Malaysia’s transport minister, Liow Tiong Lai, said on Friday that MH17 was following “the right route on the right path”, as he fielded a barrage of questions from local and foreign reporters as to why the Malaysia Airlines flight passed over a warzone.
The jet was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on Thursday when it was blown apart and fell in a shower of fiery wreckage over the village of Grabovo near the Ukraine-Russia border.
“European airlines also use the same route and traverse the same airspace. In the hours before the incident, a number of other passenger aircraft from different carriers used the same route,” Liow told a press conference. He said there had been “no last-minute instructions” given to the pilots to change the route.
Ukrainian authorities had banned aircraft from flying below 32,000ft. MH17 was cruising at 33,000ft – apparently still within range of the sophisticated surface-to-air weaponry that pro-Russia forces have been using recently to target Ukrainian military aircraft. All civilian flights have now been barred from the airspace over eastern Ukraine.
Liow said the aircraft had a clean record and all systems were functioning normally.
The crash has provoked anger among some Malaysians towards their government. “First they lose a plane and then they fly another plane into a place they should never have been,” said taxi driver Rajiv Raja, 45. “Why would they do that?”
Malaysia Airlines said the flight plan had been approved by Eurocontrol, which designates routes in European airspace.
“The route over Ukrainian airspace where the incident occurred is commonly used for Europe to Asia flights. A flight from a different carrier was on the same route at the time of the MH17 incident, as were a number of other flights from other carriers in the days and weeks before.”
Many relatives of those on MH17 were too distraught to speak to reporters, and security was tightened at the hotels where many of the friends and family of the victims have been put up.
“He was really such a nice person, so intelligent, and we miss him so much,” one woman said of a friend who had been studying in the Netherlands and was on his way back home to Malaysia for the holidays. “The loss is just so deep, so deep inside, how do you explain it? Not many people can understand it.”
Zul Rusdi, an college lecturer, said he had lost six members of his family on MH17 – his cousin Ariza Ghazalee, 46, her husband, Tambi Jiee, 49, and their four children, aged 13-19.
The family had been living and working in Kazakhstan for the past three years as Shell employees and had been transferred back to Malaysia. They had decided to take a holiday in Amsterdam to celebrate the transfer and were due to continue home to Kuching after landing in Kuala Lumpur.
“They loved being in a foreign country, the cultural differences, all of it, but they were very excited to be coming back to Malaysia after such a long time away,” said Zul, who had last seen the family last March when they paid a visit to his mother who was in hospital in Kuala Lumpur.
“I couldn’t believe it when I switched on the TV this morning. I was looking at Najib [Razak, the prime minister] making his press statement and I was so confused: is this MH17 or MH370? What plane is this? I couldn’t believe it, I was shocked. It’s made us very scared, it seems like something is not right. I’m not going to accuse the government but … is it a conspiracy of some foreign elements who are [trying] to attack Malaysia? What does it mean? It’s all very tragic.”
Zul said the most worrying aspect was the supposed involvement of separatists in the crash and what that would mean for the victims’ burial rites.
“We don’t care if there is a war going on there, let them have it, but for us, for Muslims – for anyone in the world of all religions, really – it is so important that we have the remains of the bodies. How can we get the remains if the separatists are blocking the area? How can we ensure that our loved ones will have a proper burial? This is what hurts the most. I can handle the death. But please, let them have the dignity of a proper burial.”
While the two tragic incidents to have befallen Malaysia Airlines in the last four months may deter some from flying with them, many passengers at Kuala Lumpur were still checking in for their flights, saying goodbye to loved ones, calmly reading newspapers and chatting with friends.
Hannis Hanarbek, a construction management student on a course at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, was waiting with her brother in the main departures area and feeling calm about her flight back to Melbourne. “I’m a little scared, but I think it’ll be OK,” she said. “Maybe it’s God’s fate.”
Relatives of the missing passengers and crew from MH370, who are presumed dead after the flight disappeared from radar not long after takeoff in March, told the Guardian that they shared the pain and grief of those who had lost friends and family on MH17, and that news of the crash had reopened little-healed wounds.
“It’s quite difficult to explain, it’s very heavy. After a while, everything simmers down a bit, but all the pain just came back again last night,” said Rachel Sta Maria, whose cousin Patrick Francis Gomes was the in-flight supervisor on MH370. “I’m quite devastated, it’s like, just shock. It’s made me reflect back on what happened [to MH370], I just feel grief.”
Sta Maria said she felt no anger towards Malaysia Airlines. “It’s not their fault,” she said, breaking up. “We’re just victims of circumstances.” Guardian