News Advisor Piecing together a disaster: How the MH17 mystery will be solved

Piecing together a disaster: How the MH17 mystery will be solved

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Seated before the powerful UN Security Council, a middle-aged Dutchman imagines the final moments, the horror, of flight MH17.

“I’ve been thinking how horrible must have been the final moments of their lives when they knew the plane was going down,” says Frans Timmermans, Foreign Affairs Minister of the Netherlands.

“Did they lock hands with their loved ones?” he asks his audience. “Did they hold their children close to their hearts?”

He pauses, tears choking words.

“Did they look each other in the eyes one final time in a wordless goodbye?”

We will never know, says the Dutchman.

But we are desperate to know more, about these last moments, and the series of idiotic or calculated acts that preceded them.

Speculation mounts that an SA-11 surface-to-air missile was fired at the airliner, flying at an altitude of approximately 33,000 feet, and unleashed its payload of white-hot shrapnel and a rending shock wave.

Masked rebel fighters in camouflage, Kalashnikovs and stolen jewellery have repeatedly hindered the world’s efforts to find out if this is true, and who fired the missile.

“Just imagine that you first get the news that your husband was killed, and then within two or three days you see images of some thug removing the wedding band from their hands.”

Those were Mr Timmermans words to the UN, echoing the world’s anger at how poorly the investigation has been conducted to date.

Possible shrapnel holes in MH17 fuselage. Source: AAP.
Possible shrapnel holes in MH17 fuselage. Photo: AAP

How it should have been done

If the plane had fallen to earth in Australia and not the middle of a war zone, the site would have been immediately secured by specially trained police, emergency crews and scientists.

Each pocket of wreckage would be split into a grid. Every piece of evidence – bodies, body parts, luggage, and pieces of fuselage – would be photographed and assigned a unique ID number.

Hardly a single piece would be moved until it had been catalogued, unlike in Ukraine, where personal items have been rifled through and plane wreckage sawn in half.

A pro-Russian rebel holds up a toy found at the crash site. Source: AAP.
A pro-Russian rebel holds up a toy found at the crash site. Source: AAP.

Forensic biologist at Griffith University Kirsty Wright, an internationally renowned DNA profiling expert who is on-call to fly to the crash site, says this recovery phase is crucial.

“Leaving those items where they are, thoroughly documenting them by photographing them and giving them a unique number, that’s something that’s very important for the sake of continuity.”

The boundary of the site would be established far beyond where the last piece of wreckage is found.

This buffer zone is important. Years after September 11, an aerial disaster at a much lower altitude, bodies were found on the tops of buildings and skyscrapers at vast distances from Ground Zero, according to Ms Wright.

A Ukrainian woman wanders through the wreckage. Source: AAP
A Ukrainian woman wanders through the wreckage. Source: AAP

“In this instance, because the impact happened at 33,000 feet, we just don’t really know how far that wreckage and the bodies have spread. So quite significantly overestimating that search area is the best way to recover all the bodies,” she says.

The local emergency crews, and certainly the rebels, do not seem to have been so methodical, which for any normal investigation would be detriment.

But this is no normal crash scene, says Geoffrey Dell, Associate Professor in Accident Investigation and Forensics at Central Queensland University.

Because it fell apart in the air, the wreckage trail of MH17 is estimated to be 15 kilometres long, making it a “mammoth task” to search the entire area, he told The New Daily. “Who knows if they’ve really done a systematic grid search to find all the bits?” he says.

What investigators will look for

According to Professor Dell, who has 30 years’ experience in air crash investigations, the international sleuths will seek to “triangulate”, or find three independent proofs, of the cause.

Such evidence might be found in: the black boxes, individual pieces of fuselage, a reconstruction of the plane, and the pattern of its disintegration.

The two black boxes (orange in fact) are currently being examined in the UK – one which records all conversation in the cockpit and another all flight data.

If the voice recorder cut out abruptly, that might suggest a missile attack. If flight data shows that one of the engines suddenly stopped working, that might be where the missile struck.

Investigators will also scour the wreckage, when allowed to do so by the rebels.

As reported in Slate, which interviewed several crash investigation experts, shooting down a plane with a surface-to-air missile leaves a lot of evidence.

Missiles like the SA-11 don’t usually hit their targets directly, but instead explode in close proximity to the aircraft, showering it in shrapnel, aviation expert Robert W. Mann said. This would leave holes, pockmarks and shredding in the fuselage.

Numerous photographs have been published, in the New York Times and elsewhere, showing pieces of fuselage riddled with holes.

Justin Bronk, analyst in Military Science at the Royal United Services Institute in London, described these holes as a shrapnel pattern “consistent with” the blast from an SA-11 missile.

“But to get a conclusive answer you would have to take the aircraft away and completely reconstruct it as best as you could,” Mr Bronk told AAP.

A piece of the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 lies beside a road. Photo: Getty

Modelling the disaster

A full reconstruction of the plane is ideal, but may not be possible, Professor Dell says, because of fire damage.

“Reconstruction and simulation activities are normal things that you would do, if the circumstances permit. But it remains to be seen whether there’s enough wreckage that’s not completely consumed,” says the Professor.

The pattern of disintegration might also yield clues. For example, light items go down wind and heavy items follow a ballistic trail. Any disturbance of the normal pattern could reveal whether the plane simply malfunctioned, or was attacked.

“You’d be looking in the wreckage for evidence of atypical damage,” Professor Dell explains.

Body of evidence

Corpses may also provide clues in the form of burn marks, explosive residue and shrapnel wounds, according to forensic biologist Kirsty Wright – evidence that will be removed, photographed, and sent away for further analysis.

“If there is a suggestion of a criminal element, whether it’s intentional or not, that’s taken into consideration during the autopsy,” Ms Wright says.

Sadly, as with the MH370 disaster, answers will not come quickly.

“We’re talking more of weeks and months, unfortunately, with something like this – a large number of victims and this kind of aviation disaster,” Ms Wright says.

Once the cause of the crash is determined, the real political investigation will begin – who and why?

We can only hope, along with Foreign Minister Timmermans, that if the final words and actions of the victims are unknowable, that the culprits can be found and brought to justice as some small solace for grieving families and nations.

—with AAP

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