People who have chosen to look at (or unfortunately stumbled across) the very graphic photos of the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 may have found themselves focusing on one particularly upsetting detail: Many of the passengers’ bodies were missing their clothing.
For those who haven’t seen the images: In her initial report from the crash site — a large Ukrainian wheat field “dotted with purple flowers and Queen Anne’s lace” — the New York Times’ Sabrina Tavernise took a grim inventory of the victims, noting that they included a woman “naked except for a black bra,” a man lying “still in his socks but without pants,” and a boy in “blue shorts, wearing red Nike sneakers but no pants,” who “lay with his arms and legs splayed outward, an iPhone by his side.” Daily Intelligencer asked aviation safety expert Alan Diehl to explain.
“If the clothes are missing, usually that means that [the passenger] was probably either ejected from the plane or exposed to extreme wind blast going hundreds of miles an hour, falling out of the sky,” said Diehl, who has worked as an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the United States Air Force. “The effect of very high speed wind, or the slipstream, hitting the bodies can easily literally rip the clothing right off.”
Diehl said that what happens to a passenger during a disaster like that of Flight 17, which was cruising at 33,000 feet when it was hit by a missile, is largely dependent on where the person was seated on the plane. “Your body could be stripped naked if you’re thrown out through an opening, or your body could be relatively intact if you were in part of the aircraft that ‘fluttered’ down to the surface” because it was still connected to a wing or another part of the body of the aircraft. Though investigators don’t yet know exactly how the Malaysia Airlines Boeing broke apart in the air, Diehl gave this example: “Let’s say the fuselage’s center wing section was still attached to one wing, it may have been twirling down at 120 miles per hour or something — almost like a high-speed car crash — so you might have very different amounts of destruction to the body.”
Diehl did have one (very relatively) comforting thing to add: “The airplane most likely had a rapid decompression which, at those altitudes, would make you pass out.” That, combined with “the G-forces of the airplane spinning around probably meant, mercifully, that most of these people weren’t conscious on the way down.”