(CNN) — Burned rubble near a Bali travel guidebook. Twisted metal beside brightly-colored suitcases. Headphones and human remains.
In the rural area of eastern Ukraine where a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 fell from the sky on Thursday, the ground was scarred with death and devastation left behind by a flight that never reached its destination.
Video footage from the site, located about 30 miles from the Russian border, showed smoke billowing from the smoldering wreckage long after the crash.
“It’s a gruesome scene,” freelance journalist Noah Sneider said. “There’s bodies splayed out through the fields. People said the plane kind of exploded in the air, and everything rained down in bits and pieces, the plane itself, the people inside.”
Stunned rescue workers and rebel fighters combed the area, Sneider said, planting sticks with white cotton ribbons where they found bodies in the fields.
There are so many dead that it’s unlikely the local morgue will be able to hold them all, Sneider said, even in a volatile region that’s seen waves of death recently amid clashes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists.
“When there was the battle for the Donetsk airport, something like 50 people died and they didn’t have the space,” Sneider told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
On this flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, officials say there were 298 people aboard.
In the wide fields of tall grasses, debris stretched so far, in so many small pieces, that it seemed unfathomable that anyone would ever know for certain what happened to Flight 17, Sneider said.
“Finding things like passports,” he said, “is a matter of chance.”
Separatists clearly controlled the site, Sneider said.
But even battle-hardened rebel fighters appeared shocked, he said.
Fighting has torn apart the region. But this is something else.
“Nothing of this scale has happened,” said Sneider, who’s been covering the conflict for months.
Locals in the rural area trying to help were overwhelmed, he said. Firemen who rushed to put out the flames found they had a hose with holes in it, spraying water everywhere, he said.
As night fell, search crews seemed uncertain about what to do at first, he said.
But eventually, teams put up tents and set up flood lights in the field.
Ukrainian officials said rescue and investigation teams had been hampered by armed groups in the area.
Pictures suggested the area was hardly a cordoned off crime scene, with people standing on top of parts of the wrecked aircraft. And there are some reports that pieces of the aircraft have been looted and put in people’s yards, CNN’s Nic Robertson reported from Kiev.
Sneider said he hadn’t seen any looting by people in the area.
“Most of them are so frightened that they’re not coming anywhere near here,” he said.