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And so we left at the point where the divers, the only people working directly amidst the wreckage of the aircraft, are inclined to believe that there possibly might not have been any passengers even on the passenger Boeing. At least not many people. I am convinced that this turn in the investigation was unexpected for more than just us Izvestia journalists. It was no accident that the first Western disinformation, which appeared after the December article, co-written by Aleksandr Shalnev, was to wit "the bodies were destroyed in a special crematorium on Sakhalin." And, like echo to the "shocking news", when my colleagues in the United States, Japan, Korea, France, and other countries called, the first question was almost always, "Did you manage to determine where the bodies are located?"
The topic regarding what happened to the people and were there any people on that fatal aircraft at all demands special tact. I admit this is the most difficult thing for me to write about. However it is necessary.
First of all I will say that the divers themselves are unsure and try to avoid conclusive answers. For example, V. Zakharchenko, leader of the Murmansk team of divers says this.
"Well, we found a pair of pants with holes in the knees and the belt torn off but nothing else wrong with them. What does this mean? A person was probably wearing these pants... Later, after returning to Murmansk, we started reading the newspapers and found what they were writing very interesting. I thought then that it is impossible to fake the death of so many people... To organize their relatives who would be in mourning in Korea, Thailand, the United States, Taiwan... You might be able to fake two or three - but two hundred or more?..."
"They explained to us divers that an airplane generally breaks up during its fall and scatters. This one was flying at a very high altitude at a speed of 900 kilometers per hour. When it fell its speed increased even more. It looks like the plane hit the water and broke up at about 1,000 kilometers per hour. The pieces maintained their inertia in the water and continued breaking up. There was also speculation that it even exploded before hitting the water. Who knows?...
"But there was no fire in the Boeing - that is a fact. Things were intact, although soaked with kerosene. Very heavily soaked. So... You know a lot of people on this expedition were saying that it was as if there were no people on this aircraft, that all this was a hoax. All in all, even I was of this opinion at first. There were almost no traces of people except for personal effects. However, there were personal effects! Judging from the clothing, the clothing was worn by people. Why? Because it was torn. The people - they, I think, were cut up by part of the aircraft. In addition, by the time we arrived, a month had already passed. In fact almost two months, because we didn't discover the plane until 17 or 18 October. Later the lads spent many more days working on the bottom. There were crabs, prawns of every variety, fish... They even saw octopus. I asked the divers, "Did you see any people?" There was no confident reply of "Yes, we definitely did." "Sort of" - was how they answered. And there were never any official reports from them..."
I, a journalist, think the uncertainty of the divers is understandable. They really expected to see a huge quantity of bodies, an entire graveyard. And they feared this. Therefore the little they stumbled upon in no way corresponded with their expectations. This is the source of their inevitable uncertainty. But the "cockpit" was empty as well or, more accurately, the location of cockpit wreckage. There was not a trace of pilots, navigators, or flight attendants, and the aircraft could not operate without them.
Most probably, explanations of the strange disappearance of people can be found in the reasoning of the divers themselves. Among them, of course, were crabs and crayfish. Some of the people who have sailed and worked in those regions state that two weeks is sufficient for all traces of organic tissue to disappear. The inhabitants of the sea and the seawater itself do their job. (I encountered a similar situation while hunting for seals in the Sea of Okhotsk.) As for bones and skulls, the impact of the aircraft hitting the water was such that heavy-duty metallic structures were unable to withstand it. How could fragile bones do so? In addition, one must take into account the speed of currents at the very bottom and movement of water currents through this depth of 170 meters.
At our request, Izvestia correspondent Sergey Agafonov went to Tokyo University's Department of Forensic Medicine. Here is what forensic anatomy experts told him:
"A corpse cannot rest at a sea depth of 200 meters or so. The specific gravity of the sea water will inevitably force it to the surface, and it will either be carried away by the current or - much rarer - will "drift" in the region of the "maritime grave." The more time elapses, the more a corpse is subject to decomposition, which is intensified in the sea environment. It would be an exceedingly complicated, however, to predict the condition of a corpse without knowing the specific conditions of local flora, its location at the moment of death, and the amount of time spent in the deep water."
Our correspondent asked the same question at the department of forensic medical expertise at Japan's Maritime Safety Administration. There he received the following information:
"As a rule, a corpse is forced to the surface by water, but at very great depths there are other possibilities, especially if you are talking about a significant distance from shore. At a depth of 200 meters, a corpse's condition would be influenced by the following factors: its condition at the moment of death, structure of the sea bottom, water temperature, the presence of currents, depth of silt in the area or its complete absence. The "result" depends on a combination of these factors. There can be no definitive answer without specific knowledge."
Therefore, a final judgment on this matter should be rendered by biologists and oceanologists (we are consulting them and awaiting their reaction).
I will add one thing! If the chief aim of searching for the aircraft was to find the bodies of the victims in order to give relatives the opportunity to conduct at least a symbolic burial, if this were the aim and not the conduct of some super-secret operation involving a tremendous number of extras, if the Murmansk divers were dispatched to the area without delay and began their burdensome task right away - then most likely we would not have to discuss such a cruel subject. Excuse me...
No, they were not looking for people at all. They were looking for something they feared more than the tears and curses orphans...
Here are more excerpts from the verbatim reports of divers Grigorij Matveenko, Vladimir K., and Vadim Kondrabayev.
"No, no one asked us to recover any remains, only equipment, tapes, documents, and the black box. True, they did not show us a black box, but the described how it should look. So we brought up various boxes which met the description... We brought up some Boeing parts, the skin of the aircraft. There was a piece of aircraft skin with a symbol on it - a circle and two commas. You probably know such two commas, which fit together in the circle. (Apparently this is the emblem of the Korean airline company KAL - author.) They brought up a life raft. There was a good knife. On the whole there was little time for sorting through stuff on the bottom. In some places metal scrap was a meter and a half deep, a real junk pile! The bottom would look flat and empty, then all of a sudden there would be the landing gear or a bra, and then nothing. Then once again a large piece. Again a pile, like on a rubbish pile... Exactly like a junk pile. Pieces of metal, rags, wires. You begin to dig and there are things, more things... Children's things too. I remember once finding a pouch, you know, the kind they carry babies in, like a rucksack and feeling a shock like a jolt of electricity. And of course adult items too. A lot of women's underwear, some documents, suitcases. Equipment such as tape recorders, cassette decks. But they were crushed as if by a sledge hammer. Then - three or four books. Vietnamese balsam. We gathered all of it into a large basket, which was brought to the surface. It was about two meters by one-and-a-half. We put the most valuable items into the diving bell - cameras, tape recorders. We did not place valuables in the basket. There were waves and such during ascent. "They might fall out and be lost."
"There were a great many odds and ends. Once we found a bale of various pelts... About 200 of them. We tied them to the diving bell, but when we brought them up from the water to the air... The entire bundle was torn apart... Only one or two were found on the surface.
Vadim Kondrabayev's voice on the tape recorder is almost inaudible. He almost completely lost it after the work on Sakhalin. He speaks in a whisper and doctors cannot help him. This work cost a great deal of effort and energy on the part of all four (in addition to the divers we are already familiar with, Sergey Godorozha also worked underwater). They spent almost a month in a dark pressure chamber, from which they come out only enter the diving bell that took them down to the ocean floor. Those, who saw them upon their return to the light of day, say that they looked horrible - red eyes from bursting blood vessels, pale to the point of turning blue... Their working day on the ocean floor was almost always greater than the norm - five, sometimes six hours. Once, when a powerful acoustical device from American ships began working, the divers even had to halt work until the large antisubmarine warfare ship Sevastopol "edged the American ship back" a little. The divers' work area was surrounded by buoys and patrolled by trawlers. This was the only way they could be protected from unbearable pain. ("It felt like a blunt nail was being pounded into your ear. They immediately ordered us into the bell and brought us up...")
In memory of all this, V. Zakharchenko, keeps the Gas Industry Ministry's order and a "brief description of work accomplished." The latter document ends with "Comments:" "The divers worked at a depth of 174 meters. They put in 150 man-hours of work on the bottom during 14 dives in a period of 19 days. The assignment lasted 31 days, 13 hours. The longest uninterrupted period of work by the divers under water was six hours, 18 minutes. This is the first time such results have been achieved in the history of our Motherland."
Here is the text of Order 42/10, dated 26 January 1984: "For outstanding accomplishment of a special government assignment and for the high degree of professionalism exhibited in fulfilling this assignment, Comrade S.G. Gorshkov, Commander in Chief of the Navy, Fleet Admiral of the Soviet Union, expresses his gratitude 3 November 1983 to the group of divers and diving specialists."
The order was issued for such award to be entered into the labor records of the divers within three days and a report on execution issued. In addition to the admiral's gratitude, the divers and their support group were awarded 200, and in some cases 250 rubles.
Medals were affixed to military jackets and uniforms during that time, and the number of stars large and small on epaulets increased noticeably. Perhaps the bonus, at which the divers still laugh to this day, was so small in hopes that they would quickly forget about everything that happened that autumn? They actually tried to forget about them! In any case, the lads were truly surprised by the arrival of a correspondent. "You are the first person to come and see us in seven years." "Only now have I related that I saw remains of bodies. To this day, I have kept this "military secret." "We were certain everybody had forgotten about us. It turns out we are still good for something."
I have to confess that I exaggerated somewhat when I said that other than the letter of gratitude, the divers have nothing to remember the Korean airliner by, for not all the objects brought up from the sea ended up on the deck under guard.
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