Two weeks after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over war-torn eastern Ukraine, forensic investigators are in a race against time to recover the bodies that haven't been found yet and that experts say are rapidly decomposing. The number of bodies still missing is believed to be about 100, based on Dutch government reports. Investigators believe the body parts recovered so far account for around 198 of the 298 passengers and crew aboard.
The combined challenge faced by the international delegation of Dutch and Australian forensic experts is unique among aircraft investigations: The site has been heavily contaminated, it's in a war zone, and the locations of the remains yet to be recovered are still unknown.
“The bodies will be extremely decomposed and unrecognizable at this stage,” said Dr. Jason Payne-James, a consultant forensic physician and specialist in forensic and legal medicine in London. “You have to consider temperature out in Ukraine, which is around 28 degrees Celsius [82 degrees Fahrenheit] right now. They will decompose rapidly in that sort of heat.”
At this point, said Payne-James, forensic anthropologists, who deal with bodies in advanced stages of decompostion, and odontologists, who deal with identification through teeth, will also be used to help identify bodies. According to NBC news, DNA records have already been taken from relatives of the Dutch victims' families, indicating that some of the bodies returned to the Netherlands last week may be unrecognizable or just a mix of body parts.
While investigators have a list of the cabin and crew onboard, DNA collected will remain anonymous until it can be cross-referenced with whatever samples investigators can recover from victims' families. After that, the process of matching bodies to DNA will begin. “All of this requires a very complex and structured, almost, matrix of information,” said Payne-James. “So, for example, if someone has a toothbrush at home, then you may be able to get DNA from that that can be matched with the body directly and then [with] relatives.”
But because the crash site has never been secured by investigators, the bodies are subject to more than just the heat. “This is why it’s crucial to recover bodies at the earliest opportunity, not only for dignity but also for identification purposes, because any rats, foxes or insects out there will also make identification difficult,” Payne-James said. In addition, bodies that are not intact are more susceptible to the decomposing process, he said.
One of the main tasks for investigators, including the forensic anthropologists, is to find out how the bodies reacted as the aircraft exploded in midair and where bodies are located in relation to the aircraft wreckage on the ground. “Each part of the plane will be looked at by ballistics experts,” said Payne-James. “And other experts will need to identify whether or not, for example, there is any evidence that the explosion was internal as opposed to something hitting it externally. Everything adds together like a jigsaw.”
While Payne-James believes that all the passengers almost certainly died in the air from extreme decompression, ballistics experts haven’t ruled out that many of the victims of MH17 were killed directly by the missile.
“It’s a possibility that the passengers on the side that the missile warhead penetrated were killed very quickly,” said Richard Lloyd, a former U.N. weapons inspector and missile technology expert. “The combination of the warhead blast and the shrapnel, which would have travelled at more than 6,000 ft. (1,800 meters) per second, will likely be the cause of many of the deaths once forensic tests are taken.”
The missile fired at MH17 relies on a small-proximity radar that sits inside the tip of the missile, explained Lloyd, and detonates the warhead in the target's proximity, releasing 7,000 to 10,000 prefabricated pieces of steel in a 360-degree arc. Traveling three times faster than a bullet from a gun, the pieces of steel would have torn into the aircraft and the people onboard, said Lloyd.
The missile would have completely ripped off the side of the aircraft, suggested Lloyd, and those who weren’t killed immediately by the shrapnel would have been quickly exposed to the elements at 33,000 ft (10,000 meters). At that point, Payne-James said, the loss of pressure would have caused hypoxia and the passengers would have lost consciousness before they knew what was happening.
“All these things give different patterns,” said Payne-James. “There may be residue material from a bomb or missile. Each of these might have specific markers or characteristics that can be traced by forensic scientists or ballistic experts on the body and the wreckage. That all needs to be known so we can get a true picture of what happened.”
But because the crash site is in a war zone and has been compromised over the two weeks since the airliner was shot down, "I think that where the bodies and body parts are recoverable, they will all eventually be identified by bone or teeth, but I think there is a possibility that some people’s remains might never be found or even identified,” Payne-James said.