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Mystery of Flight 370; Pilots Changed Course While In Contact with Air Traffic Control; Crisis in Ukraine: Brink of War?; Ukrainian Forces Authorized to Self-Defend

Aired March 19, 2014 - 04:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking institution overnight. The search, the mystery intensifying for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. New clues suggesting the pilots may have changed course while they were still in contact with air traffic control.

And this morning, reports of a new area of focus in the search for this plane. We are bringing you live team coverage on the latest breaking news overnight.

ROSA FLORES, CNN ANCHOR: And also breaking overnight: could Ukraine and Russia be on the brink of war? The fight over Crimea turning deadly, as Russia warns the rest of the world that any country that gets involved will face consequences. We are live with what's happening and the very latest overnight.

Good morning, and welcome to EARLY START. We're glad that you're with us. I'm Rosa Flores.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. Good to see you this morning. It is Wednesday, March 19, 4:00 in the East.

And we do begin with the latest in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 now missing. Now, CNN has learned that the plane's computer was likely reprogrammed to make a turn at least 12 minutes before the co-pilot radioed air traffic control saying, "All right. Good night." And it seems like a very significant point now in the timeline.

The question being this morning: is this a possible sign of some kind of foul play in the cockpit? At the least, it looks like some kind of deliberate action in the cockpit.

The search has grown to roughly the size of the United States, nearly 3 million square miles.

CNN's Jim Clancy who's been in Kuala Lumpur for us so long, tracking all the latest developments.

Jim, let's now start with this new timeline -- word that the computer may have been reprogrammed before the point of last local contact.

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it seems significant on its face. It would point a finger once again towards the cockpit crew, one or other of the pilots on board that aircraft. But at the same time, some aviators would say for a pilot to put in some coordinates that would take him to the nearest place if he had an emergency. Then, in that case, this is just prudent action.

Here's somebody that's charge of a plane-load of passengers. Some aviation do that as a regular course of action. Once he would get beyond going back to Kuala Lumpur, he might pick another location that he wanted to transit to, or it could be a sign of something more sinister.

We need evidence to sort that out. And in order to get evidence, you need the plane. The Australians were really out in action today, coordinating, as we had three aircraft, very advanced U.S. Navy Poseidon P8 was on the scene, as well as an Australian Orion P3, and a New Zealand Orion P3, a number of ships were out there. They've been communicating with merchant vessels, trying to get them to join in the search as they transit to some of these areas that are really southwest of Perth, approaching Antarctica.

So they have started in that end of the search where investigators believe would be the farthest that plane could go on the southern arc. Start there, work their way in with the Indonesians in the north. Still some stalls with the Indonesians, trying to get other nations' search craft up and in the skies.

The race is on. We're in day 12. They need to find some trace of Flight 370.

BERMAN: The map of that search area, Jim, so interesting, as you point out the southernmost point on the southern end of Australia. "Reuters", the news agency, is reporting today that seems to be the area of the greatest focus now. And as you say that would be the farthest point they believe that this plane could have flown, given what they know.

CLANCY: Yes, and it's also the most logical place for the Australians to begin. I think the plan was always they worked this out with the Indonesians, but the plan was always the Australians would venture it in from the other end. It is such a vast area, though, and it takes so much fuel of these planes to get out on station, and begin their search in the suspect area, that they're not able to do as much as they would probably like.

There are limitations. There are complications. There's bureaucracy, there's all kinds of problems that they're confronting. But you've got hundreds of people in the air and on the ground that are searching for this missing airplane today -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Our thanks to Jim Clancy in Kuala Lumpur for us this morning -- thanks so much.

FLORES: And if you're wondering how some countries are reacting, hear this -- Israel has stepped up its air defenses amid fears someone may have flown this jet north into Asia and landed it, with plans to use it in some sort of attack. CNN national security analyst Fran Townsend, a former homeland security adviser to President Bush, tells CNN's Bill Weir that scenario is unlikely.


FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: If you look at the northern route, would have had to skirt very close to the Pakistan/Indian border, probably the best air defenses in the world. You also would have been very close if not over the United Arab Emirates, which also has incredible air defenses.

I mean, I'm not sure where that takes you. I mean, I can't imagine that it could have navigated that far, skirted all those air defenses, and the theory is you landed where, in Iran? To load up with some sort of weapon.

But in fairness to Israel, I mean, it's a tiny country, it's not as though -- you know what I mean, they take this air defense system very seriously because they don't have a lot of time to react. And so, until you know where the plane is, do you know it's in the Indian Ocean, until you've accounted for it, it's in some ways given their own security (INAUDIBLE), it's understandable that they would simply go to a heightened state of alert.


FLORES: Also this morning, how they continue to ask how no one on the ground witnessed anything when this jet disappeared.

Saima Mohsin this morning is in northern Malaysia, talking to someone who says they think they saw Flight 370 flying low over the Gulf of Thailand.

She joins us over the phone.

And, Saima, tell us what these people are saying?

SAIMA MOHSIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Rosa, I'm in the northeast Malaysia, in a two called Kota Bharu. Now, these are fishermen. They were out in the night fishing, someone had hired their boat, (INAUDIBLE) people. They had fallen asleep fishing, when two of the fishermen were looking out to sea, they are approaching the South China Sea when they say they saw a low-flying aircraft.

They said it was so low they describe to me that they saw the lights that looked like the size of coconuts. They said we turned to one another in complete shock. And said, what on earth is going on, one said, is the pilot crazy, what's happening here?

So I spent the morning out at sea with them. We went not the boat. They showed me, they talked me through exactly what they saw. And they went back, they told their colleagues and their families. And then someone said you should report this to police.

I asked them, why is this so unusual, because where they were out fishing, Rosa, is along a usual flight path. This is where international airliners fly out of Malaysia, heading towards the path that, of course, Flight MH370 was first taking from Kuala Lumpur and, of course, there's a lot of international and domestic flights going on there.

He said this is incredibly unusual. I have never seen a plane flying so low.

They reported it to police and it was only a few hours later that they learned about Flight MH370. And that is why they decided to talk to us.

Now, we checked out the times, Rosa. Now, they reported this happening at 1:30 a.m. That is, of course, around about the same time, shortly Flight MH370 made its last known location clear and identified itself as MH370 on those radars and those systems that we've been talking about for the past days.

Did it turn around shortly afterwards? Well, we believe that it did. That's what investigators are telling us.

And, also, Rosa, one other important fact about this town Kota Bharu where I am right now, could have they been facing difficulties, could the plane been turning back to the Kota Bharu airport? This is an airport that has low runways, 2,400 meters. That's almost 7,900 feet and (INAUDIBLE) 777 jets from landing -- Rosa.

FLORES: Now, one of the things that's fascinating about this, Saima, is the details that they're able to provide. And how investigators are using this information in this investigation, where we know that there's been a lot of criticism of the flow of information.

What are these people telling you? How were they interviewed by authorities and how was this information used? And has this information been even released out to the public from the investigators?

MOHSIN: Well, this is the big question. How much are the dots being connected, Rosa?

We come out on our own, of course, to speak to them for ourselves to try and corroborate the information. One thing I must point out is that we cannot confirm whether that plane they saw was MH370. But if we try and connect the dots, yes, it was 1:30 in the morning. Yes, they were out in the South China Sea between Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Now, that is the exactly the time we know MH370 to have made contact with the radar identifying itself as that aircraft.

So, their story does match up with what we know as where Flight MH370 was, and, of course, various agents telling us it was flying low.

Now, they have reported to local police. Local police have taken police reports from them. We're trying to get ahold of that and speak to police. They haven't been forthcoming so far. We are hoping to speak to them later on this evening, perhaps.

But have they reported this to investigators in Kuala Lumpur? And it does seem to be a lot of confusion as to how this kind of gathering of information is working whether they are bringing this information from various sightings and people reporting and adding up the dots themselves?

But we are on that trail for you. We are trying to check this out for ourselves. And I've been out there at sea today to find out exactly what they believe they saw -- Rosa.

FLORES: Saima Mohsin live for us in Malaysia -- thank you so much with fascinating details this morning.

BERMAN: Really interesting to hear that perspective.

All right. Eleven minutes after the hour.

There were three Americans on Flight 370, including Philip Wood, an IBM employee who was returning home to Beijing after a trip to the United States. His partner tells Anderson Cooper she does believe the jet was hijacked. She believes Wood is still alive.


SARAH BAJC, PHILIP WOOD'S PARTNER: And I don't have any expertise in flight, planes and satellites, but I have intuition, and I have a feeling that they're still alive. And common sense to say, you know, if I was a terrorist, what would I want to do? I would want to protect the valuable assets on the plane because that would be the leverage point.

So, you know, if we spent so much energy looking into motives and potential places where that plane could be hidden, you know, maybe we'd be coming up with different answers. But the reality is, whoever has done has been successful. I mean, they have fooled all the experts and all the governments in the world. They have made a very serious point.

But I think they can accomplish their goals without hurting people. Because, you know, in the end, in the end, the families and the god of whoever is doing this could forgive them creating this crisis. You know, it's a terrible thing that they've done, but I think they couldn't forgive if they took innocent lives.

You know, I'm just hoping, I'm hoping, and I'm asking please to not hurt the people on the plane. You know, find some other way to accomplish what you're trying to accomplish. But don't hurt the people. Let Philip come back to me, please.


FLORES: Some tough details there.

Now, I understand that we have Pauline Chiou who has more details about the families.

BERMAN: We do.

Listening to the partner of Philip Wood there, you'll remember that so many people here are affected by this, so many families.

Pauline Chiou is in Beijing for us. She has been covering the families that are there, majority of the passengers on this flight are Chinese. That's where so many of them are in Beijing.

And they are just praying for any kind of answers, Pauline. Even I understand they're now threatening a hunger strike unless they get more clarity?


BERMAN: All right. We seem to have lost Pauline Chiou. We will go back to her again, as I was saying, she is in Beijing, with the families, where so many of the passengers are. They've been demanding answers from Malaysia and Malaysian Airlines, and not completely satisfied with what they're getting. Some now threatening a hunger strike until they find out more.

FLORES: And we, of course, will continue to follow the breaking developments on the mystery of Flight 370 all morning long.

But first, Ukraine authorizing its forces to shoot after a deadly attack on a military base. They're vowing to keep Crimea from leaving the country. Could war be looming?

We're live after the break.


FLORES: Welcome back. It's 17 minutes past the hour.

Breaking news this morning in Crimea where Ukrainian forces have now been authorized to fire in self-defense, after a soldier was killed when armed men stormed the military base near Crimea's capital. It's the first military death since Russian forces marched into Crimea last month. And those armed men who attacked were apparently wearing Russian uniforms.

This just adding to get confusion over the fate of Crimea now that it has signed a treaty with Russia, formally making it part of Russian Federation.

Frederik Pleitgen is live in Moscow with the latest.

And, Fred, we're hearing reports Crimean protesters may have broken into the fence into the navy headquarters in Sevastopol. What are you hearing this morning?


Yes, we're following those developments as well. And it seems as though there was a protest in front of that naval headquarters there in Sevastopol that started at around 8:00 a.m. local time, this morning, and at some point, the several hundred pro-Russian protesters broke through the front gate of that naval headquarters. What they did then is stormed inside. They took down the Ukrainian flag and then they raised the flag of the Russia Federation and the flag of the Russian navy.

And what we're hearing about the situation as it currently stands is that apparently there's negotiations going on between the pro-Russian protesters and the Ukrainian military personnel who are clearly outnumbered in the situations is, of course, one that's very dangerous because of yesterday, the Ukrainian forces were authorized its forces on the ground to use force if they are under attacked. This would be clearly one of those situations.

It seems as though, however, at this point in time, cooler heads are prevailing there in this very chaotic situation. As you said, it's really unclear which country Crimea belongs to. The Russians say it is now theirs. The Ukrainians say it is still theirs.

But the Russians say they consider the Ukrainian forces on the ground there to be occupiers, they want them to get out. It's a very difficult situation, nevertheless, the Russians are pushing ahead, moving forward the legal process to annex Crimea, even in spite of sanctions put on them by the west. And of course, also the threat of further sanctions that, for instance, Vice President Biden has been talking about in his current visit to Europe, Rosa.

FLORES: You know, I talked to a Ukrainian-American family last night to talk to them about what was going on, just to get their reactions. I know one of the first things they asked me is one of the things they're very afraid of is that this means that Russia would be moving into eastern Ukraine.

What are you hearing on that side? Does it stop in Crimea or continue into eastern Ukraine? I know that's one of the big fears.

PLEITGEN: It is one the big fears. And, you know, the short answer is no one knows at this point. Vladimir Putin yesterday held a big speech where he announced that Crimea would be part of Russia. And in that speech, he also said that the Russians don't intend to further move into Ukraine.

The language they speak on the ground however seems to be a very different one. They are amassing forces on the eastern border with Ukraine. There's been gigantic military exercises going on. The Ukrainian government has been ringing the alarm bells and saying they believe an invasion might be imminent.

Again, the Russian foreign ministry said that's not what they intend to do. However, they also say they reserve the right to protect what they say are pro-Russian citizens in the east of Ukraine. So, it's very difficult.

But the bottom line here, Rosa, is that the Russians certainly don't fear any sort of intervention from the West. They don't fear the U.S. in all of this. They believe that with them taking over Crimea, that the U.S. has blinked, that Europe has blinked, and that they are now in charge of the situation.

Certainly the sanctions that have been put on them, if you look at the reactions that have been coming in over the past 24 hours, Russian politicians mocking these sanctions. And the Russian parliament asking for other members of parliament to be put on America's sanctions list because they consider it an honor to be sanctioned by America.

It certainly shows they are in no way of any fear of any sort of retaliation, certainly any of economic kind from the United States, Rosa.

FLORES: All right. Frederik Pleitgen, live us from Moscow -- thank you so much.

BERMAN: Twenty-one minutes after the hour right now.

We're following the breaking news overnight. New clues in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. A new time line of what happened in that cockpit just before it vanished.

One expert pilot, he will offer his theory. You haven't heard this one. That's coming up next.


FLORES: We are following breaking news this morning in the investigation into the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. CNN has learned the flight computer was reprogrammed to make a turn at least 12 minutes before the co-pilot said "all right. Good night" to air traffic controllers, pointing again to possible foul play in the cockpit.

The search area for this jet now tops 3 million square miles. That's roughly the size of the United States.

BERMAN: Now, there have been a number of theories in what might have happened to this plane, what might have happened to the cockpit. Some people with theories or experts including former pilots.

Barry Schiff was a TWA pilot for 34 years. He thinks that the simplest explanation could be the right one. That the reprogramming, that the turn was the result of pilots trying to deal with some sort of problem on board.


BARRY SCHIFF, FORMER TWA PILOT: If you have a serious problem aboard a jetliner like a fire, one thing you're going to want to do is get on the ground as soon as possible. And turning back toward Malaysia, toward a large airport is the first thing I would do. The most imperative thing is to take care of that fire. The last thing you're going to do is communicate unless you have the time to do it because no one on the ground can help you. Now, I seriously doubt that anyone would try to land a jetliner in the ocean at night, without lighting. Imagine hitting the water at 100, 200, 300 miles an hour. It's going to make that airplane just splatter into pieces.

The ocean is huge, and I simply don't think that they found it yet. I don't know that all the ocean has been looked at yet. I kind of doubt it. My guess is, and it's strictly a guess, that they will find pieces of this airplane some place soon.

It's very possible that they were working their asses off, doing the very best they could to overcome a very difficult problem and became overcome by perhaps a fire, perhaps smoke. From everything I've seen about these pilots, they were pretty sharp guys.


BERMAN: It's one of possibilities. We just don't know until we find any trace, any signs, any clues from the plain itself.

FLORES: And there's a lot of pieces to this puzzle and we're following all of the new clues and the new leads on the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Live team coverage, next.