AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
As we just heard, U.S. officials have said Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down. It happened in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, an area that's seen intense fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian government forces. Local first responders were on hand at the crash site, but there were no reported survivors. We reached reporter Noah Sneider at the site of the crash. I asked him what the area looked like when he first arrived.
NOAH SNEIDER: When we got here it was late afternoon, turning into early evening. And you come down a sort of country road, and you could see a column of smoke rising above a field. And the crash site is this open field bisected by a long country road. And there were a few rebel checkpoints filled with fighters who were mostly standing and just waved us through. And then you come up to the crash site and you realize that everything is scattered over this really massive swath of land. The locals here said that the plane exploded in the sky and the debris fell - must be a few kilometers, if not more, radius. And so that's both the plane itself and everything in it, including the passengers.
CORNISH: You mentioned rebel checkpoints. Can you talk about sort of who they are - these are pro-Russian rebels - and what these other witnesses had to say?
SNEIDER: Sure. I mean, the rebels are the same fighters we've been seeing here for a few months. Many of them - I would say the majority of them - are locals. The unit that was posted at the end of this road - one of them has actually lived in this village for a few years. They are part of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic. And they, too, I think were a bit stunned by what happened here. There's no sense of triumph and victory or - frankly, nobody's taking responsibility for it. Locals all thought they were being bombed. There's been some pretty heavy fighting, some regular shelling going on elsewhere in the region in nearby cities - the Ukrainian forces, government forces, and these pro-Russian rebels going back and forth. So I think people just thought it was their turn.
CORNISH: There were also unconfirmed reports of a pro-Russian separatist kind of taking control of the crash site. Can you talk about any of that? If you saw anybody walking around the crash site or moving things?
SNEIDER: Sure. I mean, they have taken control of the crash site because they're in control of this region. The Ukrainian forces have a position not too far from here. But for the most part, this stretch of road is controlled by the rebels and has been for quite some time. So they were the first ones on the scene. They were in the ones in terms of security forces. And they're the ones who are now guarding the entrances to it. I can't say that I've seen anyone intentionally tampering with what's happened here. The crews that are most visible, in fact, are the local search and rescue teams and firefighters who have been kind of systematically working their way through the fields and marking where bodies are with little bits of white cloths tied to sticks in the ground. And nobody here has seen anything like this. So everyone, from the first responders to the rebel fighters to the locals in this village, are still figuring out what to do with it.
CORNISH: And, Noah Sneider, you're planning to spend the evening there. Who else is on the site who's also planning to spend the night?
SNEIDER: There's a crew of foreign journalists who I rode out here with, correspondents from a number of outlets who we, all together, essentially decided more likely than not we'd have a lot of trouble getting back in in the morning. And it's hour and a half or two hours back to our hotel in Donetsk. So we're all kind of camped out for the night along this road waiting to see what happens when daylight breaks.
CORNISH: That's reporter Noah Sneider describing the scene at the crash site in eastern Ukraine. Noah, thank you for speaking with us.
SNEIDER: No problem. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.