The crash of an Malaysian Air plane claimed the lives of 154 Dutch travelers, by far the biggest group, as other governments sought to ascertain if citizens from their countries were on the plane that went down over Ukraine.
There were a total of 283 passengers on board the Boeing Co. 777 wide-body aircraft, as well as 15 crew, Huib Gorter, the Malaysian Air executive in charge of Europe, told a press conference at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport today. Other travelers came from a range of countries that include Australia, the U.K., Belgium, Canada and the Philippines, he said.
The aircraft had originated in Amsterdam and was en route to Kuala Lumpur, flying at a cruising altitude of about 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) when it disappeared from the radar and crashed in eastern Ukraine, near the town of Torez, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Russian border. Television footage showed a wide field of smoking debris, and local bystanders holding up passports belonging to both Dutch and Malaysian travelers, among them youths from the Netherlands.
“The dramatic news on flight MH17 can hardly be comprehended,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters. “This could possibly be one of the very worst aviation disasters in Dutch history. I am shocked and I am devastated.”
The government in Kiev blamed pro-Russian rebels on bringing down the airliner with a missile, an accusation the separatists denied. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement she is “shocked” by the crash and its possible circumstances, and demanded a “swift, independent” inquiry.
The worst crash involving Dutch citizens occured in 1977 on the Spanish island of Tenerife, when a KLM Boeing 747 collided on the runway with another jumbo jet, killing 583 people, which still ranks as the deadliest accident in aviation history.
The second-biggest group on MH17 was 27 Australian travelers, followed by 23 from Malaysia. The crew of 15 were also all Malaysian. The nationality of 47 people had not been identified. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it would be an “unspeakable crime” if the jet had been shot down.
President Barack Obama said his administration is working to find out if Americans were on board, with Ukraine Interior Ministry adviser Zoryan Shkiryak putting the number of U.S. citizens at 23. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Flight MK17 may have carried at least four French people.
Grieving families that arrived at the airport were led away by officials, while at the other end in the Malaysian capital people also gathered at the terminus, saying they had family and friends on the flight. Malaysian Air will send an aircraft to the Netherlands to bring relatives to the crash site.
Dutch travel agent D-Reizen said it had 21 clients booked on the jet, while World Tickets Center and Vliegtickets.nl owner Rob Rus said about 30 Dutch-speaking people had tickets for the flight. Dutch King Willem Alexander said in a statement that he was “deeply affected by terrible news.”
Malaysian Air said it was informed by Ukrainian air traffic control that contact was lost with the airliner about 50 kilometers from the Russia-Ukraine border. The area wasn’t a designated war zone, the airline said.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein gathered at Kuala Lumpur International Airport for a briefing. The incident is the second tragedy since March involving a Malaysian Air Boeing Co. 777, a wide-body airliner capable of long-distance routes.
Another plane of the same type by the airline went missing earlier this year without a trace, and no debris has yet been found despite the longest search mission in civil aviation history.