Echoes of dark days from the past

Echoes of dark days from the past

LIKE Manhattan, the Ukrainian village of Shaktarsk, with debris littered across its wheat field and sunflower crops, now has its own Ground Zero. The crater. The wreckage. The charred earth. The aftermath of carnage. The tragic chapter in history. The bodies. The international repercussions.

Like New York City and Washington DC, these are deaths brought about by a hostile act against civilians.

Yet Shaktarsk is different, in a significant way, from Manhattan. For almost a week, there was no coordinated recovery effort, no discernible chain of command and no apparent mapping of evidence. There was only the seesaw blame game, with Ukraine pointing the finger at Russia while Moscow, in turn, claimed that if somehow it was not a US plot to embarrass the Kremlin, then Ukraine must take responsibility because the jet was brought down in its airspace.

One photograph in particular of the crash site evokes Dante's Inferno, the classic epic poem that describes an imaginary journey through hell. The image was probably taken late in the evening, or possibly in the last embers of dusk, because one patch of sky visible on the left shows an azure hue. A powerful floodlight on the extreme right of the frame shines across the tragic pastiche of destruction.

In terms of composition and stark light tones, it harks back to several images after night enshrouded the rubble of the fallen twin towers late on the night of Sept 11, 2001.

The visual parallels are striking - the gathering darkness has blanched the scene of distinguishable colour; piles of rubble are underfoot; the earth is scorched and blackened and torn asunder; there are twisted, jagged pieces of metal strewn everywhere; and fire hoses have reduced all visible remnants of the destruction to a single homogenous object devoid of any identifiable individual elements.

In what is almost a screen-grab of some terrible theatre of the macabre, the Ukrainian floodlight emphasises billowing smoke from the smouldering wreckage as the few living inspect the many dead. A solitary burly man stands out in mid- frame, despite the presence of others who are partially obscured by what seems to be a huge part of an engine turbine.

In the only proven instance of a passenger plane being brought down by a missile, an Iran Air Airbus on a short-haul flight from Teheran to Dubai in July 1988 was climbing to 14,000 feet when it was hit by missiles fired from a US Navy vessel, the USS Vincennes. There were 290 lives lost in the incident.

The only other known example of a wide-body passenger jet being brought down by hostile fire took place in 1983. A Korean Airlines Boeing 747 with the flight designation KAL007 was flying on autopilot but strayed into Soviet airspace while en route from New York to Seoul. It was shot down by two Soviet air force jets, killing all 269 people aboard.

It was almost a decade before Moscow finally handed over the transcript of the cockpit voice recorder. But the wreckage from the jumbo jet and the personal effects of passengers and crew aboard the doomed flight were never handed over to South Korea or to any international investigators.

While the grieving relatives of those who died aboard MH17 still wait for their bodies to be identified, the remains of those aboard KAL007 were never released.

I know of only one civilian pilot, the late Phil Blown, an Australian, who actually survived a fatal military attack that brought down his aircraft. Some years ago, I had the chance to speak to him about the incident.

On the morning of July 23, 1954, he was in command of a Cathay Pacific Skymaster, a propeller-driven civilian airliner, when it was attacked in mid-flight off the coast of Hainan Island by two fighters from the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force.

His radio officer issued a mayday call, giving their precise position, as two of the Skymaster's engines caught fire while bullets ripped through the fuselage, killing and injuring many of those aboard.

Captain Blown managed to ditch the crippled airliner into the sea and to inflate a life raft where he and eight other survivors sheltered before being rescued by a US amphibious plane.

Why does his tale have a haunting resonance as the world comes to grips with the MH17 tragedy? Because 60 years since that incident - almost to the day - a pattern of evidence suggests that the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 may be the first civilian airliner brought down by a surface-to-air missile from a cruising altitude of about 10km above the earth.

This article was first published on July 26, 2014.
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