Investigation Into Malaysia Airlines Crash in Ukraine Faces Daunting Challenges


Andy Pasztor And Jon Ostrower
Wall Street Journal
July 17, 2014

Investigators looking into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 face a series of unusually daunting challenges—from accessing the crash scene in the first place to taking possession of the plane’s “black boxes”—that raise questions about whether any probe will be widely considered credible.

The crash site is in territory held by rebels, not controlled by the central government in Kiev. It is unclear the extent of cooperation between the two over access for international investigators who typically flock to the scene, sometimes within hours of a plane going down on land.

Ukraine officials have also said the rebels have taken possession of the plane’s data and cockpit recorders, or black boxes, complicating any attempt by international investigators to take possession of this equipment—one of the most important elements of any aircraft crash probe.

Examiners need first to physically examine the remnants of the plane—scattered across miles of rugged terrain in the middle of a war zone—before they would be able to determine definitively whether they investigate the disaster as an accident or a hostile action, or both. U.S. intelligence agencies have determined the plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile but are split on where it came from, Russia or Ukraine, according to American officials.

Still, depending on what the physical evidence reveals and how much information can be gleaned from the flight data and cockpit voice recorders, investigators can only then decide basic first steps, such as which agency will be in charge of the probe. At that point, they also will have to decide about whether dramatically different rules and procedures governing criminal investigations or civilian air crashes will apply.

Another complicating factor is what appears to be widespread contamination of the crash site. Some video and photos of the site show it being combed over by rescue workers, and what appear to be rebel fighters, media and civilians. Ukrainian officials said late Thursday they believe the plane’s black boxes were in the hands of rebels, and they feared could be transferred to Russia where they might be tampered with.

Earlier Thursday, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko called for an immediate investigation into the downing of the aircraft. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak later said a full and independent investigation would be undertaken, and that Ukrainian authorities would negotiate with rebels to create a “humanitarian corridor” free of fighting to the crash site.

Konstantin Knyrik, a separatist spokesman for a group called the South East Front, told the Interfax news agency that the rebels had located the black boxes for the Boeing 777 on the site of the accident. He said law-enforcement officials from the Donetsk region who had sided with the rebels were working on the matter. “They will engage in documentation and investigation of the incident,” he told Interfax.

At this point, everyone needs to be concerned about “who is going to properly protect the evidence and do the job of handling the bodies,” said James Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Late Thursday, Malaysia Airlines started to lay out its preliminary plan for its side of the probe. Huib Gorter, vice president for Europe for the carrier said it would dispatch a 747 from Kuala Lumpur early Friday morning, with a team of investigators aboard, headed for Kiev. From Kiev, the team intends to travel by road to the crash site, he said.

Under almost any circumstances, according to investigators, the probe likely will have to delve into what was occurring in Russian airspace. The prospect of sharing sensitive information such as radar data and aircraft tracking capabilities could present major issues from the perspective of both Russian and Ukrainian authorities.

Even determining something as relatively simple as whether the Boeing 777 was correctly following its assigned air route 5 miles in the sky could take a long time, according to Alan Diehl, a former Pentagon and NTSB safety investigator.

Aircraft accident investigations are lengthy, painstaking and often bureaucratic under the best of circumstances. But the details of this event combined with the geopolitical dynamics of the volatile region present unique obstacles to those trying to understand what happened to Flight 17.

Under international treaties and aviation conventions, Ukraine is initially in charge of the investigation because the wreckage landed inside its borders. Ukrainian officials have the right to request assistance from other interested parties, including the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, Boeing and engine-maker Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC. In extreme cases, a government can effectively turn over a probe to another participating team.

However, if the probe proceeds down a criminal or terrorist line of inquiry, Ukrainian authorities would have more leeway to tap others for help, safety experts say.

If the probe hits serious obstacles, it will join a lengthy list of prominent investigations—stretching back to the 1961 crash that killed then-U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld —in which experts failed to conclusively show whether hostile fire or something else brought down aircraft.

The United Nations has recently announced that it will reopen the investigation into Mr. Hammarskjöld’s crash after new evidence emerged suggesting it may have been an assassination plot.

The complexity of the latest probe may be rivaled only by that of the so-far inconclusive investigation of how Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared. In that case, the airplane disappeared and no trace has been found—hindering a complete probe.

While MH17 crashed on land, in a populated, seemingly easy-to-reach area, the crash site is the middle of war. The territory is effectively out of the control of a globally recognized government, and the rebel factions and two regional powers contesting it—Russia and Ukraine—have vested interests in influencing the outcome of any probe.

Fired On

Some past flights that were targeted

September 1961 U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold is killed in a crash in what is now Zambia.

September 1983 Korean Air Lines Flight 007 is shot down by a Soviet fighter jet in the Sea of Japan.

July 1988 Surface-to-air missiles fired from USS Vincennes bring down Iran Air Flight 655 in the Persian Gulf.

April 1994 Jet carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi is shot down in Kigali.

November 2003 Iraqi insurgent missile strikes a DHL Express flight from Baghdad to Bahrain.

—WSJ research

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