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EARLY START

Flight 370 Objects Possibly Found

Aired March 20, 2014 - 04:00   ET

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


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Breaking news this morning in the mystery of Flight 370: debris spotted. The question now, is this the breakthrough we have all been waiting for?

Australian officials reporting two objects, two objects possibly related to that missing jetliner, have been discovered in the Indian Ocean.

We have live team coverage, as only CNN can, breaking down the very latest on the investigation and on how the families are reacting this morning.

ROSA FLORES, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm Rosa Flores, in for Christine Romans.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. It is Thursday, March 20th, 4:00 a.m. in the East, 1:00 a.m. out West.

We like to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. And we do begin this morning with the breaking news.

Day 13 in the search for Flight 370, and there may finally be a breakthrough. That is the hope, at least, this morning.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announcing that debris has been spotted in the southern Indian Ocean. Two floating objects, one of these objects 78 feet long. The question is: could they have come from the missing jetliner?

Listen to what Abbott told reporters just a few hours ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY ABBOTT, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has received information based on satellite imagery of objects possibly related to the search. Following specialist analysis of this satellite imagery, two possible objects related to the search have been identified.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: That was Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott speaking before the parliament there. These are the actual satellite images of those two floating objects.

Again, remember, one about 79 feet long. These are the objects raising some hopes that some sign of Flight 370 has now finally been found.

As I said, CNN covering this like only CNN can, from all the key points around the globe. Let's get the latest now from Andrew Stevens live in Perth, Australia.

Andrew, about 1,400, 1,500 miles from where this debris has been spotted.

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. It is a four-hour flight from where I'm standing. I'm at the Pearce Air Force Base, just on the outskirts of Perth, in west Australia. It is a four-hour flight to get to that zone where these objects have been found. They've only got about two hours on target time before they turn around and head back for the four-hour return flight.

Now, we know there are four aircraft involved in this. Four surveillance aircraft, comprising Australia, New Zealand and U.S. assets, and the first flight understood to have gone out about 6:00 this morning. So, it should be coming back fairly soon.

These flights, we're being told, were diverted, obviously, to this area where these objects were found. The Australian prime minister, as you say, is coming out and saying this publicly, briefing the parliament, which does suggest that this evidence, which he describes as credible, indeed could be that link we have been looking for after so many days.

Now, the head of the actual search, the coordinator here in Australia, he says it's the best lead they have so far, but we need to put all this in context with an enormous amount of caution still. Yes, it's a strong lead, but comparatively speaking, we've had so few leads.

And this is what the prime minister himself had to say about urging caution.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ABBOTT: And we must keep this in mind -- the task of locating these objects will be extremely difficult, and it may turn out that they are not related to the search for Flight MH370. Nevertheless, I did want to update the house on this potentially important development.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEVENS: Now, what's needed here is eyeballs on this debris. Yes, you can get radar on it, and we heard, through Twitter, actually, that a crew from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation out in the U.S. P8 said their radar had picked up objects, big objects, in the area where that debris was seen.

But you still need eyes on it. An Australian warship has been diverted there. It's going to take days to get there. There are commercial vessels in the area. We don't know yet whether or who has been diverted into that search area.

Remember, where this debris has turned up is actually beyond the southern end of the search sector, so it is in a new area. It's going to take a little time, quite a lot of time, actually, for people actually in vessels to get there, John.

FLORES: Now, Andrew, when it comes to getting eyeballs on the scene, like you mentioned, talk about some of the difficulties, whether it be weather or whether it be sunlight, to get at least the aircraft hovering over these pieces of debris.

STEVENS: Well, it's just about everything you care to mention. You mentioned two there. There's about four hours of daylight left in that target zone, and there has been planes circling that area for several hours now. They're going out in stages. This is a staging post, so they're going out in staggered intervals so they can have at least one plane on target at any one time for several hours.

The weather is not playing its part. Visibility has been described as poor. The actual sea conditions are moderate.

Again, the search coordinator's saying, don't be surprised if we don't actually see anything today. They have narrowed the search area down. They're narrowing it down even further, but we're still talking about a big, vast, expansive sea.

You know, this is one of the most remote parts of any ocean on the planet, so they're going to be up against that. They're going to be up against weather. Just like I said, just the sheer distance from anywhere, getting a vessel out there, getting people with binoculars to look at exactly what those objects are, picking them up, bringing them on board and then identifying these as parts of Flight MH370.

They're going to have to find some identification marks as well. If they don't, it's going to make that task all the more difficult.

BERMAN: Andrew, this is John Berman again. As we said, the biggest object believed to be about 79 feet long or wide. It is fairly large. So, hopefully, they can get a look at one of those objects. You're looking at how they appear in the satellite imagery.

Andrew, you were talking about this area that they're looking at right now, where these objects had been found. Talk to me more about that.

You said one of the most remote areas in the ocean, some 1,400 to 1,500 miles away from Perth, where you are right now. How deep is it there? Are there any islands around? Because the sense we get here is this is simply really in the middle of nowhere.

STEVENS: Well, exactly. You're heading into the southern longitude. Just to put it in the context, Perth, which is the closest sort of state city to this area is itself the most isolated state city in the world. You have to fly more than 1,000 miles to actually get to another state city in Australia. It gives you an idea of the remoteness of this area. Not just the remoteness, either, it's the depth of the Indian Ocean around this area. The Indian Ocean is a very deep body of water. We're talking averaging 12,000, 13,000 feet. That's the same sort of depth of Air France -- the wreckage of Air France was retrieved from, and we all know how long that took.

So, this is a much more remote area of the southern seas. It's deep. It's getting towards deep south. It's actually south of Perth, where I am, and Perth is quite a long way south on the Australian continent.

So, John, you just don't have that maritime traffic, you don't have those busy sea lanes or, indeed, air corridors either. So, they do face problem after problem after problem.

But they do have a lead. They have some very, very sophisticated devices. The U.S. are here with their most sophisticated surveillance planes, the P8s, the Poseidons, these long-range P3s. They're all workhorses, but they've been rebooted several times and they've got some pretty strong technology on board.

So, technologically, if they can be found, you've got the right assets on the case.

BERMAN: Yes, you do. And in fact, commercial satellites are now being redirected to take pictures of that area. As Andrew's been saying, planes now going back and forth as frequently as they can, ships on the way, literally from space, from the air and now from the sea trying to search this area.

Our Andrew Stevens in Perth, Australia, we'll come back and check in with you in just a little bit. Thank you so much.

FLORES: Getting eyeballs on these pieces of debris, like he said, one of the most important things right now. And we want to move on.

So, every lead is hope. That's how one Malaysian official reacted to the news of the debris sighting in southern Indian Ocean. The Flight 370 families have already been briefed, and the Malaysians have dispatched six navy ships and three helicopters to assist with this search.

Sara Sidner is tracking the latest developments live from Kuala Lumpur.

And what can you tell us this morning?

SARA SIDNER, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Rosa, we know there was a phone call that was made from Australia to the prime minister here in Malaysia, and basically telling him this new information that they called new and credible information, that these objects were found in the southern part of the Indian Ocean and that they were hoping but did not know for sure, whether or not they were related to this missing flight.

What we do know is that conversation took place, and the Malaysian officials reacted to it, sending out very cautious statements, basically saying, look, the Australians themselves have not yet found this evidence, and until they do, until they're able to find these objects that were spotted by satellite, there is no guarantee that they have anything to do with MH370.

Very, very cautious, because as you know, these families have been put through this before. There was the oil slick at the very beginning that people talked about might be from the plane. That turned out not to be true. There were the satellite images that China released. Those turned out to be not true, had nothing to do with the flight and it was an accident, actually.

But I want to let you listen to what the acting transportation minister, Hishammuddin bin Hussein, said when we asked him about these satellite images that Australia said they had and shared with the Malaysian government.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HISHAMMUDDIN BIN HUSSEIN, ACTING MALAYSIAN TRANSPORTATION MINISTER: Every lead is a hope, and we have been very consistent. We want to verify, we want to corroborate. We are in the process of verifying and corroborating --

REPORTER: Have you seen the images?

(CROSSTALK)

REPORTER: The Australians now --

REPORTER: Have you seen the images yourself?

HUSSEIN: No, I have not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SIDNER: So, you see, very, very cautious language there.

What I do want to mention is something that you just talked about, that the Malaysians seem to be taking this very seriously, sending six ships and three helicopters to the southern Indian Ocean -- Rosa.

FLORES: Now, a quick question. While all of this is going on out of the southern coast of Australia in the Indian Ocean, what happens to all of the other leads that these investigators have been working on? They've been chasing lots of leads. They've been looking into the pilot, into the co-pilot, into all of the crew and passengers.

Does that stop or does that continue while eyes are focused on the Indian Ocean?

SIDNER: No, no, I'm sure that those lines continue. Everything is going to continue, and all the theories and all of the investigation will continue, but a lot of the focus is going to shift here.

Obviously, Australia's focus has shifted. They've got all of their assets looking at this particular area, because they believe they may have something, not just because the satellite imagery, but also because the NTSB had made the search smaller, made the area smaller, and it's within the area that the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board had talked about there might be possibly a clue there.

I also want to mention what Malaysian Airlines is doing for the families. And the families, you know, have been through hell, basically, trying to get information and feeling very frustrated. This has gone on so long, almost two weeks.

They will not be sent to Australia, according to Malaysian Airlines, unless and until it is confirmed that these objects have something to do with the missing flight, nor will Malaysian Airlines send representatives until it's confirmed that these particular images are actually from Flight MH370 -- Rosa.

FLORES: All right. Sara Sidner live for us, thank you so much.

And, of course, they're being very cautious, because when it comes to these families, the emotions they're going through is just unbelievable.

BERMAN: And they're being cautious, because frankly, these Malaysian authorities and officials leading this investigation have had so many missteps along the way here. So I think they want to be careful now, even though these signs provide so much hope to so many people.

FLORES: Absolutely.

Now, an Australian official says that one of the two objects floating in the Indian Ocean is 78 feet long. So, what exactly do these satellite images actually show, and why do authorities believe they represent a solid lead? Listen to Australia's maritime safety chief.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN YOUNG, AUSTRALIA'S MARITIME SAFETY CHIEF: The objects are relatively indistinct on the imagery. I don't profess to be an expert in assessing the imagery, but those who are expert indicate they are credible sightings. And the indication to me is of objects that are reasonable size.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: All right. We are now waiting, obviously, for more word on what those objects might be. There are planes flying overhead as we speak, ships on the way.

These are the satellite images now everyone is looking at, that the Australians spotted. The Australian prime minister went before his parliament today to announce that they had been found. He believed they were so significant. I want to talk about this satellite technology. I want to talk more about those pictures.

So, let's bring in John Blaxland. He's a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Center at Australian National University. He joins us from Australia this morning. And, John, let me talk to you about these images. My understanding is those actual pictures were taken on March 16th, days ago. But what's the process of going through these images before you determine there could be a reason for hope?

JOHN BLAXLAND, STRATEGIC AND DEFENCE STUDIES CENTER: Well, that's a good question. You know, the data from the imagery is now several days old, and it's understandable, really, because it takes a long time to sift through the data. It's really hard to pick out something that in the photo you can see is actually just below the surface of the water, and it's not clear exactly what it is.

And you mentioned before, 78 feet? Well, you know, we know that ISO containers are 20 feet or 40 feet, and sometimes they're 80 feet. So, maybe it's slightly out.

It is conceivable that it's an ISO container. So, if that's the case, then unfortunately, it may not be as positive an outcome as we've all been hoping it might be.

But in looking at the analysis that's been done on this photograph, that data is from a pretty grainy picture. And if you think about it, that satellite is a long way up in the sky. It's being taken from an incredible distance, and it's a massive, probably a massive photograph that's been taken.

And the guys have zoomed in and zoomed in to look at the various, you know, various color indentations or various changes in tone on the sea surface to get any sense of there being some kind of flotsam or jetsam that could be or would be part of the Boeing 777 aircraft that's been disappeared for nearly two weeks.

BERMAN: Talk about the satellite taking the image right now. Is this Australian intelligence? And how long do you think it will be until we get a better picture? Will that come from one of the planes flying overhead?

I understand commercial satellites are now redirecting their cameras.

BLAXLAND: Well, you know, there's a variety of different satellites that could be used, but the problem is, at the moment, with the poor visibility, there is no guarantee we're going to get a better image any time soon. Those aircraft that are flying out there, they're the best equipped we've got, and with the U.S. Navy, Australian air force and New Zealand air force flying out there, they've got state-of-the- art equipment to do the job.

The problem is, it's really -- you've got to find it. And let's not forget, the water, the ocean currents will shift that flotsam and jetsam along, so it's not where the photograph was taken on the 16th of March isn't where it is today. It's moved since then, and they've got to actually locate it.

We haven't done that yet, and we don't even know if it's still there or sunk below the surface even further, and you know, is no longer detectable. So, there's a lot of ifs there. The guys are trying very, very hard. I'm sure, to do their best in identifying it.

But with poor conditions -- don't forget, this is in what we used to call the roaring 40s. If you remember the trade stories of the 19th century, this is howling winds caused lots of storms. So, this is a particularly choppy body of water. And as you heard in the story before, it's a long way from anywhere.

And the other thing is, nobody thought that you really needed a lot of satellite imagery of this part of the world. I mean, who goes there for crying out loud? You know, this is not a popular place to be.

And certainly in terms of priorities of satellite collection, this has been very, very low-order priority. For Australia, the focus has been very much to the north, and that's because of political issues and with concerns about people smugglers.

It's an understandable priority that the Australian government's placed on its capabilities, even though it has had this over the Jindalee -- Horizon Radar Network, or JORN, that could easily take pictures out into the Indian Ocean and conceivably could have followed the track that might have given an indication, but when it's such a low priority and when you've got a limited number of analysts, limited resources and they're on higher priority tasks, the chances are that there was very little to come from that Jindalee Operational Radar Network to give the lead.

Now, thankfully, the satellite image that we've got has given us a lead. The question is, can the aircraft that are there now give us a better one? I'm not sure. Let's have our fingers crossed, hope that that's the case, hope and pray that that's the case.

But let's be realistic as well. This may not be fuselage, and it may not possibly be located in the end.

BERMAN: Right now, what we have is those satellite images, are those satellite images, and we are awaiting some of the flights that have been flying over the area to get back to the Perth area so we can see what images they have.

John Blaxland, thank you so much for helping us understand the technology behind those pictures that we've all been glued to all morning.

We, of course, are continuing to follow the very latest in the disappearance of Flight 370. The jetliner has now been missing for 13 days, and this morning, what we've been talking about, debris, some debris of wreckage. It could be part of that plane. We just don't know yet. It was found some 1,400 miles off the coast of Australia. Planes headed there right now.

We have continuing, live coverage right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BERMAN: Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone, in our breaking news coverage in the search for Flight 370.

The news this morning, Australian authorities have spotted two objects floating in the south Indian Ocean. They did this using satellite imagery. They've been sending jets now to locate and identify, try to identify this debris, some 1,400 miles off the coast of Australia, off the coast of Perth.

They want to confirm whether this debris is connected to the missing jetliner. An Australian official says the objects are bobbing up and down in the water. You can see, these are the actual satellite pictures -- amazing that they can spot that in there. One of those objects is 78 feet long.

FLORES: You know, as I look at these photos, I don't know if you went to those crowd sourcing Web sites, but I know I did, and I remember seeing stuff like this. So I wonder what other information they had to go by to actually identify these, because literally, when you see them with the naked eye, they almost look like nothing.

So, it's really interesting. And I'm hoping we can ask that question to someone here coming up, because we've got a lot of experts.

BERMAN: We do. One of our experts did tell us that he does believe what is so remarkable about these images is you can see something even under the water as well, so that may be what has them so excited this morning.

FLORES: And of course, we've been following how the families are doing, the families of those 239 people on board Flight 370.

The last 13 days have been pure agony. Loved ones have stormed news conferences and threatened hunger strikes, demanding answers from the Malaysian government. Now, they may be getting some of those answers.

Our coverage of the search for Flight 370 continues now with Pauline Chiou on the phone from Beijing.

And, Pauline, how are those families doing this morning?

PAULINE CHIOU, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): They're not doing well, and there's this tense atmosphere in this conference room here at the Lido Hotel in Beijing. There's a tentativeness. There's a fear of what this debris might mean.

They've received this new lead with mixed emotion because in their mind, the fact that no debris had been found was actually a sign of hope that maybe they could find this plane somewhere with the passengers on board, but they are getting realistic as we're going into day 13.

Now, you showed a clip of that news conference from Australia. I was in the ballroom, in this conference room when that news conference was going on. Many families started trickling in because they heard about it, they heard about the debris. And as John Young from the Maritime Safety Authority was speaking, I was looking around the room. These family members were tense, they were worried. They sat up in their chairs, they leaned forward. They were hanging on to every word of the Chinese translation.

I heard a few people sigh very heavily. I saw one couple holding hands. And I took a look around the room and looked at their faces. You just saw concern, fatigue, empty looks on their faces.

Rosa, they just are emotionally exhausted at this point. And I had asked one relative after the news conference, what do you make of the information that came out with this debris they've seen on satellite? And he just said, I can't think about anything, I just can't think. I can't digest it. I just am waiting.

FLORES: I bet they're just numb at this point because of the rollercoaster of emotion.

Pauline Chiou, thank you so much for that update.

BERMAN: They've been through so much now, and for them, still very much a waiting game as those planes, as we get more images of this debris now floating some 1,400 miles off the coast of Perth.

We are covering every angle of this.

As this is happening, the investigation very much continuing. FBI agents examining the flight simulator that belonged to the captain. Data from that hard drive, as we now know, was deleted over just a month ago. They're trying to retrieve that data.

Could it be something that they need to unravel the mystery? We're waiting on that as well.

I want to talk now, again, about this search right now, about the debris that was spotted. Let's bring in former pilot and aviation consultant, Alastair Rosenschein.

He joins us now live from London.

Alastair, thanks so much for being with us.

These images that we've been looking at all morning, Australian officials say that one of them is as big as 79 feet. Does that sound consistent to you with something that could be a piece of this plane?

ALASTAIR ROSENSCHEIN, AVIATION CONSULTANT: Good morning, John.

Well, 80 feet would pretty much be one-third of the length of the fuselage of the aircraft, or indeed, from wing tip to wing tip. Whether or not those pieces float is probably outside of my sphere of expertise, but they are certainly the sort of size that could conform with the 777 aircraft that had broken up.

BERMAN: One of the things people are discussing right now is the possibility that many pieces of debris could have floated together, because after all, we are some 13 days after this flight disappeared.

Alastair, this search area they're now focused in on, some 1,400 miles off the coast of Australia where this debris has been spotted, this is below, beneath, further south than the southern-most point in the search arc where they've been focused on for the last few days. What does that tell you?

ROSENSCHEIN: Well, the point they were focusing on searching was the first most likely point. If they didn't find anything there, they would probably move on to another area.

But it's always been my contention right from the very beginning this aircraft was probably to the west or southwest of Malaysia in the Indian Ocean. In fact, I even stated a line between Madagascar and Australia. There's some very good reasons for saying that. But it is based on the theory, speculative theory, that it was a pilot incapacitation and the aircraft would continue flying on autopilot.

So, the fact that this debris is to the south, the aircraft would have run out of fuel some 12 days ago. So, it's had 12 days to drift on the ocean. Let's take a current of just 4 knots. That would be at least 1,000 miles from where, if this is debris from the aircraft, where the aircraft might have gone down. So, that doesn't surprise me in the least.

However, there would be other pieces of debris. We know from previous aircraft that have hit water that you get seat cushions in particular that float. So, they will want to look on their satellite data for even smaller objects that are floating around. Obviously, the best thing to do is to get some ships there or low-flying aircraft that can get in close with digital cameras.

FLORES: Alastair, I want to tap into something that you said. What if this plane did run out of fuel? At that point, what happens? Is there a possibility for the pilot to land this plane somehow on water and get the people out of the plane, or does it crash into the water? Can you walk us through that?

ROSENSCHEIN: Well, let's be very clear about this, the aircraft would not have been in that location had the pilots had control of the aircraft, had they been conscious and had they had the desire to save their lives and land somewhere. So, I would go on the premise that if the aircraft went down there, it was uncontrolled and ran out of fuel. And in fact, that is -- you know, that location is consistent with the full length of time the aircraft could fly with the fuel load it had.