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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Theories Abound As Search For Flight 370 Continues; The Chinese's Role In International Mystery; 176 Still Unaccounted For In Landslide; Planes Expected To Take Off In Perth

Aired March 25, 2014 - 16:30   ET

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


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN GUEST HOST: Now, let's look at the other side. The possibility that maybe there wasn't a villain, be it a potential hijacker or one of the pilots themselves, and that this just one horrific accident.

Joe Johns, you've been looking into that version of events for us. What is it about the flight path, the knowledge of the plane behavior, etc. that tells investigators you talked to that it could be accidental as opposed to intentional?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, this goes into the category of things that cannot be ruled out as long as no black box is not recovered. A sudden change in direction, for one thing, would suggest that something went very wrong on the plane very rapidly. If that's true that the plane dropped altitude rapidly, some experts say that could have been because of a sudden decompression problem, which could be explained by any breach: a big fire, explosion, even an open door.

With this scenario, there could have only been seconds to react before passing out. The pilots would have been trying to get the plane to an altitude where the people on board could get oxygen. If it's true, the plane flew for hours afterwards until it ran out of fuel and ditched in the Indian Ocean. The question is whether the crew was incapacitated, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So as we're learning more about the flight's path, you know, this hard turn that Flight 370 took into the Indian Ocean, if these current calculations are correct, how does that factor into these theories about some sort of an event on board?

JOHNS: The hard turn clearly suggest the pilots were actually trying to turn the plane around to get to safe harbor. That's -- in the accident scenario, that's what they would have been doing. Trying to find a location where they can get the plane on the ground. One suggestion has been the airstrip at Palalum Cowie (ph) as a place where they would try to put down so that the crew and the passengers could be saved.

SCIUTTO: A big long airstrip, pilots have told us there. Possibly a safe haven.

So the key, next clue, really, is finding the wreckage, right? Assuming they're able to do that. And what would they be looking for in the wreckage? What would they find there that would help them, that would factor into an accident theory to determine if that's the right one, or if deliberate action is correct?

JOHNS: Certainly a long list of possibilities and the things that they could find in the debris. Probably the most important, I've been told, is the engines. Getting ahold of the engines would tell them, for one thing, whether the turbines were actually running when they hit the ground or hit the water, as is the case we think right now. And also a question of whether the engines and the plane were actually starved of fuel; they'd be able to determine that. But a lot of other information would be gleaned depending on the type of debris they were able to recover in water that is in some places is quite deep.

SCIUTTO: All right, thanks very much, Joe Johns and Barbara Starr working through the theories and this process of elimination.

Coming up next, not buying it. The Chinese government now demanding the satellite image that Malaysia used to determine that everyone on board Flight 370 is lost, but is China's real agenda to secretly gather information on surrounding countries' satellite capabilities?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD. And continuing our World Lead and the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Malaysian officials have been criticized for their handling of the investigation, but the most seething attacks have come from the Chinese. From the beginning, they have raised questions over whether the Malaysians and in particular the Malaysian military were hiding something. A committee representing some of the families of the Chinese passengers on board released a statement yesterday accusing the Malaysians of nothing short of covering up the truth and they said, quote, "Malaysia Airlines, Malaysian government and Malaysian military are the real murderers that killed them," the passengers. And earlier today, relatives and supporters held a public demonstration marching towards the Malaysian embassy in Beijing with signs that say things like, "We don't give up."

So why such hostility towards the Malaysian government? Is this just the Chinese protecting the families of the more than 150 Chinese passengers on this plane, or is there more to this in geopolitics?

Joining me now is Gordon Chang. He's a columnist for Forbes.com. Also author of "The Coming Collapse of China," and a long time Chinese analyst. Gordon, first, if I can ask you about this, China to the Malaysian tension here - what's odd about this was that was one of the strongest relationships in Asia. Malaysia one of the China's closest Southeast Asian friends. How did this happen so quickly?

GORDON CHANG, FORBES.COM COLUMNIST: I really don't know. Because as you point out, Malaysia was probably Beijing's most friendly in the South China Sea. As a matter of fact, Malaysia was so friendly that it would never complain about Chinese vessels intruding onto Malaysian territorial waters. But you know, all of that changed because Beijing's reaction to MH-370 portrayed an arrogance that was unnecessary as it was unhelpful, and today the Malaysians snapped. Today we had the acting transport minister publicly blast China for misleading investigators. So, we're in unchartered territory as far as Malaysia/Chinese relations are concerned.

SCIUTTO: Now, does China have to do this? They've got 153 passengers on board and a Chinese public, you read the papers there. You read Chinese Twitter, (INAUDIBLE). People are angry. They're frustrated with the Malaysians. Does China have to do this to kind of let off some steam domestically?

CHANG: Well, I think that's probably the motivation for what Beijing is doing. It has to be seen with a strong response. But you've got these people in China, those 153 families. They are saying things that they privately say about the Chinese government. That it is opaque, that it lies, all the rest of it. But of course, they can never say that, and they certainly can't say it in public. But they are able to say it about a foreign country. I think you have Beijing allowing them to vent to sort of relieve the pressure.

And this is really interesting because it betrays a Communist party that is deeply insecure.

SCIUTTO: We're looking at the pictures of the protests there. And I've spent a lot of time in China. It's certainly my experience that if you and I showed up on a Chinese corner with a sign, we'd get picked up pretty quickly. When protests happen there like this, the Chinese are letting it happen. Is that correct?

CHANG: Absolutely. The only thing that this is similar to, we go back three or four years, are the anti-Japan protests, which were certainly sponsored by Beijing and which were encouraged by Beijing. You have the same dynamic which is essentially China trying to basically send a message to Japan in one case and Kuala Lumpur in the other, and it really is very ugly.

SCIUTTO: So what about U.S. and China? You have an interesting collection in close proximity of really advanced Chinese assets. There are now 15 ships, some of them military and some of the most advanced U.S. aircraft. The P-8 Poseidon, for instance, in very close quarters, now probaly checking each other out a little bit, their capabilities, but also working together. What does this say about the U.S.-China relationship?

CHANG: It shows that the United States wants to bring China into the international system, into multilateral efforts, and this is a perfect example of something that they can do together and they can cooperate. We have disagreements on a broad range of issues with Beijing such as Ukraine, which is the most recent. But I think what this is trying to do is to work with China.

And as you point out, we're looking at their capabilities, they're looking at out capabilities, which is one of the reasons why I think Beijing wanted that satellite data that Malaysia referred to when they said that the plane went down in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese want to see how sophisticated Inmarsat's data is.

SCIUTTO: Is there a message here from China in sending these ships down there? In addition, of course, to looking for this plane, which so many Chinese citizens lost their lives. But I took note that as part of the pivot to Asia, the U.S. had sent Marines to northern Australia. Now you've got Chinese ships going pretty far afield for the Chinese navy way down there. Is that a little bit of a message for the U.S.?

CHANG: Oh, this is certainly a message to the U.S. and to countries in the region. Very recently, like last month or two months ago, China sent its ships through Indonesian islands, and this was a real big wake-up call for Jakarta. Now this is an example of, today what China is doing is it's really being part of a multilateral effort. So it's not as threatening as what China has been doing in the past. But clearly what you see is China trying to develop its capabilities to project power long away from China's shores. And that makes countries in the region nervous.

SCIUTTO: Fascinating. A lot of geopolitics going on behind the scenes. Thanks very much to Gordon Chang.

Coming up, the frantic search continues as a list of the missing in a Washington landslide grows. Next, I'll ask one emergency worker about one little boy he helped rescue.

Plus, gale-force winds, massive waves, and heavy rain. What teams are up against in the southern Indian Ocean as the search for Flight 370 is expected to resume in about an hour.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD. And the "National Lead," we are getting a chilling snapshot of the panic and chaos experienced moments after that massive landslide in Northern Washington State. Just listen to one of the newly release 911 calls from someone who witnessed the disaster and heard victims pleading for help.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED CALLER: There's like a mudslide. Everything is dark. Houses are gone. I have people screaming for help.

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: OK. Are they in the middle of the water?

UNIDENTIFIED CALLER: Yes. They are in the middle of the mud. My God, my gosh.

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED CALLER: It stopped 100 feet from our house.

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: OK. We'll get you some help, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED CALLER: Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Harrowing moment. With debris as thick as 40 feet in some places, hope is fading fast that rescue crews will be able to find more survivors. Six more bodies were recovered from the rubble yesterday bringing the death toll now to 14. One hundred seventy six people are still considered missing or unaccounted for, but emergency officials caution some of those names could be duplicates.

Joining me now from the scene by phone is Ed Hrivnak. He is the assistant fire chief of Central Pierce Fire and Rescue. He was in the first chopper crew to arrive at the scene. Ed, thank you so much for joining us. You have a lot of hard work to do there. I know and we've been seeing this really heart breaking photo of a 4-year-old rescued by helicopter. I know your crew was involved in that rescue. Can you tell us how that happened and what you found?

ED HRIVNAK, ASST. FIRE CHIEF, CENTRAL PIERCE (via telephone): Yes, Jim, and thanks for having me on the show. We were very fortunate. We had a training mission that we were just about to launch on when the rescue supervisor told us that there was a mudslide that he wanted us to investigate. We had no idea of the concept or the scope of this disaster. During the course of lowering one of our rescuer to take care of a critical patient, we moved the helicopter up to one side and our crew chief said, look, there's a little boy in the mud.

We looked for a place to land, but the mud was so thick, like freshly poured concrete. We could not set the skids down. So we decided to inch our way over to the boy and hovered next to him, about a foot away and a foot above the mud. Our crew chief tried to pull him into the helicopter, but he was suctioned into the mud and couldn't get him out.

So our other rescue technician stepped out from the skid. Again, keep in mind we're about a foot off the mud and reached down to grab the boy and between the two of them, they were able to bring him in, but the mud was so thick and heavy that his pants came off him as we pulled him out.

SCIUTTO: Poor little guy. I've got a kid that age as well. Pictures a helicopter hovering there over the ground to rescue him. Is there any idea what happened to the little boy's family?

HRIVNAK: I'm being told and what's being reported on the news here that his father and three of his siblings are still missing. Listed as missing right now.

SCIUTTO: What did he say to you when you were able to pull him in? That must have been very scary for a 4-year-old? The helicopter, its rotors turning, two strangers pulling him up, what did he say? Was he crying? Was he in shock?

HRIVNAK: The crew referred to him as our little trooper. We didn't get his name. We had eight people to rescue at that time. He was only with us for minutes because we dropped him off on the ground and passed him to a waiting ambulance. But he didn't -- he didn't cry. He didn't move. He didn't budge. He just stood there and all of our direction and he was a very composed little man.

SCIUTTO: You guys did an incredible thing. I know you're still working there. Are you hopeful that more people could be found alive still in that rubble? I know you said it's like poured concrete. HRIVNAK: Yes. Of course, we're always hopeful and never, ever give up hope. It's a grim environment out there. There are many homes that are buried under 10, 20 feet of mud. So that makes it very difficult to keep hope, but we're not going to give up.

SCIUTTO: And I know you're a veteran of Iraq. You must have seen some horrible things, challenging things there. How does this compare to what you saw over there?

HRIVNAK: Well, I was a night nurse bringing a woman back to Germany from the Middle East so my environment was a little more controlled. This was a new experience for me to be first on scene at a mass casualty incident. We literally were able to get the helicopter there 30 minutes after it happened. It was still a very dynamic environment. We had propane tanks that were leaking, propane lines that were purging fuel. There were downed power lines. We didn't know if they were energized or not.

There were trees broken in different directions. There were just a lot of hazards and the houses exploded from the mud and there were pieces of house floating around in the wash and we actually sucked some pieces of install lags into the rotor blade and it made it a little snowstorm when we were trying to rescue people.

SCIUTTO: Houses exploding from the mud, an incredible rescue. Ed Hrivnak, assistant fire chief and pilot, thank you for your service and good luck to you all as you continue to do your best.

HRIVNAK: Thank you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Wolf Blitzer is here now with a preview of "THE SITUATION ROOM." Wolf, we spoke with John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman. He said something that struck us that we're no closer to finding that plane today than they were a few days ago and I know you're going to speak to someone out on one of the ships down there.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM": I'm going to speak to the spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet. That's in the Pacific. What Kirby said to you, he didn't just say they were looking for a needle in a haystack. He said they are looking for the farm, which indicates that they are not very close at all to knowing where the wreckage is if, in fact, it is in the southern part of the Indian Ocean.

But we are going to go live to Perth. We'll check in to see if those planes are going to take off, if the ships are going to be able to fly because the weather is not great. Better than yesterday. But in the next week or two it's going to get worse. The clock is ticking. They want to find the so-called black boxes. They've got a limited amount of time.

SCIUTTO: Right. We really hope those planes get up today. Wolf, we'll be watching. Thank you very much.

Coming up on THE LEAD, minutes away from first daylight over the Indian Ocean, what will conditions be like for teams still searching for Flight 370? We'll have a live report. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD. In approximately one hour, planes are expected to take off from Perth, Australia, to scour a search area that has shrunk to approximately the size of Alaska. Still, the vice chief of the Australian defense force warns we are not searching for a needle in a haystack, we are still trying to define where the haystack is.

So I want to bring in Kyung Lah now live from Australia. You know those planes were grounded yesterday due to that horrendous weather. Is there any better news today about whether these planes are going to go up?

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, just a short time ago, I did speak with the Australian military and the latest indication is that they will, indeed, fly. They are expecting for the search to resume in approximately one hour. Emphasis on the word expecting. We don't typically hear if they are going to be taking off until actual takeoff time.

What has been a problem is the weather. Yesterday it was canceled because of weather. Today, conditions in that area are much better. The waves are lower, the winds are lower. The big problem right now, though, is the fog. Because as you've seen from all of this video that we're showing here on CNN, all the search is taking place primarily on the plane.

So they have to do a visual search. If there's a lot of fog, then really the search is impeded. So that's what we're really waiting for, Jim. In one hour, we're expecting the very first planes to take off. They are expecting the most number of planes, approximately a dozen, to take to the air -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: So that's good news with time clearly is the essence here. How much lost by that weather delay? Because I imagine those pieces of possible wreckage spotted a couple days ago have got to be miles from where they were then.

LAH: Yes. This entire area is known as roaring 40s. It's roaring winds, roaring seas. One pilot explained it to me. It's like looking at a washing machine. That's how furious the water is over there. So if you think of it that way and then even if you drop a beacon where you might think that there is debris, it's going to churn in that water. Hopefully it stays near the debris. That's what the search teams are hoping for -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, at least the planes will be up today. Thanks very much, Kyung Lah live from Perth, Australia. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @jimsciutto and THE LEAD @theleadcnn. That's it for THE LEAD today. I'm Jim Sciutto. I'll turn you over now to Wolf Blitzer who is in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

BLITZER: Jim, thanks very much.