Malaysia Airlines MH17: Families' quest for justice goes on

Jordan Withers Image copyright Other
Image caption Jordan Withers lost his uncle, Glenn Thomas, in the MH17 disaster

Six months after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing 298 people, relatives of the victims are still searching for justice.

It was an air disaster like few others and a disturbing atrocity which reignited political tensions between east and west.

But half a year since MH17 fell from the sky in a ball of flames, the crash has all but disappeared from the headlines - and no-one has officially been held responsible.

For the relatives of those who died, though, the quest for truth and justice continues.

Among them is Jordan Withers, a 23-year-old law graduate from Blackpool whose uncle, Glenn Thomas, was one of the 10 UK nationals who perished.

Desperate to learn more about the reasons for the disaster, Mr Withers has travelled to Ukraine and met aviation experts and one of the first official monitors to arrive at the crash site.

He has also befriended relatives of other victims, including Barry Sweeney from Newcastle-upon-Tyne - who lost his 28-year-old son Liam - and a family in the Netherlands.

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Image caption The plane came down near the village of Grabove but some parts were found miles from the main crash site
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Image caption Glenn Thomas, 49, a spokesman for the World Health Organization, was among 10 UK nationals killed in the disaster

Is it beyond doubt that the plane was downed by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile? If so, who fired it? And were the aviation authorities naive in allowing flights to continue over what was, at the time, one of the most dangerous airspaces in the world?

These are among the questions Mr Withers has asked.

"There is nothing in the world I wouldn't trade to have one more minute with Glenn," he said.

"I think about him every day. I'll be eating my dinner and I'll stop and just think about him. I can't really put into words how much I miss him.

"He shouldn't have lost his life in the way he did."

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Media captionThe families are hoping more information will come to light

In Ukraine, Mr Withers began by visiting Independence Square in the capital, Kiev - a place where fierce fighting broke out at the height of the rebels' uprising last year.

The country was in anarchy. At stake was whether Ukraine should foster stronger links with the European Union, or look east towards Russia.

"In this square people were being fired on by government forces," Mr Withers said. "Without what happened there, the plane might never have been downed. But we are still waiting for a resolution. Hopefully we can find that.

"I wanted to knock on some doors and see what answers I could find. I wanted to promote awareness that although the wreckage has been found and some of the bodies have been buried or cremated, it's still not over. There's still a long way to go."

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Image caption Malaysia Airlines MH17 is pictured here in Frankfurt, Germany, a few months before the crash
Image caption Mr Withers travelled to Newcastle to meet Barry Sweeney, who lost his son Liam in the crash

Mr Withers' travels in the country included a meeting with Michael Bociurkiw, who works for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, an international monitoring body.

"It was strange because it was a beautiful area, like much of Ukraine," said Mr Bociurkiw, one of the first officials to visit the crash site.

"There were lots of flowers. And the first thing I saw was that iconic tail fin which had broken off and was just sitting by itself in a field.

"It was an active conflict zone. We were reminded about that by the shelling we could hear. There were rebel leaders who didn't seem very happy to see us. They blocked part of the road and we felt anxious around them.

"In those first scenes we saw the most horrific things, some of which we will never talk about to anybody."

In the days that followed the 17 July crash, Ukraine and Western governments blamed pro-Russian separatists for launching a BUK missile at the plane - and Russia for supplying it.

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Image caption Dutch couple Bryce Fredriksz and his girlfriend Daisy Oehlers were among the 298 victims
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Image caption Flowers were left at the scene of the crash, where wreckage remained for weeks after the disaster

Russia denied it was theirs and claimed a Ukrainian fighter jet shot down MH17.

The Dutch Safety Board took on the investigation and its preliminary report said only that the plane had been hit by numerous objects that "pierced the plane at high velocity".

Back in England, Mr Withers has discussed this with Barry Sweeney, whose son Liam died along with his friend John Alder. The Newcastle United fans had been travelling to New Zealand to watch the team's pre-season tour.

Mr Sweeney said: "It's difficult because people keep asking who did it. They possibly know who did it, but you can't say anything until you can prove something.

"It would just be nice for someone to hold their hands up and say 'yes, it was us, and it was an accident'. We like to think it wasn't an act of war.

"I still believe I'm having a nightmare and I'm going to wake up and everything will be back to normal."

298 victims from 10 countries

  • Netherlands: 196
  • Malaysia: 42
  • Australia: 27
  • Indonesia: 11
  • UK: 10
  • Belgium: 4
  • Germany: 3
  • Philippines: 3
  • Canada: 1
  • New Zealand: 1

The evidence certainly supports the missile theory, as Mr Withers discovered during a visit to Cranfield University - a facility in Bedfordshire that trains air crash investigators and experts in ballistic missiles.

He was shown a fragment of wreckage shattered by what may have been missile shrapnel. It appeared completely different to a piece of metal pierced by bullets, similar to those from a fighter aircraft.

"I think this debunks the rumour that it was machine gun fire," he said. "It was some sort of missile."

Restricted access to the wreckage hampered the repatriation of many bodies for weeks, and it was three months before a funeral could be held for 49-year-old Mr Thomas.

Other families were unable to lay their relatives to rest.

Bryce Fredriksz, 23, and his 20-year-old girlfriend Daisy Oehlers were on their way to a holiday in Bali when they died. Mr Withers travelled to Rotterdam to meet Mr Fredriksz's parents Silene and Rob.

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Image caption A memorial to the crash in Hilversum, Netherlands

Mrs Fredriksz said: "From Bryce we had identification of his right foot and after a few weeks they found two pieces of bone - and then from Daisy on 22 October also a piece of bone. That is all.

"At this point we feel lucky because there are still six people who have nothing at all.

"Why and how? In the beginning I didn't want to know anything; I didn't want to see anything on television; I didn't want to hear anything. But now I want to know everything. I need to know why they died and who did this."

Could the aviation authorities have done anything to prevent the crash? Aviation lawyer Richard Langton, who has handled cases for relatives of the Lockerbie bombing, thinks perhaps they could.

He said it was well known that flying over Ukraine was a danger, as the country's airspace was closed below 32,000 ft. The rule was imposed the same day a military plane was shot down by a missile.

Russia issued similar restrictions and their warning was clear: combat actions and firing from Ukraine.

Mr Langton said: "I think there is a very strong argument that whoever and whatever aircraft patrol permitted flights at 33,000 ft must have known there was a risk from the ground as why apply any ceiling - unless they knew there was a risk?

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Image caption A Russian-built BUK surface-to-air missile launcher is thought to have been used to shoot down the Boeing 777

"And then to not realise that the risk is still there at 33,000 ft - this seems to me clearly a foreseeable risk that could have been avoided. That is their job: to make flying safe."

Mr Langton has called for all authorities to co-operate and devise a "gold standard" set of rules to reduce risk to passengers.

Mr Withers concedes that many questions remain. But he says his travels and meetings have brought hope and reassurance.

And he says he will continue efforts to find out more about the catastrophe.

He said: "There are still people who care about this and making those connections with the other families has been tremendous, because I know now I have people I can turn to about it.

"I don't think we'll get the whole truth. I don't think we'll get justice. But you could put £100m in front of me and say 'will you be quiet about this whole thing and be happy?' I'd say no. Not unless I could buy Glenn back."

Inside Out: MH17 - In Search of Truth is broadcast on BBC One North West, North East & Cumbria and West at 19:30 BST and nationwide for 30 days thereafter on the iPlayer.

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