‘The plane was falling above me, spinning, and bodies were dropping all around’

Locals in eastern Ukraine in shock after MH17 and its passengers tumbled to earth

Personal belongings and luggage of passengers between debris of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which disintegrated over eastern Ukraine on Thursday afternoon. Photograph: Anastasia Vlasova/EPA

Personal belongings and luggage of passengers between debris of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which disintegrated over eastern Ukraine on Thursday afternoon. Photograph: Anastasia Vlasova/EPA

Sat, Jul 19, 2014, 06:26

The miners, still sooty-faced from their shift at the coalface, formed a line and prepared to advance into a field of towering sunflowers. Each of them held in his arms a bundle of freshly cut sticks and scraps of white cloth, which they would need on their walk among the flowers.

The stubbled fields all around were studded with scores of such markers, each placed on the spot where a body had fallen from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 as it disintegrated over eastern Ukraine on Thursday afternoon.

“Our work in the mine is dangerous – we’ve seen everything there,” said Sergei, who had been bussed with colleagues to the field in the village of Grabovo. “We’re physically and emotionally ready for anything.”

They would need strong nerves and stomachs for the work ahead. The flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur appears to have been hit by a missile above the largely rebel-held region of Donetsk and it spiralled to earth scattering debris and passengers over more than 10km.

Leaflets

In the hamlet of Petropavlovka, the dark fields were dotted here and there with incongruous items: a tangle of electrical wires and a circuit board; leaflets on dental treatment; a novel in English called The Horse Dancer, its back cover ripped away. A few kilometres’ drive through potholed back roads and two rebel checkpoints, villagers in Razsipnoye stood around a small blue tarpaulin from which protruded a discoloured human leg.

The body had landed in the middle of Zagorskaya Street. Behind its small, tidy houses stretch large allotments full of cabbages and carrots – many now also contain the remains of passengers from the doomed Boeing 777. One body lay in two pieces having struck the edge of a roof after its fall from about 33,000 feet.

“I heard a noise and thought shells were hitting us, but it was people landing,” said local man Vasily, who found two bodies in his back garden.

“One hit an electricity line and cut off power to the street,” he added.

His friend Larissa, wide-eyed and speaking rapidly, described a surreal nightmare from which she had been unable to wake.

“I saw the plane coming down over the village and, as it fell, people poured out of it as if from a bucket. The plane was falling above me, spinning, and bodies were dropping all around. They dropped like bombs, but they were bodies.”

As Larissa spoke, a low noise that was not thunder rumbled through the low grey sky.

It had been heard regularly all morning, in the single or double booms of artillery guns or the long rolling growl of Grad multiple-rocket launchers firing a few dozen kilometres to the east. The Ukrainian army and the rebels have such systems, and Kiev also accuses Russia of launching shells over the border at its troops.

“We’ve heard that every day for weeks and jets firing missiles. Unfortunately, we have got used to it,” said Zhenya Golub in Grabovo.

His family and neighbours are near the epicentre of Ukrainian forces’ fight with heavily armed pro-Russian rebels. But yesterday, looking bewildered at a scene of carnage, they felt a twinge of good fortune.

The grassy field at the end of his street was a graveyard for the Boeing and its passengers, but the village’s houses were untouched.

Bones gleamed white among the charred carcass of a jet engine, a mangled undercarriage and countless smaller components, the blackened earth still smouldering and air reeking of kerosene.

“My mum saw this thing flying towards the house, and she thought ‘What a strange plane’,” said Zhenya’s wife, Tatyana.

“Then she realised it was crashing, falling towards her. She was sure it would hit the house, but at the last moment it seemed to spin away and landed over there,” she explained, pointing to the scorched field.

Tatyana’s father, Alexander Brachinko, said villagers who had gone towards the wreckage had been beaten back by intense heat and a column of acrid smoke.

“The main part landed over there,” he said, “and smaller pieces fell over the place, swirling around like a swarm of bees.”

Two parrots

Glimpses of vanished lives glinted in the heavy soil: torn bags of belongings, books, tangles of clothes and children’s toys; animals that had flown with their owners, including two parrots – their snapped wings glossy streaks of blue, red and gold – and a black-and-white dog that lay on its side in the grass, as if napping.

And everywhere, those white rags occasionally lifting in the clammy breeze, atop sticks marking the places where bodies, and parts of bodies, came to rest.

“This war is killing us, and no one hears when we ask for it to stop,” said Alexander, a resident of Razsipnoye.

“Maybe this will make the world listen.”