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The Search for Flight 370; Rescuers Search for Mudslide Victims; Tracking the Pings From Flight 370; Mechanical Failure or Deliberate Act?

Aired March 25, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN GUEST HOST: The search for Flight 370 now set to resume after weather threw up yet another obstacle.

I'm Jim Sciutto, and this is THE LEAD.

The world lead, the planes and ships about to begin the quest again after gale-force and torrential rain halted the search. The batteries in those black boxes die a little more each second. A boost from the U.S. could help find them, but will it arrive in time?

Also, in China, fury at the Malaysian government's handling of this ordeal, passengers, relatives and supporters clashing with police outside the embassy. Now that Malaysian officials are claiming that no one survived, the Chinese are demanding, show us the proof.

And the national lead. Critical time is running out in another desperate search right here in the U.S., 176 people still unaccounted for after a landslide covered a full square mile in northern Washington State. Survivors could still be stuck in the rubble. Will rescuers reach them?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, filling in today for Jake Tapper.

And we begin with our world lead. We're now on to the 19th day since Flight 370 disappeared with 239 people on board. And now it's clear why the search area in the Southern Indian Ocean has been called one of most treacherous places on Earth. Ships and planes are expected to return to the remote area soon after terrible weather conditions interrupted the search yesterday.

Massive though it may be, it has become significantly more focused in recent days. The searches have been called off in that northern arc from Vietnam all the way to Kazakstan, where investigators once believed the plane could have flown.

Malaysian officials now seem confident -- and take that for whatever it is worth -- that the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean. But if crews don't find the black boxes soon, it will be exponentially harder, maybe even impossible, to ever find them. The batteries sending out a signal from those data recorders are at about 30 percent life and could run out as early as April 8.

Meanwhile, to help with any financial strain incurred over the last 19 days, Malaysia Airlines is offering families an initial payment of $5,000 per passenger and preparing further compensation, a down payment on the tens of millions that the airline will likely end up owing.

Now, many relatives are furious at Malaysian officials for their handling of the investigation, especially after the government asked them to accept that their worst fears are now a reality.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): Today, the Malaysian airline CEO said it in the starkest terms so far: All hope for survivors is gone.

TAN SRI MD NOR YUSOF, CHAIRMAN, MALAYSIA AIRLINES: The aircraft is now lost and that none of the passengers or crew on board survived.

SCIUTTO: Many of the family members, however, refuse to accept Flight 370's fate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They even get no evidence that the flight was crashed.

SCIUTTO: And today they directed their frustration at the Malaysian government, joining an angry protest outside the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And they said that no one is survived, but no evidence. If you find something, OK, we will accept -- but nothing.

SCIUTTO: Many of the answers that they are demanding may lie with the aircraft itself, now most likely somewhere at the bottom of the Southern Indian Ocean.

MARK BINSKIN, VICE CHIEF, AUSTRALIAN DEFENSE FORCE: We're not searching for a needle in a haystack. We're still trying to find where the haystack is. So that's just to put it in context.

SCIUTTO: The latest satellite data indicates that the plane went down in an extremely remote stretch, four hours by plane from air bases in Western Australia and nearly two-and-a-half times the size of Texas. Much of the sea bottom there has never been thoroughly charted.

DAVID JOHNSTON, AUSTRALIAN DEFENSE MINISTER: This is an extremely remote part of the world. It's 3,500 meters deep, 2,500 kilometers from Perth. It's a massive logistical exercise.

SCIUTTO: And that is in the best of conditions. Today, gale-force winds grounded all search missions.

JOHNSTON: It is rough, sea state seven. There are 20-, 30-meter waves. It is very, very dangerous, even for big Panamax-class ships.

SCIUTTO: In a rare international coalition, six countries are now taking part in the search, including at least four aircraft and one ship from Australia, two aircraft each from the U.S. and South Korea, one from New Zealand and 15 ships from China. 370 is being sought by air, sea, and also by sound. The U.S. Navy tweeted this photo of a pinger locator on route to Australia. Once an approximate location of the wreckage is found, the device will be lowered into the sea to listen to pings from the plane's flight recorders. They sound something like this.

The devices won't reach the search area until April 5, just three days before the battery in the signaling device will likely go dead.


SCIUTTO: The Malaysian acting minister of transportation took time in the press conference today to praise the international teams aiding in this investigation.


DATUK SERI HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, MALAYSIAN TRANSPORT MINISTER: With such strong cooperation from our international partners, the challenge is no longer diplomatic. It is now primarily technical and logistical.


SCIUTTO: Joining me now to help explain how the U.S. is helping in this search is Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby.

Thanks very much for taking the time to join us today.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, U.S. NAVY: Thanks, Jim. Glad to be here.

SCIUTTO: Appreciate it.

A lot of frustration over the last 18, 19 days. Are we, are you, is the team, is this coalition any closer to finding the plane than we were a few days ago?

KIRBY: No, not really. And you heard it just yourself.

The weather has made it even more hard to do. So, no, I don't think we're any closer to finding where the aircraft is at this point.

SCIUTTO: It's a sobering thought to think.

Now, I know the U.S. has thrown a lot at this, the most advanced surveillance aircraft. You have got the P-8. You have got P-3 Orions up there. But now you have some new equipment coming in. We just mentioned there a pinger locator as well as an AUV called the Bluefin. That's an autonomous underwater vehicle, basically an underwater robot.

How do these things, how are they going to help eventually?

KIRBY: Well, they work in tandem with one another.

The first, best tool would be the towed pinger locator that was used, as was mentioned, in the Air France crash. But you need to have a well-defined debris field. You have to have an idea of where this wreckage is. In Air France, it was 40 square miles. And we're nowhere near to close to narrowing it down to even that right now. But they would work in tandem.

So, assuming the pinger locater was able to locate or transfix or even hear the ping, then you could bring in the AUV to do sort of a sweep search over the area and with is side-scan sonar to be able to actually map the bottom floor, map the debris on the bottom.

SCIUTTO: And see if they could find some sort of echoes, shadows of something that looks like a piece of airplane wreckage?

KIRBY: Absolutely. But we're nowhere near that.

I heard it described earlier today that it's like, we're not trying to find a needle in the haystack. We're trying to find the haystack. I would tell you, we're trying to find the farm that the haystack is on right now.

SCIUTTO: So, these bits of equipment, just to make clear to our viewers, they're there in reserve, in effect, for when that field gets narrowed down. And that's when they become useful.

KIRBY: That's right.

The gear will land in Perth, Australia, in about an hour-and-a-half. It's still in the air. There's 10 people going with it, technicians and experts that know how to use it, mount it on an Australian ship when ready. It will stay in Perth until we have a better defined search area that we can send it out there.

And it's important to note that it's still going to take a few days for it to get from Perth to the search area, probably four to five days. And with the weather the way it's been, it could be even longer than that.


Let's talk a little bit about this international coalition, because you have got a lot of countries working, generously providing support there, countries that don't necessarily work together, right, and have not had worked a lot together in the past, but are working together here, which is a good sign.

But there have also been frustrations with some of the cooperation leading up to this point, sharing of radar data, that kind of thing. From your perspective, did that hamper the search for this plane early on?

KIRBY: Not from a U.S. military perspective.

I think -- and I have talked to folks out there in the Pacific Fleet. I think we have been very satisfied, very comfortable with the level of cooperation we're getting, and the communication between us and the Malaysians and the other people that are doing this search. And I think, look, this is a testament to our species. Right? When something like this happens, we try to put our differences aside, put geopolitics aside and go try to help.

SCIUTTO: No question.

I wonder, we noticed that when the USS Kidd, the destroyer that was initially searching up in that other search area up north on the other side of the Malay Peninsula, it was more than a week when it took that turn around and started heading south, and that's before this satellite data came out and it became more and more confident that it was that southern corridor.

As you look at just the preponderance of evidence now, you're convinced, is the U.S. convinced they are looking in the right place?

KIRBY: I think we believe that we're -- that we're looking in the best place possible.

To say the right place would be to give an indication that we actually have a better idea where this is. I think everybody is kind of congealing over this area of the Southern Indian Ocean as the best, most likely place to look. But it's far from a done deal.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And that's really -- this is what it's required; it's required a bit of detective work, science, and a little bit of art, right, to identify where best to look, not necessarily, as you say, the exact place to look.

KIRBY: Yes. Some of this is just estimating. It's just doing the best you can with what little information, piecing it together and taking a chance. And I think that's where we're -- what we're trying to do.

SCIUTTO: Well, listen, we wish your teams luck in finding this. I know there are a lot of people who really want to have the final answer here.


KIRBY: Well, we're honored to be a part of the effort.

SCIUTTO: Thanks very much, Rear Admiral John Kirby. Thanks for joining us and taking the time today.

KIRBY: Thank you, Jim. Thanks.

SCIUTTO: Coming up next: new data that shows that Flight 370 communicated with satellites longer than originally thought. What can that tell us about the final location of the plane?

Plus, using the process of elimination to piece together the last moments of the flight.

Ahead, why the possibility that the pilots brought the plane down intentionally cannot be ruled out. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

And more now on our world lead. As investigators work backwards to help narrow the search zone for Flight 370, some of the most critical information may come from the pings the plane sent out after it dropped off radar. These pings are almost like bread crumbs leaving behind a trail of clues about how long the plane was in the air after it made that southern turn.

But what could be most useful is a newly discovered so-called "partial ping", which may indicate the moment the flight crashed into the ocean.

CNN's aviation correspondent Rene Marsh has more.


RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): New satellite data may help unlock the secrets of where Malaysia Flight 370 went down. After disappearing from radar, the Boeing 777 flew south over the Indian Ocean, connecting with the satellite once an hour for six hours. The final ping, as described by Malaysian authorities nearly two weeks ago, happened at 8:11 a.m.

But now a new revelation -- there may have been another ping. Eight minutes later, this satellite detects something else, this time evidence of a partial connection.

BILL NYE, ENGINEER, "THE SCIENCE GUY": So by getting that very last data, that very last data point, you have a lot more information about where the plane might be. It's another very important piece of the puzzle.

MARSH: But not even the engineers understand what this means and how it fits into the big picture.

HISHAMMUDDIN BIN HUSSEIN, MALAYSIA MINISTER OF TRANSPORTATION: At this time, this mission is not understood and is subject to further ongoing work.

MARSH: Is this partial ping a sign that the plane is still flying or is it the moment it went down in the Indian Ocean?

JEFF WISE, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: This extra data point is not in itself very definitively conclusive about the fate of the plane. It will allow us, should it come to that, to have a somewhat better -- somewhat narrower search field.

MARSH: The plane never made its next satellite connection scheduled for 9:15. Around the same time the plane would have run out of fuel.

WISE: At the time of that transmission was received, even though it was partial and complete, somewhat garbled, presumably the equipment that was sending it was intact. And sometime after that, there was an impact and it stopped functioning completely.

MARSH: The new data helps further plot the path of Flight 370, a 12:41 takeoff and then a left turn off course after 1:21 a.m. Flight 370 then flew for more than six hours and then sometime after 8:11 but before 9:15, the plane went down.

Rene Marsh, CNN, Washington.


SCIUTTO: For more on this partial ping and what could have been the final minutes of this flight, I want to bring in CNN aviation analyst Steven Wallace. He's also a pilot for 36 years.

And Keith Masback, CEO of the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.

And, Keith, if I could begin with you, because we're getting these pings, it seems every week, some new satellite information. This one is interesting because it comes -- came eight minutes after what we thought was the last ping at 8:11 a.m. that morning the flight disappeared.

How do you read this and what could this thing mean?

KEITH MASBACK, CEO, UNITED STATES GEOSPATIAL INTELLIGENCE FOUNDATION: Jim, from what we understand, when the ground station doesn't hear from the aircraft, it's going to reach out, it's going to create this handshake to check on the status. We get this every hour then because it doesn't heard from the aircraft.

SCIUTTO: When this one came, not at the very hourly point, it came eight hours after the previous hourly report, in effect.

MASBACK: Right. And so, that's clearly why this jumps out of the data, something critically important.

SCIUTTO: What would that mean? Why would a plane send that ping outside of those hourly reports?

MASBACK: That's right, in the midst of the speculation where we are, Jim, the question of the day, is this some believes is when it hits the water? Is this what causes some partial burst of information as the electronics in the aircraft are inundated with water? That gives that piece of information. Whatever information data burst is available, that's what they're sort of looking into at this point.

SCIUTTO: So, could be, and again I know we're in the realm speculation here, but something that might send out a burst, not on its scheduled hourly report possibly hitting the water. Also I've heard the theory that possibly, you know, when the plane turns, because it's got an antenna on each wing, it has to reestablish contact that it turned, could this have been a turn as the plane was heading down possibly? And again, possibly. MASBACK: Yes, I think those -- those are the things that are going to come out of this, trying to get into that, that data stream or the partial data stream that's been available, I think that will reveal something definitive we hope over the next coming days.

SCIUTTO: I'm glad you brought up data stream and definitive because I want -- Steven Wallace, we've talked a lot about this, about making these data streams more definite going forward, because that's been a frustration here, the plane sending out partial information only by accident, these handshakes. You know, what could change and crucially how quickly in the way that planes send out information to prevent something like this happening again?

STEVEN WALLACE, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Right. Well, you know, I look at the likely areas of improvements. And the agencies like the NTSB that makes safety recommendations, they're not going to wait until this accident is solved. They've already learned things.

And the things that might prevent the accident or help with the -- solving the accidents are -- a lot of things are -- let's start with preventing the accident. First, just adopting best practices. They didn't scan the passports against Interpol database. Apparently, they were somewhat lax about access to the cockpit. Now, as far as, you know, a capability to -- for this plane to continuously transmit its position of altitude, that's pretty simple. It can be done with what's already on the airplane, just modified so that it cannot be disabled.

SCIUTTO: Turned off.

Now, that's an issue that's come up in a number of conversations. I've been told that the reason pilots are able to turn the transponder off is because if they have an issue like a short circuit, they need the ability to isolate systems and turn them off and make sure that one is not going to pollute the other systems in effect. So how do you -- how do you make it unturnoffable, right, but still be safe for the pilot and the crew?

WALLACE: It can be done. I believe, you know, you're right. Since the terrible accidents involving fires on airplanes like that, Value Jet, Swiss Air, and UPS, pilots have zero tolerance for smoke in the cockpit. When I was carrying the pager for the FAA, turn backs for smoke in the cockpit were fairly common because of the wisp of smoke comes off the circuit breaker.

SCIUTTO: They want to get to the ground.

WALLACE: They are going to turn -- they are not going to diagnose it. They are going to start for the ground.

So that's a challenge but I don't think it's an insurmountable challenge. Perhaps these systems can be designed with very low voltages.

SCIUTTO: OK. So you can't turn off the transponder, possible change. More constant data streams from the plane that give more information. That's a change. The trouble is, you mentioned Air France Flight 447, one of the changes after that was that the pingers have to send out pings for more than 30 days like the one onboard this plane for 90 days, but that's only just taking effect now, that plane went down -- what are we -- five years ago. I mean, even if a decision was made today to make these changes, it might be a number of years before the 20,000 planes are flying right now have that new equipment.

WALLACE: Well, you're right. The decision has been made. And, in fact, the FAA has changed the technical standard order for that equipment.

SCIUTTO: For the pinger, we're talking about?

WALLACE: Well, for the duration for the power supply for the pinger. So in february of next year you cannot manufacture any non-complying less than 90-day power supply except it's going to be phased in over the years.

The difficulty with the most recorder rules is that you are required -- it sounds dreadful when we're facing such horrible losses here but you are required to do a cost-benefit.


WALLACE: We've never had an unsolved accident with a transport airplane. This could be the first one.

SCIUTTO: And maybe the one that changes best practices, as you say.

Thanks very much to Steven Wallace and Keith Masback explaining changes in planes and also this new satellite information.

Coming up on THE LEAD, mechanical or intentional? Investigators are still working through every possible scenario. Which theories are being ruled out as more details come out?

Plus, another tragedy closer to home -- 176 still trapped in the Washington landslide. Ahead, I'll talk to one emergency worker who's helped rescue several residents, including this 4-year-old boy.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD, and continuing our world lead.

It could come down to a process of elimination. We don't know and may never know exactly what happened to make Flight 370 essentially vanish. But right now, there are two possibilities feeding the myriad of theories still out there, either there were some sort of mechanical failure or someone brought it down deliberately.

So, here with a look at each of these possibilities is Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr and senior Washington correspondent Joe Johns. Barbara, I want to start with you if we can. As early as 10 days ago, the prime minister of Malaysia said he believed it was a deliberate action causing the disappearance of Flight 370. So take us through what we know now that points to that.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, one of the big reasons, Jim, is if it had been a hijacking, if it had been related to terrorism, wouldn't there have been some claim by now, terrorists like to claim responsibility for their mayhem and there has been no claim. That is something that, as you well know, has stuck with U.S. officials from the very beginning.

Why no claim? They are thinking it may not be a terrorist attack. No mayday calls from the cockpit. If it had been an attack, an accident, some fire on board, even massive decompression of the plane.

We've talked to some experts. They say there would have been time, even very little time for some sort of signal from the cockpit that something was going terribly wrong. That did not happen.

But instead, what we see is the hours of flight after making two deliberate turns. First, the plane makes a deliberate left-hand turn just before reaching Vietnamese air traffic control and at some point makes another left-hand turn, flies deep over the southern Indian Ocean literally until we believe it ran out of fuel and crashed into the sea.

This suggests, some people say, leaning more towards the notion of a deliberate action by someone in the cockpit. No evidence yet, no indication of who, whether it was a member of the crew or what or a passenger broke in. But some sort of deliberate action -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: But the people you're talking to at the Pentagon, Barbara, they're not saying that they've established that definitively. They're just saying they're working through the list and, in fact, eliminating the other possibilities and they come closer to this one.

STARR: Well, I think it's -- I think that's right. Let me also emphasize, its officials across the government, in law enforcement, in the intelligence community, in the national security community, look, since this happened, it has been a huge mystery and the Obama administration -- make no mistake, really would like to know what happened. They don't want it hanging out there as a mystery forever. They want to be able to determine what happened and if nothing else, make any changes in the civilian aviation industry that would need to be made after this.

SCIUTTO: Right, that's one reason they've got to know how this happened. Thanks, Barbara Starr.