GILZE-RIJEN (Netherlands) • A partial reconstruction of a Malaysia Airlines jet made of wreckage found strewn across eastern Ukraine has told the graphic story of its violent last moments after being hit by a surface-to-air missile.
Dutch-led air crash investigators concluded some of the 298 people on board may have known for up to 90 seconds after the Russian- made BUK missile ripped into the left side of the cockpit that they were about to die.
"The forward section of the aircraft was penetrated by hundreds of high-energy objects coming from the warhead," said the report released on Tuesday by the Dutch Safety Board, concluding a 15- month investigation.
"As a result of the impact and the subsequent blast, the three crew members in the cockpit were killed immediately and the aeroplane broke up in the air."
One moment the passengers were safely reclining in their seats, the next they were plunging towards the ground from 33,000 feet, said the report.
"It cannot be ruled out that some occupants remained conscious for some time during the one to 11/2 minutes for which the crash lasted."
The ghostly reconstruction of the damaged Boeing 777 - shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17 last year en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur - loomed large over the press conference called to unveil the report.
"The total number of high-energy objects (to hit the plane) was well over 800," the board said, concluding it was consistent with that of a detonation by a Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missile.
A tear in the fuselage clearly shows how the front part of the plane was torn off, after which it broke up in the air, the board's chairman Djibbe Joustra said.
Mr Joustra said the tail section "probably crashed before the centre section" containing the engines, which "hit the ground upside down and caught fire".
There was a "deafening noise of the impact, abrupt deceleration and acceleration, decompression and mist formation, reduced oxygen levels, extreme cold, powerful airflow... and objects flying around", the investigators concluded. Some passengers suffered serious injuries that probably caused their deaths.
"In others, the exposure led to reduced awareness or unconsciousness in a very short space of time," the investigation found. "It was not possible to ascertain the time of death... it was established that the impact on the ground was non-survivable," the report added.
There was sufficient reason to close the airspace in the east of the country as a precaution, but "the Ukrainian authorities failed to do so", said Mr Joustra.
However, Ukraine on Tuesday defended its decision not to close the airspace, saying it was unaware that anti-aircraft weapons were being used in the area and that planes could be under threat.
The Russians, in a report compiled by Almaz-Antey, the missile's manufacturer, maintain that the missile was not a model currently in use by the Russian military and had been fired from Ukraine-held territory, and not a rebel area.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES