One of the Australian passengers aboard the doomed Malaysia Airlines jet shot down over Ukraine in July appears to have donned an oxygen mask before the fatal crash, suggesting some on board might have been aware of their impending deaths, a Dutch official disclosed.
Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans apologized on Thursday for making the revelation on a television talk show the previous night, before the families of the 298 victims of the disaster had been notified of the disturbing discovery.
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Timmermans gave an emotional speech at the United Nations four days after the crash in which he imagined the terrified passengers exchanging glances "one final time, in an unarticulated goodbye."
When talk show host Jeroen Pauw interviewed Timmermans on Wednesday night, he provoked the minister with accusations that he had dramatized the victims' last moments as a preliminary investigation report suggests that the Boeing 777's destruction was so swift that those on board were unlikely to have known anything was amiss.
"They did not see the rocket coming, but you know someone was found with an oxygen mask on his mouth?" Timmermans replied, according to the NL Times translation of his comments. "He thus had the time to do that. We cannot rule it out."
Dutch investigators reported a month ago that MH-17 was destroyed by "high-energy objects from outside the aircraft" as it flew at an altitude of 33,000 feet, consistent with being struck by a missile. Nothing on the flight data or cockpit voice recorders indicated the crew or passengers took any action in response to the fatal impact.
None of the other victims whose remains have been examined by Dutch forensics workers were wearing masks, Wim de Bruin, a spokesman for the Dutch National Prosecutor's Office, told reporters in The Hague on Thursday.
The mask found around the neck of the unnamed passenger, one of 88 Australian citizens and residents on board, was tested for fingerprints, saliva and DNA but produced no forensic evidence, De Bruin said. "So it is not known how or when that mask got around the neck of the victim," he said.
The discovery of the mask and the implications it raised about the passengers' final moments were conveyed to the Australian's family before Timmermans' interview on Wednesday night, the prosecutor's office said. But information was sent out to other family members of the MH-17 victims only on Thursday morning.
Timmermans issued a statement Thursday saying he regretted making the comment.
"The next of kin have my profound sympathy. The last thing I want to do is worsen their pain in any way. I shouldn't have said what I said," Timmermans said in a statement posted on the Foreign Ministry website.
Ukrainian and Western authorities have accused the pro-Russia separatists occupying the territory where the plane debris and victims came down of firing a surface-to-air missile from a Russian-provided BUK targeting system, likely in the mistaken belief they were shooting at a Ukrainian military transport. Russian officials and their eastern Ukraine proxies accused Kiev authorities of responsibility for the disaster, noting that air-traffic control and flight safety are government-run operations.