Crash Investigators Face Difficult Task in Ukraine

By Dow Jones Business News, 

By Daniel Michaels and Andy Pasztor

Crash investigators preparing to pore over the debris of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine face a daunting task gathering and analyzing evidence that lies in a battle zone and could be tainted.

Nearly a week after the Boeing 777 went down, pieces of the plane offering information about its last seconds may have been moved, damaged or stolen, from what one veteran investigator considers the most disrupted crash site in recent memory.

The treacherous scene isn't unique for such air-crash sleuths, who over the years have confronted natural and human obstacles ranging from wild animals to land mines and looters. Teams have delved into wreckage from planes that slammed into inaccessible mountain ridges or plunged into deep water.

Typically, speed is essential to preserve evidence. But in Ukraine, where armed gunmen roam the site without any government controls, concerns about physical dangers remain abnormally high.

"At every crash site, investigator safety has to be absolutely paramount, " said John Cox, a safety expert and former U.S. airline pilot who now runs a consulting firm in Washington. Supervisors "need to monitor the situation extremely carefully" and be ready to pull teams out as soon as it changes, he said, since the "current window of cooperation is likely to be limited in duration."

Debris from the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, on which all 298 passengers and crew died, is scattered across 35 square kilometers (13.5 square miles) of fields and villages in territory controlled by Ukrainian separatist rebels, who initially barred investigators from the site.

"You've always had to be wary of where you're going to investigate an accident because of the elements, topography or local people," said Richard B. Stone, a past president of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators.

Still, Mr. Stone said, the crash site in Ukraine has been more disturbed than that of any other major accident in recent decades.

"I can't think of as disrupted a site," he said.

Commercial flying over the past two decades has grown increasingly safe in developed countries and more common in less-developed regions, where a culture of safety is less ingrained. As a result, a rising proportion of accidents is occurring in hard-to-reach parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Conflicts have limited investigators' access to crash sites in the past. In 2003, a Boeing 737 operated by Kam Air of Afghanistan slammed into a hilltop on its approach to Kabul. The snow-covered peak was dotted with land mines and home to wild animals, including hungry mountain wolves, according to Robert Benzon, a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigator who participated in the work.

Because of the security concerns, investigators managed to stay for only about 30 hours at the site, Mr. Benzon said in an article about the investigation in ISASI Forum, the air-safety society's magazine. Helicopters carrying them "always flew with both doors open and with heavy automatic weapons at the ready," Mr. Benzon said. "This was not a normal investigation."

Natural barriers pose a more common obstacle to accident probes. A Kenya Airways Boeing 737 that disappeared in May 2007 after takeoff from Douala, Cameroon, bound for Nairobi was found 36 hours later in a mangrove swamp. Removing plane parts and human remains from the dense, steamy jungle was particularly difficult, according to reports at the time.

A similar challenge faced investigators probing the crash of a Valujet McDonnell Douglas MD-80 that plunged into the Florida Everglades in 1996. Investigators braved temperatures above 38 degrees Celsius, or about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as alligators, snakes, mosquitoes and biting flies, to reach the wreckage on air boats. For protection against chemicals and disease from rotting corpses, workers had to don double-layer plastic protective suits with rubber gloves duct-taped on, said Stephen Kilmon, president of surveying firm ViaLink Inc., which helped the NTSB find the plane.

"You would fill up each boot with sweat in 20 minutes," recalled Mr. Kilmon. "I didn't know you could sweat that much."

A year earlier, an American Airlines Boeing 757 clipped a mountain approaching the airport in Cali, Colombia, killing 159 people. The scene, almost 9,000 feet up, was looted before a full team of investigators arrived, because difficult terrain delayed them.

Midair airplane explosions, which scatter wreckage over a large area, are comparatively rare. One precedent for Malaysia Airlines Flight 17's large debris field is Pan Am Flight 103, which was blown up by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The town, however, was a picture-book image of orderliness. Local residents were traumatized by the destruction rained upon them, but they left the wreckage largely untouched.

Planes that strike water can also leave remnants far below the surface and at the mercy of currents, further complicating a search. To collect parts of Swissair Flight 111, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean off Nova Scotia in 1998, investigators dangled a submersible pipe from a specialized ship to vacuum the seabed. Over months, pieces of the decimated McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 were painstakingly picked out from huge volumes of collected rocks and sand.

Similar challenges dogged investigations of TWA Flight 800, which exploded off Long Island, N.Y., in 1996, and Air France Flight 447, which crashed en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009.

Politics has also occasionally posed obstacles, as it has in Ukraine. When Polish President Lech Kaczynski's Tupolev 154 crashed on approach to a military airstrip in Smolensk, Russia, in 2010, the two countries spent months fighting over the investigation. Because it was a diplomatic flight on a military plane, rather than a commercial aircraft, United Nations rules on access to the crash site didn't apply.

And not all hostile environments are in remote locations, since crash sites are inherently stressful for participants. Mr. Stone was one of the first investigators on the scene after an Air Florida Boeing 737 crashed into the ice-covered Potomac River in Washington in 1982. He showed his credentials, but to no avail.

"A policeman told me to get away or he'd shoot me," Mr. Stone recalled. "I understood--he was under tension."

Write to Daniel Michaels at and Andy Pasztor at

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