The Disappearing Bodies of Malaysia Air Flight 17

A Ukrainian official believes rebel forces controlling the MH17 crash site are destroying bodies to hide evidence of missile ammunition and shrapnel marks. 

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When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed outside of Donetsk, Ukraine, debris for the airplane spread across a ten square mile area. While many of the passengers on board were buried amongst large pieces of the plane, others were thrown into fields, and even a nearby village. More than three days after the crash, investigators have not been able to secure the site or make a full recovery of the bodies of the victims. The site has been essentially controlled by rebel forces — some of them, the very same groups are accused of shooting the plane down — and they are dictating who can, and cannot, see the bodies. 

[Editor's Note: The story discusses the remains of MH17 victims in detail, and may be difficult for some to read. ]

At a crime scene, there are generally a variety of parties examining evidence, and more specifically, bodies of the victims. There are also an accepted set of procedures for handling this evidence. Generally, police officers, expert investigators, and medical examiners are the three main authorities involved in the processing of the deceased. In the case of a plane crash, an aviation expertise team will be brought in. This can include flight recording experts, operations inspectors, and engineering inspectors. 

In the case of MH17, the role of the medical examiner is incredibly important, as their autospies may determine if the victims died while still in flight, or due to the impact of the crash. The autopsy can also help to find additional evidence from the crash, in this specific case, shrapnel and ammunition that could prove beyond a doubt that the plane was shot down.

Bodies must be processed relatively quickly in order to gather useful evidence. Rigor mortis sets in about three hours after death. After 24 hours, the body has lost all internal heat. After 36 hours, muscles lose rigor mortis, then all stiffness is gone by 72 hours. If a body is buried in a coffin, underground, tissue can take up to 50 years to disappear. However, in the case of full exposure to the elements (such as extreme heat, water, animals or other scavengers) the decomposition process speeds up dramatically. Temperatures in Donetsk reached 85 degrees Fahrenheit this week. A victim additionally tainted by the elements leaves the medical examiners with much less to investigate.

At the site of MH17, the only experts are currently being provided by the rebel forces, not by outside authorities trained in these matters. ​At this time, rebels are performing a fair amount of their own autospies. Some bodies and body parts have now been outdoors, exposed to all of the elements, for over 72 hours. While some bodies were processed almost immediately, some still lay in black trash bags, piled on the side of the road. Appropriate authorities, including Europe's OSCE security agency, have only been allowed access to small parts of the site for short periods of time, all under the supervision of armed rebels.

Pro-Russian rebels hover over the bodies. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

A rebel leader at the crash site known only as "Grumpy," has offered some information as to how the rebels have handled the bodies. Grumpy told reporters on the scene, "We need the huntsmen to help us in detection of the bodies, as many of them [have severed limbs] and so they haven’t been found yet." Some of the work is being done by independent rescue workers. However, Aleksey Megrin, head of local emergency service workers at the crash site, noted that the rescuers only work during daylight. At night, rebels are alone on the scene, and many of them drink through the night. When the sun is hidden, the corpses' sole guardians are drunken men, left to their own devices.

When the rebels first arrived to patrol the scene, certain victims were taken away very quickly. Reports indicate that 38 bodies were taken to a morgue in Donetsk. An additional 186 bodies have been reported as found by the Ukrainian security council. Ukrainian authorities have set up their own processing facility in Kharkiv, which is a government controlled city, about 270 kilometers north of the crash site. There, the bodies are being identified by experts. Yet, the fate of those 38 bodies, and why they were rapidly removed, is still unknown.

Yevhen Marchuk (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

The general consensus is that the rebels removed bodies to hide evidence, as they seemed to be very particular about which bodies were taken, and how quickly they were moved. There are even claims that the rebels took bodies away from emergency workers at gunpoint. During our investigation to learn more about the 38 missing victims, The Wire came across the insight of Yevhen K. Marchuk. Marchuk is the former prime minister of Ukraine, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, a defense minister, and general of the army.

In a lengthy Facebook post (Facebook is turning out to be the preferred communication platform among Ukrainian leaders), Marchuk discusses the tactics the rebels may have taken with the bodies, and how that can interfere with the standard procedure of an aviation investigation. The Wire has translated his post to the best of our ability (our emphasis added):

Few words for those who are interested in airplane catastrophes. People who were involved in the investigation of such catastrophes (I was involved twice) will tell you immediately that prolonged storage of black boxes, should be two of them, can nullify importance of their evidence, or even can show false evidence. Specialists know it very well.

I can not and must not give any details. Forced removal of victims bodies 28 (?) by terrorists may show evidence that instructors had arrived and chosen which bodies should be removed immediately. It may be bodies on which, during visual checking of surface penetrating wounds, pieces of the missile or ammunition which shot the plane [were visible.] It is undeniable evidence. Metal and material expertise provide undeniable evidence.
Additionally, it is very easy to find the seat of each passenger based on sold tickets, and if he or she had seat belts fastened, and there were a lot of people like that, based on the character and angle of penetration of missile fragments, it is easy to establish the point of the explosion. And if such penetrating wounds were found in many passengers, and they established their seats in the airplane, and it is not a problem, then the starting point of missile and fragments (that is the point of explosion) it made be detected with precision to few centimeters. Besides that, all fallen parts of airplane must be found, especially parts of the fuselage.
Specialists will attach them on special frame. This frame, one to one, repeats the fuselage of the plane.  It is a very important part of the investigation. As a result, the point and size of impact can be very easily and absolutely established. Later, they compared the angle of the movement of airplane and the angle of penetration of the missile (the body of the airplane) and the conversation between the crew members and the ground (one black box) and records of all telemetric aircraft systems (the second black box) and, further, the question of technique.
Based on the size of the destruction, establish strength of charge (BC,) and for BUK it is known, and the trajectory of the missile, and contents of this missile (if there are fragments of the missile in the bodies of victims, and in their belongings, and in different parts of the airplane.) Some ammunition has such a structure that they don't penetrate in the body of the airplane, but explode next to the airplane and in such a case, the whole body of the plane will be filled with pieces of the missile, maybe steel balls for ball bearings (as in the case of C-200.) But for this investigation, it is irrelevant.
I think the terrorists are not in vain to not allow our international experts full access to the site of tragedy  (it is 25 square kilometers) and they removed the bodies of the deceased. Other specialists are working there, who know very well how crashes like this are investigated, and they know very well what to take away, what to destroy, or burn on site (well, everything burned already.)
They quickly removed the BUK [missile system], blocking access to site for experts, manipulation of "black boxes" (they are not actually black), this is evidence of attempts to hamper the investigation. Here I have outlined one-thousandth of what is being investigated in these cases. Russia has huge experience with such investigations. But international experience with such investigations is far superior to Russian. Russia understands if an international investigation will get everything everything to establish the truth, the results will be deplorable. Not to mention that Russia as a country gave into the hands of terrorists high precision weapons.

Marchuk raises several key points: the rebels seem to have trained investigators, who are able to identify shrapnel damage; the rebels knew what kind of bodily damage to look for; and the rebels seemed to easily and rapidly divided evidence into three categories: leave intact, investigate alone, burn.

This could indicate that they seek to eliminate all evidence that a missile was fired at the plane. This also indicates that these 38 bodies may have already been destroyed, rather than just autopsied, by the rebel forces. Some may have even been burned on the spot. Reporter Nazanine Moshiri, who is at the crash site, said, "Just passed by Donetsk morgue. The refrigerated truck with MH17 bodies has gone. Moved by separatists. It is not clear where?"

It seems, beyond reasonable doubt, those victims have vanished, and their bodies will likely not be recovered, nor properly identified by authorities. Yet, rebel leaders continue to argue otherwise. "Grumpy" could not confirm the fate of the bodies to reporters. When asked if they were moved to Donetsk, he replied only, "Maybe they did it, maybe not." Alexander Borodai, who has proclaimed himself the Prime Minister of the pro-Russian separatist Donetsk People's Republic, has said the separatists have not touched any bodies. "There's a grandmother. A body landed right in her bed. She says 'please take this body away'. But we cannot tamper with the site." However, he said they may move the bodies going forward, "Bodies of innocent people are lying out in the heat. We reserve the right, if the delay continues ... to begin the process of taking away the bodies. We ask the Russian Federation to help us with this problem and send their experts."

Even though the rebels insist they have not disposed of bodies in their own way, they did reach a "preliminary agreement" with Ukrainian officials to allow access to the site going forward. Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman said this "preliminary" agreement would allow Ukraine's emergency services, as well as international investigators, to remove and transport their bodies. Groisman did not note which facility they would be transported to, though, it could likely be the same Khariv morgue previously set up by the Ukrainians. Journalist Max Seddon and others report that many of the bodies were placed on a refrigerated train overnight, but their final destination is unknown, and train is still being guarded by armed rebels.

Beyond the difficulties to the investigation, this treatment of the victims also raises questions of morality. These bodies are being disrespected on multiple levels. Not only have many of them been stripped of their valuables like credit cards and jewelry, treated like an abandoned house only good for its copper wiring, they have been left to decompose, leaving the victims' families with nothing to bury or physical pieces to mourn.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, "I was shocked at the pictures of utterly disrespectful behavior at this tragic spot." The Malaysian government has also expressed their disgust, demanding that the bodies be treated with "dignity and respect."

As for the families of the victims, they may find some solace in the U.S. intelligence community's most recent findings. Senior intelligence officers were able to confirm Russia was directly responsible for the providing separatists with the missiles that are believed to have taken down MH17. While the investigation and official may take a long time, and they may never recover their loved one's remains, the outrage toward Russia is growing and the global community may offer swift repercussions.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.