Malaysia Airlines Disaster: Grim Recovery Efforts Underway

Bodies, luggage and smoldering debris still lay scattered among the doomed plane's wreckage.
8:15 | 07/18/14

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Transcript for Malaysia Airlines Disaster: Grim Recovery Efforts Underway
Tonight, new clues are emerging from the wreckage after nearly 300 people were shot down out of the blue, in a devastating attack. Families, painting pictures of lives lost, including at least one American. But why was Malaysia airlines flight 17 flying over a war zone in the first place? ABC's chief foreign correspondent, terry Moran, is in Ukraine where it's already Saturday morning. Terry? Reporter: Good morning, Rebecca. From eastern Ukraine. This is the city of kharkiv. This is where the bodies will be brought. This is where the families will come to collect their loved ones. 298 souls, who were just flying in the skies above this war-torn country, having nothing to do with it, when they were blown out of the skies. Their lives robbed from them. In the fields of eastern Ukraine, the wreckage still smoldered. The dead were still uncollected. The heart rending personal items. A Disney backpack. And the shock was fresh for local residents who witnessed the tragedy. There was a sort of explosion, this man said. And then, people started falling from the sky. They searched the sunflower fields. So beautiful. But today, littered with horror. At least one American is among the dead. A 19-year-old with duel u.s./dutch citizenship, shown here with his girlfriend. He was on his way to meet his family for a vacation in Malaysia. An avid soccer player, his former team reeling today. We can barely comprehend the news. President Obama called the downing of Malaysia airlines flight 17 within outrage of unspeakable proportion. Nearly 300 innocent lives were taken. Men, women, children, infants, who had nothing to do with the crisis in Ukraine. Reporter: He said a clear picture is emerging of what brought down the Boeing 777 in eastern Ukraine, near the border with Russia. Evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine. Reporter: The president called for immediate cease-fire. And as the grim reality set in. New questions emerged. Should the plane have been flying over the region? How can we prevent this type of disaster from ever happening again? And was it an act of terror? Or a terrible mistake? I think it's too early for us to be able to guess what the intentions of those who might have launched the surface-to-air missile might have had. I'm sure this was not an intentional attempt to shoot down a passenger aircraft. Reporter: How are things going there, one person asks. The response, we are 100% sure that was a civilian plane. At another point, this question -- they're saying it says Malaysian airlines. What was it doing on the Ukrainian territory? The answer, then it was bringing spies. Why the hell were they flying? There's a war going on. Yesterday, Ukrainian president poroshenko placed the blame on Russia. Today, president Obama had this to say, noting that the rebels had boasted about shooting down military planes. A group of separatists can't shoot down military transport planes, or they claim, shoot down fighter jets, without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training. And that is coming from Russia. Reporter: With a ten-mile-long debris field, investigators begin the grim process of identifying and locating the bodies, hailing from 11 countries. The Netherlands suffering the greatest loss, with 189 passengers onboard. We now know that awful number. 83 children onboard, including Edie, Otis and Mo, traveling home with their grandfather to start school in Australia. Their parents on vacation in Holland. Their aunt writing on Facebook, I will be miss you so very much. At least dad is looking out for you. The tragedy, nearly too much for Samantha power, the U.S. Ambassador to the united nations, who spoke of the three babies among the dead, identified with a single letter on the manifest. As we stared at the passenger list yesterday, next to three of the passengers' names, a capital "I." The letter "I," stands for infant. Reporter: White flags over the debris field. They mark human remains. ABC news Moscow correspondent, kirit radio, traveled to the crash site. Finishing the journey by car. We reached. We ran into a couple of Ukrainian military checkpoints. They were checking documents thoroughly. They went through the trunk to make sure we didn't have weapons. They had tanks and automatic weapons behind barricades. Reporter: Air traffic routes over eastern Ukraine are closed. Kirit arrived on the scene just before dark. This is where the bulk of the plane landed. You have landing gear here. Turbines in the back. And you see smoke coming out. This wreckage still smoldering more than 24 hours later. And the smell of burning jet fuel and death everywhere. Residents say this was one giant inferno after the crash. Reporter: Late today, an international team of investigators arrived. But armed separatists stalked them as they worked. And the team said afterwards, they did not get proper access to the crash site. So, how did this happen? At the time of the crash, the route was open at higher lt Tuesday, including at 33,000 feet where the plane was traveling. But it was closed at lower levels. The assumption by the airlines will be if the air space is open, it's safe. Who should have stopped this flight and other flights from flying on this route is the question of the day. It's not as if people didn't know that airplanes were being shot down by missiles in this area. Reporter: Before the air space was shut down, 67 commercial airplanes had operated in that air space. It's quite likely that this plane could have been any airliner flying overhead. Any 1 of 700 airplanes that are flying over this route on any given day, which is what makes it so frightening. Reporter: Relatives gathered in Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, waiting information on loved ones and world when they could travel to the crash site. Among the dead, AIDS researchers and health workers, headed to a conference. This incredibly sad and sensitive time, the iaf stands with our international family and sends condolences to the loved ones of those who have been lost in this tragedy. Reporter: An Australian couple are once again mourning the loss of a loved one on a Malaysian air flight. After losing their son and daughter-in-law, in the disappearance of Malaysian flight 370 last March, the couple is now coping with the loss of their step granddaughter and her husband, who are among the dead on flight 17. Karlan, a 25-year-old doctoral couldn't at Indiana university, was on the plane. She was a decorated member of the varsity rowing team. Knowing her. Reporter: Her classmate also remembered her smile. She was always smiling. She was always positive. Reporter: The fields of eastern Ukraine are calm now. It is the calm of bewildering and senseless tragedy. And the dead who cry out from here for justice. For "Nightline," I'm terry Moran, in kharkiv Ukraine.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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