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@THISHOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

Confusion Clouds Search for Flight 370; Explosion in East Harlem

Aired March 12, 2014 - 11:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN ANCHOR: Joining us to try and dig through some of this, we've got Mary Schiavo -- she's a former Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation -- and of course our own Richard Quest. Always good to have both of your voices on this show.

Mary, let's start with you.

Do you think one of the biggest causes of concern and confusion and maybe conflicting information comes from the fact that we don't have one nation in this multi-nation effort leading the charge on the investigation.

MARY SCHIAVO, FORMER INSPECTOR GENERAL, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION: That's a huge problem. Not only do we not have one nation but we have the nation that proclaims to be in charge, Malaysia, sending out very conflicting signals. It is understandable that Vietnam is saying, until you give us good information, we are not going to search. That's terribly tragic.

If the plane is headed to the Indian Ocean or headed to the Indian Ocean, which it could have been with seven hours of fuel on board, frankly, I think the United States should take the lead. It is a Boeing 777. There is an American on board. We need to go there and start searching and do what we do best, pick up the pieces and investigate.

PEREIRA: Richard, bringing you into the conversation, the idea that one of the Malaysian officials is saying is that this plane changed course.

RICHARD QUEST, HOST, QUEST MEANS BUSINESS: We don't know. Mary is absolutely right. If I could ask Mary straight out.

Mary, can you remember a situation where this far into an investigation, they have no idea where it is east, west, north, or south?

SCHIAVO: No idea. I have worked an investigation where a plane crashed in the Columbian jungle and they had top flight information right away. This is inexcusable out of Malaysia. The United States needs to take a more forceful role and step out and take the lead.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: What would they do differently? QUEST: They would put order in this investigation. What you have to do in the moment after an accident, you have to get your hands around the neck of the information. That means you have to bring it all in, the radar tracks, the ATC communication, the various eyewitness reports, which are always unreliable or tend to be unreliable. You have to get your hands around it fast. Of course, there is always going to be the confusion and chaos of crisis, the fog of war, if you like. They haven't even, it seems, got their hands around the basics.

PEREIRA: It seems particularly concerning because of this confusion, the frustration mounts. Vietnam is now scaling back their efforts. If they are not contributing to the search effort, that's one nation that's not using their resources to aid in the search.

QUEST: I'm also concerned about China in all of this since most of the nationals on board are China. It will not be long before the rhetoric from Beijing becomes even more bellicose than it already is. It won't be long before China starts saying to Malaysia, if you guys aren't going to do it, we're going to do it.

PEREIRA: That's another variable we haven't considered.

Richard Quest, Mary Schiavo, we appreciate that.

It is a story we are going to continue until any trace of this airplane is found.

We appreciate you joining us, Mary as well.

We are going to continue our coverage here and go back to east Harlem and give you the idea of what is happening on the ground that has already claimed the life of one person in New York.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. One block away from a large explosion in east Harlem on 116th, between 116th and 117th on Park Avenue, one building at least simply gone, another one badly damaged, perhaps gone also. Two buildings affected by this blast, 1644 and 1646. One person was killed in the explosion. We believe more than a dozen injuries at this point.

I gave you those street numbers because of some information we did just get in from Con Edison. They just put out a statement saying that report of a gas odor at 1652 Park Avenue came at 9:13 from a resident. Two Con Edison crews were dispatched at 9: 15 and arrived just after the explosion. So let's say that again. At 9: 13, Con Edison had reports of a gas odor. Just a few doors down from where these buildings were at 1644. That building is now gone.

The report of the odor was at 1652. That gives you a sense of what seems to be the cause of these two blasts that now killed at least one person. The scene in the area, very, very smoky. Large numbers of rescue personnel and firefighters on the scene, 168 firefighters right now. They are fighting up on the ladders from the sky, trying to get a good vantage point to put the blames out. CNN producer, Rose Arce. has been up here walking around this disaster area.

Tell me what you have seen.

ROSE ARCE, CNN PRODUCER: This is a witness -- (AUDIO PROBLEM).

BERMAN: I think Rose is having a hard time hearing me right now.

There were two buildings affected again. One was a piano repair shop. The other was a Spanish, Christian church. There were apartments on temperature of both buildings. The building we know is gone was a five-story apartment building. We have been told a short while ago that firefighters were still combing through the building looking for people who might be trapped inside. We have no word on what they found from inside there. All kinds of personnel on the scene.

I should tell you we did just see a medical examiner truck drive by here. That is the type of truck with the type of personnel that would be looking at bodies. That could just be precautionary. You would imagine that those personnel would be dispatched to any situation like this. Again, the situation as far as we know it right now, this large explosion taking place around 9:30, not long after Con Edison had received reports of a gas odor.

We are going to take a break and tell you more from the scene when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PEREIRA: We're back at this hour. Chris Cuomo and myself and John Berman on the scene in east Harlem where a very serious explosion has happened in a residential area. Two buildings, one of them essentially decimated. The other one no longer there as well, 1644 Park Avenue. We are essentially looking at the area between 116th and 117th on Park Avenue. One person has died so far.

The challenge being, here, Chris, as we've been talking about with this collapse of the building, there is a lot of rubble there that the people John scene, the first responders, they can't get through quickly.

CUOMO: It is difficult. What you are looking at there right now is the elevated railway of metro north, closed with traffic both ways. Some of the explosion landed on the tracks. It also makes it difficult to get in there for these big pieces of equipment that are necessary. We do know there are some 200 firefighters on the scene and all kinds of secondary services to help. They believe it was a gas explosion. They believe that for several reasons. Con Edison did have a report of a leak surrounding residents said they had smelled gas over the last few days. It does seem as though there was some urgency to the situation. One fatality reported so far. Police on the scene say the numbers are expected to change. We'll hold off on that.

PEREIRA: We are five days into the search for the missing jetliner. They have drastically expanded the search area they are looking at. They are more than doubling it. It is adding to the grief of the families of the 239 people on that flight. It is adding to the frustration of search crews.

Tom Foreman is in Washington. He's got a look at this area. There is no clarification on the last known movements of the plane or where it is. That makes it extra challenging.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN ANCHOR: If you think about the family and friends of these more than 200 people on board there, this can do nothing but make a terrible situation works. It is getting more and more confusing. Here is what we actually know about the situation. The plane took off and left from down here and went up here and that all the transponding stopped at 1:30.

There was a turn and spotted by radar over here somewhere around an hour later. We know more about this. This wasn't some kind of tracking of it. We don't know for sure that it did turn. Authorities are now saying that's not clear either.

What we know, there is a single radar reflection over here. Why does it have the word reflection in here? If the transponder is on, it will ping. If it is off, it will not return back. The result, you cannot miss the result here. The result is a sure thing here. Look at what happens to the search area. Now, they are having to add all this other territory out here which complicates it further and further. You will have to grit it off and fly over each area until they eliminate each little cube to figure out where they are going. They are searching about 40,000 square miles right now for this plane.

Bear in mind, when the Air France plane went missing, they searched about 124,000 square miles visually. They didn't find the plane. They found wreckage right away. They knew where to look. They didn't find the plane for two years.

This job is getting bigger by the hour and more complicated by the hour and all this extraneous information is just making it worse for everybody, particularly the families who want answers.

PEREIRA: Tom, one of the biggest concerns and differences really from the Air France situation and this one, they had much deeper ocean bed that they were dealing with in the Air France loss. This one is saying it is between 200-300 to 600 feet. It is a much more shallow area but still doesn't complicate the search efforts.

FOREMAN: They had debris at Air France. They had it almost immediately. They had an idea where they were looking. We have no debris anywhere. They are not sure where they are looking.

CUOMO: This is a much bigger area. They have additional unknowns in this situation as to making very visually interesting for us. Then, you have this complication of they are not going to be the sophisticated equipment that you would assume would be there in this technological age. It is not like when the plane comes in different parts. PEREIRA: There was some of that technology on board. They know the transponder appears to be disengaged, which is a concern. That's something authorities are looking at.

We want to bring in Peter Brookes. He is former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs and a senior fellow for the Heritage Foundation.

Good to have you with us, Peter.

Five days into this search, five days after what could be a crash and yet there is no clear indication of the path of this flight. It is infuriating and troubling.

PETER BROOKES, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY, DEFENSE FOR ASIAN AND PACIFIC AFFAIRS & SENIOR FELLOW, HERITAGE FOUNDATION: There are things that I haven't ruled out human intervention, including a hijacking or terrorism. We have put aside these stolen passports in those individuals.

There air lot of bad actors that they -- the Thais broke up a plot against the Israeli embassy and Bangkok a year ago, and these individuals had come through Malaysia. If you rope China into this issue, as well, the Chinese say a Muslim insurgency, a Muslim terrorist group that has al Qaeda ties into the western part of the country. You know -- Hezbollah operates in that part of the world. There is a lot of reasons we shouldn't rule out terrorism. I don't want to be alarmist. But I mean, it's as good, as plausible information as anything else we have out there.

CUOMO: Well, also, you know that now if nothing else in this situation, while not directly related, you have learned that you have big holes. And your awareness of what happens with passport control and cooperation of different airlines and countries. And that's something that has to be addressed, regardless of its play in this particular situation.

But let me ask you, Peter, as we go forward on this, do we believe in the integrity of this investigation, do we believe there are things that have to change?

BROOKS: Obviously, it's very difficult. Breaking news is difficult. A crisis like this is particularly difficult, the United States is probably one of the best in terms of their public relations information, comes out of the government and sometimes we don't even do it well.

Now we're talking about a foreign government and they're having a difficult time getting the information out that everybody wants. Besides the fact we have no evidence, the plane could have crashed on land, it could have turned again, it could be in these amazing search areas over the water. There's so many challenges, and you could imagine that the -- I don't think the Malaysians, as respectful as I want to be, have the capacity as the U.S. government to get the information out, the investigatory powers we have. So they're under a tremendous amount of pressure. PEREIRA: They certainly are.

Peter Brooks, thank you for your voice being added to this.

We're going to keep watching the situation until we find answers and the situation in east Harlem and Manhattan about the fire and explosion that has claimed a life and injured several others.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: All right. Welcome back, everyone. John Berman, one block away from where a few hours ago there was a large, large explosion in east Harlem, New York. Two buildings, one simply destroyed. Not there anymore. The other one we don't know the condition of it. The latest, two confirmed fatalities. That number could change. We're just telling you what we know at this point. Two confirmed dead. More than a dozen people injured. There had been reports of a gas odor. Con Edison saying just before the blasts.

I'm joined by CNN producer, Rose Arce, standing amid the debris.

What is it like?

ARCE: John, it's just heartbreaking. You can see these two buildings have just collapsed into a pile of rubble. You would think this was a construction zone. There are individual bricks lying there, and there is a swarm of firefighters. I would say over a dozen firefighters that keep moving in on top of the pile, pulling out bricks, one by one, almost as if they were deconstructing like a pixie stick set. There is a plume of smoke from the center, very, very hot, appears to be on fire. You can see something golden in the center. And two hoses up on ladders shooting right into the middle.

Now, I spoke also with a woman who was leaving the scene about a half block away, absolutely hysterical. She lives on the second floor of the building that is completely collapsed. And she said that her building is residents over a church. This morning at about 9:00, just after 9:00, she leaves to go to school, says goodbye to her husband.

And as she is walking through the building, she says the smell of gas was just overwhelming. Just overwhelming. And she continued to school. She said several people were calling Con Edison, the utility company here and saying something is wrong, something is wrong. She gets almost to school and Harry's there has been a collapse. Furiously calling her husband, calls the house, calls his work, calls the neighbors. Nobody answers.

So you can imagine -- she is just so terrified of getting bad news. And as I was speaking to her, she was so overcome by the thought of her husband -- Jordy Salis (ph) is his name -- being in the second floor of the building. She just collapsed to the ground.

BERMAN: Five-story building now. We don't know how many people may have been inside at the time of the blast. We have two confirmed fatalities so far. More than a dozen people injured. Give me a sense, from -- if you can, from what you saw there, what those two buildings were.

ARCE: One of them, they believe -- the neighbors said it was a piano store, some other businesses. And something residential above that. The other building is a Hispanic evangelical church. It's tiny. It had some construction, they believe, something going on over the summer. During the summer, they had seen utility trucks, and believe there might have been work on those lines.

BERMAN: In fact, we are getting some permits, CNN has in hand, showing some gas work in the building that has been simply destroyed right now.

Two buildings now decimated. One we know for sure simply gone. Two deaths at this point to report so far. Much, much more reporting to be done from the scene here, just a block away from this explosion in east Harlem, New York.

"Legal View" with Ashleigh Banfield will pick up on this right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Ashleigh Banfield with CNN, reporting live. Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world.

I'm at the scene of an extraordinary building explosion in east Harlem in New York City. And as you can probably tell from the scene around me, there is not only a little bit of ash in the air, but a tremendous amount of smoke. This has been the scene of at least two fatalities, we are told, so far and at least a dozen-plus injuries. At this point, the count 17.