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.
That’s the best guess of James Vosswinkel, a trauma surgeon who led a definitive study of TWA Flight 800 that exploded and crashed off New York’s Long Island in 1996, killing all 230 on the flight. The Everett-built Boeing 777-200 airliner carried 298.
Vosswinkel’s research found that trauma in a mid-air explosion occurs from three sources, the force of the blast, the massive deceleration when a plane going 500 miles an hour stops in mid-air, and the impact of the fall. Additionally, the loss of cabin pressure can 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. “No one was conscious or experienced that fall.”
While none of the 230 passengers in the 1996 crash survived, most of their bodies were 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, Vosswinkel said.
“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 doesn’t matter where you are sitting when there is a mid-air accident or explosion, he said. “It’s essentially an unsurvivable event for all.”
The Malaysian plane crashed about 18 miles from the Russian border in the main battleground of Ukraine’s civil war. Separatist rebels, backed by the Russian government, appear to have shot down the commercial airliner with a sophisticated surface-to-air missile, said Robert Pape, an expert in international security affairs at the University of Chicago.
U.S. 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, he said. The SA-11 used is one of the most modern surface-to-air missiles produced in Russia, which has more than 350 of them, Pape said. They travel nearly 3,000 miles an hour.
“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.
It appears 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.
At least one passenger was an American citizen, President Barack Obama said Friday, and six people on the plane have been confirmed as heading to the International AIDS meeting in Australia.
The American killed in the attack has been identified as Quinn Lucas Schansman, who holds dual U.S.-Dutch citizenship. Former International AIDS Society President Joep Lange, a well-known disease researcher,was on the flight with his partner Jacqueline van Tongeren.