A Buk surface-to-air missile downed flight MH17, Dutch investigators have said as they unveiled a reconstruction of the plane that showed huge shrapnel damage to the cockpit and front section.
Tjibbe Joustra, the chairman of the Dutch safety board, said the Malaysia Airlines plane was hit by a 9N314M warhead on 17 July 2014, as it flew at 33,000ft (10,000 metres) above eastern Ukraine. The warhead was fitted to a “9M28 missile” fired from a Russian-built Buk missile system, he confirmed.
Speaking in front of the reconstructed plane – pieced together from parts of recovered debris, fitted around a metal skeleton – Joustra said all other scenarios to explain the disaster, which killed all 298 people on board, had been ruled out.
An animated video was shown to journalists at the Gilze-Rijen airbase in the Netherlands, where the plane was part reassembled over three months. It showed the Buk missile exploding on the left-hand side of the cockpit. Thousands of metal objects were ejected, with hundreds then penetrating the plane with tremendous force, Joustra said.
The impact and ensuing pressure drop killed the three pilots instantly,he said. On-board microphones captured the moment of impact – “a sound ping”. This allowed investigators to determine the devastating blast occurred on the upper-left hand side of the cockpit.
The damage was starkly visible. The front section of the Boeing 777 below the pilot’s port window was perforated with large shrapnel holes. Other parts were relatively unscathed. Five windows in the business class section were visible, together with a door where the passengers entered.
The pilot’s seats had been remounted in the cockpit – a haunting sight.
The plane’s nose was missing, together with much of its upper front half. The colours of Malaysia Airlines – a red, blue stripe – were still visible. Exit holes left by shrapnel could be seen on the other right side; exploding fragments had ripped through the fuselage.
According to Joustra, the passenger plane broke up mid-air. The cockpit and the floor of the business class tore away almost instantly from the main body and crashed.
The rest of the plane continued flying for about five miles in an easterly direction, hitting the ground about a minute to a minuter and a half later. Debris was scattered over 50 sq km.
In a briefing on Tuesday morning to relatives of the victims, which took place in The Hague, Joustra said the passengers on board – two-thirds of whom were Dutch nationals – would have been unconscious within seconds.
The board had previously made clear its findings would not deal with blame and liability; a criminal investigation by the Dutch prosecutor’s office is scheduled to conclude in early 2016.
Joustra said the Buk had been fired from a 320 sq km area of eastern Ukraine, the scene of a conflict between pro-Russia separatists backed by Moscow and Ukrainian government forces. He said “further forensic investigation” would be needed to determine the exact launch site.
The Netherlands, Ukraine and Russia had all carried out their own simulations into the missile’s probable trajectory. Russia was the only one of seven countries involved in the report’s preparation that dissented from its central conclusions, Joustra said, adding that Moscow believed “it was impossible to determine the type of missile or warhead with any certainty”.
It is widely assumed that Russia-backed separatists were responsible for bringing down MH17, but the US has stopped short of blaming Moscow directly. The Kremlin has blamed Kiev – variously suggesting that a Ukrainian military jet shot down the Boeing 777, or that a missile was launched from a government-held area.
The Russian simulation includes areas under Ukrainian government control. The other simulations suggest the Buk was fired from separatist areas. An open source investigation by the website Bellingcat, published last week, tracks the Buk from a Russian military base in Kursk. It was then smuggled across the Ukrainian border.
In Moscow, the makers of Buk missile systems, Almaz-Antey, gave a press conference on Tuesday morning, apparently to distract attention from the Dutch report.
The manufacturer said it had performed two experiments it says prove one of its missiles could not have been launched from areas under pro-Russia separatist control.
The Dutch safety board report, published in English and Dutch, concedes that family members had to wait “an unnecessarily long period of time” for formal confirmation that their loved ones were dead. The Dutch authorities “lacked management and coordination”, he said.
The victims came from nine countries, including Malaysia and Australia, and with 10 victims from the UK.
Joustra also said there was a simple, “dispiriting” answer to the question: why was MH17 allowed to fly above eastern Ukraine? It had not occurred to anybody that the airspace was unsafe for civilian jets at cruising altitude, he said. This was despite 60 Ukrainian aircraft and helicopters had been downed since the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in spring 2014.
About 160 civilian planes flew over the area on the day of the disaster. Three were in “close proximity” when the Buk was fired, he said. Ukraine should have closed its airspace to civilian traffic, he added.