NewsPublic Affairs / July 18, 2014

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 Crash: What We Know

Investigators are working to learn more about the downing of a passenger jet over Ukraine — and who might be responsible. The plane had nearly 300 people on board; none survived.2014-07-18T05:46:00-04:00
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Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 Crash: What We Know

This post was updated at 9:15 a.m. ET.

One day after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, investigators are working to learn more about the crash — and who might be responsible. The passenger jet had nearly 300 people on board; none survived.

The plane had not sent a distress signal. It reportedly came apart at a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, with its wreckage landing in territory held by pro-Russian insurgents who have been fighting the central government in Kiev.

The flight plan filed by the plane's pilots had requested an altitude of 35,000 feet during their passage over Ukraine, but air traffic control in Ukraine instructed them to fly at 33,000 feet, Malaysia Airlines says.

The Investigation
U.S. intelligence experts suspect a surface-to-air missile hit the airliner, a Boeing 777.

"They have not determined where the missile was fired from," NPR's Jackie Northam reports for Morning Edition. "What complicates the issue is that this type of missile, known in Russian as Buk, is mobile — it's meant to move around a battlefield. That makes it more difficult to determine the point of origin. Ukraine and Russia have this type of missile system, and there's speculation that the rebels also possess it, as well."

The separatists say they've recovered the black boxes from the plane's wreckage, according to multiple news reports. Some reports have stated that the flight recorders might be sent to Russia, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says Moscow has "no plans to seize the flight recorders," according to state-owned news agency RT.

Reporter Noah Sneider is in the Donetsk region; he says he has seen separatists near the wreckage.

"They have taken control of the crash site, because they're in control of this region," Sneider tells NPR's Newscast unit. "The Ukrainian forces have a position not too far from here, but for the most part, this stretch of road is controlled by the rebels.

"They were the first ones on the scene," he adds, "and they're the ones who are now guarding the entrances to it."

Saying that Ukrainian authorities still aren't being given full access to the crash site, Ukraine's prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, says security forces will create a corridor so that "Ukrainian experts and international experts will be allowed to hold a vast international investigation."

That's according to The Guardian, which quotes Yatsenyuk saying, "This is a crime against humanity. All red lines have been crossed."

The Victims, And Flight Safety
Malaysia Airlines executive Huib Gorter says that an "initial cash payment of $5,000 per passenger" is being offered to the victims' next of kin, to help them with expenses as they cope with the aftermath of Thursday's crash.

In a news conference at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, Gorter said that Malaysia Airlines and other international carriers had been using the same route, making the crash a "tragic incident that could have happened to any of us."

He said they are all now avoiding the airspace.

Of the plane, Gorter said that it had been built in 1997 and that all systems were functioning normally when it was last checked out earlier this month.

Gorter gave new details about those aboard the flight, saying that 189 of the flight's passengers were from the Netherlands; 44 were from Malaysia, and 27 from Australia. People from seven other countries were also on the plane; none of those reported so far are from the U.S. The nationalities of four passengers remain unverified, he said.

Of the flight routes over eastern Ukraine, NPR's David Schaper reports, "There had been no warnings about that area from the FAA, nor from the U.N.'s International Civil Aviation Organization." David adds that the airspace over Crimea, which seceded from Ukraine earlier this year, has been under restrictions since April.

Parts of the crash site are still smoldering today; photos from the scene show parts of the plane and personal items scattered around open fields. And a video that reportedly shows the aftermath of the crash shows debris falling through a cloud of thick black smoke.

We'll update this post as news comes in. Here's a quick update on what we know about the situation:

  • Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 had been flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur carrying 298 people — 283 passengers and 15 crew. (Early reports of 295 people on board were updated with the news that three infants were among the passengers.)
  • The Boeing 777 went down in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, which for months has been a focal point of fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine's central government.
  • U.S. officials tell NPR the airliner was likely shot down by a surface-to-air missile and that they're working to determine who fired it.
  • Kiev officials accuse the separatists of firing a missile at the jet. The separatists, Ukraine's military and Russia have all denied any involvement.
  • The separatists have promised to aid the investigation, reportedly planning a three-day truce to allow investigators to reach the wreckage.
  • More than half of the flight's passengers were from the Netherlands. The U.S. is trying to determine if any Americans were on board.
  • The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has barred all U.S. flights from using the airspace over eastern Ukraine. The agency notes that no U.S. airlines have been flying routes there.
  • Investigators from the FBI and NTSB will reportedly help analyze the crash — President Obama offered that assistance to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in a phone call on Thursday.
  • The plane's passengers included roughly 100 people who had been traveling to a major global AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia. The activists and researchers included former International AIDS Society President Joep Lange.


The crash has spurred international shock and outrage. President Obama and many world leaders have called it a tragedy, while others such as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott note that the crash "is not an accident, it is a crime." Ukraine's Poroshenko has called it an act of terrorism.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to hold an emergency session today to discuss the crash.

As our Parallels blog notes, a civilian airliner was shot down over Ukraine just 13 years ago. It was one of a handful of passenger jets that have been downed in recent decades; in almost all of those situations, the attacks were found to have been accidents.

The downing of MH17 is the second incident involving Malaysia Airlines in the past four months. The airline and Malaysian officials have been at the center of the search for Flight MH370, which mysteriously disappeared in March. That plane, also a Boeing 777, had 239 people on board.

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