The mystery over the whereabouts of the black box of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 seemed to clear up—a little—on Sunday when video surfaced of separatist emergency workers coming upon the device in a field in eastern Ukraine.
Reuters posted the video, initially taken Friday, of one worker calling out “flight recorder” in Russian and appearing to hold the orange-colored apparatus that records a plane’s movements and cockpit voices. The device hadn't been found since the plane went down in a missile attack over eastern Ukraine last Thursday.
An earlier report on Russian radio that it had been discovered and sent to Moscow had been discredited. The Ukrainian government had also previously released transcripts of an unconfirmed audio intercept, dated Friday, in which a pro-Russia separatist leader tells a soldier that he should find the box because “Moscow wants this.”
Volodomyr Groysman, the Ukrainian vice prime minister who is overseeing the crash site, was at first coy when a reporter asked him about the device at a briefing Sunday afternoon. “What happened to the black box is very difficult to say,” he said. Pressed by another journalist a few minutes later, Groysman acknowledged that the recording devices that comprise the so-called box had probably made their way into separatist hands.
“We do not have them in our possession,” he said. “The suspicion is they were captured by the terrorists,” he said, using the government’s word for the pro-Russia paramilitary units based in Donetsk and other parts of eastern Ukraine.
The comments and video appeared to confirm a claim Sunday by Alexander Borodai, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and leader of the group suspected by the U.S. to be behind the attack, that he had the flight recorder. He said he would pass it on to officials at the International Civil Aviation Organization, though whether such a handoff will take place remains an open question.
Aviation experts say the black box could provide clues to the last moments of MH17 and whether the crew had any sense an attack was imminent; it also could offer details on whether there was discussion in the cockpit of changing the flight path in light of the dangerous airspace.
Still, since they’re generally used to determine potential missteps or malfunctions ahead of a crash, a flight recorder might be of limited use here, an instance in which a missile appeared to bring down a plane immediately.