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Search for Flight 370; Crisis in Ukraine

Aired March 17, 2014 - 05:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news this morning, the search intensifies for Flight 370. Thousands of miles being scoured to find this passenger jet that's just seemed to disappear from the sky.

Now, new questions about the pilots on board. Could they have purposely shut down the plane's communications before steering the flight off course? We have live team coverage covering all the angles with the latest developments from overnight.

ROSA FLORES, CNN ANCHOR: Plus, breaking news in Ukraine. Crimea voting to secede from the country and join Russia. This morning, the world refusing to recognize the landslide vote.

What's next for the people of Ukraine, and will Russia fight to create an addition to its country? We are live with what you've missed overnight.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Rosa Flores.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. It is Monday, March 17th, 5:00 a.m. in the East.

First to the breaking, new developments in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. This weekend the mystery, it deepened, as Malaysian officials finally admitted that this jet with 239 people on board was flying for many hours after its crew last spoke with air traffic controllers. And they believe it was turned deliberately off course. The search area has expanded again deep into Kazakhstan and south into the southern Indian Ocean. Authorities are now looking into every passenger on the plane and the flight crew, a 53-year-old captain and his 27-year-old 1st officer. This weekend, both of their homes were searched. Investigators removing a flight simulator from the captain's home.

There are so many questions this morning. It is 10 days after that jet first disappeared.

We're going to talk to Jim Clancy right now in Kuala Lumpur. Jim, what's the latest?

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the latest right here is we're expecting to get a briefing by Malaysian authorities while investigators continue their probe of the pilots, their probe of all of the passengers as you describe. Some people beginning to wonder how it is that the flight crew would have allowed the pilot to veer that far off course, if it indeed was the pilot and not some other problem on board the aircraft.

So, there are a lot of questions here today. There are questions coming from the families, mostly the Chinese family members who are searching for their loved ones, hoping to see them again, blaming Malaysia's government as well as the airlines for not being forthcoming with the details, for leaving the search last week focused for so long on the South China Sea, when radar records by the Malaysians themselves clearly showed that the plane had left the South China Sea on route to the Indian Ocean.

So, all of these things add up. While the search continues to expand, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, Japan, the United States and other countries all offering up aerial resources for reconnaissance, trying to cover much of that southern quadrant there, the countries like India and Pakistan saying that we have searched our radar records, we have no trace of this aircraft.

We're still waiting to hear from a number of countries as they try to eliminate the possibilities here. We're not in a position to pinpoint the plane, to look for the positive. Many times in this investigation, at least at this point, John, they're going to have to settle just to eliminate some of the possibilities that did not happen.

BERMAN: No, rule things out. That can be crucial in any investigation.

Jim, there is a new report in "The New Strait Times" suggesting that these pilots were doing something called terrain-masking, flying below 5,000 feet. Explain to me what that means and what you're hearing about these possibilities.

CLANCY: All right, possibilities. There is the correct word. We have talked with at least one of the investigators very close to this probe who has told us he, too, is pursuing possibilities, but these are theories about the flight. Could it have lowered its altitude in order to avoid radar? Did it rise above 40,000 feet in order to incapacitate the crew and the passengers, to render them unconscious?

There's all kinds of questions and theories that are being probed right now as they try to determine what possibly could have happened. What can we eliminate as a possibility? What is physically possible? What is physically impossible?

Some of these theories about the altitude are based on radar records that everyone knows can be notoriously inaccurate. Inaccurate because the plane was so far from the source of the radar, getting an accurate reading on altitude simply isn't that good -- John.

BERMAN: All right, so as of now, that report from "The New Strait Times," no confirmation of that whatsoever. Just one of the many things right now that investigators are considering as they try to piece together what limited facts there are in this investigation.

Our thanks to Jim Clancy in Kuala Lumpur.

FLORES: And as we mentioned, investigators are taking a very close look at the two men who were flying this jet, searching their home over the weekend and asking, why did that captain have a flight simulator for his own personal use?

Saima Mohsin has been looking into that part of the story.

And, Saima, can you hear me? Are you with us?

Oh, there she is.


FLORES: Tell us what's the latest this morning regarding the pilots. We know that their homes were scoured over the weekend, that flight simulator was found. What are you hearing?

MOHSIN: Yes, that happened right across the weekend. What we know is that patrol cars were visiting both the pilot and co-pilot, the 1st officer's house, for the past week since the disappearance of the Flight MH370. They were visiting every day, but they hadn't gone inside the house.

Now, Saturday was when things changed, when we first heard that the investigators are going back, they are reviewing every single person on board. Of course, that would be the crew and the passengers. And of course, the two crucial people who were flying the plane that night it disappeared, the pilot and co-pilot.

We caught them just as they were leaving the co-pilot's home. They were holding shopping bags, actually. We're not sure what was inside. I questioned them, why are you here, what were you looking for, are these people under some kind of particular investigation? They wouldn't answer us. They would simply say "no comment."

That was Saturday. We understand they went back again Sunday, and we know that Sunday police rebuilt this flight simulator. This crucially was found in the pilot, Captain Zaharie's home.

They have rebuilt this flight simulator. They are now taking a look through it. They are still taking a look through it today. They've been doing that for the past two days.

We're not sure what they're looking for, we're not sure what they're finding so far, but they are trying to piece together, if there is, indeed, anything on that flight simulator that might give anything away.

Here's what I know about it. I've spoken to a friend of Captain Zaharie, Peter Chong (ph). He told me that, look, this is something very normal, you know, don't worry about it. This is a flight simulator that's been built by an aviation enthusiast.

Captain Zaharie loved his job, he wanted to bring it home. He invited friends over to have a go on this flight simulator. It was nothing he was hiding. And in fact, he used to practice different scenarios and talk about them with his friends, trying them out in snowstorms, landing in difficult terrain.

And so, one poignant piece, Rosa, is that he said that apparently, Captain Zaharie said I love setting myself these challenges, but in real life, it's never that tough -- Rosa.

FLORES: You know, we know little of the evidence, like you mentioned, the other evidence that was recovered from that home, other than the simulator. What about interviews with family or friends or acquaintances of these two people, of the pilot and the co-pilot?

MOHSIN: Yes, they've both had their families -- sorry, investigators have spoken to both their families. We understand both on Saturday and Sunday, police have spoken to them both. We haven't seen anything of the two families since the disappearance of the flight. Obviously, you can imagine, they must be incredibly distraught and disturbed by the disappearance, not knowing what's happened to them.

I've been speaking to friends, family, next of kin of all the passengers here at various hotels that they've been put up in here in Kuala Lumpur, and you can just imagine the psychological trauma they are going through. So, some of them describe it as an emotional roller coaster.

What we do know about the families is that Captain Zaharie was married to his wife, Faisa (ph). They had three children, two sons and a daughter in her 20s who still lived at home. The sons lived away from home. One of them was married and he had a grandchild, which apparently he doted on, according to his friend, Peter.

Now, the other 1st officer, the co-pilot, we know much less about him, but we do know that he still lived at home, he was in his late 20s. He lived at home with his parents, which is not uncommon in Malaysian culture and society here. And that he was also just starting out in his career, really.

But what I -- what I learned is that the neighborhood was incredibly proud of him. They said, you know, we had a pilot amidst us, and we all hope that that he comes back home safely. In fact, they've been holding regular prayers every night -- Rosa.

FLORES: All right. Saima Mohsin live for us in Kuala Lumpur. We appreciate the perspective. Thank you.

BERMAN: Want to get more perspective on the investigation from Steve Moore. He's a former supervisory special agent with the FBI. He oversaw investigations into al Qaeda. He's also a pilot. He joins us from Los Angeles.

Steve, I want to start with the Malaysian investigation right now, the fact that it took them a week to take possession of that flight simulator and go through it, the fact that they didn't scramble jets to trace those radar pings that was passing over Malaysian air space one week ago when that flight disappeared.

How confident are you right now in the quality of this investigation?

STEVE MOORE, FORMER FBI SUPERVISORY SPECIAL AGENT: I'm not very confident at all about the quality of the Malaysian investigation. I've done investigations in that region years ago on al Qaeda cases, and there is a tendency to jump to conclusions and to ignore the obvious.

What I'm seeing here is a lot of speculation on their part that they're coming out with as fact. You know, it was possibly terrain masking, or it went to 45,000 feet to incapacitate passengers. It's conclusory and it's inaccurate.

BERMAN: You mentioned the terrain masking. There is a report this morning in "The New Strait Times" suggesting whoever was flying that plane was flying below 5,000 feet, something called terrain masking. Explain to me what exactly that means, why someone would do it, and whether you think that's a credible lead to be following right now.

MOORE: Well, the reason you would terrain mask is -- you can fly down low enough to where the radar horizontally can't see you. It's kind of like losing your cell phone signal. But there's really no way that I'm aware of that they can pick up the altitude on that plane once the transponders turned off. So, it's wild speculation, I believe.

BERMAN: One of the other things that's developed over the last few days is this notion that the ACARS System, one of the flight tracking systems, the data transmission systems, was shut down before the last vocal contact, before the pilot said, all right, goodnight. What does that tell you?

MOORE: Again, it's speculation, because what they're saying is, they're giving an intent, a motive, a conclusion to an act that they've seen. Something turns off, something ceases to work, and they don't say it ceases to work. They say it was intentionally turned off. Well, I don't know that you have any way of knowing whether power was disrupted to that equipment or whether a hand came up and turned the knob.

So, I think they're making a lot of conclusory statements that are confusing the issue and leading people off into different tangents.

BERMAN: You, of course, spent a lot of time with the FBI right now. What do you think the frustrations are that the FBI might have, if you were working on the investigation, what would you be trying to do to go down your own investigatory path, also on the other hand, to break through to Malaysians to get them to accept more help?

MOORE: I've lived this before during the bombing of the JW -- the investigation of the bombing of the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, just across the street. We couldn't get permission to bring as many FBI agents as we needed to properly investigate. The Malaysian -- I'm sorry, the Indonesians couldn't process the crime scene. We had to depend on the Australians.

And then we find out that they were holding information back from us. So, I can't describe the level of frustration and how it really makes it almost impossible to conduct an efficient investigation.

BERMAN: You're a pilot as well. You know, what strikes you right now about what we're hearing?

MOORE: What strikes me is that it seems to me to be hard to -- I mean, there's no explanation as to why an emergency locator transmitter hasn't gone off in the plane crashed. And at the same time, there is no explanation for me on how you can land a plane with 239 people on board, a 777, and not have somebody notice or see something.

So, one of the two things is an anomaly. You either have a bad ELT or you have some kind of weird situation where it's on the ground and people have been able to hide it. I personally don't believe that it's safely on the ground. I believe the other scenario is more likely.

BERMAN: Steve Moore, thank you so much for being with us, helping us to dissect this a little bit and understand the investigation and the frustrations involved with this investigation right now.

Hopefully, we'll check back with him in a little bit. Appreciate it.

MOORE: Any time.

FLORES: There is a lot, of course, that we don't know, but we do know there were 239 people on that plane, including three Americans, but most were Chinese nationals, and their anger at the airline and the Malaysian government is growing by the day.

Pauline Chiou is live in Beijing with that part of the story.

Pauline, good morning.

PAULINE CHIOU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Rosa.

There is so much frustration among these family members here in this hotel behind me. We're going into the second week of this mystery, and to be perfectly frank, they are just dumbfounded at the way this investigation has gone and the many directions it's gone.

Now, earlier today, we were in this hotel, and the video that you're looking at is of tempers flaring yesterday as relatives are trying to get answers and as also they were responding to a suggestion by Malaysia Airlines that they might be able to go home and that Malaysia Airlines would pay their return journey home. That was taken as an insult by these family members.

Now, today, the relatives are going to be attending another briefing this evening, so we're waiting to see what happens there. But earlier, one father of a passenger spoke with journalists. His name is Mr. Wen, and he was very critical of the Malaysian government.

He said Malaysia talked nonsense and lied, which delayed the search. "We want an explanation for this." This is totally different from a plane crashing or having some sort of a problem, he says. "They've cheated us and made the disaster worse."

That is a sentiment that many of these families feel today on this Monday in the second week. And keep in mind, Rosa, many of these families are not only from Beijing, they're from all corners of China. They had to fly in from two, three hours away, and their lives are in limbo. They have no idea when they're going to check out of this hotel and find out what exactly happened to that plane -- Rosa.

FLORES: So many things in limbo, including their emotions because of their loved ones, because they don't know where their loved ones are at this point. Thank you so much, Pauline Chiou, live in Beijing for us.

BERMAN: So sad.

FLORES: So incredibly sad. How do you start to pick up the pieces when you don't know anything?


FLORES: Still ahead, much more on the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian jetliner Flight 370.

But first, breaking news out of Ukraine. Crimea voting to leave the country and join Russia. Right now, Crimea's leader is heading to Moscow, an emergency legislative session being held, and of course, the world is watching. We are live next.


BERMAN: All right. Breaking news, Crimea this morning waking up to a new reality and new tension between Russia and the West. Residents there voting overwhelmingly to leave Ukraine. More than 96 percent, an almost impossible figure, saying yes in a referendum.

This provoked a strong response from President Obama, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin and promising the vote will not be recognized, at least not by the United States.

Michael Holmes is live in Simferopol this morning.

Michael, what's the feeling there today?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's the morning after the night before, John, I think you can say. The square behind me, Lenin Square was heaving with people celebrating a referendum result that was also predictable. It's very quiet here today, cold and blustery and a public holiday and virtually no one down there now, probably digesting what comes next.

The Crimean parliament has been meeting in emergency session. They're trying to work out what they're going to do. They're going to send a delegation to Moscow. Meanwhile, E.U. foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels, the U.S., too, considering its options when it comes to sanctions. One of the big things, of course, is how do you do this? You've got to combine two places, really. Eighty percent of Crimea's border comes from Ukraine -- all of the electricity, the gas, the banking, the education system. All of this is going to take a long time to sort out. It will also be very expensive. And the Russians are going to have to pay for it, and their economy has its own pressures.

As for the people, John, well, they're just waiting and seeing, too. They had their party, now they're going to have to see the reality of what it's like to be Russian. I was talking to an older gentleman earlier who's lived through a lot of changes here. He said living in this part of the world is like being on a street car. He said there's one driver and the rest of us bounce along behind -- John.

BERMAN: That's one way to look at it. Today a new round of diplomacy or sanctions will begin. Michael Holmes from Crimea, thanks for being there. Appreciate it.

FLORES: And, of course, the disappearance of Flight 370 is not the first time that an airliner disappears, and there are many conspiracy theories brewing.

More on some of the conspiracy theories, next.


BERMAN: All right, we are following breaking news from Malaysia, where authorities have once again expanded the search area for Flight 370, which has now been missing for 10 full days. Investigators now looking for this jet from Kazakhstan all the way to the southern Indian Ocean.

FLORES: And, of course, it's hard to remember a time when a huge passenger jet simply disappeared with seeming no indication of what happened, zero, zilch, nada. That's fueling a lot of conspiracy theories and very few answers.


BRAD MELTZER, "HISTORY DECODED: THE 10 GREATEST CONSPIRACIES OF ALL TIME": It's almost like the pilot episode of "Lost," and that's the scary question, right? How does it vanish? We have to remember, that makes it a mystery, and mysteries, like any stories -- a story isn't what did happen, it's what could happen. And of course, we all know the facts are all not there yet, but you know, when I talk to our investigators who we use -- and my favorite one who we work with -- she pointed out two things to me, which I think bear repeating here, which is, you know, one of two things happens. It's not just how did it vanish, but how did it stay quiet this long?

So, one of two things has happened. Of course, either the plane has crashed in the ocean and everyone on board is gone, or if they're still alive, how do you keep it quiet? I think that's the scariest part to me, which is what happens to these people that it's not just that they've vanished, but we haven't heard anything in all this time, because we all know how impossible it is, and it's where every conspiracy falls apart, how do you keep everyone quiet?


BERMAN: A lot of new questions and we will have more on the mystery of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The new developments overnight, the search intensifying.

We're back right after this.