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Interview With Gov. Jay Inslee; Were Landslide Warnings Ignored?; Hunting For A Moving Target

Aired March 26, 2014 - 16:30   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Yes, it's not just money; they're asking for information. You look at the pictures and you hear their stories and it really personalizes it. You see it's certainly not just numbers, those 239 people. Thanks very much to Laurie Segall.

Coming up, millions of pieces make up a Boeing 777, and one holds the most clues of what happened to Flight 370. Next, an up-close look at the cockpit voice recorder.

Plus, did Malaysia Airlines follow proper procedures when storing the black box batteries before the plane took off? My next guest says no, and it could have a serious effect on the search today.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD. And continuing our World Lead, there is one critical piece of equipment on this missing plane that could hold the key to solving this whole mystery. It's the so-called black box, also known as the cockpit voice recorder.

Our Victor Blackwell is live from Fort Lauderdale with a close-up look at one actual reporter from an actual Boeing 777 like the one that disappeared. Victor, looking at that equipment up close, what are you learning there?

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're learning that it is most important that this is found in the next few days because once that battery dies, once the beacon dies, it's going to become more difficult to find it. And this flight data recorder that we saw, and the cockpit voice recorder especially, came from a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777.

We're told this is part of the landing gear that was pulled from a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777. The man who runs this company, this warehouse, says he knows the plane and the parts and the company well, and he says obviously it's time for some things to change.


BLACKWELL: Search crews spent another day scouring the southern Indian Ocean for the so-called black boxes of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder. They're parts Abdul Mulberry knows very well.

ABDUL MULBERRY, CEO, GA TELESIS:Measuring 88 parameters, which is the most ever.

BLACKWELL: He's the CEO of GA Telesis in Ft. Lauderdale. His company buys commercial planes, then refurbishes and sells the parts. Right now, they're pull apart this Boeing 777 flown by Malaysia Airlines, the same make and model as Flight 370. This cockpit recorder is identical to the one that could tell investigators why and how MH-370 disappeared.

MULBERRY: They consist of three parts. You've got the element which records and the power unit in the back.

BLACKWELL: And the underwater beacon.

MULBERRY: There is a sensor on the sides here that are activated by water. And once those are activated, they will send out a ping signal that will be picked up by tracking devices that will look for these specific pings.

BLACKWELL: In just a week-and-a-half, that ping will likely go silent.

BLACKWELL: According to the new FAA regulations, anyone after February who makes one of these has to increase the battery life from 30 days to 90 days. What's the impact on airlines?

MULBERRY: It won't be much. The cost of a battery may be a few thousand dollars, but in the overall sense of what it means to a search party looking for it, it makes all the difference in the world.

BLACKWELL: Beyond the parts of the black boxes, Mulberry suggests it's time to fundamentally rethink the system.

Maybe during the flight transmit via satellite or radio transmission, just a basic information about the flight and to store it somewhere on land.

MULBERRY: I think it definitely should happen. I think the challenge is who does it, who pays for it, and where is all that data stored. The world would have to get together and come up with something that would allow them to constantly track every movement of an aircraft.

BLACKWELL: Until the black boxes are modernized to send information, the search crews will be forced to hunt for those black boxes first.


BLACKWELL: And, Jim, I asked Mulberry when you get Malaysia Airlines jets, are they poorly maintained? And he said there are some airlines around the globe that do not take as good care as other airlines, but Malaysia Airlines is not one of them. He says not only are they adamant about their maintenance, they overdo it. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Victor Blackwell, thanks very much.

Nineteen full days have ticked by, but time is still very much of the essence because these black boxes come with an expiration date, about 30 days of battery life. My next guest says the specific batteries on this missing plane might already be out of power.

So I want to bring in CNN safety analyst David Soucie. He's author of the book "Why Planes Crash." David, I understand you had a sobering conversation with the auditors at the maintenance base that actually took care of this particular flight, 370. What did they tell you about how these batteries are maintained?

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: I did, Jim. What he told me was that during his audit, he was a mechanic, he working on not specifically this aircraft, he didn't talk about that. But he did talk about the maintenance base where it was maintained.

Now here's my concern about this: he told me he went in and did audit on the way they store parts, where they put the parts and how they handle those parts. Among that audit was the handling of the pinger, of the little battery in the pinger. Those batteries and pingers need to be stored either in a refrigerated area or room temperature area. As you know, Malaysia is not a cool country in the summertime, especially the humidity and the heat. We're talking a storage area that he found these were stored in over 100 degrees, well over 100 degrees, plus high humidity.

What that tells us then -- he wrote that up as a finding. He said we need to change this so those batteries that were in there were retired because what happens at that temperature is they go to about half- life. Now, those were all retired and subsequently they said OK, we will keep these batteries in refrigerated storage, which at that time he said they did. Now he tells me that practice is not always practiced. There's a lot of complacency around it. The batteries are constantly being stored in the wrong place. Occasionally they're put in the refrigerator, occasionally they're not.

But again, if it's in that hot temperature and one of these batteries, which get changed every thousand hours, was placed into this aircraft, I'm very concerned that that pinger might already be out of power.

SCIUTTO: And David, just to be clear, the pinger's out of power, the only way to find the black boxes, the flight recorders, is to go down and see them visually with a submarine on the bottom of the ocean.

SOUCIE: Yes, that's right. And remember on Flight 447, when they made their first assumptions and made all these searches over that area -- and we knew very closely where that was, that that black box would have been located so. So we did all these searches over the top -- or the searching party -- with the toe fish, that's the fish. But the toe fish is pulled behind and it picks up these pings. They couldn't pick up any pings. They wasted very valuable time, had to wait an entire winter to come back to look for it because they adjusted their parameters and said, wait a minute, the pingers aren't working, let's adjust our search grids to a different location so that we can start finding it and they did.

SCIUTTO: What's interesting about Air France flight, because after that because of Flight 447, they changed -- the battery life was supposed to be changed from 30 to 90 days. Here we are five years later, and a lot of planes still haven't changed that. I believe they only take effect next year. Right?

SOUCIE: Well, that's right. And there's something more to that. The TSO-91, which is the regulation-type standard order for that battery, what they did is they said, yes, if it's manufactured new, it has to have 90 days. There's nothing to say the old ones, no regulation by the FAA or IKAO or IASA (ph) or any of the regulatory agencies that says they have to go back and replace the old 30-day ones with 90-day ones. We're talking anything manufactured from 2015 forward. It doesn't help anything in the past.

SCIUTTO: And there are 20,000 planes up there now. So could take a lot of time to retrofit.

Just one quick question. Speaking with Mark Weiss, who's our aviation analyst, also a longtime American Airlines pilot, he made the point that a Boeing 777 has more metal in it than the Airbus, which was the Air France plane, which has more composite. Which is therefore more likely to float, making parts of the 777 less likely to float because that metal content. Does that make sense to you?

SOUCIE: In some respects. I admire Mark Weiss -- I know him quite well, and he's definitely the knowledgeable person on the 777.

But I would argue a little bit that most of the composites on the Airbus -- and I've been at the factory. I was there when the 380 was being built and observed their maintenance -- or their manufacturing practices. What's mostly composite on those aircraft, what they focused on is the control surfaces and the mounting of the controlled surfaces to be composite.

The fuselage, while it does have composite parts, is still mostly aluminum structure. But that doesn't mean that the aluminum doesn't float because a honeycomb aluminum structure has a lot of air between it. You have a small, thin layer of aluminum on the top and bottom with honeycomb in between and then sealed together very tightly. So something very heavy could be supported and float and does.

SCIUTTO: Understood. All right. Well, they are still looking at the planes going up very soon. Thanks very much to David Soucie.

Coming up, the hunt for those 122 pieces of debris picked up by satellite. We're getting close to first daylight in Australia. We'll get a live report as the search resumes.

But first, a warning years before a deadly landslide. Did local officials do enough to warn residents in that mudslide's path?


SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Turning to our "National Lead," it's been four days since anyone was pulled alive from the rubble of the catastrophic landslide in Northern Washington State and family members and rescue crews have started to face the grim reality that there may not be any more survivors. Twenty four people are now confirmed dead, but some of the bodies remain in that mound of thick mud and debris and rocks because it's just too difficult for the rescuers to safely dig them out.

As the operation slowly shifts from rescue to recovery, new questions are being raised about whether this tragedy could have been prevented. CNN correspondent, Bill Weir is live in Darrington. Bill, so it appears this area had a lot of very specific warnings going back to 1999. Is that right?

BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Sure, but there's been a lot of slides in this area going back to the '40s, but, yes, in 2010, geologists, engineers put out this very stark warning, here's a report, here's the map of an area where they warned about large, catastrophic failure in the hillside. They are worried about over logging, the plateau above, erosion from the river below. They talked about tougher zoning laws, maybe even buying some people out of the more vulnerable areas.

But Jim, we've seen this covering hurricanes and wildfires. Retreat is not in the vocabulary of the American home owner, land owner in most cases. And so it's very difficult in hindsight to go back and say they should have pushed these people out of this area. These are Americans. They don't want to leave.

In fact, when they raised the idea of this maybe 15 years ago over concerns in this area, people here were so resistant they tried to secede from the county. They formed their own freedom county and in an ironic twist one of the leaders of that movement is among the missing here today.

SCIUTTO: Just very quickly, were these warnings general to the area or were they specific, for instance, to this valley where the landslide happened?

WEIR: They were general to the state of Washington, but the most vulnerable areas were certainly noted and this valley is among them.

SCIUTTO: All right, thanks very much to Bill Weir. Joining me now by telephone is Washington State Governor Jay Inslee. Governor Inslee, thank you so much for joining us. A 176 people still unaccounted for. We do hear discrepancies on that list. Given that it's four or five days since the event happened, wouldn't at least some of the people whose names are on that missing list come forward if, in fact, they are safe?

GOV. JAY INSLEE, WASHINGTON STATE (via telephone): Well, we would hope so. That process of weeding that out is still going on. There's possibility for lots of confusion. People go by different versions of their names, and so the authorities are doing everything they can to have a most accurate account in this dynamic situation. But we're principally focused on rescue right now. We want to give every resource we can, every energy we can to find out if anyone has a chance to be alive in this one square mile of disaster. And that's an ongoing very vigorous effort that's going on as we speak.

SCIUTTO: Now, the death toll stands at 24. Do you expect that death toll based on what you know to rise significantly?

INSLEE: Yes. I don't think anyone can reach any other conclusion. It's been very sad that we have not been able to find anyone living now for probably 36, 48 hours. So it's extremely discouraging, and the most discouraging thing is, you know, we were hopeful that we would find folks who might be protected by a car or a structure. But the force of this landslide just defies imagination. The cars that have been found have been just literally twisted into corkscrews and torn in half.

You can't overestimate the power of this thing. When I flew over it there was just not a single stick standing. You know, usually you find kind of a transition zone in an area of devastation. There's no transition. It was 100 percent devastation within the contours of the slide.

SCIUTTO: The scenes from the air are really just devastating. You're aware there's been criticism there were no landslide warnings issued for the area despite heavy rain and despite a history for that area of landslides. Do you think that criticism is fair?

INSLEE: Well, listen, we are focused 100 percent on rescue right now. There will come a time when we answer these very important questions in great detail and there's going to be a lot of heavy-duty geological evaluation of this over time, but we just can't focus -- we have to focus on rescuing people right now. And there will come a time for us to get to the bottom of those questions.

I will tell you that glaciers carved a very beautiful state here, but as they reseed they left giant piles of glacial hills, sand, cobble, very, very loose. We have hundreds of areas in our great state that are prone to landslides. This is hardly unique in our state, unfortunately. In fact, just coming back, flying back from the scene I saw another one on Whidbey Island.

So last year we had another square-mile event with the island. So unfortunately we do have these risks throughout our state. We're going to get to the bottom of this after we do everything possible for rescuing these people.

SCIUTTO: I certainly do understand the focus on rescue now, but in light of that history that you mentioned, in light of a report in 1999 that warned of a potential for in the words of the report a large catastrophic failure, do you believe there were missed warning signals here?

INSLEE: Well, we don't know. That's what I'm telling you is we will get to the bottom of that question when we have time to thoroughly evaluate it, but I'm dedicated 24 hours a day right now to rescuing these people. I have families up there with family members under 20 feet of mud and our intent is to try to pull them out if they are alive. So that's what we're focused on. We will get to the answer of your question. It will take some time to get to the bottom of that one.

SCIUTTO: Well, listen, we support you on those efforts, sir.

INSLEE: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: We wish you and those rescue teams luck. Thanks very much.

INSLEE: Thank you very much.

SCIUTTO: Governor Inslee, Washington State.

And coming up, minutes away from first daylight over the Indian Ocean, but will the weather cooperate for search teams? A live report from Perth, Australia, is next.


SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD. A stretch of sea as volatile as this, any possible debris is very much a moving target. Investigators spent the day making up for lost time after being grounded for a day by bad weather. It covered more than 30,000 square miles of the Indian Ocean, but that's just a fraction of the total Flight 370 search area.

Now they're about to take off again to comb the waves for those 122 objects spotted by satellite on Sunday so want to go live now to Atika Shubert who is in Perth, Australia, where those search planes are soon set to go airborne. What kind of conditions will we see today, Atika?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, so far they're all set to continue the search, but they have warned that the weather is likely to deteriorate later today so it's really critical they get an early start. They're going to have about 11 planes up in the air today and five ships are already in that search area. The big question is are they going to be able to get to that area where the French satellite took that picture of 122 objects.

This is the best lead we've had so far, and an oceanographer I spoke to yesterday says this patch of debris is right in the middle of where he would expect to see the debris field, where the currents would take the debris. So this really does seem to be the best lead. It could be the breakthrough we're waiting for, but we simply won't know until all these planes get over there and identify some of these objects.

SCIUTTO: And roughly, Atika, how many hours flying to get to that area, still about four hours?

SHUBERT: Yes. Still about four hours to get there, which really for most of the P3 and P8 planes leaves about two hours of searching and then they are coming back. This is why they brought in a lot of commercial jets because they can fly over there for a lot longer.

SCIUTTO: Thanks very much to Atika Shubert in Perth, Australia. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto. I'm going to turn you over now to Wolf Blitzer. He is in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Jim, thanks very much.