Ukrainian residents who saw bodies falling from the sky describe the horrors they saw on Thursday, July 17 when Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 crashed in southern Ukraine. Story continues after video.
The local head of the rebels, Alexander Borodai, said MH17 got shot down. But he reiterated that his forces did not do it, telling reporters that the rebels lacked the firepower to hit an airplane so high up.
According to Ukrainian government officials, the rebels removed debris and 38 bodies from the scene as part of an attempt to cover up what happened, and money, jewelry and other items had been looted from the dead. The officials urged relatives to cancel the credit cards of victims.
Borodai, the rebel leader who calls himself the prime minister of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic, denied that his forces removed any bodies.
“There is even a house where a body fell, the landlord asked us to remove, and we haven’t because we are not allowed to move anything,” he said on Saturday.
Victims return home
On Wednesday, nearly a week after the crash, several of the victims’ bodies returned to the Netherlands. A lone bugler sounding the traditional military farewell “Last Post” marked the arrival Wednesday in the Netherlands of the first dead from the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
The grieving nation then held a moment of silence to honor those killed in the crash of the jetliner, downed last week by a suspected surface-to-air missile over war-torn eastern Ukraine.
In a ceremony rich with martial symbolism — from saluting soldiers to the haunting tune used to send war dead to their rest — 40 bodies borne in simple wooden caskets were solemnly unloaded from two military planes. Soldiers then walked them to waiting hearses and lowered them inside before rendering a final salute.
The only sounds: the hushed orders of soldiers and a whipping wind.
A long line of hearses, accompanied by police, carried the remains slowly toward a Dutch military base in Hilversum, where forensic investigators will begin the grim work of identifying them. Thousands of Dutch residents lined roads and overpasses along parts of the route to pay respects to the dead.
Some applauded as the hearses finally passed through the base gates, some tossed flowers on the vehicles. Others stood silently, red-eyed.
“The Netherlands are in shock, and Hilversum, as well,” said the city’s mayor, Pieter Broertjes.
Harun Calehr, whose two nephews were among the 298 people killed in the crash, called the ceremony “very moving and a beautiful tribute.”
“It feels like we’re just a big grieving family, and that somewhat helps in coping with this horrible, devastating event,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
The somber ceremony in Eindhoven followed a moving and meaningful send-off in Ukraine. There, white-gloved Ukrainian soldiers respectfully carried the bodies of the victims to the aircraft that flew them home to a waiting Dutch king and queen on the nation’s official day of mourning.
The honors afforded the remains contrasted sharply with how they were first treated in death — first blown out of the sky, then allowed to remain exposed to the elements for days. In some cases, furious Dutch officials say, they were stripped of their personal belongings.
Of the 298 people who died aboard Flight 17, 193 were Dutch citizens, and it was virtually impossible to miss the signs that the Netherlands was a nation in mourning Wednesday.
Flags were flown at half-staff, and the nation’s iconic windmills were placed in “mourning position” — wings tilted to the right. Courts suspended all trials, and even commercials were pulled from Dutch television and radio.
Buses and trains were to stop on roads nationwide during the moment of silence, and landings at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport were paused as a sign of respect. In the evening, hundreds attended a memorial service at St. Joris church in Amersfoort.
“Love will win. Light will break through,” one relative of a family killed in the crash told mourners.
The commemorations come amid continued confusion over who shot the plane down, and why, and what may have happened to the evidence where the plane fell to earth in fields deep in eastern Ukrainian territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels.
‘Black boxes’ arrive in UK
It took days for Ukrainian rebels who control the area of the crash site to hand over the bodies and the airliner’s black boxes to Malaysian officials.
Now, the bodies are at a Dutch military base and the voice and flight data recorders are in Britain for what will be a detailed scouring by international analysts.
But Dutch crash investigators leading the inquiry said Wednesday they still don’t have everything they need.
“At the time of writing, the investigators have not yet been able to visit the site of the crash and conduct their investigation under safe conditions,” the Dutch Safety Board said in a statement Wednesday.
“In order to conduct an effective investigation, the investigators must have the opportunity to move around the entire investigation site freely, investigate materials and traces from up close and secure them for further study where necessary,” the board said. “At present, the investigators’ safety has not been guaranteed.”
Instead, investigators are working in Kiev and in the Netherlands using photos and other sources of information, the board said.
Given conditions on the ground at the crash site, which sits essentially in the middle of a war zone, it’s impossible to say when investigators might get the access they want.
And while the black boxes are now in the hands of skilled investigators who are working hard to unspool the crucial information contained in them, it may take weeks for that analysis to yield results, the safety board said.
Similarly, work to identify the bodies may take weeks or even months, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.
Some bodies unaccounted for
Officials gave conflicting reports about how many bodies were on the train that carried from the crash site to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where they left for the Netherlands on Wednesday.
Malaysian official Mohd Sakri, who traveled on the train with the remains, said there were 282 corpses and 87 body parts aboard — the same tally Ukrainian officials earlier gave to describe the remains recovered from the crash site.
But Dutch investigators only confirmed there were at least 200 bodies transported from the crash site, said Jan Tuinder, head of the Dutch delegation.
Another Dutch official said investigators were still going through the train cars and it was possible that all the crash victims were on the train.
But officials said Monday that at the least, the bodies of 16 people were still unaccounted for. Their remains may still be scattered across a debris field spanning several miles.
Bodies landed near orphanage
Nearly a week after the crash, many residents remain traumatized, especially the smallest.
Children at an orphanage in Rozsypne village were playing outside when the plane exploded. They saw the body of one boy hit the earth.
One of their teachers, Valentina, remembers their horror.
“These are dead bodies!” the children screamed, Valentina said.
She points to a large divot in the grass where a woman’s body had landed, not far from where the children were playing.
Some of the orphans screamed, Valentina said. Others just sat and cried.
The latest accusations
Meanwhile, the finger-pointing between Russia, Ukraine, Ukrainian rebels and the United States over who shot down the plane gets more complicated by the day.
On Wednesday, a UK security source said the British government has intelligence showing a surface-to-air missile was launched from rebel-held territory in the seconds before Flight 17 crashed. The findings suggest the weapon was a Buk missile system, known in the West as the SA-11, according to the source.
The analysis comports with U.S. findings released last week by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power.
The UK source also said British officials say they find “persuasive” conversations intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence indicating separatists had an SA-11 in their possession as early as July 14.
U.S. officials say pro-Russian rebels were responsible for shooting down the plane, but they say the rebels probably didn’t know they were targeting a commercial airliner.
Less clear is who was ultimately responsible for the jet’s destruction. Rebels blame Ukraine, Ukraine blames both rebels and Russia, and Russia points the finger back at Ukraine’s military.
Vitaly Nayda, Ukraine’s director of informational security, told CNN’s Kyung Lah that the person who shot down the flight was “absolutely” a Russian. “A Russian-trained, well-equipped, well-educated officer … pushed that button deliberately,” he said.
“We taped conversations” between a Russian officer and his office in Moscow, Nayda said. “We know for sure that several minutes before the missile was launched, there was a report” to a Russian officer that the plane was coming, he said.
Moscow has denied claims that it pulled the trigger. And Russian Army Lt. Gen. Andrei Kartapolov suggested a Ukrainian jet fighter may have shot the plane down.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko rejected that in an exclusive interview with CNN, saying that all Ukrainian aircraft were on the ground at the time.
Pro-Russian rebels have repeatedly denied responsibility for the attack.