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MH17: Grief and mourning at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport

By Bryony Jones, CNN
updated 9:33 AM EDT, Sat July 19, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Signs of MH17 tragedy at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, where ill-fated plane took off
  • Friends and complete strangers among those leaving floral tributes at terminal building
  • Malaysia Airlines' Flight MH17 to Kuala Lumpur crashed near Ukraine-Russia border
  • U.S. believes plane was likely shot down by surface-to-air missile

(CNN) -- Deep red roses, waxy white lilies and bright, cheery sunflowers; as single blooms and in large bouquets, they pile up close to desk 29 at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

Twenty-four hours ago this was where Malaysia Airlines' Flight MH17 passengers checked in before boarding their ill-fated plane; bound for Kuala Lumpur, their journey would end far too soon, in a Ukrainian field close to the border with Russia.

On Thursday, Suzan De Wit was chatting to many of those fliers. A customs officer at the airport, she helped them claim back their VAT (sales tax) before leaving the country.

A day later, a crying De Wit was among those leaving floral tributes to the dead, still stunned by the tragedy that had unfolded.

People pray during a special Mass in memory of the victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 20 in St. Vitus Church in Hilversum, Netherlands. The United States says a surface-to-air missile took down the Boeing 777 in eastern Ukraine on July 17 as it was flying from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, killing all 298 people aboard. At least 192 of the dead were Dutch. People pray during a special Mass in memory of the victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 20 in St. Vitus Church in Hilversum, Netherlands. The United States says a surface-to-air missile took down the Boeing 777 in eastern Ukraine on July 17 as it was flying from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, killing all 298 people aboard. At least 192 of the dead were Dutch.
Netherlands mourns MH17 dead
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Families of crew members aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 gather for a vigil Tuesday, July 22, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. All 298 people aboard the passenger plane died when it was shot down Thursday, July 17, in a rebel-controlled part of eastern Ukraine. Families of crew members aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 gather for a vigil Tuesday, July 22, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. All 298 people aboard the passenger plane died when it was shot down Thursday, July 17, in a rebel-controlled part of eastern Ukraine.
World reacts to MH17 crash
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Photos: Reaction to MH17 Photos: Reaction to MH17
A birthday card found in a sunflower field near the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, on Thursday, July 24. The passenger plane was shot down July 17 above Ukraine. All 298 people aboard were killed, and much of what they left behind was scattered in a vast field of debris. A birthday card found in a sunflower field near the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, on Thursday, July 24. The passenger plane was shot down July 17 above Ukraine. All 298 people aboard were killed, and much of what they left behind was scattered in a vast field of debris.
MH17: What they left behind
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"We saw a lot of the people that are on the plane and it's just really weird to me to imagine that they are gone," she explained tearfully.

Like De Wit, many of the others bringing flowers had little connection to those on the plane.

Here to catch flights of their own, they dash inside, stopping at the airport florist -- more used to creating "welcome home" bouquets than funereal arrangements -- before walking back out onto the sidewalk to lay their offerings on the concrete.

Outside the terminal, there are plenty of signs that this is no ordinary day at Schiphol, one of the world's busiest airports: The growing pile of flowers, the condolence book rapidly filling with messages of grief and support and, across the road, past the lines of cars pulling up to drop travelers off, huge numbers of film crews from across the world.

But step inside the building, and it is business as usual: passengers looking forward to long-awaited holidays or arriving in the city for business meetings wheel suitcases across the concourse, shops and cafes are busy, and flights take off and land as usual.

This extreme normality caused difficulties for at least one man, distressed and desperate to find out what had happened to his business partner, who he feared was on Flight MH17, and who was not answering his increasingly frantic calls.

With no signs offering advice to those trying to check up on possible passengers, he was left wandering the airport, shuttling from one information desk to another, clutching one mobile phone to his ear and another in his hand as he tried to reach someone, anyone, who could tell him if his friend was on board.

Sadly, there was to be no good news; after one call, crying "I knew it, I knew he was on the plane!" he hurried away.

Many of the relatives of those on the plane are being cared for at a local hotel while they work out what to do next.

U.S. official: Flight MH17 shot down
The timeline before MH17 crashed
Journalist: Bodies splayed through field
Separatists recorded admitting fatal error?

The airline has offered them $5,000 compensation to cover their immediate expenses, and has said it will try and find a way of getting them to the crash site if they want to see it.

It says visiting the site where a plane came down has proved helpful to relatives in some previous cases, but the location of MH17's final resting place -- in the middle of a conflict zone -- makes this problematic, to say the least.

As the arguments and investigations over what brought down the plane go on, elsewhere in the Netherlands, other makeshift shrines are popping up.

In the North Holland fishing village of Volendam, bouquets have been laid outside a flower shop owned by Neeltje Tol, who is believed to have been on the downed plane.

Tol's boyfriend, Cor Schilder, apparently posted a jokey picture of the Malaysia Airlines plane on Facebook shortly before take-off: "In case it goes missing, this is what the plane looks like."

On Friday, stunned customers and friends stopped by to sign a book of condolence and pay tribute to the florist; one weeping woman, a regular visitor to the store, said Tol was "a very nice girl" who would be sadly missed.

As word spreads of those caught up in the tragedy, the number of mourners is only likely to increase in the coming days.

CNN Flight 17 full coverage

CNN's Saima Mohsin, Erin McLaughlin, Alex Felton and Antonia Mortensen contributed to this report.

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