Malaysia Airlines MH17 blast was 'unsurvivable'

Last updated 10:14 19/07/2014

President Obama says a surface-to-air missile fired from territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine was responsible for shooting down a Malaysian plane, though questions remain.

MH17 crash
Reuters Zoom
A man blocks access to the scene of the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 as emergency personnel remove the bodies of passengers.

Bickering over who shot down MH17

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The blast force from the missile that slammed into a Malaysian plane over the Ukraine, combined with the plane's dramatic deceleration, probably instantly rendered everyone on board unconscious or dead, a trauma surgeon says.

All 283 passengers, and 15 crew members aboard the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight were killed in the  crash, which happened over eastern Ukraine about 3am yesterday, NZT.

US authorities and aviation experts said the Boeing 777 was likely brought down by a ground-to-air missile, but so far there was no proof of who fired it. Ukraine and the insurgents blamed each other.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said a New Zealand woman on the plane normally resided in Australia, and was travelling with her husband, a Dutch citizen. A British citizen also on the plane had lived in New Zealand long-term.

Two Newcastle United fans who were travelling to watch their football team play in New Zealand were among the victims.

James Vosswinkel, a trauma surgeon who led a definitive study of TWA Flight 800, said passengers on MH17 probably didn’t realise what was happening.

Flight 800 exploded and crashed off New York's Long Island in 1996, killing all 230 on the flight. The Malaysian plane carried 298.

Vosswinkel's research found that trauma in a mid-air explosion occured from three sources, the force of the blast, the massive deceleration when a plane going 800 kilometres an hour stops in mid-air, and the impact of the fall. Additionally, the loss of cabin pressure could cause hypoxia within seconds at 33,000 feet, leading to loss of consciousness.

"You have such horrific forces that it's essentially unsurvivable," said Vosswinkel, chief of trauma and surgical critical care at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, in a telephone interview.

"No one was conscious or experienced that fall."

While none of the 230 passengers in the 1996 crash survived, most of their bodies were subsequently recovered. Though the crash occurred offshore, the analysis found none of the passengers had sea water in their lungs, suggesting none were breathing when they entered the water.

The conditions of many of the bodies found in that crash were widely divergent, according to Vosswinkel.

"You had some devastating injuries where the brain and heart were missing," he said.

A couple were "totally intact; all they had was a broken neck".

The study also indicated that it didn't matter where you were sitting when there was a mid-air accident or explosion, he said.

"It's essentially an unsurvivable event for all."

Justin Bronk, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based military think tank, said the United States has sophisticated military satellites capable of detecting a missile launch, but might be unwilling to share its images in order to protect its secret surveillance capabilities.

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"They will probably try to liaise with civilian satellite operators to see if there are any who also picked up the trail on infra-red sensors so that they can publicly release that data," he said.

US intelligence systems have been focused on eastern Ukraine for months as the war has raged, allowing analysts to spot the plume of the missile after it was launched, said Robert Pape, an expert in international security affairs at the University of Chicago.

The SA-11 used was one of the most modern surface-to-air missiles produced in Russia, which had more than 350 of them, Pape said. They could travel at nearly 5000kmh.

"They are designed to shoot down fighter jets that are going twice the speed of sound," he said.

"To shoot down a commercial airliner lumbering at 600 miles an hour and can't move is a piece of cake."

The type of surface-to-air missile used could have pierced the plane with shrapnel after exploding close to it, said Bill Waldock, a professor of safety science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in a telephone interview.

It appeared from public reports that the plane was struck toward its tail, blowing most of the structure away, Waldock said.

"That thing uses a proximity fuse which goes off when it gets close," Waldock said.

"The warhead is like a giant shotgun shell sending multiple shards of metal through the plane. It's doubtful it hit the plane, but once you lose the tail you can't fly the plane," he said.

Following impact and descent, as the fuselage peeled open, the passengers would certainly have been rendered unconscious, according to Waldock, who said he has explored the circumstances of over 200 plane crashes.

"It's literally an explosive decompression and would have caused a lot of g-force pushing people back in their seats," he said.

While it would have taken the plane minutes to fall from 33,000 feet, hypoxia would have rendered anyone who survived the initial blast unconscious within 30 seconds, Waldock said.

Six people on the plane have been confirmed as heading to the International AIDS meeting in Australia. Former International AIDS Society President Joep Lange, a well- known disease researcher, was on the flight with his partner Jacqueline van Tongeren.

Also identified were World Health Organisation spokesman Glenn Thomas; lobbyist Pim de Kuijer and programme manager Martine de Schutter from the Netherlands's AIDS Fund, according to statements from their organisations.

- Bloomberg News

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