Crime Scene

03.04.15 8:30 AM ET

Shards of Truth in MH17 Investigation

Piece by piece, the Dutch-led investigation into the downing of a 777 over Ukraine last summer is focusing on a Russian-made ground-to-air missile.

GILZE RIJEN, The Netherlands — The investigators looking into the downing of flight MH17 last July over Ukraine say it probably was hit by a Russian-made “Buk missile.” They have not drawn any solid conclusions about who fired it, and they are working to exclude the possibility it was shot out of the air by a warplane, as some Russian media claimed.

As the investigators made clear when they opened up to a press visit, there is now, or eventually will be, enough evidence to assign guilt.

A huge military hangar here houses the war-torn pieces of what once was a Malaysia Airlines flight bound from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 298 people aboard. All of them were killed.

Inside the lonely dome in an empty military field, families of the victims viewed the debris of the pulverized shell of the Boeing 777. A paper-thin sheet of metal, draped like sculpted cloth, holds the remnants of windows through which tourists once marveled at the landscape below. It seems immensely fragile to be carrying all these lives. (Is this actually what we travel in, so high above the ground?) For some family members this was the last physical reminder of their loved ones.

“This part of the wing and the nose of the plane can be touched by relatives of the victims,” said Sara Vernooij, spokesperson of the Dutch Safety Board, which heads the investigation into the crash. “Around 500 relatives are expected to visit in the coming days.” Family can come to the site until Saturday.   

Many of the parts they will see bear the marks of flames. Some are completely blackened. The shelter smells of burned plastic and kerosene. Big heaps of smaller wreckage are visible in containers. As though echoing the war zone where the tragedy occurred, the sound of military helicopters can be heard in the background.

One of the three locations where the wreckage is held is used for the 3D reconstruction of the parts vital for the investigation. The press is not allowed in because it is considered an active crime scene. But from a distance some parts of the plane are visible. This is where the cockpit, a part of the left wing and the business-class section are stored. When asked about the pieces left at the crash site in the conflict zone, spokesperson Vernooij says that all the pieces needed for the reconstruction are here. “The left wing is most relevant,” she adds.  

The vast majority of victims were Dutch, 196 in all; 42 were Malaysian, 27 Australian, 10 British and 12 other victims came from five other countries. The 11 crew members also died.

At the scene of the reconstruction the Dutch public prosecutor was resolute: “The investigation is fully ongoing with more than a hundred internationals involved,” said chief prosecutor Fred Westerbeke. 

“We are looking at forensic evidence, phone tap analyses from the time around the crash, witness accounts and many different scenarios,” he said.

It was a crisp summer’s day when flight MH17 left the airport in The Netherlands bound for Malaysia. Flying high above Ukrainian soil it was shot down without warning by armed forces from the ground and bodies tumbled from the sky like doomsday heralds that sent the Dutch Nation into mourning. Each of the warring parties blamed the other, but the initial indications that the Buk missile was a Russian one fired by the Ukraine rebels supported by Moscow helped galvanize European opinion favoring economic sanctions against the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That the MH17 crashed in the middle of a war zone complicated the recovery of the victims’ bodies and wreckage. Twelve truckloads of debris eventually were transported from the crash site to The Netherlands after the Ukrainian government handed over the management of the investigation to the Dutch.  

The main question remaining is: Which army launched the fatal rocket? “The most likely scenario is a Buk rocket, but we won’t exclude other scenarios,” said chief prosecutor Westerbeke. “It has been suggested that the plane may have been shot at from the air but we want to definitely exclude that possibility,” he said. “We are making good progress. We hope to find the culprits and I have good faith in that.”

The investigation includes Russian representatives, and the Dutch say they are hoping the final report, due out in October, will be based on consensus. But they said that even if there is a dissenting view about the conclusions, they will still be issued.