This story was written by Marc Fisher and reported by Michael Birnbaum, Annie Gowen, Todd C. Frankel, Karen DeYoung, Karoun Demirjian and A. Odysseus Patrick.
PETROPAVLOVKA, Ukraine — Lidiya Goryushko had sold her cows’ milk, cream and cheese at the nearby village market. She hurried home to feed her rowdy flock of ducks. Then she heard a sharp sound, an explosion and a roar that would not stop.
It had to be the Ukrainian military, bombing her town, she thought that Thursday afternoon, July 17. These days, her once-placid home echoes with distant gunfire and explosions, sounds of the war between Ukraine and separatists backed by Russia. She gathered her grandson and moved her family into their basement. They hid for 10 minutes, long enough for an uneasy silence to settle. Then she peeked out from a lace curtain in one of her front windows, stepped into the street and found a white, child’s-sized shoe on the ground.
“I thought that someone had been running and lost their shoes,” she said. “But then I saw them everywhere. Children’s belongings were everywhere.”
The debris fell “slowly, slowly,” said Goryushko, who was born 50 years ago in this rolling region of coal mines and sunflower fields in eastern Ukraine. Shoes got stuck like fruit in the mulberry trees that stand sentry in front of her home. Metal parts pinged on her asbestos-tile roof.
An acquaintance called from a neighboring village “and told us that bodies had started falling on them,” Goryushko said. One town over, a woman’s corpse crashed through a roof into a kitchen. At Goryushko’s daughter’s house, across the street, a red-and-blue shrapnel-scarred piece of the cockpit killed their cat when the heavy shard fell into the garden. Goryushko’s guard dog — a geriatric brown-and-black shepherd mix — spent the rest of the day cowering in his doghouse.
“When we learned it wasn’t a Ukrainian plane, but a commercial plane with children, we could barely understand,” she said. That evening, she said, “we didn’t eat anything. We didn’t speak a lot among ourselves. It wasn’t normal.”
Most of the fuselage, bodies and personal effects from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 dropped in wheat fields five miles east of Goryushko’s house. The bodies rotted for days in the sizzling July sun, trapped in limbo by the conflict, before most of them were packed up for a slow journey to the Netherlands.
“I didn’t go to the crash site,” she said. “My soul cannot stand it.”
Pieces of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a number now retired from the carrier’s daily timetable, remain scattered by roadsides and in open fields. The flight began in the Netherlands and was to end in Malaysia, countries at peace. It ended over Ukraine, a nation torn in two. The jet was shot out of the sky, according to U.S. intelligence officials, most likely by Russian-backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. Video of the rebels’ missiles and the passengers’ belongings and the people themselves, some mangled, some eerily whole, zipped across the globe.
One plane, 298 people, tumbled from the sky, wreckage from an explosion that no one has claimed as their own, onto a land that two nations claim as their right. A pilot on his way home to celebrate his oldest son’s birthday, and one of the world’s most accomplished AIDS researchers, and a family bound for the white sandy beaches of Bali — they were all now the macabre subject of negotiations between foreign governments and local rebels, chips in a brutal battle for rights and recognition. From Washington and Moscow to Kiev and Kuala Lumpur, a week of wrangling over corpses and charred metal became tangled in a global debate over Russia’s eagerness to expand its sphere of influence.
On the ground in Petropavlovka, Goryushko wants the explosions to stop and the war to end. “We just want to be left to have a quiet life,” she said. “We don’t want to be touched, and we don’t want our children to be killed.”
He loved to fly Boeing 777s, he told his friends, because he could feel the runway in his hands as he gripped the controls upon landing. Not even the haunting disappearance in March of another Malaysia Airlines 777 had dimmed Wan Amran Bin Wan Hussin’s enthusiasm for the aircraft.
Wan Amran had been a pilot for two decades, ferrying passengers from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur to cities around the world. Last week, it was Amsterdam — a four-day trip that forced him to miss his oldest son’s 11th birthday.
Before leaving home in his blue Malaysia Airlines uniform, Wan Amran had told his son Yunus to “be good, say your prayers on time, and we’ll celebrate your birthday when I get back.”
On Thursday morning, the crew woke for breakfast at the Sheraton Amsterdam Airport Hotel, then headed across the street to Schiphol Airport, the flight attendants in long, two-piece blue floral uniforms based on a kebaya, their country’s national dress.
Wan Amran — a youthful 50-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair, a mustache and a wiry frame — was a devout Muslim and devoted father. He and his wife, Mariyam Yusoff, and their two sons, Yunus and Irfan, 8, had just returned from Wan Amran’s home state of Perak, where he had told relatives he was thinking of performing the hajj this year — the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are expected to make once in their lives.
Now Wan Amran took time to text his wife, as was his habit. “See you tomorrow,” he wrote.
Wan Amran boarded the plane around 11:15 a.m. with 14 other crew members: his co-pilot, Eugene Choo Jin Leong, 50; two first officers in their 20s; a 54-year-old supervisor; and flight attendants in their 30s and 40s. One had swapped shifts to get on Flight 17. Together, they’d flown tens of thousands of hours.
Most of the crew had worked for the government-owned airline for 10 to 20 years. Malaysia Airlines was a dream job, affording travel, good pay and job security, even though the company had been hemorrhaging money since 2011.
The flight plan to Kuala Lumpur called for the plane to journey at 35,000 feet over Ukrainian airspace, well above the limit of 32,000 feet that Ukrainian aviation officials had imposed to keep passenger traffic beyond the reach of the rebel fighters’ shoulder-fired air defense weapons. Later, as the plane entered Ukrainian airspace, air traffic controllers would ask the pilots to slip down to 33,000 feet, just above the restricted airspace.
About three hours into the flight, at 3:20 p.m. Amsterdam time, Ukrainian air traffic control said they had lost contact with the plane.
Guda Mastenbroek believed in miracles.
Maybe her daughter, Tina Mastenbroek, and her son-in-law and grandson weren’t on the plane, Guda told her son Gerrit. Maybe Tina and her family had been bumped. The plane might have been overbooked. It had happened to her 10 years ago, Guda reminded him. She’d been in China on a trip and set to fly to Shanghai. But her China Eastern Airlines flight was overbooked by six people. Bumped, she took a later flight. The one she missed crashed, killing all 53 passengers and crew members.
That was a miracle.
Guda believed in miracles. Her son did not.
Gerrit Mastenbroek, a postal service director in the Netherlands, had been on his way home to Almere, outside Amsterdam, when he tuned the radio to BNR, the news station. An announcer broke into the usual run of headlines. A passenger jet had crashed. Malaysia Airlines, departed at noon from Amsterdam, headed for Kuala Lampur.
My sister and her family are flying Malaysia Airlines today, Gerrit thought.
Tina, 49; her husband, Erik van Heijningen, 54; and their son, Zeger, 17, were headed to Bali for a holiday.
Gerrit, 53, didn’t know his sister’s departure time. But Gerrit, a serious man who prefers to deal in facts, didn’t doubt they were on that plane. He called his 80-year-old mother, who lives alone about an hour away in Venhuizen, a small town where she’d raised her children.
Guda hadn’t heard the news.
“Do you know exactly which plane she was on?” Gerrit asked her.
No, his mom said, but Tina had been scheduled for a noon flight.
Gerrit told his mother he’d pick up his wife and drive right over. He called his other sister, a police detective who was on vacation outside Rome. Stunned, she jumped in a car and began the 15-hour drive back to Holland.
Gerrit didn’t speed as he drove to Venhuizen. He expected only the worst news.
Like hundreds of other people, he called the airport. He was told to come to Terminal 1. He picked up his mom.
“Maybe, maybe she’s overbooked,” Guda said.
“Yes,” Gerrit replied, “but if she’s overbooked, then she’d call to tell you this.”
Tina was the talker in the family, the one who kept everyone updated. She was in her 25th year as a Dutch-language teacher, and she’d been married for 25 years. In a few months, she’d turn 50. She’d talked about having a big party to celebrate those milestones when they got back from vacation.
Tina always called Gerrit. Now he called his sister. Her cellphone rang busy.
The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, For Immediate Release, July 17, 2014: Readout of the President’s Call with President Putin of Russia.
President Obama spoke with Russian President Putin today about the situation in Ukraine and additional sanctions on Russian individuals and entities . . .
The news release continued for eight more sentences about the mounting crisis in Ukraine and the Russian role in providing heavy weapons to Ukrainian separatists. The final sentence mentioned another development:
During the call, President Putin noted the early reports of a downed passenger jet near the Russia-Ukraine border.
Charles Kupchan, the National Security Council’s senior director for Europe, listened to the Obama-Putin call. A longtime professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a veteran of the Bill Clinton White House, Kupchan had just returned to government service a month earlier. Now, as he heard the two presidents discuss the sketchy reports about the downed plane, “I’m thinking to myself, what’s going on here? We know nothing about this,” he recalled.
At noon, Kupchan, 56, convened a scheduled interagency meeting on the situation in Ukraine, but as notes started to pour into the room, the national security apparatus cranked into overdrive. News media reports were collected. The U.S. Embassy in Kiev confirmed the crash. Kupchan suspended the meeting, got his staff together and “started figuring out, one, what had happened, and number two, what our game plan would be.”
The president phoned the leaders of Ukraine, Malaysia and the Netherlands. “Usually, when the president calls a foreign leader,” Kupchan said, “you have a little bit of advance notice, you do a package with a scene setter, talking points. In this case, we had a flurry of calls . . . done on a very short fuse.”
White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough talked to Kupchan about getting U.S. specialists, investigators and aviation experts on the move.
It was, Kupchan said, “a very kind of emotional setting. . . . It takes the international crisis that’s been ongoing in Ukraine, and it gives it this kind of immediate and arresting impact.”
In Wilmington, Del., Obama told reporters that the crash “looks like it might be a terrible tragedy.” His first priority, he said, was to determine whether any Americans were on the flight.
4:28 p.m. Thursday, July 17, washingtonpost.com:
American intelligence agencies have confirmed that the Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, a U.S. official said.
By Friday morning, White House officials were sifting through a growing mass of data — social media, intercepted calls released by the Ukrainians, information from allies, U.S.-gathered intelligence.
At a 7:45 a.m. meeting in the Situation Room, the Deputies Committee, aides one step below top officials, came together to analyze the evidence and plan the response. Don’t rush to conclusions, the president had told staffers.
A strategy emerged: The investigation had to be an international one. It would be essential to press the Russians for unfettered access to the crash site. And it was imperative to get as much evidence about the downing into the public domain as possible — if they could resolve the tension that often arises between the White House and intelligence officials over what information to release.
“We knew that there would be a contest [with Russia] over the narrative,” Kupchan said, “and that as a consequence we needed to be as forthcoming as possible with the evidence.”
Statements were prepared for Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, making the case that Russia bore responsibility for supplying pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists with SA-11 missiles, the kind used in the shoot-down.
“We wanted to say, this is what we think happened,” Kupchan said. “Here’s the evidence on which we base this assessment.”
Evgeny Bekasov, editor in chief of Russia 24, a state television station in Moscow, was meeting with editorial staff leaders when the first reports came in.
“There was, like, a pause,” he said. “A silence.” Immediately, “we understood that no matter who is actually to blame, we would be appointed as responsible.”
As the man in charge of editorial decisions, Bekasov’s job is both to present the news and to defend his nation.
“Our concerns that we would be charged [with responsibility] were confirmed the following day, including by the president of the United States,” Bekasov said. “This caused a desire in us to prove the opposite.”
Most Russian TV viewers get their news from state-owned stations such as Russia 24. So do many people in rebel-held eastern Ukraine, where separatists have cut off Ukrainian news channels. At rebel headquarters in Donetsk, Russia 24 is a constant companion.
Bekasov doesn’t look or act like a Soviet-era state broadcaster. He is in his mid-30s, wears jeans and a slightly rumpled checkered shirt, and he watches CNN around the clock. He tossed around a toy baseball that read “I ♥ NY,” although he prefers basketball, and particularly the San Antonio Spurs.
Russia 24’s crash coverage relied on a small cadre of Russian civil aviation and military experts. “We tried to get our experts to doubt these statements of Ukrainian and foreign newsmakers or experts who were saying that it’s Russia’s fault,” Bekasov said.
In the first 24 hours, Russia 24 featured segments speculating on the possibility that the intended target of the missile could have been Putin’s plane, and asking why Ukrainian dispatchers, as they claimed, had intentionally directed the Malaysian aircraft to fly into an active conflict zone.
“I don’t think I really look like the loudspeaker of the Kremlin,” Bekasov said, grinning. “This is a stereotype . . . formed in the Soviet times.
“As state TV, our mission is to support the interests of the state,” he said. “[Official] opinions are determinative for our programs, for our channel. But that does not mean we do not have a critical analysis. . . . The Kremlin is not telling me what do to. On the plane coverage, it was fully my decision.”
After 8 p.m. on July 17, Gerrit Mastenbroek and his mother, Guda, arrived at Schiphol, the world’s 14th-busiest airport. They approached two Dutch military police officers wearing bulky bulletproof vests, with military rifles slung across their chests.
The police directed them to the Dakota Bar, a flight-themed restaurant a floor above the churn of travelers. A section of the bar had been closed off for relatives. Outside the picture window, an observation deck looked over the intricate ballet of taxiing jetliners.
The relatives, maybe 100 to 150 of them, were loaded onto two buses. They had a police escort. Gerrit looked out a window and saw that the police had closed nearby intersections, giving the families an unimpeded route to the hotel where they would wait to hear from a Malaysia Airlines representative.
Families streamed in from across the Netherlands, several hundred people now in a big conference room, peppering airline officials with questions. A passenger list was still not available. Yes, a plane had crashed. No, they didn’t know for certain who was on it.
Gerrit’s mother held on to her hope that Tina and her family were on another flight. That’s why her phone didn’t work. That’s why she hadn’t called.
Airline staffers handed out missing-person paperwork. Gerrit filled it out. Names, ages, address, nationalities, identifying details. Members of the military police collected the sheets.
The clock moved so slowly.
Shortly after midnight, two airline workers sat down with each family at private tables, going over a preliminary list of passengers. Relatives gave names. Workers confirmed spellings. Then they showed each family the names on the manifest, so they could see for themselves.
Guda saw the names.
Gerrit felt a weight descend upon him. He had known, but now it was final.
In Sydney, immunologist David Cooper woke about 7 a.m. July 18 to pack for a trip to Melbourne to attend a biennial international AIDS conference. The cream of his fellow researchers would be there, including Joep Lange, a renowned Dutch doctor who had helped Cooper set up an AIDS research clinic in Bangkok.
Lange and Cooper had known each other since the late 1980s, when they met at a briefing by drug companies on emerging treatment for AIDS. They went on vacations together, and Cooper introduced him to the Australian bush.
Lange, 59, whose partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, was a former AIDS nurse, was the scientific director for the organization he’d set up to fight AIDS, the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development. Lange had helped persuade reluctant drug companies to work together, combining promising new treatments against the epidemic that was sweeping the world.
The Bangkok clinic — dubbed the HIV Netherlands Australia Thailand Research Collaboration — was a big success story in the global response to AIDS. The clinic had cared for almost 1,500 adults and 250 children with AIDS since it opened in 1996.
Still in his underwear, Cooper walked to a desk he shared with his wife, Dorrie, in an alcove connected to their bedroom. Cooper booted up his computer and scanned through e-mails. One subject line caught his eye: “Schocking news.”
The e-mail was from an Italian friend, Giuseppe Pantaleo, head of an AIDS laboratory in Switzerland. “Dear friends, dramatic news,” it said. “Joop and Jaqilne were on the plane suttered down by the missile over Ucraine. Geppe.”
Cooper didn’t know what the message meant. He turned to his wife, who was still in bed, reading the news on her iPad. She saw the headlines about Malaysia Flight 17.
Their friend was dead.
On Sunday night, as 12,000 AIDS researchers and activists from dozens of nations gathered, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, the French virologist who won the Nobel Prize for co-discovering the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which causes AIDS, delivered the welcome address. She called for a minute’s silence to honor Lange, van Tongeren and four other passengers headed to the conference.
“I strongly believe that all of us being here for the next week to discuss and learn is indeed what our colleagues who are no longer here with us would have wanted,” she said.
The conference went on, despite heightened resentment toward the Russian government. Among AIDS activists, doctors and scientists, Russia had long been a pariah. It is one of the few big countries where the rate of HIV infections is accelerating. A lack of government funding for needle exchanges, limited use of antiretroviral therapy and hostile legal and social attitudes toward homosexuality make it harder to fight AIDS, medical experts said.
In March, AIDS activists debated whether to attend a conference in Moscow seeking ways to slow the rapid growth of the disease in Russia. Some AIDS groups refused to attend because of the government’s policies. Others believed it was more important to engage with Russian authorities than to trumpet their differences on the right approach to AIDS.
Lange went to the conference.
Wan Amran rarely spoke about his work. But as the pilot and his friends relaxed after prayers over a plate of spicy noodles not long ago, his companions carefully broached a subject they were all still wondering about: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which took off from Kuala Lumpur on March 8 and vanished without a trace.
“Out of curiosity, I asked him, what if . . . he went down?” said Nik Hilmi Kadir, director of an energy company. “He said, ‘If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. I have to accept it.’ ”
During the holy month of Ramadan, when Wan Amran fasted by day, he would break the fast after sundown and then join friends at the local surau — a small temporary mosque in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur.
Wan Amran, one of four Malaysia Airlines pilots who prayed there, was well liked at the mosque. He let his friends ask all their questions about the vanished flight. What did he think happened to the plane? He didn’t know. Could psychics find it? He didn’t think so. Wasn’t it boring just ferrying people from Point A to Point B?
No, Wan Amran gently told his friends, it’s more than that, it’s about keeping passengers safe.
The mystery of Flight 370 is still palpable in Malaysia. Huge billboards reading “Pray for MH370” still loom over the highway, showing a small boy with his hands pressed up against an airport window, a ghostly plane departing.
For Wan Amran and his co-workers, the disappearance of Flight 370 was a lingering storm cloud. The airline, which employs 20,000 people, lost $139 million in the first quarter of this year. There was talk of a sale, restructuring, privatization. The workers weren’t able to properly mourn the loss of Flight 370’s 12 crew members, as their remains have not been found.
Now, almost impossibly, there was another disaster. In Malaysia, a small country of 30 million people, the news flew across social media even though it was the middle of the night. Radio stations played sad songs, as they had after Flight 370 disappeared.
Wan Amran’s wife, Mariyam Yusoff, had just finished her prayers when she checked her phone and saw a message from her children’s religious teacher: a Malaysia Airlines plane had crashed. She posted a stark photo of the plane’s passenger manifest on Facebook with the words “Pray for my husband.”
At home in Alam Impian, a neighborhood of freshly built townhouses with red-tiled roofs, children’s playgrounds and traffic roundabouts, the easy rhythm of Wan Amran’s life included badminton on Wednesdays and a form of soccer called futsal on Fridays, bike rides with the kids, breakfasts at his favorite restaurant for Malaysian blue rice, and frequent family trips to places such as London and Istanbul.
Now, such routines were precious memories. Yusoff told friends the family had been planning to visit relatives for Hari Raya, the Malaysian celebration at the end of the fasting month, when families gather as Americans do at Christmas. Instead, they wait for Wan Amran’s body and the comfort of a traditional Islamic burial, which calls for the body to be bathed and wrapped in plain cloth, usually on the day of death.
They must wait for the remains before they can offer the prayer for his body. Only then can they truly begin to grieve.
On the seventh day after the crash, the people of the Netherlands, home to 193 of Flight 17’s victims, queued up in orderly lines, flowers in hand, to stand with neighbors and colleagues who had lost loved ones because, 1,689 miles away, an ancient rivalry has once again led adults to take up arms against one another.
The mourners stepped solemnly around a bed of flowers in the shape of a jetliner, a symbol of liberation from the bounds of the planet. Each person put down a flower, born of the very earth that all those miles to the east is now rutted by shards of metal, littered with the belongings of men, women and 80 children who fell from the sky.
Birnbaum reported from Petropavlovka; Gowen from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Frankel from Amsterdam; DeYoung and Fisher from Washington; Demirjian from Moscow; and Patrick from Melbourne, Australia.