The 9-year-old Dutch boy who miraculously survived a plane crash in Libya returned to the Netherlands aboard an airborne ambulance Saturday and was whisked away to a hospital in his hometown, where he must begin to rebuild his life without his parents or brother.
Ruben van Assouw was the sole survivor, pulled unconscious from the wreckage of an Afriqiyah Airways jetliner that plunged into the desert less than a mile from the runway in Tripoli four days ago, killing 103 people.
Investigators from the U.S. and other countries were on the scene of the crash near the Libyan capital Saturday trying to determine a cause. Others began identifying the dead, who include 70 Dutch nationals.
Ruben returned with an aunt and uncle aboard a flight to a military air base in Eindhoven, then was taken to St. Elizabeth Hospital in nearby Tilburg, the hometown of the Van Assouws. Patrick, 40, Trudy, 41, and their son Enzo died in the crash.
Ruben underwent more than four hours of surgery to repair multiple fractures to his legs Wednesday, but doctors say he has been recovering well.
'In the arms of relatives'
A statement by close relatives said the extended family will care for Ruben, and asked the media not to contact them while they are grieving. Ruben was shielded from the media at the air base and hospital.
It was not yet clear where he will live, though much of the family, including grandparents, lives in Tilburg.
"Let's make sure he can catch his breath peacefully in the arms of relatives," Tilburg mayor Ivo Opstelten said on Dutch television. The boy and his relatives need to find "a kind of balance with each other, so they can start sketching a future."
The story of the boy's improbable survival and tragic loss has moved people around the world. Hundreds offered condolences and wished the boy well on a blog set up by his father to chronicle the family's vacation to South Africa. They were returning home when their flight from Johannesburg to Tripoli crashed.
At the Yore elementary school in Tilburg where Enzo was in 6th grade and Ruben is in 3rd, many students returned early from spring break to sign a condolence register for Enzo — and prepare for Ruben's eventual return.
"When he comes back — we don't know exactly how things are going to go — but when he comes back to school, we're going to take awfully good care of him," school director Elly Sebregts said.
"That's the school's job, I think. What we can do for him, in the school sphere, we will do."
Determining a cause
Investigators on a joint panel, which includes Americans, Dutch, French, South Africans and Libyans, met Saturday to plot their strategy to determine a cause of the crash. No findings were immediately released.
The U.S. investigators are from the National Transportation Safety Board team since the plane's engines were made by U.S. manufacturer General Electric. The team also was to include technical advisers from the Federal Aviation Administration and General Electric.
The plane's black boxes — the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder — were recovered intact and have been sent to Paris for review.
Naji Dhou, the head of the Libyan committee investigating the crash, told reporters that preliminary results indicate the plane had diverted about 4 degrees from the runway and landed about 400 yards in front of it.
He said debris from the crash was scattered in an 800-square-meter area, but investigators had only covered 150-square-meters of that so far.
He said there was no explosion until the plane hit the ground. Libya has ruled out terrorism as a possible cause of the crash, although an investigation was still under way.
Identification of bodies
Forensics teams began identifying the bodies of crash victims Saturday. Most of those on board the Airbus 330-200 flight were Dutch tourists, and the Netherlands' government has requested DNA and other information from victims' relatives to help the process.
The Dutch Ministry says investigators hope to complete the identification of the bodies within three weeks.
Rescuers responding to the crash found Ruben still strapped in his seat and breathing in an area of desert sand strewn with the plane's shredded wreckage. Both his legs were broken, but he had no serious injuries to his neck, head or internal organs.
Libyan doctor Sadig Bendala said the boy was continuing to recover.
"He's OK, he's fine today," Bendala said before boarding the plane with his young patient, calling Ruben "a miracle."
Ed Kronenburg, the top Dutch foreign ministry official in Libya, called the boy's return a "fantastic moment" despite his nation's sorrow over the crash's many victims.
"I hope he will slowly ... recover and pick up his life again, although it will never be normal," Kronenburg said.
The Dutch boy had gone with his family to South Africa on a dream safari vacation to celebrate his parents' anniversary. Ruben was informed of his family's deaths on Friday.