Flight’s victims return in somber ceremony

By Thomas Erdbrink / New York Times News Service

EINDHOVEN AIR BASE, Netherlands — A week ago, they had been packing their bags, preparing for conferences, family visits and vacation. Now, they were returning to the Netherlands in coffins, victims of the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot out of the skies above eastern Ukraine.

At 3:48 p.m. on Wednesday, a military cargo plane belonging to the Australian air force touched down at the Eindhoven Air Base, home to the Royal Netherlands Air Force, in the southern Netherlands. On board were 24 coffins. Soon afterward, a second, smaller plane landed, its thundering propellers piercing the silence. It was carrying 16 coffins.

Along the tarmac, flags representing the 17 different nationalities of the 298 victims of the crash stood at half-staff, their lines clinging to the flagpoles in the warm summer wind.

Relatives, friends, and government representatives waited as the planes taxied to a stop.

After the propeller plane switched off its engines, a heavy silence filled the air. Columns of military representatives appeared from the western side of the airfield, marching in formation toward the planes. Forty black identical hearses followed in their footsteps.

There were no speeches or obvious tears, but a lone soldier played the “Last Post,” a tradition in the Netherlands during the annual remembrance for those who died in World War II.

One minute of silence followed, on the airfield and in the rest of the Netherlands. A public television station, NOS, reported that church bells had rung across the country right after the planes landed.

At the airfield, soldiers representing all of the Dutch armed forces entered the planes after the drivers of the fleet of hearses opened the back doors of their vehicles simultaneously. After all 40 coffins had been loaded in, the cars left in a column toward Hilversum, an hour and a half north.

The remaining bodies have been brought to Kharkiv, a government-controlled town in Ukraine, to await flights planned for today and Friday.