Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17: The challenges of investigating in a 'hot war zone'

Investigators assigned to the crash of the Malaysia airline jetliner after it was downed over the Ukraine-Russian border face the additional obstacles of conducting a probe in the middle of a major regional conflict, a significant challenge that could pose major hurdles and compromise the investigation.

'The only way you can do this is if both sides have a peace agreement,' says former NTSB chair

International observer at MH17 crash site

8 years ago
Duration 5:24
CBC News speaks with Michael Bociurkiw, an international monitor with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe

Investigators assigned to the deadly crash of the Malaysia airline jetliner this week face the additional obstacles of conducting a probe in the middle of a major regional conflict, a significant challenge that could pose major hurdles and compromise the investigation, aviation crash analysts say.

“This is in a hot war zone and by the virtue of that it creates its own problems,” said Mark Rosenker, former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. 

"The only way you can do this is if both sides have a peace agreement or a settlement temporarily that would allow, on humanitarian means, a group of international investigators that have credibility, that are globally respected to be able to come in and work with the officials that are there,” Rosenker said. "If that is not done....there will be questions forever. No one will believe the results."

The wreckage from the Boeing 777, which appears to have been shot down Thursday afternoon over the Ukraine and Russian border, killed 298 people from nearly a dozen nations — lays strewn about in pro-Russian separatist territory in Eastern Ukraine.

Former Transport Safety Board accident investigator Gordon Dupont told CBC News that the investigation will be "very, very difficult because there's a huge amount of politics involved in this" with different sides having competing agendas, all trying to direct the investigation towards what favours them.

"So it's certainly not going to be an easy task," Dupont said. "And like I said, who is going to be the lead investigator? Boeing can't be, they're an interested party, Malaysia can't be."
Pro-Russian fighters walk at the site of a crashed Malaysia Airlines passenger plane near the village of Hrabove, Ukraine. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)
Under the international rules of air navigation, Ukraine has the authority to take the lead. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said they would establish a state commission to investigate and had invited the International Civil Aviation Organization and other international experts including Dutch and Malaysian officials to join in the efforts.

But any role Ukraine officials may want to take could prove tricky.

"They need to get Ukrainian folks out to the separatist area to investigate this thing. That's a huge challenge," said Matthew Robinson, an aviation safety expert with Robson Forensic, who has conducted investigations in areas of civil strife.

"There's these additional challenges well above and beyond a normal crash in a peaceful area," he said.

Already, there have been reports that pro-Russian rebels are making access to the crash site difficult. On Friday, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said it was negotiating safe passage to the crash site but officials later said that gunmen prevented them from observing the area.

"The biggest problem right now of course basically is security. Security and safety and protection of the evidence that's there," said Nick Stoss, former director of air investigations at the TSB. "That's job number one." 

​​"You're not going to send investgators in unless you have some guarantees for their safety," added James Hall, a former NTSB chairman.

Regardless of what arrangements are worked out for an investigative team, Robinson said investigators will most likely feel pressured to complete their work quickly, which could impede the investigation.

"More likely than not, your time is extremely limited in these types of scenarios," he said.

Investigators will also be seeking out the jetliner's black boxes, hoping that the cockpit recorder may have picked up sounds that could indicate a missile hit. But on Friday, rebels were offering up conflicting reports about whether they had them or not. 

Possibly in an attempt to assuage concerns that Russian officials may tamper with the investigation, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country will not take control of the black boxes.

But some experts questioned the importance of the black boxes for this investigation.

Wreckage more important than black boxes

"Is that data going to turn up anything? I highly doubt it," Robinson said. "You're going to see a catastrophic failure of all the aircraft systems, no warning whatsoever. So the information to be gleaned from those components will be minimal to none."

More important to the investigation is the wreckage itself, which should determine what weaponry was used against the plane.

“The black box is basically going to corroborate the fact that everything was working properly and this wasn’t a catastrophic mechanical failure," Rosenker said. "The stuff on the ground is going to tell you if it was shot down.”

But concerns have already been raised that without proper officials to cordon off the area, the site is being compromised.

"The longer you wait before professional accident investigators get there, critical parts could be taken, could be tampered with, could be contaminated, could be ruined," Rosenker said.

So-called scrappers, people scouring the crash site, digging through luggage, looking for souvenirs, or anything of value, have already appeared. Robinson said that as a lead investigator, the first minutes after a crash he relies upon the first responders and their inherent knowledge to keep people away. 

But with the crash occurring in a conflict zone, this luxury is not afforded to the investigative body in this situation, he said.

"So they're going to have to deal with  a lot of spoiled evidence, a lot of compromised evidence, and a lot of missing evidence as well. A lot of this stuff is never going to turn up again," he said.  "You have people walking over key components, some of which may in fact contain fragments or explosive residue that can definitely determine what type of missile this actually came from."

With files from The Associated Press, Reuters


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