The smell of burning swirls around charred fields filled with hunks of blackened metal and severed limbs. In the village where much of what remains of flight MH17 is scattered, gunmen look on as rescue workers gather bodies.
Grabovo, less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Russian border in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, is where investigators hope to discover what happened to the Malaysian Air jet that crashed July 17. Away from the probe, emergency workers look to catalogue the corpses and body parts of the 298 passengers and crew that litter the grass.
“There was a fireball, then smoke filled the air,” said Nikolai Ivanov, 51, a local resident. “The whole field burned. Of course, no one could survive. I saw debris falling from the sky. Newspapers and documents came down. The pilot was on the ground, in his uniform and still strapped into his seat.”
While Ukraine’s easternmost regions have grown accustomed to gunfire and explosions after months of fighting between pro-Russian separatists and government troops, the carnage has horrified Grabovo’s 1,000 residents. The insurgents, named by the U.S. as the likely culprits for the missile that downed the Boeing 777 aircraft, were among the first people on the scene. They control who goes in and out, including the human remains.
Men with rifles, representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, patrol Grabovo. They’ve allowed workers from Ukraine’s Emergency Ministry to set up tents, while limiting access to international investigators. Officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said shots were fired into the air as they approached for their first inspection.
Ukraine authorities say they still don’t have the two black-box flight recorders, while the aide to Donetsk Peoples’ Republic self-proclaimed Prime Minister Alexander Borodai said rebels are in possession of equipment they identified as the black boxes and intend to turn them over to international authorities.
Belongings from the plane are gathered into piles in the fields. Among them are clothes, vinyl records, children’s books, passports, shoes and glasses cases. The site over which debris is strewn stretches well beyond Grabovo, or about 25 square kilometers (15.5 square miles), according to Defense Ministry spokesman Andriy Lysenko, who also said the rebels had been looting the possessions of those who perished.
“Cynicism of the militants went beyond all limits,” Lysneko said. “Apart from collecting private expensive belongings of passengers, terrorists are using credit cards of the victims.”
Locals say the separatists have barred them from the crash site. Some said they’d been warned not to speak to the press.
Armed, masked militia have also kept guard over press and international workers, and even the transportation of the bodies.
Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman said 192 bodies and fragments of eight more are loaded into a refrigerated train nine miles from the crash scene, ready for transportation and identification. For now, he said, the rebels, who are guarding the rail cars, are not allowing it to depart
“You can imagine how to work there under guns. We have sent letters. We have appealed to all,” said Hroisman, adding there is no reason for the delay.
“Look for someone else,” said one old lady before she ran back into her house. “I didn’t see anything and don’t know anything.”
Most of those who did comment refused to give their last names for fear of the consequences. Tatyana, who backs the insurgents, said at first she thought the plane was the latest in a string of army aircraft shot down by the rebels.
“There was a horrible explosion -- we were celebrating because we thought it was a military plane but it turned out to be a passenger jet,” the 39-year-old said. “There were dead women and children lying in the field. What a nightmare.”
The plane split apart in the air, throwing some bodies out and leaving them largely intact when they hit the ground, away from the explosion. Some of the passengers’ possessions fell into locals’ back yards. Several corpses landed in streets, still in their seats and wearing seat belts.
“There was a terrible sound of thunder,” said Sergei. “My wife ran to the cellar to hide when she saw the plane was falling. But she didn’t make it and the force of the blast injured her leg. The windows shattered and the ground shook.
After venturing outside, Sergei said they saw bodies everywhere, broken and twisted.
‘‘A young man still in his seat was next to that yard,’’ he said, pointing. ‘‘Over there, there was a woman. And there, across the street a woman’s body smashed through the barn roof.’’
With views of lush green countryside, the drive into Grabovo from the nearby town of Torez doesn’t hint at the mayhem that’s taken over. But the words inscribed on the Orthodox Christian cross marking the entrance to the village have taken on a different meaning. Not far from the tail of the jet whose journey ended here, they read ‘‘Save and Protect.”