The following is preliminary and some of the details will change as new information comes to light. This, however is the best recreation of events that terrible day to date. The narrative is dedicated to the memory of the victims of Flight MH-17.
It rained that morning. It was humid, the clouds breaking through the morning as the heat rose above the rolling hills and fields around Hrabove, or Grabovo (field of briars) Ukraine. To the south the sky threatened rain. Fat, high clouds caught a strong afternoon sun, paining them a silvery hue among patches of cerulean blue sky.
This is an embattled land, its history honed by the Mongol invasions, the terror of the Nazi occupation, the catastrophe of the Soviets and now civil war. Hitler’s army passed this way on its way to Stalingrad, now Volgograd a further two hundred miles to the east. The people here, as people do in much of the Slavic world wear history like a vestment; a certain and yet intangible spice that flavors everything, but which melts away to the touch. It is a character of life, and one few Americans can relate properly to. It informs a particular fatalism, and ambivalence. It is a unique quality to a people who have woven a purposely idealized history replete with irony and the mysticism of Eastern Orthodoxy.
There isn’t much to the town, which was founded in the 15th Century, save for the heritage of the 1,000 or so people who live there. In the 2001 census most identified as Ukrainian, with only 22% identifying as Russian speaking. Whether that remains true under the current environment is a point of conjecture best argued by the people of Hrabove. While doubtful the population has changed, with the conflict likely attitudes changed.
The town’s most prominent structure in the Holy Trinity Church near the center of town, with its gleaming crosses of gold atop the green shingled steeple and oriental dome. When the town fell under German occupation in the Second World War Christian orthodox worship, banned under Soviet authorities was permitted. After the war Soviet authorizes converted the church to a dance hall, and nearly leveled it until local intervened to prevent its destruction.
Just to the north lies the Hrabivske reservoir, with its high banks spotted with banks of small woods. The town draws much of its water from this reservoir. Below an ancient Kurgan, or Tatar mound the reservoir narrows bending eastward, bending as the muddy Mius River through woods and fields of golden wheat and oceans of fattening sunflowers. The river and reservoir marks the boundary line between Luhans’ka oblast to the north and the Donetsk oblast, or district, of which Hrabove is a part.
Ten miles to the south a convoy of military vehicles rumbled through the town of Snizhe, one of them was recognized as a SA-11 surface to air BUK missile launcher. Local reports put the convoy in the town around lunchtime. Atop the tracked vehicle 4 18 foot missiles were unmistakable for a group of Associated Press journalists covering the war. A man in fatigues cautioned the journalists against filming before the convoy rumble west out of town. Dressed into desert camouflage, unlike the rebel soldiers green uniforms, he spoke with a distinctive Russian accent. The journalists noted the time was 1:05pm. Later an anonymous source would indicate to the AP that the unit may have been based in President Yanukovich’s hometown of Yenakiieve. Supporting the launcher some thirty miles away near the village of Styla a Kupol mobile radar had been deployed in support of the battery.
At approximately 4:15pm, local time, roughly two hours after departing AMS, MH-17 neared the Russian border, a scant 50KMs east. Any concerns the crew might have had in flying over the warzone would have dissipated quickly once beyond that line. The line between disaster and routine now was measured in moments.
Initially the crew had filed a flight plan which would have taken them farther to the south at an altitude of 35,000 feet. Instead they were diverted north, ostensibly for thunder storms brewing to the south, and ordered to 33,000 feet for traffic. Slowing to 490 knots, MH-17 descended 2,000 feet. It is, in the first confusing and shocking hours and days, tainted by the hate and propaganda of war and the insipid ignorance of social media, that the fertile ground for conspiracy theories and innuendo are created. Innocuous, misinterpreted or ill-informed early reports become fertilizer for conspiracies. Which is not to say that conspiracies never take place, but in proper historical analysis and investigation truth is easily a victim of rumor, propaganda and imagination. But it is reports like that from Malaysia’s Airlines director of operations, Izham Ismail, responding to claims that weather led to the change in MH-17’s flight plan, replied that he had no reports from the pilot to suggest that was the case.
It must also be noted that despite claims that the Buk’s command and control and fire team were animated and expectant of enemy incursion, it shows at the very least a complete and criminal negligence at every level in the chain of command. If Russia in fact supplied the vehicle the responsible authorities share substantially in culpability for allowing trigger happy, irresponsible and ill-trained rebels such a dangerously sophisticated weapon. While fewer flights than normal flew through Ukranian airspace in the month leading up to July 17, according to Mikael Robertsson, co-founder of flight tracking website Flightradar24, two other aircraft were present within 10 minutes flight time of MH-17. At a press conference following the crash Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai that “MH17’s flight path was a busy major airway, like a highway in the sky. It followed a route which was set out by the international aviation authorities, approved by Eurocontrol, and used by hundreds of other aircraft… MH17 flew at an altitude that was set and deemed safe by local air traffic control, and it never strayed into restricted airspace. The flight and its operators followed the rules. But on the ground, the rules of war were broken.”
Ukrainian authorities had earlier prohibited aircraft from operating at 32,000 feet or below, just a thousand feet below the altitude that MH-17 was flying. That still placed it well within range of the Buk Missile battery now operating near Torez. In June, despite assurances both British Airlines and Lufthansa decided against risking East Ukrainian airspace. Emirates suspended flights to Ukraine altogether, according to Reuters. As pointed out in a previous chapter the routine of war balanced against marketing and business concerns, it had become normal business practice for International airlines to fly over war zones. Ukraine was no different. Commercial airlines regularly flew over Iraq and Afghanistan during the wars there, comfortable that insurgent forces lacked the capability to threaten them. When the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced: Ai-ya-fyatla-yoy-katl) erupted in 2010 disrupting air travel between North America and Europe and ground more than 100,000 flights, the cost to airlines and more than 6 million stranded passengers was in the tens of millions of Dollars.
The dilemma begs a wider question, however, as to whether we are becoming far too cavalier with regards to war. In the wake of the Cold War and its international alignment, more or less, there was at least greater control over the proliferation of sophisticated weapons of war. It is a good thing that international market economics, to a degree, is less incumbent upon those old and obsolete structures. In its way, however, commerce and proliferation in weapons, such as the system that brought down MH-17 has become virtually unrestricted. The collapse of nation states, regional instability and wars around the globe finds buyers for new and ever more terrible weaponry. Following the Malaysian Airlines disaster there has been little if any substantive discussion about limiting the proliferation of such weapons. The saddest aspect of all of this is that the avoidable and unnecessary deaths of 298 people might simply prove a demonstration of a weapons capabilities, making it more attractive to despots, madmen and warlords.
Through banks of full gray and white clouds 33,000 feet below embattled Ukraine appeared peaceful as a geometric patchwork of farms and towns elegantly carved with the telltale green of rivers and fertile tributaries. The distance and humidity near the surface deepened hues and softened lines until the land took on the character of a pastel rendering.
Somewhere just outside Snizhe, according to radio intercepts the Buk’s crew was alerted to an incoming aircraft. While indications are abundant and clear that the rebels assumed the incoming aircraft was a Ukrainian military transport there seems to have been a blatant disregard for protocols which would have allowed them to identify the plain as civilian. Visually it may have proved difficult, even with binoculars, but the Buk system hardly relies on World War 2 era technology for identification.
The Buk’s acquisition radar, which was likely deployed some thirty miles to the southwest in the village of Styla allowed the rebel fighters to identify, track and target the aircraft. Whether they believed they were once again targeting a Ukrainian transport, or simply took advantage of a ready target remains unclear. Equipped with IFF, identification Friend or Foe, there should have been indications this something other than a military aircraft. Protocols, IFF, known civilian over flights, flight path, altitude, command structure and time on target removes the specter of the accidental and indicates at the very least negligence if not intention.
According to Army-Technology.com, in association with Defense and Security Systems International the Buk Air Defense Missile System maintains a high kill rate at target:
A single missile can destroy tactical aircraft and helicopters with a probability between 0.9 and 0.95, while the kill probability against tactical ballistic missiles ranges between 0.6 and 0.7. The missile can operate continuously for one day with refuelling and has a tear-down time of five minutes. The missile can destroy tactical ballistic missile within the range of 20km and can kill cruise missiles at 100m altitude and within the range of 20km. It has maximum target g-load of 10g and can destroy aerodynamic targets with a maximum speed of 830m/s flying at an altitude between 0.015km and 25km, and within 3km to 45km range. The missile system can operate in temperatures up to ± 50°C and wind speeds up to 30m/s. Its maximum operating altitude above sea level is 3,000m.
The Buk system isn’t a truck with a couple of drunk rebels roaming the countryside in search of a target. Even paired down to a smaller unit, as it may have been on that warm July day, it would have consisted of several vehicles and several operators. It had proved itself more than capable against combat aircraft. It requires only about 5 minutes to set up and deploy, and can be ready to move in another five minutes after firing a missile or missiles, making it a very versatile and competent weapon of war.
What isn’t in contention is that a missile was launched, and that it was fired by someone on the rebel side. The shot was intentional.
Credible witnesses place the large and unmistakable Buk vehicle entering the neighboring town of Torez only 4 miles due south of Hrabove and just six miles (10 kilometers) west of Snizhne. Three days earlier, on the 14th a Buk system was credited with the downing of a Ukrainian Antonov-26 flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet over the town of Izvaryne outside Donestsk. Two days later above the town of Amvrosiivka, 10 miles southwest of Snizhne a Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 fighter was shot down.
“A bird is flying to you,” a spotter told a rebel commander for pro-Russian separatists in Horlivka 15 miles west of the crash sight, identified as Igor Bezlor, a mercurial man and a typical character to be found in any conflict who is all too ready to rationalize any moral and ethical transgression to war. In temperament and stature Bezlor reminds one of the late Serbian thug and warlord Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic. His features are pallid and severe, an obligatory cigarette everpresent and a black cap that seems costume-like.
“Reconnaissance plane or a big one?” asks Bezlor, from his regional headquarters in nearby Gorlovka.
“I can’t see behind the clouds,” the spotter replies. “It’s too high.”
Bezlor, who goes by the non de guerre of “Bes,” or “demon” in Russian, reportedly was a former undertaker sacked from his job for theft. He never once disputed the authenticity of the recordings. Many of those recordings have been verified and supported by other rebels. That is back up by the initial communications and Bezlor’s own initial tweet that indicates quite clearly that the rebels believed they had downed a Ukrainian aircraft.
The order to fire was given, and the order was followed, apparently without question. The missile launched. There would have been no warning, no indication of the rebel missile already streaking skyward towards the aircraft at more than 2,000 feet per second. The view from the flight deck is notoriously limited in the best of circumstances. The flight crew would have been just as surprised as anyone on board. There is a certain comfort in that realization.
On the ground at around 4:20 that afternoon residents of Torez recalled hearing loud explosions. Rostislav Grishin, a 21-year-old prison guard remembered hearing “two powerful blasts in a row. The time must be viewed as subjective. “First there was one, but then after a minute, a minute and a half, there was another discharge. I raised my head and within a minute I could see a plane falling through the clouds.” The two powerful blasts Grishin heard were undoubtedly the nearby launch of the missile followed by the detonation as the missile found its intended target.
The launch would have been powerful and thundering, followed by the long tearing crrrraaacckkk as the missile streaked skyward. Smoke and dust from the launch would have consumed briefly the massive vehicle. Carried in the rolling hills around Torez, the sounds of the launch, as recalled by a number of witnesses, carried for several miles.
The 9M317 missile required a radar lock to steer it to the target. It is an awesome weapon when launched, a solid fuel rocket with a total burn time of about 15 seconds that finds it target at speeds of up to Mach 3. Operator steered the missile in flight until the missiles own onboard system locked onto the airliner. For the crew on MH-17 and the passengers there would be no warning as the missile streaked skywards at better than 3000 feet per second.
The missile is designed to detonate within 65 feet of its target. From the wreckage it is difficult to say with certainty that the missile struck the aircraft directly. A direct impact wouldn’t have been necessary. With a 154 pound high explosive fragmentation warhead an explosion anywhere near the aircraft would have been devastating. What is certain is that the explosion was catastrophic to the 777. At around 14:15 GMT, an hour and fifty-six minutes after takeoff Malaysian Airlines flight 17 disappeared from radar screens. It was 9:11am in Washington D.C.
The missile raced up at the aircraft, passing underneath from right to left at three times the speed of sound, four times faster than the aircraft was travelling. Just below and behind where Captain Wan Amran sat at the controls the missile exploded with a blinding flash. Initial evidence indicates that the flight deck and first and business class cabins bore the brunt of the explosion as thousands of pieces of Shrapnel shredded the front and underside of the plane. A surviving section of the fuselage from the flight deck, with portions of the window frame, shows significant scorching and substantial shrapnel damage, including a massive hole more than a foot in diameter. The edges of that remaining piece of fuselage point to terrible damage done to the front and nose of the aircraft, which by itself would have been enough to doom the aircraft and passengers. It should be noted here that the apparent shrapnel wounds are entrance points and that no exit points have been found, which would indicate an external explosion, and that the integrity of the fuselage was breached by the decompression of the aircraft caused by the missile detonation and not a bomb as some have wrongly theorized.
More deadly shards of steel would have sliced through the aircraft along its length, though the front of the craft bore the brunt. A piece of the overhead storage bins found in a tree exhibit a number of shrapnel marks. A section of wing revealed what appeared to be shrapnel marks. Still the damage, enough damage, had been done. The aircraft was hammered sideways, the port engine likely incapacitated or diminished, the starboard engine screaming as the plane began to turn over, monstrous and incapacitating G-forces tearing at the aircraft and the bodies within.
Severe G-forces can lead to so-called gray outs caused by a lack of blood flow to the eyes, or blackouts and unconsciousness as the head is robbed of blood and oxygen. In centrifuge tests, far fear and less violent g-forces than the passengers of MH-17 would have experienced, 50% of trained pilots loss sight and consciousness. In those tests pilots lost consciousness for between 5-15 seconds after G-forces were diminished, followed by another 5-15 seconds of severe disorientation. Tolerance for the effects of G-forces varies from individual to individual, depending upon height, weight, age, training and on health. The G’s the passengers would have experienced alone, not including the effects of severe oxygen deprivation, extreme cold, shock or blunt force trauma, would have remained debilitating for anyone on board.
The flight data recorder marked the moment disaster struck MH-17: Explosive decompression. Those words conjure all sorts of nightmarish images. The decompression through the entire aircraft would have been stunning all along the length of the cabin. It was as if a giant had smashed the aircraft broadsides with a great sledgehammer. At that altitude few if any would have any chance at all to react. The sudden storm of pummeling debris, sub-arctic cold, lack of oxygen and punishing winds, far in excess of an F5 Tornado, would have rendered passengers unconscious almost instantly.
Indications are the aircraft began to break up immediately. Within the cabin daylight would have appeared suddenly from the front of the plane and in places where the red-hot shards of rocket casing pierced the fuselage, spreading quickly as the highly pressurized tube began tearing itself apart. It would have been the last thing, without any cognoscente understanding, the passengers would have physically perceived. Most likely died quickly if not instantly. Those who might have held out would have lasted no more than a few seconds. Death at 33,000 feet is shocking and violent, but mercifully quick.
Unconscious or deceased, passengers were flung from the aircraft into the abyss, many still strapped in their seats. Dozens remained within what remained of the aircraft as it plummeted towards Hrabove. Several of the bodies, at least from photographic evidence, were so badly mutilated that they may have been victims of the initial blast, or were partly ingested into the failing engines. One of those bodies was recovered still wearing part of a flight attendant’s green uniform. The wounds are far different from dozens of those who fell or were scattered across the countryside, indicating different fates.
In a cattle pasture outside Hrabove the right rear door frame and several other pieces of the aircraft’s skin fell. One of those pieces still bore the Malaysian Airlines registration 9M-MRD The horizontal tail landed in a wheat field a few hundred yards south of town. Part of a wingtip landed nearby in a small pond. The forward cargo floor landed nearly five miles away on the outskirts of the town of Petropavlivka. First class, marked “Row 2” overhead bins bearing shrapnel marks were found in a tree across from the Petropavlivka village hall.
Just 18 miles and 4 minutes flight time behind MH-17, was SQ351, a Singapore Airlines flight out of Copenhagen and Air India flight 113, with 126 passengers, departing Birmingham for Delhi. It is worth noting here why these aircraft were also not targeted, flying roughly the same route and at the same altitude, if in fact the rebel radar command and control mistook MH-17 for an enemy aircraft, why did they not make the same assumption at other aircraft following relatively closely? The Buk system was more than capable of managing multiple targets.
WC Turck is an author, artist, playwright and talk radio host in Chicago. He has been called the most dangerous voice on the Left. He is currently working on a new book “Shoot Down: An unflinching look at the events leading up to the shooting down of Malaysia Air Flight 17.” His first novel, “Broken” was recommended by NAMI for its treatment of PTSD. In 2006 he published “Everything for Love,” a memoir of his experiences during the siege of Sarajevo. He wrote and produced two critically acclaimed plays, “Occupy my Heart” and “The People’s Republic of Edward Snowden.” He works with the homeless and foreclosure victims in Chicago. He partners in a weekly radio show dedicated to issues, society and politics with cohost, activist and artist Brian Murray For more information, past shows, videos and articles, visit www.revolutioandbeer.com