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Intensified Plan Search Comes Up Empty; Malaysia Asks U.S. For Search Equipment; Lithium Ion Batteries Among Flight's Cargo; Effort to Solve Jet Mystery; The Search for Flight 370

Aired March 21, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington. An intense day of searching so far comes up empty. We're following the latest developments in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Search planes return to base in Australia today after finding no sign of debris in the southern Indian Ocean. Improved weather conditions allowed crews to search visually rather than using radar. The search at sea is focused on two objects photographed by a commercial satellite. Australia's prime minister today defended the decision to announce the discovery. He also reiterated the objects may not be from the missing plane.

Also, Malaysian authorities now say that they're aware of news reports, the pilot of Flight 370 placed a cell phone call only minutes before the plane took off. They say they have passed that information on to investigators.

Military surveillance planes, a commercial jet, two merchant ships spent hours combing through the search area today. Because of the remote location, planes can only stay over the area for about two or maximum three hours before they have to return to their base in Perth, Australia about 1,500 miles away.

Our Andrew Stevens was on the scene in Perth when the first plane came in after a disappointing search.


ANDREW STEVENS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's day two now of the Australian-led search for missing Flight 370 deep in the southern parts of the Indian Ocean. And what we're looking at here is the first of these search planes returning, about 4:00 this Friday afternoon, after a grueling 12 hours searching. At this stage, we don't know whether they have actually seen anything but indications suggest that they haven't. Well, as we wait for the crew to get off this plane, we're going to start moving down to where we hope the pilots, or spokesmen at least, is going to make a statement on what they saw today.

But as you walk along here, this is a quite a remarkable sight. The media has actually been allowed inside the perimeter for the first time. Usually, we've been kept right outside the base. But the royal Australian Air Force has allowed the media to come in, and not only to come in, to actually -- what it looks like, get access to the pilots, to the crew. RUSSELL ADAMS, FLIGHT LIEUTENANT, ROYAL AUSTRALIAN AIR FORCE: We got out on the station today and had really good weather, actually, compared to what we saw yesterday. The visibility was great. We had, you know, better than 10 kilometers visibility. There was no rain in the area. We had really good opportunity, I think, to see anything visually out there. And for the task we had today, the conditions were outstanding.

Unfortunately, the conditions back here precluded us from staying on station as long as we would have liked, however there are a few other aircraft out there. Some Orion P-3s as well as the United States Navy P-8 Poseidon. They are out there still searching. And with any luck, we'll find something shortly.

STEVENS: So, more disappointment, as you heard there. They didn't see anything but they're still hoping that something will turn up. It's been a long and grueling 15-hour day for these flight crews, but they say they will keep going out until they do find something. And, certainly, the hopes of the families and friends of those 239 souls aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 are resting on the men and the women and the airplanes of these Air Forces.

Andrew Stevens, CNN, Perth.


BLITZER: Joining us now to discuss what we just heard, our CNN Aviation Analyst, the former NTSB managing director, Peter Goelz. Also, Aviation Analyst, and former American Airlines pilot, Mark Weiss, and CNN Law Enforcement Analyst Tom Fuentes, former assistant director at the FBI.

So, Peter, they came back empty-handed today. What does that say to you? Because these sophisticated aircraft, the P-3, the P-8, the Poseidon, the Orion, they knew where to go. They knew the location of where this debris was a few days ago but they didn't see anything.

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, it's disappointing, but it's not surprising, Wolf. I mean, this is a huge area. Even with the sighting of the wreckage, it is still a daunting task and is going to take weeks, months, maybe even years.

BLITZER: Even though they did see something that was floating now five days ago, big objects, big -- it could have been part of the plane. It could have been a container. It could've been something else.

GOELZ: And it could've been -- and it could've sunk. I mean, you know, they had rough weather there for a day and a half. It could have gone under. It's just -- and we're not clear what the currents were, where they were moving it. We think we know but we don't know for sure.

BLITZER: If the plane had actually run out of fuel, there's no fuel left on that 777, Mark, would it be more conducive to floating wreckage from that aircraft as opposed to sinking? MARK WEISS, FORMER AMERICAN AIRLINES PILOT: Well, parts of the aircraft would have floated more easily, certainly the wings because they have a lot of air compartments in there. But, you know, when that airplane would have landed or hit water, a good deal of it would have sank and come apart. And, really, what you're going to be looking at is what kind of a debris field there is which will help you determine how that airplane came apart but parts of it would still be floating.

BLITZER: Because, usually, in a situation like this, you're looking for not only a debris field, but you're looking for an oil slick, too, right? That would -- that would be a sure sign that something was going on. But if the plane was empty from fuel, there wouldn't be an oil slick.

GOELZ: There would be very little. There would be some hydraulic fuels, liquids but that's it. There's very -- there would be very little.

BLITZER: And that would disappear fairly soon.

WEISS: Yes, it would.

BLITZER: Is cooperation getting any better between the various government -- there's little rivalries, tensions in the area between a whole bunch of countries in that part of the world. Do you sense it's getting a little better now?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, I think so, Wolf. But, in this case, you have the Australians taking control of this search area near their country and I don't think they're having any issues with that, because it's Australians and Americans that have worked together closely, extremely closely. So, I don't see any coordination issue, at this time, other than being baffled by where the debris floated to in the interim five days since the satellite photographed it or as peter mentioned, did it sink?

BLITZER: The Malaysians are asking the U.S. and others for what are called these remotely operated submersibles, which I guess would be underwater drones, if you will, to see if they can detect something. Good idea to start bringing that into the area?

GOELZ: I think you need to reposition them to Australia or to another location and get ready to go. And my understanding is, the National Security Council has ordered that -- the repositioning and that it started today.

BLITZER: Because those, presumably, would be helpful in finding anything that sunk, right?

GOELZ: They can run 20 --

BLITZER: Even if it's a couple miles underneath the top of this -- the water.

GEOLZ: Their depth is virtually unlimited. And the best thing is they can work 24-7.

BLITZER: What do you think? Are they getting any closer? Is this -- was this a false hope yesterday that the prime minister of Australia, Mark, delivered to the parliament over there and indeed to the world, or should they -- in other words, should they continue this surveillance search in the southern part of the Indian Ocean?

WEISS: Well, based upon all of the facts that we know to this point, that seems to be the most logical area to search. Now, remember, the currents are going to be moving the debris around. But, you know, it's a manage -- it's a -- it's a matter of managing expectations, to a large degree. But, I think, as human beings, we want to see something and we certainly reach out to all those people on board the aircraft and their families.

BLITZER: I'm going to ask all of you to stay with us. We've got a lot more to report and assess.

Malaysian authorities now say a certain type of battery was, in fact, carried as cargo on this missing plane. We're going to tell you why these batteries potentially could pose a deadly hazard.

And later, we'll be answering your questions about the debris, the flight's path, this unprecedented search. Tweet us, use the 370QS.


BLITZER: The investigation into the missing plane is massive and, so far, there have been no major breakthroughs. Malaysian officials now confirm lithium batteries were on board Flight 370 being carried as cargo. CNN first reported this a week ago. Lithium batteries are commonly used in laptops and cell phones, but they've also been known to overheat and even explode, and they've even been linked to a plane crash, fatal plane crash, back in 2010.

Our Justice Reporter Evan Perez is joining us now. Evan, what do we know about these batteries, specifically on this Flight 370?

EVEN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we know that the Malaysian -- the Malaysian authorities told U.S. authorities last week that these -- that these -- that there was a shipment of these batteries that was on the flight. Now, they don't believe that there was anything nefarious. There was nothing -- there was no foul play suspected in placing these on there. And, you know -- but this was one of the first things that raised some eyebrows, some suspicion among U.S. officials, especially intelligence officials who thought that, perhaps, just perhaps, this could be an explanation for Flight 370 disappearing. Now, that still hasn't been confirmed. And we don't know more about what exactly this cargo was but we do know they were on the plane -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What are the regulations surrounding transporting batteries, these lithium batteries, in the cargo hold of planes?

PEREZ: Well, you know, they're very tight regulations. For example, if you're a passenger, you're not allowed to put it in checked luggage, for instance. And we know that the international organizations have issued these very strict rules for even shipping these types of batteries. Again, these are very common batteries, as you said, found in cell phones and in laptops. And we know that the --that the U.S. has some strict restrictions and international organizations do the same. Malaysians say that they have these same regulations and they believe these were packed appropriately.

Now, the -- you know, the regulations indicate that you have to pack it in noncombustible material. You have specific ways in which you can put it on the airplane. You have to label it specifically. Again, all because there has been previous problems with this. There was a 2010 UPS airliner that crashed and it is believed, believed, that the -- that there was a shipment of batteries that ignited on this -- on that plane and caused it to crash -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Have the Malaysians told us if it was a small box, a huge amount, the size of the cargo from the lithium batteries?

PEREZ: Well, they haven't said. But we do know that they turned over the cargo manifest that they -- of this aircraft to the Customs and Border Protection Agency in the U.S. so their experts can look at this and determine if there is anything that raises suspicion. What we're told is that so far, nothing else has raised any eyebrows or any suspicion about the cargo on this aircraft -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Evan Perez, thanks very much.

Quickly, Mark Weiss, what do you think? Lithium batteries, could that have been a source of some sort of fire or catastrophic problem?

WEISS: Well, you know, I don't think you could rule it out completely. But the reality is that really, probably, was not the source of the problem on the aircraft. The 777 has a great fire suppression system. And if you think about the chain of events, if the pilots had that problem in the airplane, there would have been enough time to get an emergency message out. So, it just doesn't coordinate. It just doesn't jive.

BLITZER: Peter, do you agree?

GOELZ: I agree completely. It's doesn't -- it's at the bottom of the list.

BLITZER: Because if there were a fire or something, they would immediately tell ground control, we've got a problem.

FUENTES: It scares me, because every gadget I own has lithium batteries.

BLITZER: All our smartphones and --

FUENTES: Exactly.

BLITZER: -- everything else. All right, guys, we'll take a quick break. When we return, our panel of experts will continue weighing in on reports that the pilot made a cell phone call just a few minutes before takeoff. Does that raise red flags? That story and more coming up.


BLITZER: Right now investigators from Asia to the United States, they're taking a very hard look at all the evidence surrounding Flight 370, including the backgrounds of all of the passengers and the crew members. They're hoping to uncover anything that will shed some light on the jet's baffling disappearance.

Let's bring back our panel, our aviation analyst, the former American Airlines pilot, Mark Weiss, who has flown 777s. Also our aviation analyst, the former NTSB managing director, Peter Goelz, and Tom Fuentes, our law enforcement analyst, former assistant director of the FBI.

So they say now, and you're a pilot, that they -- that the pilot in this particular case did make a phone call on his cell phone about seven or eight minutes before takeoff. What's so unusual about that?


BLITZER: That's what I thought.

WEISS: Nothing.

BLITZER: Now, here's what I -- the next follow-up though is, how hard is it to find out who he called? Because it's one thing if he called his wife and said, darling, I love you. I'll see you when I come back from Beijing. It's another thing if he made some mysterious call to someone in Somalia.

WEISS: That's right. But he could also be calling just as easily somebody saying, we're going to on time. I'll be in Beijing tomorrow. See you then for breakfast.

BLITZER: Yes. I mean why haven't they really told us? How long would it take for a company in Malaysia that deals with this cell phone to figure out -- I'll ask you, you're former FBI -


BLITZER: About 30 second or 40 seconds to find out who he called?

FUENTES: Thirty-five.


FUENTES: Yes, they would know right away who he called. They would go to that person -

BLITZER: So why don't they tell us? Why are they letting us -

FUENTES: Because they don't think we -

BLITZER: Why are they letting this hover over there? Is that this is some sinister thing. Maybe this is an innocent call, darling, I love you, I'll see you in a couple of days when I get back from Beijing. Why do - why don't they just say, he made a phone call to a friend or an uncle or a --

FUENTES: Well, it's probably one of the many parts of the investigation that they regarded as insignificant until somebody in the media put it out and gave it a sinister overtone and made it hover over us. I think that's the problem with this. And knowing that you probably had the flight attendants and everybody on that plane making their last-minute phone calls, because they're going to fly for six or eight hours -

BLITZER: Right, because once they close the door, you've got to shut off your cell phone.

FUENTES: Exactly. Right. Yes.

BLITZER: I mean if were - I mean you're an investigator. If you were in charge, wouldn't you want to check, just as a matter of routine, every cell phone call that was made from that jetliner before takeoff?

PETER GOELZ, FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: It would have been the -- one, if the first things we did when we checked the activity of the crew for the 72 hours before the flight. We would have pulled the cell phone records and seen who they called.

BLITZER: Yes. I mean that's just --

GOELZ: And it would have happened right away.

BLITZER: That's investigation 101, right.

FUENTES: Well, and I'm sure they did it. They just - they didn't see any reason to release it.

BLITZER: Who did it? You think the Malaysians did it?

FUENTES: Oh, absolutely.

BLITZER: Why are you so sure they did it because there's a -

FUENTES: Because that's just investigation 101, that they would - they would check -

BLITZER: Yes, but I'm not so sure -- they don't have a whole lot of experience dealing with a huge problem like this.

FUENTES: It doesn't have to be huge. In any - in any investigation like this, you would have cell phone - and anybody that they're looking at -- and they've been looking at the pilots from the very first day, I know that. So you would look at all of the cell phone calls, any e-mails they send. I mean that would all -- but the phone calls would be easy to check through the phone company immediately, who was called, how long was the call and then go to that person, what was the call about. Verify the nature of the call, the content of the discussion, and it's so routine that they would figure everybody knows that that's routine. BLITZER: Mark, let me just walk you through, going back to the earlier segment on the lithium batteries that were in the cargo hold. You're flying and you've flown a 777. You're a pilot. And all of a sudden there is a problem, there's smoke, there's fire from a lithium battery, a cargo containment in the cargo hold. What happens?

WEISS: Well, let's just say there's a smoke or a fire, but we don't know exactly what it's from. It doesn't really make a difference. When you get that emergency, the 777 has a great fire suppression system in there.

BLITZER: In the cargo hold?

WEISS: In the cargo hold. You're alerted immediately.

BLITZER: In the cockpit?

WEISS: In the cockpit. There are warning signs and the warning horns going off in the cockpit. And you have understand that a cockpit is a very choreographed arena. So -- and through training and training and training, one of the pilots -- and it sounded like the captain was flying the airplane -- would have said, I have the airplane, we're going to divert, you -- telling the co-pilot, you work the problem. The captain would then say, let's get this airplane down. We're going to get to a diversionary airport, whether it's a civilian or military field. But he would have enunciated that. We go back to the routines --

BLITZER: He'd tell air traffic control on the ground.

WEISS: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Immediate.

WEISS: Aviate, navigate, communicate. Tell them immediately.

BLITZER: But there are also steps that you could take from the cockpit to try to deal with the smoke or the fire in the cargo hold.

WEISS: Well, that's already being done. That's already being done automatically.

BLITZER: Is that done automatically or you have to push a button?

WEISS: No, that's actually already being done on the airplane, the fire (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: And tell us what that does. What would it do?

WEISS: Well, actually, you're taking - you're taking basically what you're doing is you're taking the oxygen out of the air over there and trying to take away one of the components that would cause the fire. So you're taking that away, getting the airplane down to minimize that risk when you're in the air.

BLITZER: And so that's why you're suspicious about this lithium battery theory.


BLITZER: That that could have been the source of -

WEISS: Yes. Nobody made a call.

BLITZER: That first thing the pilots would have done -- you agree with that?

GOELZ: I agree completely.

WEISS: Oxygen mask on.

GOELZ: The (INAUDIBLE) system would have suppressed it.


BLITZER: Your friends over at the FBI and Quantico, they now have the hard drives, I take it, the flight simulator - I don't know if it's actually physically there, but they're going through the pilot and the co-pilot's hard drives.

FUENTES: They are.

BLITZER: Do you have any doubt they'll be able to retrieve whatever had been deleted there?

FUENTES: They'll be able to retrieve anything that hasn't been overwritten, again, which would corrupt the previous file on the hard drive. So as long as the space was not reused by the computer when another file was saved, they should be able to recover it. They'll work with the -- any program that was developed privately that has its own system of saving a file, they'll deal with that company and their technicians. They'll bring them to Quantico to help them work that and try to reconstruct the files. Not all files might be reconstructed, if they were contaminated, corrupted or overwritten. So that's not a guarantee they'll get every one, but they should if that file is there.

BLITZER: Have you heard anything? Are they finding anything at all suspicious?

FUENTES: They are - they are not going to tell anybody about this. They've - I've heard -

BLITZER: Have you heard anything?

GOELZ: Not a thing.

BLITZER: All right.

Stand by. We have more to report and more to assess. Search crews, they're scouring the Indian Ocean. They're trying to find two mystery objects that were spotted by a commercial satellite. But they're up against a critical deadline. The daunting challenge. That's next. And some are in shock, some are grieving. We're going to check in on the family members who are holding out hope for their missing loved ones.


BLITZER: Welcome back.

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has now been missing for two weeks, as we head into day 15. There's still no signs of the plane with 239 people on board. The air search in the southern Indian Ocean has been called off for the day. Search planes returned to their base in Australia after finding no sign of debris. The search (INAUDIBLE) is focused on two objects photographed by a commercial satellite. Australia's prime minister today defended the decision to announce the discovery. He also reiterated that the objects may not be from the missing plane.

Also, Malaysian authorities say they are aware of news reports the pilot placed a cell phone call just minutes before the plane took off. They say they've passed that information on to investigators.

Many factors are complicating the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet. Among them, where it may have gone down. The place where the search is now is concentrated, one of the most remote and turbulent spots on the globe. Brian Todd is here getting ready to explain this very, very daunting challenge that's going on.

It is one of the most isolated spots in the world, Brian.


The Australian prime minister said it's one of the most inhospitable places on earth. He is certainly right. We've been talking to weather experts, oceanographers about this all day. This is the area, of course, that we're talking about. Almost 1,500 miles southwest of Perth, Australia. But we're going to show you something here that really kind of illustrates that this is a map of that general region in the Indian Ocean, the southern Indian Ocean here.