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Bitter smell, crumpled remains at scene of Malaysia plane crash

GRABOVO, Ukraine — Headphones and computers were scattered throughout a field of sunflowers. In another field, a Dutch passport lay open. Bodies fell from the sky, looking like rags or clumps of ash.

That was some of what residents and rescue workers saw after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 came to a jolting rest in a large wheat field dotted with purple flowers and Queen Anne’s lace, trailing debris over several miles of sparsely populated Ukrainian farmland.

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“It was horrible,” said a separatist rebel who was part of the rescue crew and would give only his first name, Sergei. “We were in shock.”

The road to the crash site in eastern Ukraine, not far from the Russian border, was lined with fire engines and other emergency vehicles. Separatist militiamen, plentiful in this rebel-controlled territory, urged journalists to take photographs.

There were no houses in the immediate vicinity. The only visible structure was a poultry operation with long white coops in the distance.

Rescue workers had already tied small white strips of cloth to tree branches along the debris path to mark the locations of the bodies. As darkness descended on the field, the workers gathered in throngs near a line of ambulances and rescue cars. Dogs barked in the distance, and the air smelled bitter.

Incongruously, many of the bodies strewn about in the smoldering wreckage were largely intact. A woman in a black sweater lay on her back, blood streaming from her face, her left arm raised as if signaling someone. Another victim, naked except for a black bra, lay on the field, her gray hair mixing with the green grass, one leg broken and her body torn.

Pieces of the plane were scattered across the road and field: a seat back with its television display cracked; a tail fin clearly displaying the red and blue colors of Malaysia Airlines. One televised image showed a travel guide for Bali, Indonesia, almost untouched.

Many of the victims were still in their seatbelts, attached to pieces of the plane. One man, still in his socks but without pants, lay akimbo on the field, his right arm placed on his stomach as if in repose. Others had personal belongs nearby. A young man in blue shorts, wearing red Nike sneakers but no pants, lay with his arms and legs splayed outward, his iPhone by his side.

The closest village was Grabovo, a small coal-mining town whose residents had been among the first to see the plane. Oleg Georgievich, 40, a miner who is also fighting with the insurgency here, said he had heard noises shortly after 4 p.m. and thought the town was being bombed. Aircraft have been flying over daily, he said, and have bombed neighboring villages on a number of occasions.

He heard a sound like a whistle, then walked onto to his balcony on the fifth floor and saw something falling from the sky. He later understood it was part of the plane’s fuselage. Then he saw something strange, things that looked like pieces of cloth coming fast toward the earth. They were bodies, many with their clothing torn off.

His first call from the site of the crash, he said, was at 4:32 p.m. He said he found an odd assortment of items: equipment for horses, including brushes; medical supplies; a Dutch passport.

Rescue workers said they counted many children. A boy who looked to be around 10 lay on his side in the grass in a red T-shirt that read “Don’t Panic.”

A rescue worker manning a white table, who would give only his first name, Alexei, said the area of the crash was 10 to 15 square kilometers — about 6 to 9 square miles — in a rectangle that he had marked in red pen in crosshatching on a map.

He said that parts of the plane were scattered over the entire area and that the pilot had not tried to land in the field: The plane appeared to have been torn apart in the sky.

“It fell down in pieces,” he said, adding that rescue workers numbered about 60 and were setting up tents to gather the dead.

Oleg Georgievich, the coal miner, who would give only his first name and patronymic, not his last name, said he was afraid of what the tragedy would bring. Ukraine has been accusing Russia and the rebels of shooting down its planes, and he said he did not think this situation would be any different.

“Tomorrow, the Ukrainians are going to say that I shot this plane down with my gun,” he said, standing in the darkness. “Look at me. I’m in sneakers; I have no flak jacket. You want to know what year it was made?” He looked at a journalist. The date stamped on the gun was 1953.

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