[This is the heading over a letter from Dr Jim Swire published today in The Daily Telegraph. It reads as follows:]
Dr Jim Swire, who lost his daughter in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, describes the consequences for victims' families
Relatives and friends will ask: did those aboard flight MH17 suffer? Following the Lockerbie disaster of 1988, in which my daughter Flora was among those murdered, we learnt that the answer was that loss of consciousness would be virtually instantaneous, from the moment that the fuselage depressurised.
When we commit ourselves to sit in a thinly clad metal fuselage travelling at about 500mph, some six miles above the earth, survival depends absolutely upon maintenance of a calm air pressure not too much different from that at sea level.
When the fuselage is suddenly disrupted, the instantaneous reduction of air pressure results in immediate loss of consciousness.
The bomb that destroyed the Lockerbie aircraft in 1988 held less than a pound of explosive. If it is confirmed that MH17 was hit by a Soviet-built Buk missile, the warhead would contain an explosive charge 140 times greater, adding to the certainty of immediate unconsciousness.
Some relatives will want to see the bodies of their loved ones, some will not. They should be given the choice, but in the knowledge that many bodies will be dismembered, and that any recognisably retrieved will show the bloated features of rapid depressurisation. In addition, a forensic examination will probably be required, and to perform this on so many victims will require remains to be preserved; so even a lock of hair is likely to be pungent with preservative.
Later will come the allegations and recriminations. Why did Malaysia Airlines overfly an area of conflict when some other airlines avoided it? Who provided the rocket, assuming it was hit by one? Who had the skills to organise the radar painting of the target? Who pressed the button?
There is no answer to the question: “Why did it have to be the aircraft with my loved ones aboard that was destroyed?” It is poignant for us Lockerbie relatives that the Dutch, who showed us so much kindness during the Lockerbie trial of two Libyans in 2000 near Utrecht, should now be so heavily wounded by this dreadful event.
An unusual feature after Lockerbie was the absence of credible claims of responsibility. This left the field open to the chicanery of international politics seeking to apportion blame. Relatives of MH17 victims should be cautious in assessing where guilt lies, for governments can massage apparent facts in ways which families may be unable to unravel.
The long-term consequences for relatives will cascade down the decades. It will be wise to seek professional help for post-traumatic stress disorder, and relationship and financial repercussions.
There is a small British charity called Disaster Action which, although not equipped to deal with the acute phase of an international disaster of this magnitude, does seek to support those affected, and draws on the experience of many such victims’ relatives.