Grim and Graphic, Debris Litters a War Zone

The New York TimesJuly 17, 2014 

— Incongruously, given that the plane fell from more than 30,000 feet, many of the bodies strewn about in the smoldering wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 were largely intact. A woman in a black sweater lay on her back, blood streaming from her face, her left arm raised as if signaling someone. Another victim, naked except for a black bra, lay on the field, her gray hair mixing with the green grass, one leg broken and her body torn.

Residents spoke Thursday of bodies falling from the sky, looking like rags or clumps of ash, before the plane came to a jolting rest in a large wheat field dotted with purple flowers and Queen Anne’s lace, having trailed debris over several miles of sparsely populated Ukrainian farmland.

“It was horrible,” said a separatist rebel who was part of the rescue crew and would give only his first name, Sergei. “We were in shock.”

The road to the crash site in eastern Ukraine, not far from the Russian border, was lined with fire engines and other emergency vehicles. Separatist militiamen, plentiful in this rebel-controlled territory, urged journalists to take photographs.

There were no houses in the immediate vicinity. The only visible structure was a poultry operation with long white coops in the distance.

Rescue workers had already tied small white strips of cloth to tree branches along the debris path to mark the locations of the bodies. As darkness descended on the field, the workers gathered in throngs near a line of ambulances and rescue cars. Dogs barked in the distance, and the air smelled bitter.

Pieces of the plane were scattered across the road and field: a seat back with its television display cracked; a giant white piece of the tail with the plane’s insignia emblazoned on it, and a jagged edge where it tore off from the plane. One televised image showed a travel guide for Bali, almost untouched.

A strange detail marked what looked like part of a wing, a hole suggesting a burst of metal pushed outward. To an untrained eye, it was unclear whether the damage had been done by ordnance or some other, unknown forces on the way down.

Many of the victims were still wearing their seatbelts, attached to pieces of the plane. One man, still in his socks but without pants, lay in the field, his right arm placed on his stomach as if in repose. Others had belongings nearby. A young man in blue shorts, wearing red Nike sneakers but no pants, lay with his arms and legs splayed outward, his iPhone by his side.

Dutch belongings were scattered through the grass: a pink children’s book; a parking ticket picked up by a man named Hans van den Hende; a book of stickers. Children’s playing cards were sprinkled near the road.

Mundane items of daily life covered the grass. Toiletries spilled out of overnight bags. Nivea cream. A razor. White slippers. A glass bottle of cologne. A maxi pad lay in the grass. A soft blue fuzzy blanket spilling from a red suitcase was caught on a sharp metal pole. A bicycle lay in the grass, practically intact.

The area was also covered in feathers from brown chickens. There were two parrots, one of them lifting its wing as if waving, and a peacock.

The closest village was Grabovo, a small coal-mining town whose residents had been among the first to see the plane. Oleg Georgievich, 40, a miner who is also fighting with the insurgency here, said he had heard noises shortly after 4 p.m. and thought the town was being bombed. Aircraft have been flying over daily, he said, and have bombed neighboring villages on a number of occasions.

He heard a sound like a whistle, then walked onto his balcony on the fifth floor and saw something falling from the sky. He later understood it was part of the plane’s fuselage. Then he saw things that looked like pieces of cloth coming fast toward the earth. They were bodies, many with their clothes torn off.

Rescue workers said they counted many children. A boy who looked to be around 10 lay on his side in the grass in a red T-shirt that read “Don’t Panic.”

A rescue worker staffing a white table, who would give only his first name, Alexei, said the area of the crash was 10 to 15 square kilometers - about 4 to 6 square miles - in a rectangle that he had marked in red pen in crosshatching on a map.

He said that parts of the plane were scattered over the entire area and that the pilot had not tried to land in the field: The plane appeared to have been torn apart in the sky.

“It fell down in pieces,” he said, adding that rescue workers numbered about 60 and were setting up tents to gather the dead.

Oleg Georgievich, the coal miner, who would give only his first name and patronymic, not his last name, said he was afraid of what the tragedy would bring. Ukraine has been accusing Russia and the rebels of shooting down its planes, and he said he did not think this situation would be any different.

“Tomorrow, the Ukrainians are going to say that I shot this plane down with my gun,” he said, standing in the darkness. “Look at me. I’m in sneakers; I have no flak jacket. You want to know what year it was made?”

He looked at a journalist. The date stamped on the gun was 1953.

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