How I watched the #MH17 tragedy unfold

The sight of this just wrecks me. Imagine the tropical or romantic dreams of the traveler who packed this.

The sight of this guidebook wrecked me. Imagine the tropical or romantic dreams of the traveler who packed it. (Life News)

Every time a plane crashes, my adrenalin spikes, I fall into news gathering mode, and I begin to recall the air crashes that have occurred during my 25 year career as a travel writer, broadcaster and author.

Most poignant of all to me was the ValuJet (now AirTran) flight 592 (Miami>Atlanta) crash into the everglades in May 1996 on the eve of Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Games. I’ll never forget the sick feeling I held in the pit of my stomach until I read the flight manifest in the AJC the next day to know that nobody I knew or loved was on the plane since I was based in Atlanta at the time.

Two months later on July 17 1996, TWA flight 800 (New York>Paris) went down in the Long Island Sound and while the crash was blamed on a fuel tank spark, many still believe it was mistakenly shot down (and covered up) by the US military. Note that today’s date coincides with the date of TWA 800.

I also remember when CNN first called me in to comment about the Swissair flight 111 (New York>Geneva) crash off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1998 due faulty wiring that many blamed on the airline’s pioneering inflight entertainment system that allowed inflight gambling.

While there were countless other air disasters, those are the ones that stand out for me.

There was no real internet back then, so information and details about the crash took days instead of minutes to spread around the world. Now that’s changed.

Here’s how I watched and what I felt and thought as today’s Malaysia Airlines flight 17 tragedy unfolded.

One of the first things I do every morning is settle in at the desk with a large cup of coffee for a quick scan of the news. Since I’m in Pacific time in San Francisco, there’s always a lot of catching up to do with all the east coasters.

As I sped through my Twitter feed at around 8 am, unconfirmed reports of a plane down over the Ukraine started to pop up. I did not pay much attention since planes going down in Ukraine is regrettably common these days. Many of the tweets linked to sites like the Russian news agency Interfax, which I don’t know well and don’t really trust.

But those unconfirmed reports began to multiply. Then the major news sites began to post “Breaking news” with headlines of “unconfirmed” reports that a passenger plane had crashed in the Ukraine– suspected to be a Malaysian Air B777.

Bloggers then began to post that the flight in question was Malaysia Airlines flight 17 and the #MH17 twitter hashtag was born, making it much easier to follow the story.



I began to follow images of the flight path of MH17 from sites like FlightAware and FlightRadar24.

By then the stream of tweets and reports had turned into a torrent. Bloggers and journalists were warning each other not to jump to conclusions or speculation as to why the plane had gone down. I think everyone did a pretty good job here, given the gross amount of speculation that occurred shortly after the other recent Malaysian Air disaster and mystery. #MH370


Then a tweet from Malaysia Air confirmed what we’d all been buzzing about. It said that the carrier had lost contact with MH17 somewhere over the Ukraine. What went through my mind and I’m sure everyone else’s is, “How could this be happening to Malaysia Airlines again?” Sigh.

Confirmation emerges that there were 283 passengers on board along with 15 crew for a total of 298 souls. This means that the flight was sold out. Full. Ugh. Here’s a seat map of Malaysia Air B777.  I see this and I wonder what they were all doing when the missile hit. Having dinner? Sleeping? Looking out the window and dreaming of a tropical vacation? Painful, but I can’t help but wonder…

That’s when talk of missiles began to break out.

By this time, I had CNN on and listened to hastily drawn panels of anchors and experts begin to speculate about what had happened. All were being very careful to say that it was only speculation that a missile could have downed the plane.

See the Malaysian flag on this shred of fuselage?

See the Malaysian flag on this shred of fuselage? (Source: Twitter)

Then we began to see “alleged” photos like this one of pieces of the downed aircraft. That confirmed it.

A pack of passports allegedly found on the ground at the crash site

A pack of passports allegedly found on the ground at the crash site (Life News)

Heart wrenching photos of packs of passports and Lonely Planet guides to Bali began to emerge. Russian news site RT was roundly criticized for tweeting grisly photos of bodies.

Then we began to get statements from governments. The Ukrainians were the first to come out and say “we didn’t do it, the Russians did.”

The talk turned to the fact that Ukraine did not have missilery capable of hitting an aircraft at 33,000 feet. But the Russians, of course, do have that capability and blame began to shift to Russian backed separatists in Ukraine. One of which was reportedly to have tweeted a boast that he’d just shot down a Ukrainian transport plane.

In the midst of all this, the phone rings. It’s my mother in Atlanta calling to be sure I’m not on the downed plane. “I’m never exactly sure where in the world you might be and I just wanted to hear your voice and know you were not on that plane,” she says with the TV blaring Fox News in the background.

Ukrainian Facebook posts emerge stating that MH17 was shot down by a Russian BUK missile. Talking heads on CNN state that this missile takes a “team” to fire from a truck or other substantial ground base. A Buk missile is about as big as a telephone poll said one expert. No way a Buk missile could be fired by a loner or someone without authorization from a government. The plot thickens.

Still, at this point, we only know that the aircraft is down. We don’t know if it was actually SHOT down. But tongues are wagging.

CNN's coverage was wall to wall.

CNN’s coverage was wall to wall. (CNN)

Then we get confirmation from US Intelligence that the plane was indeed shot down by a surface to air missile.

Now videos of the crash site are emerging. CNN has a freelancer on the ground saying that the debris field is in a rural area bisected by a road. Large pieces of wreckage and bodies strewn all over. Local villagers trying to help by placing sticks tied with shreds white fabric next to bodies.

Christiane Amanpour says that this is going to have “geostrategic implications.” (Better watch out Mr Putin!)

Those white stripes in the gray plume appear to be toilet paper rolls to me. (CNN)

Those white stripes in the gray plume appear to be toilet paper rolls to me. (CNN)

There’s a shot of a large plume of gray smoke rising from the horizon at sunset. Later, a similar video emerges of the plume and what appear to be rolls of toilet paper streaming down from the crash, adding a human element to the awful scene.

News about Israeli ground troops in Gaza gives us all a break. Kinda.

Airlines begin to state that they will no longer fly over Ukraine and radar maps hit the internet showing the odd pattern of planes over Eastern Europe. Richard Quest is on CNN saying that the air route over Ukraine is the “superhighway” between Europe and Asia.

Memorials spring up around the world (Photo source: Twitter)

Memorials spring up around the world as night falls. (Photo source: Twitter)

At a new conference at Amsterdam Airport, we hear more about where the passengers were from: 189 Dutch, 27 Australian, 44 Malaysian,  12 Indonesian, 9 United Kingdom, 4 Germany, 4 Belgium, 3 Philippines, 1 New Zealander and 1 Canadian. 4 nationalities are unknown. And then this wrenching tidbit: Among the 295 dead are 80 kids as reported by Life Network. Malaysia Air Statement

As darkness falls over Europe and Asia, images of memorials stacked with flowers and candles emerge.

Talking heads on TV are now going on about the importance of getting a international investigation on the scene immediately to prevent any funny business from those responsible.

News about the crash and trouble in Gaza sends stock market into tailspin.

And the news continues. And we all weep and wonder…

–Chris McGinnis

Many thanks for fellow media types on Twitter who helped me follow along with this story. If you don’t already follow these folks on Twitter, do so now.  @NYCAviation  @thatjohn  @Lebeaucarnews  @nycjim  @airlinewriter @JohnnyJet 




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