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Satellite Spots Debris in Flight 370 Search; Objects May Have Drifted a Thousand or More Miles in Four Days

Aired March 20, 2014 - 13:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington. There is new information coming in about the most promising lead so far in the hunt for Flight 370. Here's what we know right now, search crews from China, the United States, Europe and Australia, they are all on the lookout for two objects spotted in the southern Indian Ocean off Australia's west coast. The commercial satellite captured images of the objects four days ago. The largest is about 79 feet long, roughly the size of a 777 wing.

Austrian -- Australian, I should say, and U.S. aircraft reached the area today but so far have found nothing. Visibility was limited because of rain and clouds. But search planes are due to return in the area at sunrise, that's just about five hours from now. And a Norwegian cargo ship is continuing to hunt for the debris around the clock. Officials stress the objects may just be ocean garbage, like a container that may have fallen off of a ship. But they also say this sighting is the best lead they've gotten so far.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN YOUNG, GENERAL MANAGER, AUSTRALIAN MARITIME SAFETY AUTHORITY: Our experience is that there is debris out there from ships, for example, falling overboard and other objects of that type. On this particular occasion, the size and the fact that there are a number located in the same area really makes it worth looking at. But I don't want to speculate about what if -- what they are until we get there and we see them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Those search crews will face serious challenges, including the weather.

Jim Sciutto is joining us now. Jim, exactly where are those two objects located?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: OK, let's put it in relation to the search area that we've been talking about the last 24 hours ago. You'll remember that U.S., Australia and even Chinese resources now focusing on this area, about 1,400, 1,500 miles off the southwest coast of Australia.

Now, the debris was found just 14 miles to the south and east of there -- south and west of there -- south and east of there, I should say, right about there. And here's what we're looking at. These are the images. The larger one, 24 meters, it's almost 79 feet, the smaller one about 18 feet.

And what's interesting about this larger image here is that they also spotted smaller pieces of debris about it. They can't be sure of the size but in addition to the large one, it looks, at least the possibility, of a debris field. And we do know now that they're getting other commercial satellite, so say the Australian authorities, to look at this area again to get more images, more refined images so they can get a better sense of what's exactly there.

BLITZER: What about the other areas? Are they still searching there? Is that still going strong? Or, Jim, are the crews now being diverted to the southern Indian Ocean target point?

SCIUTTO: Well, officially, there are still areas both in the south, this is down where the debris has been found, and the north. And, in fact, Australian authorities, Malaysian authorities said today that countries all along here are still deploying assets, that Laos is looking in its territory, Thailand, Vietnam here, Kazakhstan as well, and China here. This is western China still looking at its radar data, sending helicopters and airplanes to here.

That said, really, the focus increasingly is coming down here. And here's a great indication of that. Of the 29 ships involved in the search of the northern and the southern corridor, four of them are up here and 25 of them now headed down here. That gives you a real sense of where they think that the plane might be.

Again, as you've said many times, we've said many times, they're not sure. These satellite images are grainy. But at least as they're allocating resources, this is becoming the new focus.

BLITZER: And presumably, they'll get more information as daylight begins, as I said, in about five hours over there. All right, thanks very much, Jim Sciutto.

We're going to have much more on this ocean search coming up in just a few moments.

But there's also new information coming in on the investigation of the two pilots. Authorities are examining both the captain and the co- pilot's computer hard drives and the hard drive of the captain's home flight simulator.

Our Pamela Brown has learned more about what the officials so far, key word so far, are finding out. Pamela, what are your sources telling you?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, so far, really is sort of the key phrase here, Wolf. Forensic experts are in the beginning stages of analyzing that hard drive that was taken from the flight simulator from the captain's home in Malaysia. And we're told that at this early stage, experts are confident that they'll be able to retrieve at least some of the deleted data from that hard drive.

Of course, we learned from Malaysian officials yesterday that data was deleted from the captain's hard drive on February 3rd. But the fact that we have a data deletion and the fact that there is still retrievable data on that hard drive are promising signs, according to experts I've been speaking with.

But I can tell you, Wolf, that the FBI is throwing all the manpower they have at this trying to retrieve that data. As one of my sources told me today, there's a possibility that there's someone -- there's something on that hard drive that could clue us in as to what happened. And time is really running out here.

So, really, they are putting -- they're throwing everything at it trying to figure it out. And we should know soon, at least, Wolf, if -- how much of that data that was deleted can be recovered.

BLITZER: But they're not giving you an estimate how long they think this might take, even if they bring in outside computer experts to go through those hard drives?

BROWN: At this point, I'm told by sources that outside experts haven't been brought in yet. But, again, we are again at the beginning stages. So, they're still trying to assess what kind of experts they need to be brought in, whether they need experts from the software company.

But as far as the degree of the data that was deleted, whether the captain, you know, or someone else used sophisticated software security technology that would overwrite the data and so forth, we should be able to find the degree of what it was -- of the deletions relatively soon, today, the next day, a couple days.

But as far as what's on that hard drive, that could take much longer. It could take weeks. We just don't know, at this point, because we are still in the early stages, how long it will take. But as one of my sources said, it could take some time.

BLITZER: All right. Pamela Brown reporting for us. Thank you.

Let's get some analysis on all these late-breaking developments. Joining us, our CNN Aviation Analyst, the former NTSB managing director, Peter Goelz, also our aviation analyst, the former American Airlines pilot, Mark Weiss, and our CNN Law Enforcement Analyst Tom Fuentes, a former assistant director at the FBI.

Peter, let's get back to the debris. It looks like a pretty promising lead. You studied it. You've had a few hours to digest what we've heard from the Australians. What's your analysis?

PETER GOELZ, MANAGING DIRECTOR, NTSB: Well, I think it is promising. And what's probably most promising is it's in the location that the NTSB, the FAA and the Australians all agree is the most promising spot. So, we've got to get out there. We've got to get a look at it. It's been in the water four days plus since the satellite took the images. So, they're going to have to use some tracking to figure out where the ocean currents and the wind was moving it. But it's a step in the right direction.

BLITZER: You -- are you -- do you see it as a promising lead, too, or one of the -- because there have been so many false hopes, false clues over the past couple of weeks.

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I see it as promising and something they have to devote their resources to, but it's still such a tough job. They have to, again, find the debris that's now drifted another five days since it was photographed by the satellite. And then, even if they find it, then figure out going back 14 days, maybe, of the actual original crash. Where in the ocean did that plane crash if the debris is sitting now in this site thousands of miles off the coast of Australia?

BLITZER: And let's not forget, Mark, when they found the initial debris from that Air France crash in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil, they found initial debris five days into the search but then it still took two years to find the flight data recorder, the voice recorder. Two years.

MARK WEISS, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: And it really just goes to the difficulty of this search team what they're going to have in front of them. Certainly that past experience should give everybody hope that there's opportunity to find that aircraft, the debris field and hopefully they'll be able to put this to rest.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting the way the Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, discussed this, because he spoke to the parliament in Australia about it. That's a big deal. He didn't just make some sort of tentative announcement. I want you to listen precisely to what the prime minister said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY ABBOTT, PRIME MINISTER, AUSTRALIA: New and credible information has come to light in relation to the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 370 in the southern Indian Ocean. 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)

BLITZER: And so, Peter, you know, that's a pretty strong statement. He seems to be fairly confident that this might be the real deal. Do you think it's wise to raise those kinds of hopes right now before they know for sure? Or should they have waited to get definitive word that this is debris from the plane?

GOELZ: I think there's a great deal of pressure to move this investigation forward. And I don't think the prime minister would have made those statements if the ministry hadn't assured him that they thought this was a pretty live issue. So, I'm hopeful that this is going to turn out positive, that this is going to be part of the plane and this will be the beginning of the ability to find out where it went down.

BLITZER: And it won't -- it won't tell us, even if it's the debris, how the plane wound up there or anything. They've got a lot more work to do --

GOELZ: It's somewhat --

BLITZER: -- after that. But it would be a very, very significant moment in this mystery to be sure. Guys, we're going to continue our analysis of what's going on. Out in the middle of nowhere we'll take a closer look at where the debris is, if it is the debris possibly from the missing Flight 370. And later, we'll be answering your questions about the debris, the plane's flight path, the unprecedented search that's going on. Tweet us. Use the hash tag, 370QS.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It's being called the most isolated place on earth. Let's go deeper into this area where this debris has been found. Debris that may -- we don't know if it is but may be part of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Our Meteorologist Jennifer Gray is tracking this for us. Lots of moving parts, Jennifer. Give us an idea just what this area is like, what the ocean currents specifically are like.

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, this is not a very forgiving part of the world. You have a lot of moving parts. You have very strong winds. You have very strong currents. It's a very deep, deep part of the world as well.

Well, this is the search area right here. You can see it's just north of the west Australian current. Now, that current moves at about a foot per second. Right now where the search area is not much current at all. So, this is actually a best case scenario. If it can just stay put where it is and have nothing move it into that west Australian current, they can get better visibility. They can get to the spot. See if that indeed is the plane. And that would be the best case scenario, Wolf. Because if it does get into that west Australian current, it is going to be bad news and very hard to find.

BLITZER: It certainly will be. What about the weather right now? I understand there are storms, strong winds, waves, that's really hampered this search in that specific area.

GRAY: Yes, you're exactly right. They had a front move through yesterday. That's why we keep hearing the visibility was low, a lot of clouds in the area, rain, that has pushed out. Now this area is known for very, very strong winds. But luckily as we move to the next 48 hours, we're not planning on winds. Any higher than, say, 15 to 25 miles per hour. That's great news.

We're also looking at our exclusive CNN forecast model and still showing the same, 15 to 25-mile-per-hour winds is about maximum as we go through the next 48 hours. Beyond that of course things could change. But right now looking good. This is that front that we were talking about pass through. Visibilities should be much, much better, Wolf. Sun should be rising. By 8:00 our time. And so should have good visibility as we go into the next couple of hours and they can get those search crews out there. BLITZER: Jennifer, thanks very much.

Let's go back to our panel, our aviation analyst Mark Weiss and Peter Goelz, and our law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes.

You know, Mark, you're a pilot. One of the things people have noticed if in fact this is debris from this airliner, it would have -- it would be -- it would correlate, it would basically correspond to where the flight could have run out of fuel if it had flown that entire six or seven hours.

MARK WEISS, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Yes, absolutely. You know, I think what's been done is they've taken the amount of time it would have normally gotten to Beijing with the alternate fuels that it would have had and now re-projected that on a southern path. And given that, given the winds at the time, this is the most probable area that this would have been in. So I think all of that coming together really kind of focuses the attention and now put the resources there.

BLITZER: And some have suggested even if it were cruising on automatic pilot, let's say the pilots were disabled for whatever reason, runs out of fuel, it could still glide for a while, too, before it actually went into the water.

WEISS: Yes. Aircraft are inherently stable. But obviously gravity is a very, very large pull. So had that scenario been the case, then the aircraft would have kept flying. But it would have glided and it would have had a fairly decent glide angle. And that distance would have increased.

BLITZER: Does this tell us -- let's say this is the debris, Peter, from the plane. Does it give us an indication whether it was a mechanical failure or a human being that caused this?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: It does not give us an indication yet. We need more information. We don't know why this aircraft ended up in that position. If it ends up in the South Indian Ocean, why did it go there? We just don't know yet. And we're not going to know just because we got some surface --

BLITZER: We really not going to know until they find those flight data recorders or the voice recorders, the so-called black boxes which are really orange, but they still call them black --

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Even then.

BLITZER: Even then. Why do you say even then?

FUENTES: Because the voice cockpit recorder will have been written over if the plane stayed in the air that much longer, they're not going to be able to go back and listen to what was happening in the cockpit at the time the transponder --

BLITZER: Could have been turned off.

FUENTES: It will be -- they'll have the last two hours of the plane --

BLITZER: They'll still have a lot of data.

FUENTES: They'll have data. They'll tell you that the plane went up, down or sideways, it won't tell you who made it go there or why or what was being said to each other in the cockpit as to why --

BLITZER: But that data would be very useful. You're an NTSB investigator --

GOELZ: It would be truly useful. But this -- it really raises the issue with what Tom said. We need to have these data -- data recorders and the voice recorders looked at again. Longer batteries so that they can be recovered over a longer period of time, longer time on the voice recorder. Should be a 24-hour period.

BLITZER: Why don't they have that? What's the problem?

GOELZ: Well, there's been a variety of oppositional positions. Pilots don't like it. That's the main reason.

BLITZER: Well, that's not a good reason.

GOELZ: Well, it's a tough one. It's their work environment. They believe that the voice recorders intruding on their work environment and they've made some very persuasive arguments.

BLITZER: Yes. I mean, you could make the case of bus -- school bus drivers have a video camera on them all the time. Why shouldn't pilots who have hundreds of people at risk, you know, have a camera in there as well?

GOELZ: Absolutely. And you know, there's enormous protections on who gets access to the voice recorder. That can be extended to video recorders. It's seldom violated. I think it's time to extend the voice recorders beyond 30 minutes.

BLITZER: I think I agree with you on that one. All right, guys, standby. We've got much more to discuss.

Searching for clues in a remote part of the planet, we're going to zero in and try to discover how satellites actually work now that Australian searchers have images of possible, repeat possible, debris from the missing airline.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: It may take some time to find out if those two pieces of debris are in fact parts of the missing Malaysia Flight 370. Australian officials made the discovery using satellite but how does this really work?

Brian Todd is here taking a closer look.

How do these searchers determine that this is actual debris from this airliner if it is? BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's a fascinating process, Wolf. I just spoke with Tim Brown, he's a satellite imagery analyst for the group globalsecurity.org. He says when they take these satellite pictures, they download them to a ground station, then they put them through this sophisticated computer program called Change Detection Software. On that software after that kind of comes through the -- that software, they look for contrasts, white or bright images against the dark of the ocean.

And you can kind of see that with those pictures there. Now, you know, it's a painstaking process, it takes some time. That's why it's taken about four days for us to see these first, but it is a fascinating process. And, you know, he says that the group Digital Globe, a Colorado-based satellite operator, they have said that the satellite imagery that the Australian cited came from them.

Tim Brown says that Digital Globe would have taken this, analyzed it and then sent it to the Australians who would have gone over it frame by frame, pixel by pixel and he says the Australians probably would have seen something of slightly higher resolution than what we're seeing in the images we've received.

BLITZER: Why wouldn't --

(CROSSTALK)

TODD: Slightly higher.

BLITZER: -- a better quality resolution? Why don't they just release that instead of something that in effect dumbed down?

TODD: Well, I think what we got indications of is it may be a matter of national security that there's some government regulations saying that they have to, I guess, fuzz it over a little bit for public consumption. So that may be part of the equation here.

BLITZER: When the Chinese released their satellite images that turned out to be a false --

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: -- alarm about a week or so ago.

TODD: That's right.

BLITZER: It looked fuzzy. Not as clear as the original --

TODD: That's right. They're probably seeing something a little clearer, but Tim Brown says it may not be quite as much clearer as you may think. It's just a little bit clearer.

BLITZER: In the end will it just come down to getting a piece of that metal, whatever it is, and taking a look at it and seeing if it's -- if it's from an airliner or it's a container?

TODD: Right. BLITZER: That may have fallen off some cargo?

TODD: They are very likely going to have to physically find these two pieces of debris, whatever they are, and eyeball them, see if they can see them. Now they will be able to send submersibles down, take pictures, use some sonar, so that technology will be available as well. But it's going to be a matter of getting there and getting to that debris. And now they have the dilemma of maybe the debris's moved, they couldn't see it because of the weather a few hours ago. So they've got some challenges.

BLITZER: I'm sure the debris did move. It's four days old.

TODD: That's right.

BLITZER: Those pictures are. All right, Brian, thanks very much.

TODD: Sure.

BLITZER: As Brian mentioned an American company says it provided the satellite imagery that the Australian officials used to make what could, repeat could, be a breakthrough on this unprecedented search. We're going to have more on that angle, that's coming up later this hour.

Also coming up, we'll talk to a guest about how difficult it may be to find the wreckage of the missing plane.

Meantime, the families of the passengers, they are demanding answers as they wait and they hold out hope.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)