he had, exactly four years ago.
He remembers vividly how heavy his heart was, how helpless he felt, looking at the faces of the hundreds of the next of kin of those on board the flight, and how they turned from anxiety to anger and exasperation.
“After we gave the prime minister a full briefing, he advised us to focus on the job at hand and prepare for whatever questions that were to come from the media.
“We understood that the whole world wanted to know what had happened to the aircraft, and where it was.
“We made it a point to answer all these questions to the best of our abilities.”
The daily press conferences and briefings soon became more complex as a multi-agency, multinational search-and-rescue (SAR) mission got underway.
While updates and feedback would trickle in every half an hour, Kuala Lumpur was getting numerous calls from other countries asking for updates, with some offering their assistance in the SAR efforts.
For the last four years, his focus on MH370 has not wavered.
As a fresh search for the missing aircraft began on Jan 21 in a new area of the southern corridor of the Indian Ocean, he hopes that the plane, lying somewhere on the ocean floor, will be found.
“Questions to this mystery, especially on why the aircraft made the turnback and headed for the Indian Ocean, must be answered. When the wreckage is found, we will be able to find out what really happened that night.
“I want answers for the next of kin, for the industry and the global community.
“I want to know...,” he said.