The announcement by a senior Dutch official on Wednesday that a passenger on the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was found wearing an oxygen mask has attracted criticism from dead passengers' relatives. The plane is believed to have been brought down by a surface-to-air missile while flying over a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine.
Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans' comments on a local talk show triggered questions from relatives of the disaster's victims who wondered if the Dutch government had in fact relayed all the information from their investigation of the incident. Timmermans had said that an oxygen mask was found around a passenger’s neck.
“People are shocked when they hear this and wonder what other information there is but isn’t shared,” Veeru Mewa, a lawyer representing the families of the Dutch passengers who died aboard the plane, told a local network, according to the New York Times.
Wim de Bruin, a spokesperson for the national prosecutor’s office, expressed dismay at the statement Thursday but confirmed the news about the passenger on Flight MH17, which crashed in Ukraine on July 17, killing all 298 people on board. While several news agencies reported that the passenger was an Australian, Bruin did not confirm it.
“We did not make it public because we are still investigating the circumstances and its significance,” Bruin said, according to the Times, adding that the family of the passenger was informed but authorities preferred to keep it from the public while they collected more evidence about the incident.
Peter Smith, a former pilot and air traffic controller, said, according to Australian agency News.com that a passenger wearing an oxygen mask on the plane should not come as a surprise.
“It is entirely likely that a number of passengers may have been able to begin breathing through the emergency oxygen system in the depressurised cabin of the aircraft as it fell to earth,” Smith said, according to News.com, adding: “I know this is not what the relatives of passengers on board the aircraft would probably wish to hear but in my view it is certainly probable that many, perhaps even the majority of the passengers would still have been conscious and alive as the aircraft dropped out of the sky.”
The Boeing 777-200 crashed amid an ongoing war between pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country and pro-Ukrainian government forces. Both sides have refused to accept responsibility and have blamed the other for the disaster.
A preliminary report on the crash released in September by the Dutch Safety Board indicated that the jet was damaged by several “high-energy objects that penetrated the aircraft from outside.”
The plane was headed to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam and because the majority of the passengers on the plane were Dutch nationals, Netherlands is handling the investigation. A final report on the crash is expected to be released next summer.