LONDON — The black boxes from the downed Malaysian jet have begun giving up information a week after the tragedy in east Ukraine, with the examination of bodies also under way as crash experts seek evidence of a missile strike.
Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch successfully retrieved voice recordings from the Boeing Co. 777’s cockpit, with flight data readings currently being downloaded, according to Dutch authorities who are leading the probe in recognition of the fact that almost 200 victims were from the Netherlands.
Specialists from the Dutch National Forensic Investigation Team are working in Kharkiv in government-controlled Ukraine after some of the 298 dead were moved there by train, with at least 40 bodies flown on to the Netherlands. While the flight recorders may reveal evidence of a missile attack, the fragmentation warhead thought to have been used will have peppered the 777’s fuselage and potentially its occupants, leaving the probe less dependent on an examination of a crash site that’s been heavily disturbed since the July 17 incident.
“Cockpit voice recorders can be sensitive enough to pick up the sound of hailstones, so there’s a chance that we may hear shrapnel hitting the plane,” said ex-AAIB investigator Phil Giles, who worked on the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Scotland. “With the power shutting down as the plane breaks up we may also get very little, but given the nature of the attack we should have enough evidence to reach conclusions anyway just from the major fragments, however contaminated the crash site.”
Permission has been granted for wreckage at the site to be moved by local parties in order find remaining victims, the Dutch Safety Board, which is heading the investigation, said Thursday. The decision was taken after a request was received via the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
While the plane’s voice recorder was found to be damaged, the memory module was intact and no evidence of manipulation was found, the Dutch agency said yesterday after the AAIB’s initial work. Information was successfully downloaded and appeared to be valid, though further analysis will take time, it said.
The flight-data recorder was examined by the AAIB to ascertain if it also contains relevant information.
“They started working on it this morning and are still going,” Dutch Safety Board spokeswoman Sara Vernooij said by telephone Thursday. AAIB spokesman Ben Duckworth said the process can take 24 hours.
The AAIB, located in Farnborough, southwest of London, will download the data in binary code before translating it into so- called engineering units providing second-by-second numbers and graphics for parameters including velocity, heading, altitude, flap settings and the speed of its engines, Giles said.
The black boxes were passed to the British agency after being handed over by a breakaway group in eastern Ukraine, which the U.S. has suggested downed the jet with a Russian launcher, a charge the rebels deny. The AAIB would expect to be involved in the probe anyway because the 777’s engines were made by London- based Rolls-Royce Holdings.
“The recorders look to be in pretty good condition from what I’ve seen, and we’ve had decent data come from a lot worse,” Giles said, citing black boxes from Air France Flight 447, which provided “pristine” readouts even after two years at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean following a crash in 2009.
The data stick from a recorder — actually colored orange to ease retrieval — is not much bigger than a cigarette packet, enclosed in a heavy metal casing designed to withstand collision speeds measured in hundreds of miles per hour. Giles said the equipment is “tough to tamper with,” short of wiping records completely, and that it would take several days and a high level of technical expertize to interfere with the data.
The Flight 17 site closely resembles that of the Pan Am crash in Lockerbie, with 90 percent of debris confined to an area spanning 10 miles, though lighter material could come to ground as many as 80 miles away, he said. The burnt area where the wings impacted is also similar, as is the spread of bodies, though in the Scottish incident investigators were looking for bomb evidence such as circuit-board fragments the size of a thumbnail, making preservation of the crash site more crucial.
“Some of the images from the scene already seem to show missile damage, though the team will need to have the panels in hand and build up a model of the plane to be absolutely sure,” Giles said.
The Dutch investigators have so far not been able to examine the crash zone under “safe conditions” and are still seeking access to the area, according yesterday’s statement.
“Despite the fact that evidence and traces have been damaged or lost, the Dutch Safety Board expects it will be able to gather sufficient relevant information from the crash site,” according to the release.
Examination of the dead should also be illuminating, with a fall from cruising altitude tending to strip away clothing, as happened in the Lockerbie case, though tampering with corpses could make it tougher to reach conclusions, he said.
Some bodies may also contain metal from the high-explosive fragmentation warhead which may have brought the plane down. The device suspected to have downed the jet is designed to detonate short of the target, maximizing destructive power by flinging thousands of pieces of shrapnel across a wide area.
The removal of the dead from the scene was probably necessary “for cosmetic reasons” in the heat of the Ukrainian summer, Giles said, though in the case of the Pan Am probe some bodies in first-class seats behind the cockpit were left in place for a week while a rigorous examination was carried out.