Cause of death on flight MH17

We are all aware of the tragedy which occurred with Malaysian Airlines MH17.

While I do not want to minimize the horror and grief experienced by all of us, there is something that has been bothering me, and I find that others I have discussed this tragedy with, have the same question.

I am hoping that the SD’s can provide an answer.

In that the aircraft was breached at around 33,000ft, what was the cause of death of most of the passengers; and how long would it have taken for them to die?

For the purposes of this question, I am disregarding those that would have been killed immediately by shrapnel.

I’m no aviation expert, but my guess would be that most died from falling impact with the ground. I don’t think one missile’s warhead would have been sufficient to kill the majority of nearly 300 people outright by sheer explosive force, especially considering the large size and stout design of the Boeing 777. A lot of live bodies probably hit the ground, perhaps most still inside the mangled cabin.

That being said, hypoxia at such a high altitude may have rendered some unconscious. The explosion might have, too. But some might have regained consciousness at a lower altitude (where there is more oxygen) shortly before hitting the ground.
Hypothermia probably played little to no role - didn’t linger in minus-60 degrees temperatures for long.

Probably unconscious from lack of oxygen long before they got low enough to breathe. Also a bit cold and just a 200 MPH wind in the cabin from the beach is not easy to live through without a lot of luck & good placement. Could have been much higher speed but I am low balling the wind speed inside as I do not know the condition of the cabin. They were lights out in seconds

Bodies could have been technically alive at impact but I doubt that any were conscious.

As to your second point, ever been out in a 60 MPH wind at 10 below in street clothes?

You have not read much about explosive decompression at 33,000 ft. Seconds to death, not minutes.

For a relevant resource, read about what the passengers of KAL 007 endured. The physical circumstances of the KAL 007 are very similar to the MH17 incident, so the Malaysia Airlines passengers probably suffered similarly. Many MH17 passengers might have been conscious.

Interesting, whether the aircraft broke up in the air or hit the ground in mostly one piece would play a major factor in the passengers’ fate. KAL007 remained intact but whether MH17 did would depend on the missile and how far it was when it was hit. Seeing the debris spread out over such a long area (several kilometres), it looks like it was already in pieces when it hit the ground, doesn’t it?

From what I have seen on TV news reports, it appears that the plane broke up into three large pieces at a high altitude, then these fractured into numerous smaller pieces on the way down. On the descent, debris and passengers were scattered over a wide area.

This suggests that the passengers were subject to sudden decompression at a high altitude, then endured free fall to the ground after they were ejected from the fragmenting fuselage.

That being the case, how long would they have been conscious after the initial decompression? Would they still have been alive at impact?

At 33,000 feet, you have 1-3 minutes of useful consciousness; it will take significantly longer before you are rendered irretrievably dead.

Moreover, as soon as the plane is broken up by the missile strike, it will begin a rapid descent. Depending on the aerodynamic qualities of the aircraft fragments, the descent could be fairly rapid; a vertical speed of 120MPH would have them down to below 25,000 feet in under a minute, and down to 15,000 feet a minute after that, at which point their time of useful consciousness is stretched out quite a bit.

As to the cold slipstream…it’s very cold and very fast, but “very cold” doesn’t last for long, probably not long enough to render anyone hypothermic; most of them probably hit the ground within five minutes of the missile strike. Even frostbite was unlikely, since sub-freezing temperatures would have ended well before getting near the ground.

I really need to stop reading threads like these. Whenever I’m on a plane I always have visions of the fuselage suddenly peeling open and wondering what would happen :frowning:

They way I saw it described, the missile warhead contains explosive along with shrapnel-generating material. The warhead detonates at a significant distance from the aircraft, resulting in a spray of shrapnel being propelled toward the aircraft at extremely high speed (missile forward speed plus the relative speed imparted by the explosion). It’s a bit like shooting at the plane with an extremely large shotgun: the intent is not to destroy/damage the target aircraft with a blast wave, but with the impact of one or more projectile pieces of shrapnel.

That’s a good point; I hadn’t thought of that. I think it’s because the BUK missile is larger and more powerful than the type of missiles launched by the Sukhoi jet, and also because the BUK missile is radar-guided rather than infrared-guided, and thus might go towards the fuselage rather than the engines.

A 63-kg blast fragmentation warhead is a lot bigger than the equivalent on an air-to-air missile, like the 22-kg blast/frag on an (approximately contemporary) Vympel R-77 radar-guided AAM. A SAM can be a lot bigger.

As to whether the damage causes in-flight breakup depends on how badly the airframe structure is damaged. Don’t 777s use a lot of carbon fiber? How would that have reacted to fragmentation, or even blast if the missile got close enough?

I’d be willing to believe that the missile damage broke a spar or fuselage longitudinal members, or took off enough skin (because a semi-monocoque airframe like most airliners depends on the skin to carry some of the stress); breakup under aerodynamic stress would seem inevitable at that point.

From the pictures I’ve seen of the wreckage, the missile seems to have exploded just off the left side of the plane’s nose. The cockpit is completely shredded, the cabin crew were probably killed instantly. It looks like the cabin ahead of the wings tore apart from aerodynamic forces early on, while the wings and cabin back to the tail stayed intact till ground impact. The tail seems to have come apart fairly late, with pieces of the stabilizer being found not far from where the wings and engines came down.

ETA: There are a large number of pictures of the wreckage here:

Aloha Airlines Flight 243. The only fatality was a flight attendant who was not belted in at the time.

Bottom line: what would happen is decompression. It would get really cold and windy, and the pilots would land the airplane as soon as possible. Keep in your seat with your seatbelt fastened through as much of the flight as possible will minimize the chances of you coming to grief under such circumstances, which are exceedingly rare in any case.
Anyhow, back to MH17 and how they died:

Those near the missile impact site probably died instantly.

Between blast wave of the exploding warhead followed by rapid decompression a significant number, perhaps majority, of the remaining people on board would be either unconscious or stunned within seconds to a minute or two. Whether or not any of them would regain consciousness on the way down would depend on a lot of factors, from injuries sustained in the blast to general health and respiratory efficiency. It is certainly possible some of them regained consciousness before impact, which I really wouldn’t wish on anyone. We don’t have any way to know for sure.

Definitely, anyone not killed in the immediate blast was still alive at impact. They might not have been conscious, they might have been mortally injured, but the brutal truth is that it doesn’t take that long to fall 33,000 feet without a parachute. There’s not enough time for the cold or lack of oxygen to kill. A major artery severed by shrapnel might let you bleed out before you reach the ground, but most people won’t draw that particular wild card.

This issue will probably be beaten to death over the next year or so, as the amount of any compensation due to the families of those killed from the airline might be determined, in part, by how long their relative was alive and/or conscious after they would have become aware that something was wrong. I don’t have a cite handy, but I remember reading an article about the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing which described how investigators determined this based on where a particular passenger was seated and the presence or lack of various chemicals in the identifiable bodies that are produced when a person experiences trauma. IIRC, the distinctions were mostly matters of seconds, not minutes.

Assuming the seat you’re securely belted into doesn’t get leave the airplane:

I know it is all speculation at this point, but based on Machine Elf’s description of how the weapon works, would the engines be rendered totally destroyed immediately, or is it possible they were still pushing the remains of the aircraft on the way down? It may have been a very brief time indeed.

Morbid thread, but interesting. I wanted to look the other way, but I had to click.

The question I was answering was “what happens if the skin of the fuselage peels off”, which is what happened to the Aloha Airlines flight. The incident you link to involved a different issue.

But yes, if you’re belted to your seat and the seat departs the aircraft you are screwed. Nonetheless, the odds of injury and death are higher if you aren’t belted in than if you air in nearly any scenario. If those people on flight 811 whose seats were sucked out of the airline had not been belted in the same fate awaited them.

I thought of something else, although it may not be accurate. Reports of witnesses of that area describe bodies falling from the sky. Doesn’t that point to them being unconscious/dead?