Malaysia Airlines flight MH17: Victim's nephew travels to Ukraine in search for answers

Jordan Withers was devastated by the loss of his uncle, Glenn Thomas

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The Independent Online

The nephew of one of the people on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 has taken an emotional journey to Ukraine looking to resolve the still unanswered questions  around his uncle’s death.

Glenn Thomas, 49, was one of the 10 British victims on board the Boeing 777 when it was shot down in July, killing all 298 passengers and crew.

The communications officer was with six colleagues from the World Health Organisation (WHO) on their way to an Aids conference in Australia when he died, leaving behind his partner, Claudio Manoel Villaca-Vanetta, twin sister Tracey Withers and her son, Jordan.

As the conflict raged in rebel-controlled Donetsk, the family had to wait until October to hold his funeral. Two months later, Mr Withers was on a plane to Kiev, re-tracing part of his uncle’s fatal journey for BBC Inside Out documentary MH17: In Search of the Truth.

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Glenn Thomas was one of the British victims killed when the flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine

Speaking to The Independent after his return, the 23-year-old said it was “one of the best things” he had ever done, although questions remained.

“We always knew it would be difficult to get answers when no one seems to have any but for me it was more about speaking to people who had been there and comparing stories,” he added.

Mr Withers, a law graduate from Blackpool, visited Kiev before flying to meet the relatives of other victims in Rotterdam and Newcastle.

He was not allowed to go to the crash site for security reasons as fighting continues around Hrabove, Donetsk Oblast.

Calling it “the world’s biggest crime scene”, he criticised the world’s media for losing focus on MH17. “The news moved on but I live it every day,” he added.

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Jordan Withers left home in Blackpool to search for answers

Mr Withers had just finished his degree at Chester University when MH17 disappeared from radar on 17 November, leaving him and his parents frantically calling Malaysia Airlines for hours before having their worst fears confirmed.

Only months before, he had joined his uncle at WHO as an intern and visited him for a holiday in Geneva, Switzerland, where Mr Thomas lived with his partner.

“Me and my sister were like his children,” he added. “I can’t put into words how much I miss him and he shouldn't have lost his life the way he did.”

Mr Thomas, who previously worked as a BBC producer, was one of the first British casualties to be named after the disaster, prompting an outpouring of grief from colleagues and friends who called him “a wonderful person and a great professional”.

His nephew said the family was inundated with tributes, each with a story of Mr Thomas that made it feel “like he was here”.

The MH17 tragedy stunned the world just four months after MH370 disappeared. The two disasters were followed by a third last month, when AirAsia Flight QZ8501 went down in the Java Sea.

“The only way you can compare them is in that innocent people lost their lives,” Mr Withers said.

“We [the victims’ families] are all in it together, no one else can really tell you how it feels.”

He has travelled to the Netherlands to meet the family of young couple Bryce Fredriksz and Daisy Oehlers, who were travelling on MH17 on their way to Bali.

The documentary shows the Fredriksz family home, where parents Rob and Silene have kept their 23-year-old son’s room exactly as it was left.

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Silene Fredriksz has only had fragments of her son's bones returned to her

While Mr Thomas’ body was repatriated, the Dutch family are one of many who have never had their loved one’s remains returned, being left only with a few bone fragments.

The programme also tells the story of a Daisy’s cousin Robby Oehlers, who flew to Ukraine and travelled more than 300 miles in a taxi to get to the crash site three months after the disaster in a desperate hunt for clues.

He had to leave empty-handed as shelling intensified nearby, further delaying the recovery of bodies and debris.

“Recovering the bodies was really traumatic,” Mr Withers said. “But if Robby could do that and all the journalists got there in shorts and T-shirts, how can it be impossible for anyone else to get in there?”

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Members of the Ukrainian State Emergency Service search for bodies in a field near the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Hrabove (Grabove), in Donetsk region on July 26, 2014.

More than six months after MH17 went down, Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels continue to trade accusations as the investigation into the crash continues. A preliminary report released by the Dutch Safety Board in September found the plane had been penetrated by a number of “high energy objects”.

Ukraine accuses pro-Russian rebels of accidentally shooting it down with a surface-to-air, missile while Russian media reports have claimed to have evidence of Ukrainian military involvement.

Mr Withers said that whoever was responsible for the disaster, it ultimately came down to the Ukrainian conflict.

The BBC documentary sees him visit Maidan (Independence) Square in Kiev, where the protests started that ultimately led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych and ensuing war.

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An armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region of Ukraine

Amid the murals and tributes to the protesters killed in days of violent clashes last winter stands a huge picture of MH17’s wreckage.

“If the conflict hadn't happened the plane probably wouldn't have gone down - that’s where it all started,” Mr Withers said.

“It was only a year ago when you were seeing pictures of people being shot in the street and I did get the feeling it was still quite tense.”

He believes it will be years until anyone may admit responsibility for shooting down MH17, even after the final crash report is released, pointing to Lockerbie as an example of how long such disputes can continue.

“At the end of the day, I have lost something that can’t be given back to me,” said Mr Withers.

“The best that can happen is to know who, what, where, when and why. All that in one report, no jargon, just layman’s terms.

“Ultimately it doesn't really make a difference to me who did it and why because it’s done now. but one day I might want to tell my children what happened to Uncle Glenn.

“It would be nice to put a full stop on it and to be able to remember Glenn as Glenn and not someone who died on MH17.”

Inside Out (North West) BBC One, is on tonight at 7.30pm. Also available on iPlayer for 30 days.

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