The day careered away as more and more friends talked about the awful events involving the flight. Sorrow is mixed with anger – and a massive confusion. 12 hours on from that message, Kuala Lumpur is eerily quiet, a city in shock.
I know quite a lot of people who work in the airline industry and of them quite a few work for Malaysia Airlines. The loss – presumed but not confirmed – of flight MH370 was a desperate shock to all of them.
When I drove to Kuala Lumpur International Airport recently, ironically to collect the friend who sent this morning’s message, I saw a sign that I had not seen before. In bold white letters on a bigger than strictly necessary brown backboard, it pointed to the disaster unit. It was a reminder that, more than four months on, no one knows for sure what happened to the aeroplane that simply went missing.
That aircraft was a Boeing 777 and it was the first major incident that the aircraft had had. As the backbone of many regional fleets – and some long-haul flights in some configurations – the B777 has a fantastically good safety record. Malaysia Airlines also has a fantastically good safety record. Put the two together and MH370’s loss is cause for significant concern. It’s a concern that no one should have to think about.
The coverage of the disappearance of MH370 was characterised by rumour, supposition and downright lies. Social media was responsible for the rapid spread of all kinds of untruths that the desperate families leapt on, not thinking to verify what they heard and then, bizarrely, rejecting the verified information from governments and the contractors they engaged to look for the aircraft.
Incredible stories far outweighed credible ideas. Some, like CNN’s ridiculous claim just hours after the aircraft disappeared to know where the black boxes were, were just cynical attempts to boost ratings; some, like the crazy story circulated by a person who claimed to have been on an oil rig and watched the aircraft burning in the sky, turned out to be cruel hoaxes by a sick mind; some, like those who posted videos of aircraft crashing in the water to e.g. YouTube with untrue headlines mentioning the flight number – and got millions of hits within days – providing them with responses to click-links that they could not otherwise dream of, were calculated to gain a benefit at the cost of harm to others; some, like the British man who has published a book claiming to establish that the aircraft turned back, was not identified and was shot down by Malaysian authorities, are either immoral opportunists or dangerously deluded.
There is no lack of certainty over what happened to MH17, only over who did it and even that seems to be fairly settled.
What I do for a living is this: I gather data, I look for the dots that I can join and – equally – I look for the spaces between the dots. The question “what aren’t I seeing?” is as vital as the question “what am I seeing?”
And, of course, I have to decide what weight to put on the information I get.
This is what I’ve got: the website of the commander of a group that purports to be a form of regional government carried an announcement that his group had brought down a Ukrainian military transport. There was certainly some kind of plan and it was widely disseminated because there are several credible videos of people watching the aircraft, watching the missile that brought it down and expressing varying degrees of pleasure at its crashing. One thing troubles me: on one video, the men are speaking English, albeit heavily accented. Were they making a propaganda video?
I’ve got photographs, copyrighted by Reuters who are, one assumes, satisfied as to their authenticity, of large pieces of the aircraft. I have a debris field of several square miles but the main bulk of the aircraft, with passengers still strapped in their seats, is in a relatively small area, suggesting a combination of high-level break up of parts of the aeroplane and a hard crash and explosion. I’ve got what the Ukrainians say is a transcript between two known intelligence officers – one a rebel in Ukraine and one an officer in Russia. That, too, talks of the success in bringing down a military aircraft. Then the tone changes and someone says “it was 100 percent civilian. It was not a military aircraft.” I’ve got warnings from UK authorities to UK airlines to avoid the south of Ukraine – and no warning for the East where the event happened. And I have Rebels standing guard over the crash site and other debris, rebels apparently removing personal items from the dead, displays of some of those personal items arranged carefully and respectfully, armed men keeping others away plus the news that the flight recorder has been recovered and, on any realistic assessment of the position, stolen and carried away to Russia. There are denials from Putin, saying that the Ukrainians brought down the flight. And I have the websites that were proud of the success modified to, in some cases, make no mention of the situation at all. I have the Ukrainian ATC saying that the airspace was closed as unsafe below 32,000 feet and I have European ATC confirming that the aircraft was on course and above the floor set for that area.
Taking out the things that are most likely to be spurious, there is strong suspicion that MH17 was shot down, whilst travelling on its correct route at its correct height, in an air corridor that was not subject to warnings. It was brought down by a ground to air missile of a level of sophistication that strongly implies that it was Russian supplied. Russia is currently engaged in a cover-up and in making a series of non-credible statements blaming Ukraine’s own forces. Therefore, the greatest likelihood on the information currently available is that Russian-backed rebels fighting the lawful government of Ukraine shot down a civilian airliner.
The world needs to be outraged. President Obama isn’t. So clearly he does not fancy even a war of words with Putin. So far, the rest of the world has failed to make sanctions work and Russia continues its annexation of parts of Ukraine without regard for anyone’s criticisms. Russia’s oil and gas is too important for most countries to get really heavy.
Ironically, Malaysia and some of its neighbours might have some leverage, albeit not much. Russia is the supplier of much of the military hardware, especially aircraft, across Asia Pacific and Malaysia’s army and air force are dependent on Russian aircraft. If money talks, perhaps future contracts might not be as certain as they might previously have been. Then again, what use would it do to threaten Russia? Its current attitude to the world is that it can do as it pleases, Putin as an increasingly autocratic and arguably Napoleonic leader and in any case, the focus has shifted to the activities of ISIS and attempts to justify Israel’s murderous incursions into Gaza. So, if countries say they won’t buy new aircraft from Russia, Putin will probably just tear up the contracts for parts needed to maintain existing equipment, leaving them grounded as unsafe.
While the world watches and waits, Putin will ignore it all: he will, quite simply, take the black box, get into it and examine the data and, either delete or doctor it as required. He can keep it hidden in Russia for as long as he likes. Today it is clear without doubt: Russia is a state sponsor of terrorism and murder of innocents. No dispute, no arguments.
The only solace for the families of those on board is that they know it’s over. They know that their loved ones will be repatriated and they know that they will be able to bury them and to say goodbye. That’s something the families of MH370 are still unable to do and today’s events will have a horrible impact on them.
The media is not helping : in a press conference this afternoon, hostile questioning from a strident representative of Australia Broadcasting was both unnecessary and self-serving – to try to get admissions that the Airline is at fault, especially as, minutes before, the USA had confirmed that it held satellite data showing the missile and the bringing down of the aircraft was offensive. A representative of Dutch TV tried to elicit some kind of response as to the future of Malaysia Airlines after its second catastrophe in “half a year,” as he put it. A representative of Channel News Asia tried to forcefully press a question as to whether the route was safe and was insulting in doing so. Worse, the answer she wanted was already in the public domain, released by the European ATC several hours earlier.
The media needs to grow up, to recognise that sometimes there are no answers and to report that instead of implying that a failure to answer is evasive.
The new Malaysian Transport Minister, Liow Tiong Lai , struggled to answer in sufficiently fine pointed English: if the event had taken place in Italy no one would have thought this strange but there is an expectation that senior Malaysian ministers will communicate in high level English. Reporters must learn to accept that this is not always so. His English is not perfect and he lacks the nuances that the questions sought to elicit but he did a good job. His statement was precise, his answers were precise but, in some ways, less effective than they could be. He isn’t combative: the journalists were.
But there is something else, something that might provide a shred of comfort to those families. Perhaps not comfort, but some certainty over one small fact.
MH17 is the first B777 known to have a mid-air event that is tantamount to a break-up. It happened at broadly the height that MH370 was flying at when it went missing. We know how big the debris field is and we now know that the aircraft does not break into tiny pieces but, instead, large pieces of fuselage survive. That suggests – and it is only my personal speculation, that MH370 did not have a mid-air break up. Had it done so, the debris field would almost certainly have resulted in some positive sighting of pieces of aircraft. In short, the bringing down of MH17 produces previously unavailable data relating to a major catastrophe in a triple-seven at altitude.
It’s a crappy legacy for the almost 300 people dead in a field in the Ukraine but it could be a vital piece of information that helps more than 250 families to close the door on at least one line of inquiry that had remained open despite the best efforts of all concerned.
In the meantime, MH17 was not an accident as one BBC journalist insists on calling it, it was not a mistake except as to identity. It was a murderous attack and the fact that the target was not the target the offenders thought it to be does not detract from that.
MH17 was an aircraft of full of people doing what they do in their daily lives. They were in the right place at the wrong time.
We pray for them and their families and for those who still grieve for MH370. And we wish divine retribution on the bastards who would finance, arm, plan and cover up such a thing.
© 2014 Nigel Morris-Cotterill
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