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Ukraine Plane Crash

Time, Elements a Challenge in Search for Bodies at MH17 Crash Site

Image: Foreign experts arrive at MH17 crash site in east Ukraine

Australian and Dutch investigators examine a piece of debris of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 plane, near the village of Hrabove, 100 km from Donetsk, Ukraine, on Aug. 1, 2014. IGOR KOVALENKO / EPA

More than two weeks after a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down over eastern Ukraine, the sprawling crash site remains a mess of twisted metal, personal belongings and human remains hidden among fields of wheat.

That might stay the same for weeks to come, aviation experts tell NBC News. Investigators and forensics teams attempting to recover remains of an estimated 80 passengers of Flight MH17 still unaccounted for have a sullied scene to sift through. The teams returned Thursday and Friday after more than a week of fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists prevented them from entering the site, which officials are designating a crime scene.

On Friday, artillery fire could still be heard crackling in the distance about 12 miles from where investigators were searching, The Associated Press reported.

“How spoiled might the site be? Totally,” said Frank Graham Jr., an aviation investigator and former pilot.

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“I can think of worse locations to search: the middle of a desert in 110 degrees or the middle of a jungle in a typhoon,” he added. “But as far as having the integrity of a scene preserved, this is just a messed-up situation.”

But that isn’t stopping the team of 60 international investigators and observers to resume scouring the site for victims. So far, remains belonging to at least 200 of the 298 passengers aboard MH17 have been recovered. The airliner was shot down by a ground-to-air missile on July 17 as it traveled from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

On Thursday, investigators were given personal belongings of 27 victims and DNA samples of 25 victims, Dutch officials said.

The identification process has been painstakingly slow and could take months. So far, just two bodies — both Dutch nationals — have been positively IDd. Since the crash, remains have been flown to the Netherlands, where most of the passengers were from.

As each day goes by, finding the rest of the remains is expected to become more and more difficult. Search teams are working under a brutal summer sun with temperatures around 90 degrees.

“After two weeks, you have putrefaction,” Graham said. “And it’s the Ukraine, you’ve got wild animals roaming about.”

But investigators will want to take as long as they need to in the exhausting search for victims.

“It’s an issue of dignity,” Graham added. “Of course the remains should be recovered.”

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Examining the wreckage itself will help to tell what exactly happened to Flight MH17, said George Bibel, an aircraft disaster expert and author of “Beyond the Black Box.”

The Boeing 777’s black box voice and data recorders were recovered and reveal the aircraft crashed because of a “missile explosion,” Ukraine defense officials said this week. Exactly who was behind the shooting remains in dispute, although the U.S. believes it was shot down by the pro-Russian separatists.

Russia, meanwhile, has attempted to present counter theories to the jet crash, including that it was the Ukrainian military that targeted the plane mistaking it for President Vladimir Putin’s jet.

Ultimately, investigators returning to the scene will want to try and “connect all of the dots” of what happened, Bibel added.

The crash site itself is being divided and searched via a grid system with the help of cadaver dogs, Australian officials told reporters. Although a tentative cease-fire was called around the site, worries about the investigators’ safety still persist.

“I can’t imagine what it’d be like to work in a war zone,” Graham said.