KUALA LUMPUR (CNN) — More than a month after the airliner they were traveling on was shot out of the skies above eastern Ukraine, the bodies of 20 Malaysian passengers arrived back in Kuala Lumpur as Malaysia observed a national day of mourning.
Families of the victims of Malaysia Flight MH17 gathered at the Malaysian capital’s international airport for the repatriation ceremony, as a special chartered Malaysia Airlines Boeing 747 touched down just after 9.30 a.m. local time Friday following its journey from Amsterdam.
After the airliner taxied to its stand at the airport’s Bunga Raya complex, usually reserved for receiving visiting dignitaries, it was met by uniformed pall bearers from Malaysia’s armed forces, who proceeded to unload the caskets, which were all draped in the country’s flag, into the waiting fleet of white hearses.
The victims’ families were joined by Prime Minister Najib Razak, who escorted King Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah and Queen Haminah Hamidun to their seats among the gathering of around 1,000 people.
A minute’s silence was observed nationwide at 10.55 a.m. as the last of the caskets was unloaded.
“Last month, 43 Malaysian lives were taken over eastern Ukraine. Today we mourn the loss of our people. Today, we begin to bring them home,” the prime minister said.
“Our thoughts and our prayers are with the families and friends of those who lost their lives. Today we stand with you, united as one.”
MH17, which was en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, was shot down by a missile as it flew over Ukraine on July 17, killing all 298 passengers and crew on board.
Forty-three of those on board were Malaysians, including 15 crew members and two infants.
Investigators have been carrying out the painstaking task of recovering bodies from the crash site before transporting them to the Netherlands for identification — a process that could take months, Dutch authorities have warned.
About two-thirds of those killed were Dutch, with Malaysians and Australians making up a large proportion of the others.
Day of mourning
Malaysia Airlines, which experienced its second tragedy this year following the disappearance of Flight MH370 as it flew to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur on March 8, distributed black ribbons to cabin crew company-wide, while a flag at its offices flew at half-mast.
A statement from the airline read: “Malaysia Airlines is deeply saddened by this devastating tragedy. It has been a long and painful wait for the families and friends of the passengers and crew onboard MH17.”
While the mood at the airport was expectantly somber, the awaiting families were nevertheless prepared for the occasion. Some broke into tears as they shook hands with government ministers and airline crew, but most just took their seats at the side of the tarmac to await the special flight.
The motorcade carrying the 20 passengers moved slowly past the families and on towards two Hercules C-130 transport aircraft and three military helicopters. Seven were flown back to their respective hometowns, while the remaining passengers will be transported by land for proper burials.
Outside the airport, crowds gathered nearby to catch a glimpse of the ceremony, as many other Malaysians across the country watched a live broadcast. On the roads leading in and out of the airport, cars stopped to allow the convoy of hearses to pass by.