AMSTERDAM – Schoolchildren silently placed flowers next to 298 candles -- one for each victim of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 -- at a somber Dutch commemoration Monday of the air disaster that shook this nation nearly four months ago.
The nationally televised event in Amsterdam highlighted the ongoing grief, disbelief and anger of the families and friends of those killed when the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was downed July 17 over conflict-hit eastern Ukraine.
Most of the victims were Dutch, but passengers and crew from 19 different countries died.
A 13-year-old girl, Gita Wiegel, recalled cuddling her mother at Schiphol before she boarded Flight 17.
"The idea I would have to miss her for four weeks was terrible," she said. "But this, this is far more terrible. The last SMS I got from her was, `See you in four weeks, darling. Take good care of yourself."'
Another grieving relative, Paul Marckelbach, recited a poem, sobbing as he read the final word: "Why?"
Other relatives, some choking back tears, read out the names and ages of all 298 victims. The list took some 23 minutes to complete.
About 1,600 family and friends of the victims were joined for the event by Dutch King Willem-Alexander, Queen Maxima, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and other dignitaries.
Anton Kotte, who lost his son, daughter-in-law and youngest grandson, gave a speech that mixed grief, anger at their senseless death and gratitude to people who have helped relatives cope with their loss.
"A missile ended their flight," he said. "We have landed in a horror scenario. A scenario of powerlessness, anger and disbelief."
Questions about exactly what happened remain unanswered. The Dutch government -- unlike Kotte -- has refrained from saying a missile downed the plane, but Dutch police and prosecutors carrying out a criminal investigation say a missile strike is the most likely scenario they are looking at.
A preliminary report by Dutch crash investigators said the plane was likely hit by multiple "high-energy objects," a finding some aviation experts say is consistent with a missile strike.
Pro-Russian separatist rebels in Ukraine have always staunchly denied their involvement in bringing down the plane.
Initial investigations on the crash site had to be called off after a matter of days because of raging battles nearby between government troops and rebel forces.
The wreckage of Flight 17 is still strewn across fields in Ukraine. Dutch authorities hope to begin recovering the debris this week and bring it back to the Netherlands so crash investigators can reconstruct part of the plane to aid their probe into the cause.
On Saturday, a Dutch military transport plane brought five coffins from Ukraine to the Netherlands carrying remains of victims that were recently recovered from the crash scene.
The remains were taken to a military barracks in the central city of Hilversum where experts are working to identify victims. So far, 289 victims have been positively identified.
In a brief speech Monday, Rutte summed up the families' grief at losing their loved ones so suddenly.
"On July 17, 2014, a carefree `see you later' became an abrupt `farewell,"' Rutte said.