U.S. officials are saying they believe the Malaysia Airlines flight that crashed in eastern Ukraine was shot down by a missile. Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times speaks with Audie Cornish from Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, where the flight took off.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
More now on the Malaysia Airlines flight that crashed today in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border. A U.S. official has now confirmed that they believe the jet was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, though it's unclear where it originated. Pro-Russian separatists have denied responsibility, same thing with the Ukrainian government. For more, we're turning to Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times. And he joins me from the airport in Amsterdam where Flight 17 took off. And Thomas Erdbrink, you happened to be at the airport when this happened. How did you first learn about it?
THOMAS ERDBRINK: Well, through Twitter like probably everybody else. And I was actually in the vicinity of the airport and well, decided to come here right away. And what you can expect, you know, you can imagine the scenes that were here. There was police. They were guarding off the area. The relatives of the victims were brought to a special secluded area. And we just had a press conference here, which just finished, where the European CEO of Malaysia Airlines gave the exact figures and statistics of all those people on board. And it turns out that this is a particular drama for the Netherlands. There were 153 Dutch nationals onboard, 27 Australians, 23 Malaysians, people from Indonesia, people from Canada, the UK. It was a pretty multinational flight.
CORNISH: Was there any word from that CEO about whether there were American passengers?
ERDBRINK: He said that there were 45 passengers whose identity could not be verified up to this point. And he said that those people can be from anywhere. They were - they said they were taking extreme care in order to make sure that they would give out the right information and inform the next-of-kin, you know, so that they would not be hearing their names through the media. So it is possible that there were also Americans on board.
CORNISH: What, if anything, did the CEO have to say about the safety of the flight route or what happened to the plane itself?
ERDBRINK: So he said on the safety of flight route that eastern part of Ukraine was not designated as a war zone or in any other way a dangerous area. He said that the...
CORNISH: Was not designated?
ERDBRINK: He said that none of the international aviation bodies had warned that at that altitude it was unsafe place to fly over the Ukraine. Of course, the other airlines such as Lufthansa and Air France-KLM have decided to cut the routes over Ukraine. But he said that there were no warnings that anything could happen. He couldn't confirm whether the plane was shot down. He said just a terrible accident had happened and he didn't know what the exact circumstances where.
CORNISH: And right now what can you tell us about family or relatives at the scene?
ERDBRINK: Well, there was a pretty sad scene with a lot of the relatives being brought into buses and all the photographers taking pictures of them. None of them actually came to talk to any of the journalists before shield off by the police. And Mr. Gorter, the CEO of the European Division of Malaysia Airlines, says they were now brought to a special hotel where they were being debriefed and further comforted by a special trauma team.
CORNISH: That's Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times. He spoke to me from the airport in Amsterdam where Malaysia Airline's Flight 17 took off. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
ERDBRINK: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.