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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Search for Flight 370; Washington Mudslide Death Toll Rising; The Search Zone; MH370 Family Hires U.S. Law Firm

Aired March 26, 2014 - 16:00   ET

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


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: One hundred and twenty-two objects floating in the Southern Indian Ocean, did any of them come from Flight 370?

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

The world lead. You would think 20 days into this baffling mystery, someone would have spotted something from that missing plane. Now that may have finally happened. Malaysian officials calling this their most credible lead so far.

Also, many have assumed that time is running out to find the black boxes because the batteries on the pinger have only so much life left in them. But one of our safety analysts warns they could already be dead.

And the national lead. The governor of Washington State tells us the death toll there could go up significantly from the mudslide that smothered an entire community in his state. We will ask him, was a critical warning about this very type of catastrophe ignored?

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

And we begin again with our world lead. It's been one of the most nagging questions in the search for Flight 370 and the 239 people on board which has now entered its 20th day. If the plane plunged into the ocean, as Malaysian officials now believe, why haven't searchers turned up a single speck from it, not a wing, not a rudder, nothing?

But that could change today. Now Malaysians have what they have calling their most credible lead right now. Soon planes and ships will be back on the Southern Indian Ocean hoping to get a pair of eyes on objects that could, emphasis on could, be a debris field.

Crews are only able to cover a fraction of the massive search area each day, and the batteries that power the location pingers on the black board recorders are running out, assuming they're still functioning at all. But new satellite images could help narrow down that area significantly.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Despite a massive effort by air and by sea, the biggest lead in the hunt for Flight 370 is coming from satellites miles above the earth. These new images taken by a French defense firm on March 23 show a potential debris field inside the search area.

Officials say these white dots show 122 identified objects between three and 75 feet in length.

DATUK SERI HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, MALAYSIAN TRANSPORT MINISTER: Some of the objects appear to be bright, possibly indicating solid material. The objects were located approximately 2,557 kilometers from Perth.

SCIUTTO: The new images are remarkably close to the area where Chinese and French satellites captured images several days ago, and at 75 feet at least one of the objects is similar in size to an object spotted earlier. Still, search teams caution they won't be able to confirm the debris came from the plane until ships are able to recover it.

HUSSEIN: It must be emphasized that we cannot tell whether the potential objects are from MH370. Nevertheless, this is another new lead that will help direct the search operation.

SCIUTTO: So far, none of the 122 objects seen by satellite has been spotted by search planes or ships scouring the area for clues. Two new high-tech search aids from the U.S. arrived in Australia today, an autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV, which can help detect sunken objects to depths of almost 15,000 feet, and a pinger locator, a device that can detect sounds emitted from the flight data recorder to depths of 20,000 feet.

Neither of these devices will be of any use, however, until a crash zone has been identified. In an area as vast as this, that task remains daunting.

TONY ABBOTT, Australian Prime Minister: The crash site is about as close to nowhere as it's possible to be, but it's closer to Australia than to anywhere else.

SCIUTTO: Australia is leading the charge, dividing this remote stretch of ocean into color-coded boxes, assigning them to international search teams and then marking them off.

As each box is checked off, the families of those on board are growing more desperate for proof their loved ones are gone.

STEPHEN WANG, SON OF MISSING PASSENGER: Most of the families don't believe that it might be bad news. Most of the families still that there will be hope.

SCIUTTO: Without that hard evidence, Stephen Wang still clings to the hope that his mother is simply still being held hostage.

WANG: They are still negotiating, I think. If they made a deal, maybe our family will be back.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: And that's not all. The investigation into the pilots is also making headway. The FBI says the analysis it's doing on the hard drives seized from the homes of the captain and co-pilot should be finished within a few days, but a senior U.S. official tells CNN that there is nothing -- quote -- 'jumping out" about any possible motive, no smoking gun found so far.

And investigators in both the U.S. and Malaysia tell CNN they have not reached any definitive conclusions. That's in contradiction to a new report from "USA Today" that claims a senior Malaysian investigator says they have narrowed their focus to the pilot.

Now we can separate the prevailing theories about what happened on Flight 370 into two broad categories, accidental or sabotage, and today Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel refused to take at least one dire possibility off the table.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: On the terrorism question, I don't think at this point we can rule anything in or out. I think we have to continue to search as we are. The world's dangerous. We recognize that. There are new threats coming at us in different ways all the time. So you have to continue to prepare.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: We're joined by Tim Taylor. He's a sea operations specialist and president of Tiburon Subsea Services, an ocean research corporation, and Mark Weiss, CNN aviation analyst, retired captain with American Airlines, only 20 years or so in the cockpit of an American Airlines jet.

I want to begin with you if I can, Mark, just with this new information. It's a "USA Today" report saying that investigators in Malaysia focusing more on the pilot. They're talking about evidence of premeditation. Now, I should caution our viewers, U.S. officials telling us that it's their information so far that they have not turned up any smoking gun for either the pilot or the co-pilot.

But as we reach this 20th day and you look at these possibilities, sabotage or something deliberate, do you, for someone who's been in a cockpit for so long, have you seen any compelling evidence in either direction?

MARK WEISS, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, you know, my theory from the very beginning, and it's just that, but it's based at least upon what seems to be the information we have that day, which seems to change all the time.

Doesn't not necessarily show that there was either one of the pilots that were involved, but I do believe that whatever happened, happened from the cockpit. You know, whether that was human intervention, whether it was one of the pilots, both of the piles, or somebody coming into the cockpit, we have seen before that this airline has had what I call a cockpit porous door that was not always locked in flight, which is what it's supposed to be. We don't even know if there's somebody else in the cockpit, a jump seat rider, an extra person in there or not. But at this stage, I mean, we don't know if one or both of those pilots was incapacitated, and perhaps one or both tried to save the airplane. It's so -- it's still too early.

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: It's a possibility we have to keep open. Other experts have made the case that it's possible these were heroic acts, not terrorist acts in the cockpit.

And we also know that investigators are, in fact, as the defense secretary said today, keeping these options open as they consider to investigate.

I wonder if I could bring in Tim Taylor now, because the other new information we have today are these satellite images which have now shown -- it's the third time, actually, that satellite images have picked up a big piece of the plane, or picked up a big piece of debris which could be a piece of the plane 75 feet in that range, that length.

You know, judging by the locations of now three satellite images that have a piece roughly that size and your knowledge of the oceans, is it conceivable, is it credible that they could be images of the same thing?

TIM TAYLOR, PRESIDENT OF TIBURON SUBSEA SERVICES: Yes. I mean, the ocean is a very dynamic, fluid thing. It moves.

And these ocean currents can pick these up and move them for miles, so, of course, it can be. It also is a large field of trash out there, and every ocean nowadays since plastic in the 1960s has accumulated a large, dense body of trash that kind of circles in the gyres of the main bodies, and this is right in one. And they will collect.

But generally it has to do with the characteristics of their buoyancy. If you have a group of items that are more underwater, they're going to be carried by the currents. If some of it's above the water or parts of it are, then the wind has the effect. So with the massive winds that you have in this area of the world and they have been going through, which are driving the weather, I would imagine that most of this debris, if it's staying together, is a little bit below the surface, not as much above the wind, and that's why it's being pulled together by the currents.

SCIUTTO: And you look at the navy reports, whenever they talk about what they see from those planes, in addition to garbage, they will see groups of dolphins, they will see seaweed, and there's a lot going around there.

Mark, if I could bring you in on this, this is a question we have run by you before, but just for the sake of our viewers, a plane hits the water at speed, the possibility of a large floating piece this long after the fact, conceivable?

WEISS: Well, I guess it really depends on how long that airplane's been flying and how much fuel it might have.

The wings, when they break off, assuming that it's going to break off when you hit the water the way we're talking act, they're going to have empty fuel tanks that actually have some air in it that would probably help that to float. The tail of the airplane, depending on the kind of airplane and what it's made of, parts will float.

And this certainly is a real potential that this could be...

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: Conceivable.

Plus, they say, look, this is a case where they have a lot of pieces floating around that large piece, which gives Malaysian officials a sense at least that it could be a debris field as opposed to just one piece, which could be helpful as they look at this, but need to get the ships there.

Tim, I want to ask you one more question because I know you know the difficulties of searching in these oceans in this part of the ocean and also the limitations of the equipment that they're using there, the limited range.

You know, once they do hopefully identify a debris field, how hard to begin looking underwater for the rest of the plane, including those black boxes?

TAYLOR: That's the $64 million question, I would imagine.

The data has to be compiled and the search area has to be narrowed and you have to find an item that gives you 18, 20 days now -- or 18 days. You need to track it back. You need to find thing something. You need the clue. The data from the satellite is good enough, but we need some more items and hard facts, empirical data to plug into something to narrow that search down.

All the assets that they have, the AUVs, the hydrophone, it still needs to narrow the search for them to be effective. And the clock is ticking. It's only got a few days left before that battery has run out.

SCIUTTO: That's right. The Pentagon told us that that hydrophone can only hear for two miles so you really have to be close to where the plane hit the water for it to be useful.

Well, thanks very much to Tim Taylor, Mark Weiss here in Washington.

Coming up on THE LEAD, what sinks and what floats? Why search teams could be having such a hard time finding any part of the plane if it did, in fact, crash into the water. Plus, when will the black box pinger battery die? One expert we will talk to ahead says it could already be dead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

And continuing our world lead: in little more than an hour, search crews will be back over the southern Indian Ocean, looking for any sign of the doomed Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, with time running out before those missing black boxes stop their pinging.

Searchers continue to scour this area with high-tech military equipment as well as good old-fashioned eyeballs out a window, how do they figure out where to look and what's the priority?

We're going to bring in Tom Foreman now, who is back in our virtual studio with more.

Tom, walk us through how they prioritize the grid over what is really a giant area for them to cover.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is a huge area, Jim. You're absolutely right.

That's why these pictures are so exciting to them because these pictures are a solid lead that help them cut down that space because frankly this looks like an airplane debris field. To prove whether it is or not, but it looks like the right thing.

So, when I talk about cutting down the space, what do we mean? What we mean is that when you're searching a big area like this, in this case, 621,000 square miles, you essentially impose a grid upon it. And not every square in that grid is equal. Some of them are given a higher value than others based on whether or not you think the plane would go down there because there's some evidence to support that.

For example, if you thought from all of this satellite data and everything else that it ran out of fuel earlier and did not glide at all, you might push it way up here toward the northern end. What we have here is the opposite, though. A suggestion that maybe it either ran out of fuel later or it went into a 200-mile glide, which a plane like this can do, or something like that that's giving them reason to push this zone down much, much, further so that actually you're talking about having your primary search zone way out there.

Now, bear in mind, we've shown the plane here big so you can see it, but in life this plane would be a speck on this giant search area. So you've got to get something smaller than that big red space out there. A debris field like this, if it pays off, allows them to narrow that down to something much, much smaller, Jim, and then they can start reverse-engineering based upon the currents as they know them, to see where it is over maybe hundreds, maybe a thousand miles back to where the plane actually went down, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So, Tom, one thing that stuck out to me about this latest satellite data is it talks about the biggest piece visible in that latest satellite photo about 75 feet long. That was also the biggest piece visible in the previous Chinese and Australian satellite photos. Is there any way to estimate, to get to make an intelligent guess as to whether that's the same piece and it's moved around in some sort of predictable way since those first photos were taken?

FOREMAN: There are ways to run the math on it, I suppose. But let me bring in a big picture of currents down in that area because you really do have to consider them in this circumstance. It -- all those pictures except for is the first Chinese pictures which were discounted were quickly -- were taken in roughly the same area and this is the area right here. That's the spot.

And these are time lapse images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing currents in the area, and you can see this, Jim. They are a hodgepodge here, all sorts of things going on. There are a few strong currents cutting in certain ways, but the bottom line is yes, you can do the math on that to figure out where it came from, but it's not easy -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: That's incredible. Just looks like chaos.

Thanks very much to Tom Foreman. It shows just how unpredictable it is.

Now, in past cases of airline disasters, like Air France 447, debris spotted floating on the water eventually two years ago led to discovery of the black boxes. As anyone who's heard the safety lecture knows, your seat cushion may be used as a flotation device and there may also be much larger pieces of the Boeing 777 still out there waiting to be found and waiting to share the story of what happened on that flight with investigators.

Our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh, is taking a look at that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Three million parts to a Boeing 777 and after more than two weeks of searching, not one piece of Flight 370 has been found. Satellite images from Australia, China, and France showing floating objects in the south Indian Ocean, the latest suggests 122 floating objects, but so far nothing is confirmed to be from the plane.

The objects range from three to 78 feet. The larger piece could be a portion of the wing. The total wingspan of a 777 is 200 feet.

KEN CHRISTENSEN, FORMER AIR FORCE ACCIDENT INVESTIGATOR: The wing carries fuel, and so liquid doesn't leak out, it's sealed. So when a plane uses all that fuel and the tanks now are empty, those voids in the wing will now leave layer and that would float a wing.

MARSH: But the large objects could be multiple pieces.

WILLIAM WALDOCK, EMBRY-RIDDLE AERONAUTICAL UNIVERSITY: They're mangled with wire and other debris so you may have a lot of other smaller pieces mixed in which might look like a larger piece from the satellite or the air. MARSH: The size of debris depends on how a plane hits the water. If it hit water fast nose first like Alaska Airlines Flight 261 in 2000, the plane would shatter into thousands of small pieces. A midair explosion like TWA Flight 800 could produce larger debris and a wider field. But if someone attempted a controlled landing, like Ethiopian Airlines Flight 961, the plane could break into large pieces. What sinks and what floats depends on what it's made of.

CHRISTENSEN: I think floating today definitely seat cushions, definitely insulation.

MARSH: Plastic and composite parts of the plane like overhead bins and even the tail could still be floating. Air France 447's tail was floating days after it crashed. Heavy metal pieces like engines and the fuselage would sink. All of that considered, these satellite images may not even be the lead search crews need.

CHRISTENSEN: The eddy currents that are collecting this stuff, it's almost like a whirlpool effect -- 120 items, you know, this could be garbage, plastic bottles, things like this from merchant vessels.

MARSH: Rene Marsh, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: Whirlpool effect. A thousand whirlpools as Tom Foreman showed us. Thanks very much to Rene Marsh.

Coming up, the first legal battle over missing Flight 370. One American lawyer is demanding names and records from Malaysian Airlines. Some attorneys are saying the lawsuit could actually hurt victims' families.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD, and the money lead.

Given all the criticism and uncertainty over the past 20 days, it wasn't a matter of "if" but "when" families of flight 370 passengers would take legal action. We now know the family of passenger Firman Siregar is already pursuing a possible lawsuit not only against Malaysia Airlines but also Boeing, the company that made the 777.

Siregar's father hired a Chicago-based law firm demanding that Malaysia Airlines and Boeing turn over anything that would show that the plane may have crashed due to some design or production flaws. But many wonder how the suit can move forward before the plane has even been found.

Joining me now live is CNN money correspondent Laurie Segall.

Laurie, based on past crashes when passengers' families take action, is it basically automatic that they win these suits? LAURIE SEGALL, CNN MONEY TECH CORRESPONDENT: It's not necessarily automatic. I mean, this kind of case isn't unheard of, but there is a lot of skepticism in this particular case because of jurisdiction.

But, you know, I actually spoke to an attorney who represented several victims of plane crashes and their families and he gave me an idea how much compensation they were able to get. Let me break it down for you. EgyptAir 990 crashed, an attorney was able to get $3.6 million for the family of the plane crash victims and his extended family. So quite a bit.

And American Airlines Flight 587, the attorney represented 14 victims and was able to get $32 million total. And in Swissair flight 111, he represented four families and was able to get $5 million.

Now, I should say this, Jim. You know, not all of these numbers are divided evenly between the families. They're based on a whole number of factors. Where was the lawsuit filed? You know, where was this person from? What was their income?

So, all of these factors are going to play out or could potentially play out in this particular case.

SCIUTTO: And this one, you know, of course, it took place overseas. You got an American company, you've got an Asian airlines, so complicated.

Tell me about the first family to pursue legal action, the family of Firman Siregar. Why are they acting now and what do we know about them?

SEGALL: You know, I think -- if we take a step back, I think, you know, there's grief at the heart of this. The father that's behind this, it's the grief of a father who's missing his son.

And this is probably, you know, I actually spoke to -- his son's name is Firman. I spoke to many of his friends who gave me some insight into who he is. You know, they said he had just graduated from a very prestigious technical university in Indonesia. He was an electrical engineering major and he had just gotten a job as a field engineer at a U.S. oil company in China and he had actually gone to Kuala Lumpur for training for this. And this is what, you know, began this fate.

So, they also describe him as really social and loving of music and Liverpool, you know?

And so, I think when you begin to look at this and you look the images of him and his family, you can really wrap your head around the fact that his father is distraught and he wants answers and he's not necessarily getting them. So, he's desperate to go to court to get them. And in this particular case, they're asking for a lot of information from these courts, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes, it's not just money, they're asking for information. You know, you look at the pictures and you hear the stories. It personalizes it. You see that's certainly not just numbers, those 239 people.

Thanks very much to Laurie Segall.