40 Hearses For 40 Coffins: Netherlands Mourns Malaysian Jet Victims

The remains of passengers of the downed Malaysia Airlines flight arrived in the Netherlands, on what has been a national day of mourning. Most of those killed in the jet that was brought down over Ukraine were Dutch. Robert Siegel talks with Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times, who is in the Netherlands.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST POST")

SIEGEL: A lone trumpeter played the "Last Post" today at the Eindhoven Airport in the Netherlands. It's a military funeral call, commemorating those who die in war. An Air Force trumpeter played it on the tarmac next to two military aircraft. The dead were flown there from Ukraine, carrying 40 wooden coffins - remains of victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight brought down last week. Forty hearses waited - one for each of the coffins. Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times was at the airbase for the arrival of the flights and later followed the convoy of hearses and he's with us on the line now. And Thomas, this happened on a national day of mourning in the Netherlands. How would you describe the scene at the Eindhoven Airport?

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Well, it was a very solemn scene as you might expect. Everybody present - the family members, the royal family, the cabinet, lots of media representative - everybody realized that a week ago, the people on board of that plane had been packing their bags. They had been preparing for conferences, family visits and vacation and now they are returning to the Netherlands in coffins. The way the authorities had organized the homecoming was particularly impressive. It was a military operation almost with the hearses and the soldiers carrying the coffin, paying attention to each single coffin, making sure that everybody got the respect that, the Dutch nation at least felt, they deserved.

SIEGEL: You followed the convoy of the hearses. What about the people outside the airport? Did they gather to watch the vehicles go by?

ERDBRINK: Yes, actually it turned out that hundreds of people had actually gathered in front of the airport. And they were standing alongside the road and as the convoy of hearses came out - yeah - people started crying - became very silent. Some of them took pictures with their smartphones, others threw flowers. And that was actually the scene all the way up to Hilversum, an hour and a half drive to the north. Everywhere along the overpasses you could see hundreds of people waiting, clapping at times, crying. There was a varied mix of emotions because Holland hasn't had a day of mourning since 1962 and there is no sort of clear-cut scenario on how to act. As the convoy snaked its way up to the more northern part of the country, those driving southwards on the A2, which is one of the Netherlands biggest highways, they stopped their cars and they waited and they flashed their lights. Really everybody was involved in what happened today.

SIEGEL: Today, there were 40 hearses bearing 40 coffins. There were 193 Dutch nationals killed. What are the plans to bring home the rest of the - of the remains?

ERDBRINK: Well, not only the remains of the Dutch nationals are being brought back. And this was also very visible at the airport where all 17 flags of all 17 nationalities that were on board of the plane were standing at half-mast. The coming three days there will be an air breach between Kharkiv in the Ukraine and Eindhoven in the Netherlands, bringing back the remains of all those on board, at least all the remains that can be found and then to a special army base where members of a Dutch forensic team will try and figure out which remains belong to what name.

SIEGEL: Thomas, thank you very much.

ERDBRINK: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Thomas Erdbrink of the New York Times, speaking to us from just outside Amsterdam.

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