Under normal circumstances, among the first to swarm a plane crash are trained professionals. Even under the best of conditions, they’re painstakingly methodical: They seal off the site to prevent tampering, videotape, examine, preserve parts of the wreckage and send bits off for analysis. They never know which part of a wing or fuselage might tell the tale, so every small find is crucial.
But the circumstances of Thursday’s Malaysia Airlines plane crash were anything but normal. It was obvious from the moment a giant explosion sounded in eastern Ukraine, spawning smoke that billowed black across the horizon. Among the first to arrive on the scene weren’t first responders, clipboard-carrying inspectors or professionals trained to deal with such emergencies. They were off-duty coal miners and camera-toting locals, tromping through the wreckage, according to news reports.
“I was working in the field on my tractor when I heard the sound of a plane and then a bang,” one local resident told Reuters. “Then I saw the plane hit the ground and break in two. There was thick black smoke.”
The site became the domain of souvenir seekers, children and amateur investigators, picking their way through the detritus of a terrible plane crash that claimed the lives of all 298 aboard. “This is a spine,” one gun-carrying man clad in tan camouflage said, according to New York Times footage. He pointed at the charred earth and remains. “A spine here. These are hands.”
Others walked with their children. Some sprayed water everywhere. A few took pictures and video and uploaded it to YouTube. The chaos surrounding the wreck continued this morning amid an Associated Press report that the coal miners were still out there, combing through the wreckage.
“It’s a contaminated site,” Mark Rosenker, the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told CBS. “It’s absolutely horrible. Parts could be missing.”
The compromised scene in a war zone further complicated an already difficult investigation with the gravest of implications. The sorry situation left foreign governments, from the White House to Canberra, Australia and Amsterdam, scrambling to get international teams to the site as quickly as possible. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was in discussions with separatist rebels Friday morning to secure both safe passage to the site and a truce between rebels and the Ukrainian government to facilitate an international investigation.
The fact that everything about the crash is in dispute between feuding forces will, analysts said, make getting to the bottom of what happened even harder. At first, the separatists who rule the region allegedly wouldn’t even allow Ukrainian authorities to investigate the crash.
Now, amid a deluge of denials, rebuttals, claims and misinformation, what has taken center stage in this feud of geopolitical import are the “black boxes.” And where, exactly, they may be.
The AP reported early today that Ukraine rebels claimed to have two devices. Reuters reported one of its photographers saw one being taken from the crash scene. Who knows what’s true and what’s not.
Made famous most recently in the last Malaysia Airlines saga, the so-called “black boxes” are nearly-indestructible cockpit voice and flight-data recorders most commercial airplanes carry so that in the event of an accident or crash investigators can study what went wrong. The devices have proven key to finding the cause of numerous crashes — and the party that controls them will be in the best position to determine what happened.
Konstantin Knyrik, a spokesman for the separatist militia called the South East Front, explained to Interfax that separatists have the black box and have handed it over to rebel-friendly authorities in eastern Ukraine. “They will engage in documentation and investigation of the incident,” he told Interfax. The Daily Beast reported a Russian radio station claimed the recorder has been “sent to Moscow for investigation.”
Which is exactly what other countries don’t want. The Australian Foreign Affairs minister urged “the separatists to cooperate” in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald: “If they have taken the black box, they need to return it immediately.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak agreed. “An international team must have full access to the crash site,” he said. “And no one should interfere with the area, or move any debris including the black box.”
But much of the area has already been interfered with, and what some found there has been horrifying. Many of the bodies seem almost frozen in time, the New York Times noted. One woman wearing black was still raising her arm when discovered “as if signaling someone.” Another man — in socks but not pants — lay with his arm on his stomach “as if in repose.” Others wore their seat belts. And one man had his iPhone by his side. Scattered all about were other artifacts of daily life: toiletries, cologne, a bicycle.
That’s why everyone should concentrate on “who is going to properly protect the evidence and do the job of handling the bodies,” James Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the Wall Street Journal.
Though that hasn’t happened yet. As workers, policemen and coal miners sift through the remains this morning, little has emerged beyond rumor as to who may have shot down the plane and why.
The situation needs “unimpeded international investigation as quickly as possible,” the White House said in a statement late Thursday. “We urge all concerned — Russia, the pro-Russian separatists, and Ukraine — to support an immediate cease-fire in order to ensure safe and unfettered access to the crash site for international investigators and in order to facilitate the recovery of remains.”