KIEV, Ukraine (CBSNewYork/AP) — A passenger jet carrying 298 people was shot down Thursday as it flew over Ukraine, and both the government and the pro-Russia separatists fighting in the region denied any responsibility for downing the plane.
U.S. intelligence said the plane was brought down by a surface-to-air missile, but as of late Thursday had yet to determine where the missile was fired from, CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin reported.
The tragedy occurred on the 18th anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800 over Long Island on July 17, 1996. That crash claimed the lives of all 230 people on board.
Malaysia Airlines said the plane, a Boeing 777, had 283 passengers and 15 crew aboard when it left Amsterdam at 12:15 p.m. It was to arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 6:10 a.m. Friday.
It had previously reported 280 passengers, but amended the number to 283 after three infants had not been included in the original list.
The Boeing 777-200ER was delivered to Malaysia Airlines on July 30, 1997, according to Flightglobal’s Ascend Online Fleets, which sells and tracks information about aircraft. It had more than 43,000 hours of flight time and 6,950 takeoffs and landings.
Malaysia Airlines confirmed that it received notification from Ukrainian aviation authorities that it had lost contact with flight MH17 at 1415 GMT some 30 kilometers (20 miles) from Tamak waypoint, approximately 50 km (30 miles) from the Russia-Ukraine border.
As plumes of black smoke rose up near a rebel-held village of Grabovo in eastern Ukraine, an Associated Press journalist counted at least 22 bodies at the crash site, though there was no indication there were any survivors.
The plane appeared to have broken up before impact and the burning wreckage — which included body parts and the belongings of passengers — was scattered over a wide area.
Large pieces of the fuselage landed intact, CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reported.
Russian President Vladimir Putin opened a meeting with top economic advisers late Thursday with comments on the crash, saying based on preliminary information everyone on board had been killed.
“On behalf of the Russian leadership and the Russian government, we express condolences to the bereaved families, the governments of those countries whose nationals were on that plane,” Putin said.
Malaysia Airlines said it was in the process of notifying the next-of-kin of the passengers and crew and that “all possible care will be provided to the next-of-kin.”
Barry and Izzy Sim were supposed to be on board, but missed their flight.
“You start getting butterflies, your heartbeat starts going,” said Barry.
“We were supposed to be on that flight, and obviously something is watching over us,” Izzy added.
Malaysia’s prime minister said the jetliner did not make any distress call before it went down.
“Malaysia Airlines has confirmed that the aircraft did not make a distress call,” Prime Minister Najib Razak said.
CBS News aviation and safety expert Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who famously guided a U.S. Airways Flight to an emergency water landing on the Hudson River in 2009, said the pilot may not have had time to call for help.
“Maybe the sudden crisis that occurred was overwhelming and demanded the pilot’s immediate attention just to attempt to control the airplane and solve the immediate problems, and that they did not have time to get to the lower-priority things such as notifying someone on the ground,” Sullenberger told CBS News. “It might be that they were unable to communicate, that their communication systems had failed. It may have been that they were incapacitated — several possibilities present themselves. It’s way too early to know which if those scenarios, or another one, may be the case in this situation.”
Malaysia’s prime minister, who addressed a news conference after speaking with leaders of Ukraine, the Netherlands, and President Barack Obama, also said the flight route had been declared safe by the International Civil Aviation Organization and that the air space that the aircraft was traversing was not subject to restrictions.
The airline said on its website that all of its European flights “will be taking alternative routes avoiding the usual route” moving forward.
The Federal Aviation Administration released a statement Thursday, saying U.S. carriers have “voluntarily agreed not operate in the airspace near the Russian-Ukraine border.”
The FAA said it prohibited U.S. flights from operating in the airspace over the Crimea region of Ukraine, and portions adjacent to the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov back on April 3, but the restriction did not cover the area where the Malaysian Airlines flight crashed.
Notices were posted to the agency’s website on April 23 warning U.S. pilots not to fly over portions of the Ukraine in the Crimea region, saying “Political and military tension between Ukraine and the Russian Federation remains high, highlighting the possible existence of serious risks to the safety of international civil flights.”
The U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization and the aviation authorities in most countries issue similar notices for areas where unrest or military conflict creates a risk of being shot down.
President Obama called the crash “a terrible tragedy,” and that his top priority is finding out whether American citizens were on board. Obama said he’s directed his aides to stay in close contact with Ukrainian officials and offer U.S. help to determine what caused the crash.
Despite earlier reports from a Ukrainian official that 23 Americans were on board, American officials said they have not confirmed how many Americans, if any, were on the flight, CBS News reported.
Vice President Joe Biden said the incident was “not an accident” and described the Malaysia Airlines plane as having been “blown out of the sky.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the downing an act of terrorism and called for an international investigation into the crash.
The village of Grabovo is currently under the control of the separatists and the area has seen severe fighting between the two sides in recent days.
The Ukrainian government said it has negotiated with rebels to ensure investigators will have safe entrance to the crash site, CBS 2’s Hazel Sanchez reported.
Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said on his Facebook page the plane was flying at an altitude of 33,000 feet. He said it was hit by a missile fired from a Buk launcher, which can fire missiles up to an altitude of 72,000 feet.
Poroshenko said his country’s armed forces didn’t shoot at any airborne targets.
“We do not exclude that this plane was shot down, and we stress that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets,” he said. “We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible.”
Separatist leader Andrei Purgin told The Associated Press that he was certain that Ukrainian troops had shot the plane down but gave no explanation or proof for his statement.
Purgin said he did not know whether rebel forces owned Buk missile launchers, but said even if they did, they had no fighters capable of operating them.
A launcher similar to the Buk missile system was seen by Associated Press journalists earlier Thursday near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which is held by the rebels.
There have been disputes over planes being shot down earlier in the region.
On Wednesday evening, a Ukrainian fighter jet was shot down by an air-to-air missile from a Russian plane, Ukrainian authorities said Thursday, adding to what Kiev says is mounting evidence that Moscow is directly supporting the separatist insurgents. Security Council spokesman Andrei Lysenko said the pilot of the Sukhoi-25 jet hit by the air-to-air missile was forced to bail after his jet was shot down.
Pro-Russia rebels, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for strikes Wednesday on two Ukrainian Sukhoi-25 jets. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said the second jet was hit by a portable surface-to-air missile, but added the pilot was unscathed and managed to land his plane safely
Moscow denies Western charges that it is supporting the separatists or sowing unrest in its neighbor. The Russian Defense Ministry couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday about the Ukrainian jet being shot down.
Earlier this week, Ukraine said a military transport plane was shot down Monday by a missile fired from Russian territory.
As the investigation began, a global air safety group called for an international coalition of countries to lead the investigation. Typically the country where a crash occurs takes the lead on an investigation.
Safety experts said they’re concerned that because the plane crashed in area of Ukraine that is in dispute, political considerations could affect the investigation.
Kenneth Quinn of the Flight Safety Foundation said he is concerned about “spoilage” of the crash site and investigators’ access to critical evidence like data and voice recorders. He said only “an independent, multinational investigation can truly get to the bottom of it without political interference.”
On its website, Malaysia Airlines also called for an international team of investigators, adding that “no one should interfere with the area, or move any debris, including the black box.”
As CBS 2’s Sanchez reported, analysts have already begun to go through a mass of data collected from radar and satellites, and are expected to be able to pinpoint the exact location the missile was fired from.
Other passenger planes have been shot down before including:
April 20, 1978: Korean Airlines Flight 902, which diverted from its planned course on a flight from Paris to Seoul and strayed over the Soviet Union. After being fired upon by an interceptor aircraft, the crew made a forced landing at night on the surface of a frozen lake. Two of the 97 passengers were killed by the hostile fire.
Sept. 1, 1983: Korean Air Lines Flight 007 shot down by at least one Soviet air-to-air missile after the 747 had strayed into Soviet airspace. All 240 passengers and 29 crew were killed.
July 3, 1988: Iran Air Flight 655 Aircraft was shot down by a surface to air missile from the American naval vessel U.S.S. Vincennes. All 16 crew and 274 passengers were killed.
This is the second time that a Malaysia Airlines plane was lost in less than six months. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared in March while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It has not been found, but the search has been concentrated in the Indian Ocean far west of Australia.
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