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. 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. Among those gathered were King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima.
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” on his trumpet, a tradition in the Netherlands during the annual remembrance for those who died in the Second World War.
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. Truckers, many of whom had tied black ribbons to their vehicles, stopped on the sides of highways. In shops and coffeehouses, music was stopped.
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. One of the Netherlands’ main highways, the A2, was partly closed off. Along the highway and on overpasses, people, some crying, threw flowers. Cars driving in the other lane stopped as the hearses passed.
For families of the passengers, the procession marked a new stage of grief.
They had spent days agonizing in wait while their loved ones’ remains lay in sweltering fields in eastern Ukraine before being gradually shifted by truck, train, and plane.
‘‘If I have to wait five months for identification, I can do it,’’ said Silene Fredriksz-Hoogzand, whose son, Bryce, and his girlfriend, Daisy Oehlers, died in the crash. ‘‘Waiting while the bodies were in the field and in the train was a nightmare.’’
Across the North Sea, in southern England, investigators began studying the plane’s ‘‘black boxes’’ Wednesday in hopes of learning about the Boeing 777’s final minutes. The Dutch Safety Board, which has taken control of the investigation, said the cockpit voice recorder suffered damage but showed no sign of manipulation, and its recordings were intact. Specialists will start studying the flight data recorder on Thursday.
The Dutch board said unhindered access to the crash site was critical. Spokesman Tjibbe Joustra said about 25 investigators are in Kiev analyzing photos, satellite images, and radar information but have not gained access to the crash site. Body parts were still seen at the crash site Wednesday, said Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.
In the Netherlands, the military police escort guided the procession to a military barracks, where forensic scientists will carry out the painstaking task of identifying the remains. Prime Minister Mark Rutte says many bodies could be identified quickly, but some families might have to wait weeks.
Most of the remaining bodies have been brought to Kharkiv, a government-controlled town in Ukraine. Eventually, all 298 victims of the attack will be brought to the Netherlands, which is in charge of identifying and repatriating the remains.
Two more planeloads of victims will be flown Thursday to Eindhoven.
was used in this report.