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EARLY START

New Clues in Search for Flight 370; Hunt for Landslide Survivors; Obama Attending Hague Nuclear Summit

Aired March 24, 2014 - 04:00   ET

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


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking overnight, 17 days after Flight 370 went missing, a Chinese plane spots suspicious objects off the coast of Australia. As we're learning more details this morning of what happened on board that jet, we are live with the very latest on the search, the investigation and what the families this morning are saying.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN ANCHOR: The death toll is rising this morning after a landslide buries homes near Seattle. Rescuers hold out hope as they try to get through a square mile of mud to find any survivors.

ROMANS: Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans for you this Monday morning.

FEYERICK: And I'm Deborah Feyerick. It is Monday, March 24th, 4:00 a.m. in the East.

ROMANS: Nice to see you.

Let's begin this morning with a potential breakthrough in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, missing now for 17 days. The crew of a Chinese plane reportedly spotting suspicious objects in the southern Indian Ocean. Now, according to China's news agency, they include two relatively big objects and then some smaller ones. A Chinese icebreaker said to be heading on that area. It comes as we're learning more about what may have happened in the cockpit of Flight 370. Military radar indicates the Boeing 777 dramatically changed altitude, flying as low as 12,000 feet after turning off course and disappearing from radar.

A source telling CNN that sharp turn was executed so quickly, it was likely intentional. Now, the Chinese plane is one of 10 aircraft back in the air combing the Indian ocean, and weather, weather could be a factor today.

CNN's Andrew Stevens live in Perth, Australia, for us.

Andrew, first, let's start with these suspicious objects. We have seen now three countries' radar spotting something relatively large floating in the search area. What do we know about these suspicious objects spotted and whether they could be part of this missing plane?

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What we know at this stage, Christine, is pretty much what you've been describing. Two relatively large objects and several smaller objects in a radius of several miles. Now, I was talking to one aviation expert, and he said that could indicate a debris field.

What we can say at this stage is that this is another piece in the jigsaw. We don't know what the full picture's going to be of this jigsaw. It might be a bank, it might be when revealed fully the location of MH370.

But it all fits. It's all moving in a similar direction. Satellite pictures first from Australia, two days later, the Chinese picking up also satellite pictures. A corporate jet two days ago picking up a debris field or several small objects in the sea, and now this latest sighting of more objects, two significantly big objects and several others around it. It's all pointing to an area. Remember, this is all in the same area, in the target search zone.

Add to that the Australian prime minister's comments that there is some hope, at least, that there may be a line finally being able to draw under this mystery, but we've got such a long way to go still. Those two Chinese aircraft that's been patrolling that zone which saw these objects, Christine, are now back at base here in Perth. Other military planes have been diverted to that zone. We haven't heard back whether they've been able to pick up anything at the moment.

Important to remember, too, this day, this fifth day of the search over that deep southern areas is very much about visual, eyes on, which means the weather becomes critically important here, and the reports we're getting today is the weather is getting worse, the cloud is low, in some areas down at sea level, making visibility, obviously, very difficult. This is going to hamper the search, Christine.

ROMANS: We'll talk more about that weather, because that is something that searchers did not need right now. They need to be able to see what's out there. They need to be able to deploy assets to find it. They need to find those, you know, those so-called black boxes. We need information from what was happening in that cockpit and to the engines of that plane.

Tell us a little more about the weather and what we're expecting. Will it hamper -- will it hamper the search at this point?

STEVENS: Well, the weather remains worse, bad and getting worse, basically. There is a big, tropical system, a cyclone system to the north, quite a long way to the north, Christine, which we're just hearing from search headquarters in Cambria, on the other side of the country to where we are in Perth, that is not affecting -- that's not affecting the picture. But what we can say is that the pilot reports we're getting back is that it's bad, it's difficult to see, and --

ROMANS: All right, we've lost Andrew Stevens, as you can see. But he was just bringing us up to speed on what tropical cyclone-related weather pattern not far from the search area that likely is going it hamper things. So, that is the latest wrinkle in this jigsaw puzzle.

Pieces don't seem to go together. Each new piece we get makes the search that much more challenging.

Now, the U.S. is committing additional resources to the search. And NASA right now is using satellites to try to take additional pictures of the Indian Ocean. It could take a couple days before the satellites are repositioned. The Navy is sending sophisticated listening equipment to the search zone.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OFFICER DAVID LEVY, USS BLUE RIDGE: Locator and locating the black box. Basically, this is highly sensitive equipment that is used. It's towed down at very slow speeds on a commercial vessel down to depths of about -- it can listen down to depths of about 20,000 feet, listening for the ping coming off the black box, which is going to be critical in helping out in the investigation.

It's a difficult task. The Indian Ocean is a very large area, and we were trying to follow -- you know, we go to every lead that's out there in these identified search areas. We're dedicated to the mission and we'll keep going as long as we're need out there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FEYERICK: Well, word that the plane dropped as low as to 12,000 feet before disappearing from radar. It's raising new questions about what happened inside the plane's cockpit and why.

CNN's Jim Clancy is live for us in Kuala Lumpur.

Jim, a big question, do you think that it shows the pilot may have been trying to bring the plane down to a level where the passengers could breathe, the atmosphere shift? Is that one of the theories they're looking at right now?

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They're looking at all of the theories. There's no doubt about that. Because look, they as early as 48 hours after this plane went missing, we had authorities right here in Kuala Lumpur telling us they looked at the data and they saw what they thought was a turnback. Maybe the pilot was trying to return to Kuala Lumpur.

That's how sharp the turn was. It was almost, almost 180 degrees, but it doesn't explain a lot of things. We don't know what it means, what was going on in the cockpit. What Andrew Stevens is reporting, trying to find this plane, that's going to get us an idea of why, but we can track the radar.

There's a source telling CNN today that they believe he dropped down to 12,000 feet, or someone in the cockpit dropped down to 12,000 feet.

I know there's a lot made of did he purposely turn? Well, of course somebody purposely turned. You know, somebody had to steer the plane on that course. It maintained that course for a while, then it turned several more times, heading into the Indian Ocean. That's on the radar, that's documented, that's why the United States moved its assets towards the Indian Ocean, through the Andaman Sea, through the straits, the Malacca Straits.

All of those things make sense from the radar data. They've gotten it confirmed with radar from Thailand. The Vietnamese were able to help a little bit. The Indonesians said they couldn't turn anything over.

You know, from the outside, I've got to tell you, this investigation looks stalled. Now, that's -- maybe they have something and they're not telling us about it, but we've cleared the pilots, we say, we've cleared the passengers, we say, so who could have hijacked the jet?

If it was a mechanical failure, how could this aircraft go on and fly for six hours, if it was that severe, knocking out all communications and all of these other problems, how could it continue to fly for six hours and maneuver at the same time? Many unanswered questions. The key to them all is to find the flight data recorders.

Back to you.

FEYERICK: And that's -- you're absolutely right, because obviously, without the flight data recorders, the only thing that investigators have to go on is information that they're getting from questioning people who are associated with this, but also, there's the issue of if that plane turned, is it because the flight was reprogrammed, which the Malaysian authorities are pulling back from, or is it because somebody breached that cockpit?

But there is no additional information on any of that right now, correct, Jim?

CLANCY: Well, you know, we have the theories is all that we have. We know the plane turned. Not a problem.

Did it turn because the pilots set in a waypoint, to go to that waypoint, make that turn, then go on up into the Andaman Sea, north of the Malacca Straits? You know, we can't answer that because we don't know what happened inside the cockpit.

Was he trying to get the plane down on the ground in order to save the passengers, get them down on the ground before some kind of catastrophic failure caused the plane to crash?

The plane didn't crash, we know that. The plane continued to fly for another 5 1/2, 6 hours. And because of that, the whole theory of a mechanical failure is put in doubt.

You know, the U.S. investigators from the very start have focused on the pilots. Why? Because it's a coincidence too far is the way one of the Malaysian investigators put it to me, a coincidence too far that you sign off with Kuala Lumpur air traffic control, and before you sign on with the next air traffic control, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, then you make your turn, then you disappear, your transponder goes off. All of these other things happen.

It is suspicious, and the investigation is focusing there. But what they're learning, well, maybe we'll find out. We've got a press briefing coming up in less than 90 minutes time. So, we hope by then to be able to tell you something -- Deborah, Christine.

FEYERICK: No question. With all the theories that are out there, obviously, they're looking -- they've got pieces.

ROMANS: Right.

FEYERICK: Just got little pieces of data they're trying to make sense of.

ROMANS: And every single one of those pieces doesn't seem to fit together and that's why it's so difficult to put together a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces aren't connected and we really don't -- it could be something we've never seen before in aviation. So, we're trying to piece things together with prior history, and it's very challenging.

And for the families of the 239 people on board flight 370, this has been an agonizing, awful waiting game. Still no word on the fate of their loved ones 17 days now. And they are angry, very angry about not getting enough information.

CNN's Pauline Chiou is in Beijing following that part of the story -- the very important part of the story, Pauline, because let's be clear, this was a quarter of a billion dollar aircraft that disappeared with 239 priceless souls on board, and those families want some answers.

What are they saying this morning? What are they telling you, Pauline?

PAULINE CHIOU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Christine, they're so angry that they're actually coming together as groups of families to talk to the media. In the beginning, they were very hesitant to talk to the media on cam camera.

Now, they're angry and frustrated because they say they're getting inconsistent information from the officials at these briefings that happen just about every day in Beijing. And even though they met with officials again today, many of them came out saying we learned nothing new.

Now, after the briefing, we were invited into the hotel room of a group of families. We've been trying to talk to people on camera for a while. As I mentioned, they've been very hesitant, but now they approached us, and they said come talk to us, but we're not going to put our faces on camera because many of our elderly relatives don't know that our families are involved with this Malaysia Airlines flight.

Now, these are family members, when you group them together, they represent ten passengers on that flight. Most of them are these people's parents. They said they're getting inconsistent information, they're very frustrated. They've been asking about military radar, civilian radar, transcripts, recordings, and they just hit a brick wall.

They believe that this plane has been hijacked. They truly believe that the Malaysian government is hiding something.

Now, earlier today, we did catch up with a father. His own only was on the plane. His name is Mr. Li. We have spoken with him before, and he talked about his mistrust in the Malaysian government.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Our relatives were on that flight. This wasn't an accident. Instead, it was caused by the Malaysian government. They are covering up something.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHIOU: So, Christine, that is a message we keep hearing over and over from many different families, mistrust. They think there's a conspiracy. They think this is some sort of a political act.

And in a very convoluted way, if that is the case, since they haven't confirmed any of the debris, they say that actually gives them cause for optimism, because perhaps it has been an act of terror and these passengers are being held hostage. Perhaps, they're still alive -- Christine.

ROMANS: And just the absence of real fact breeds all of that mistrust and questions. Pauline Chiou in Beijing -- Thank you, Pauline.

FEYERICK: Questions and conspiracy theories, obviously. Yes, that's the toughest.

Well, there's word this morning of a problem aboard another Malaysia Airlines jet, this time a flight from Kuala Lumpur to South Korea. The Airbus A330 had to be diverted to Hong Kong because of a failed generator. The plane landed normally and passengers were transferred to other airlines to finish their trip.

ROMANS: All right, breaking news this morning from Washington state, where authorities trying to rescue survivors this hour from a deadly landslide there. The pictures are just frightening. The very latest on that in Washington state, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: We're following breaking news this morning from Washington state. The death toll from a massive mudslide rising. Eight people now confirmed dead in what's described as total devastation in this area north of Seattle. Eighteen people still unaccounted for this hour. Officials say rescuers are struggling to reach people because the terrain is still unstable.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. JAY INSLEE (D), WASHINGTON: Significant extent, Mother Nature holds the cards here on the ability of ground personnel to enter the slide area. It is essentially a slurry. They rescued at least seven people, both being through airlift and through on-the-ground efforts, but some of them who went in literally got caught in up to their armpits and had to be dragged out by ropes themselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Very dangerous situation. At least six homes have been destroyed. Authorities say the destruction is comparable to a tornado strike.

FEYERICK: The Netherlands is the first stop on President Obama's week-long trip to Europe and Saudi Arabia. The president arriving in Amsterdam in just the last half hour or so for a nuclear security summit at The Hague. His meetings with world leaders will likely be dominated by Russia's annexation of Crimea and its further threat to Ukraine. This comes amid Russian aggression.

Overnight, the Russians seized a military base in Crimea, one of the few installations still flying a Ukrainian flag.

CNN's Nic Robertson is live near The Hague with more on the diplomatic effort to isolate Moscow -- Nic.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Deb, absolutely, there are 53 different nations here gathered for this security summit. This had been planned in advance. It comes every two years. This is the third such summit.

And the Dutch have planned particular scenarios to sort of give leaders involved a direct experience of what some kind of radioactive- type threat could mean to them, the decisions they might have to make. But really, anyone sitting through that is absolutely going to note some of the key meetings taking place on this trip, and indeed later today, are going to involve the G-7, are going to involve European leaders, as President Obama really wants to get a firmer and stronger, a more united commitment to send a stronger message to Russia about the annexation of Crimea and also about the concerns that Russian troops may be massed on the border of Ukraine on the east side of the country there, potentially contemplating crossing into Ukraine.

So, of course, this is expected to become, despite the real setting here being the nuclear security summit, that's going to be the main context of discussions that are expected to take place later today, Deb.

FEYERICK: With the president sort of urging more unity when it comes to what the Russians are doing in Crimea, how do you think the Europeans are going to respond to that message? How will it be received?

ROBERTSON: Well, we're seeing, you know, messages from people like the British foreign secretary, William Hague, who wrote an op-ed over the weekend, and he said this is the most serious situation this century that international law applies to all countries, there must be a price to pay, that Europeans need to look to a new way of dealing with Russia, not, you know, different from the past 20 years.

The language is all very much in tune and in line with what we're hearing from the United States, but the price that the Europeans would have to pay, given that Russia is the third largest trading partner for the European Union, that while the rhetoric is strong and the commitment so far has been ramping up, the hope from the United States that it could match the level the United States is willing to go to, you know, we're going to have to see just what kind of commitments the European leaders take.

Again, the language is strong, but the actual sanctions stand to hurt Europe, potentially, more than the United States -- Deb.

FEYERICK: All right, yeah, strong language, stronger economic impact. Thank you, Nic.

ROMANS: Happening today in South Africa, both sides have returned to court for the Oscar Pistorius murder trial. After a sudden adjournment put that trial on hold, prosecutors say they plan to wrap up their case this week and they're likely to only put on five more witnesses. They had originally proposed presenting testimony from more than 100.

FEYERICK: Well, near Galveston this morning, crews are racing to clean up nearly 200,000 gallons of oil that leaked from a barge and all but shut down the port of Galveston. The barge was carrying bunker oil and collided with a ship. Officials say the barge is no longer leaking, but oil is now washing up on beaches and rocks along the shore. Most ships set to dock at the port of Galveston are now stuck at sea until the waterway reopens.

Well, let's get an early look at our weather with Chad Myers -- Chad.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning!

Tell you what, it's going to be a cold morning out there in a lot of places across the northeast. Snow across parts of the Midwest. Partly cloudy, cool across the Southeast, but later on today, all the way to 59. Going to be warm out west, 66 in L.A., warmer there in the valleys.

Farther off to the east, though, for tomorrow, it gets interesting. There's a couple of things going on out here, and the models certainly not agreeing how much snow potential is here. It appears the farther you go to the east, the more potential there will be, but the European and the United States models are not agreeing at this point. You're going to have to watch again tomorrow.

Thirty-nine in New York City, 39 in D.C. for tomorrow, 42 in Kansas City and a pleasant 65 in L.A.

Enjoy your day. I'm meteorologist Chad Myers. Good morning, guys.

ROMANS: Good morning, Chad.

So, that's your weather. Here's your sports. Perfection has come to an end at March Madness, and it all came down to one shot. The Wichita State Shockers were so close to knocking off Kentucky and advancing to the sweet 16 and keeping that -- remember that 35-game winning streak? But Fred Van Pleat's jumper went off the rim and out, giving the Blue Devils the victory and ending Wichita State's perfect season.

FEYERICK: A little bit of heartbreak there.

Well, we continue to follow the breaking news in the search for Flight 370. There is word that a Chinese plane has spotted some objects off the coast of Australia. We'll have the latest.

Plus, what it might have been like in the cockpit when the jet took its turn off course. That coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Twenty-six minutes past the hour. Welcome back.

This morning we are following the latest breaking news in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. A Chinese plane has spotted suspicious objects off the coast of Australia. Ships at this moment on their way right now to see if those objects might be from the jet, that as CNN has learned the plane dropped to 12,000 feet after making its turn off course.

CNN's Martin Savidge took these new details, these brand-new details we have about the flight, he took it into a flight simulator. And he says while the turn may have been sharp, it's not likely it happened as quickly as you might think, and the passengers may not have noticed a thing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The information that this source is giving us, it says that that turn took two minutes to complete. That is a very long time to make a 90 or even 180-degree turn, an extraordinary amount of time for this aircraft. In fact, we'll try to give you a sense of what that kind of a two-minute turn would feel like.

And this is it, right? We're doing it now. It's barely perceptible. It's slight, you'll get it.

But if you're a passenger, once we straighten up, you would not sit here and say, boy, like, this is something very, very wrong. This is a subtle, slow turn. It's sharp in that it will deviate you from the course to Beijing eventually, but the perception that you're like banking, that's not what the simulator reflects on that.

OK. So, let's go into the altitude issue. Remember, the plane was at 35,000 feet. We say that it dropped to 12,000 feet, but that reading on radar was over an hour and 40 minutes. So, here's a precipitous drop. Let's just do a real, if you threw this over the top and sent us down kind of a dive, nose down.

Again, all the alarms that you're getting, bells and whistles warning you're going way too fast, you're going to overspeed. So, doubtful they did anything like this. There's the ocean straight ahead.

So, pull it back. Remember, if it really was over an hour and 40 minutes, that descent could have been very, very gradual.

So, what we're saying here is that those actions do not indicate emergency, it's not a sharp turn to go to some emergency landing, and it's not necessarily a steep descent to get down for the passengers to breathe. It could have been a slow descent and a gradual turn. That's what the simulator tells us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS: Martin Savidge, thanks for that.

FEYERICK: Yes.

And we'll have the very latest details on the search for Flight 370, coming up on the other side.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)