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Search Area In Indian Ocean Offers Challenges; Source: Flight 370's Pinger Batteries May Not Work; Conflicting Reports About Probe of Pilot; Landslide: 24 Dead; Hope Dims For the Missing

Aired March 26, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now: breaking news in the mystery of Flight 370.

Search planes are about to take off and look for a possible area of plane wreckage. Dozens of new objects spotted by satellite, experts say this is a very encouraging lead. A new report out tonight on the investigation is putting the focus back on the pilots' state of mind and the suspicions that the plane was deliberately crashed.

Plus, Flight 370 families holding vigil and clinging to hope. Could a new lawsuit help them get the answers they so desperately need?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: It's zero hour in the search for Flight 370. Eleven planes are set to take off from Perth, Australia, as the sun rises. They will head for a new target area in the Southern Indian Ocean where 122 objects were spotted by satellite.

Experts call this the most credible lead right now.

Another breaking development: a new "USA Today" report quoting a high ranking Malaysian police source saying investigators have narrowed their suspicions to the pilot and the theory that he deliberately redirected the plane. U.S. government officials tell CNN there's no hard evidence of that right now. Our correspondents and analysts, they are following every lead. They're here in THE SITUATION ROOM and around the globe covering this story as only CNN can.

First, let's go to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto -- Jim.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (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.


SCIUTTO: Today is of course day 20 of the search. And there are just around 13 days left until the flight recorders' batteries die out and can no longer give off the pinging signals detected by that new American underwater equipment. And there are even some experts who say depending on how those batteries were stored before the flight, that battery life could be even shorter -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto reporting, thank you.

Let's dig deeper on the investigation right now, the new report in "USA Today" that Malaysian police are focusing in on the plane's lead captain, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah. The report quotes an official who has been involved in the investigation from the beginning. He says authorities believe Shah -- quote -- "deliberately redirected the plane."

Let's bring in our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown. She's been looking at this.

Your investigative sources are coming up with a different conclusion, at least right now.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: At least right now, and that's the key point right there.

Wolf, I have been speaking to sources, and they tell me that tonight investigators have found no smoking gun in either the pilot or co- pilot's background that would suggest a premeditated act, that they'd been planning the plane's disappearance.

And a source in Malaysia told CNN that police who searched their homes did not find a suicide note or any evidence that suggests financial or marital problems. Now, today, the FBI director, James Comey, told Congress investigators are working overtime to comb through the hard drive from Captain Zaharie Shah's home flight simulator you see right here and from drives taken from the homes of Shah -- the co-pilot, 29- year-old Fariq Hamid.


JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: I have teams working literally around the clock to try and exploit that. But I expect it to be done fairly shortly, within a day or two, to finish that work.


BROWN: And tonight investigators at the FBI lab in nearby Quantico, Virginia, are working to finish, looking through those drives. Sources tell me investigators are still trying to build a profile of both men's backgrounds using information found on those computers, as well as from interviews that Malaysian officials have done with their friends and their families.

But, Wolf, again, it's worth noting that neither Malaysian nor U.S. officials have implicated either men in the loss of that plane. U.S. and Malaysian sources say investigators have not found any concrete evidence on that hard drive or the search of their homes at this point.

BLITZER: But they're certainly exploring that possibility.

BROWN: Yes, no, absolutely. In fact, my sources tell me they're not ruling anything out and that, of course, looking at the two men in the cockpit is still a top priority, but that source also added there doesn't seem to be any prevailing theory here, that there's a counterargument for just about every single theory there is.

BLITZER: Pamela Brown reporting. Thank you.

Let's go to the area right now, the latest on the search for the plane.

CNN's Atika Shubert is in the staging area of Perth, Australia, the Western part of Australia.

What's the latest there, Atika?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We're waiting for those planes to depart the air base here.

They do have to leave quite soon because it's reported that there could be bad weather later on today. So that means a very limited search time. We understand that there should be 11 aircraft operating in the search today, six military and five civilian. And there's also a number of ships now in the search area. And they're all going to be critical for looking at that one particular area about 156 square miles in which French satellites have seen 122 floating objects that could be the debris.

Now, it's critical that the planes get down low so they can get some pictures the and actually identify what those objects are, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Atika Shubert on the scene for us. Atika, thanks very much. Let's hope the weather stays relatively decent so they can get close to the area where these 122 objects were spotted.

We have heard that one of the 122 objects spotted in the Indian Ocean is long enough to possibly be a wing of the plane.

Our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh, is taking a closer look at the potential debris.

What are you finding out, Rene?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're in week three of the search and pieces of this missing plane could still be floating. But so far, none of the satellite images showing these floating objects in the Indian Ocean have been confirmed to be a part of Flight 370. Could search crews be chasing the wrong leads?


MARSH (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: Time is of the essence to make that determination.


MARSH: Well, here's another possibility in this very vast rough part of the ocean. It is quite possible, according to experts, that search crews could miss these floating objects simply because of the fallibility of the human eye and the possibility that these pieces could essentially just blend in with the water.

As one expert told me today, historically, visual search has about a 78 percent probability for detection in that first search, and that's in the best-case scenario, meaning the water is flat and calm, but when you have a lot of wave action like you have there in the Indian Ocean, of course, that probability of detecting it first time around, it decreases, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly does. It's a very, very dangerous and very difficult operation. Rene Marsh reporting, thank you. Let's dig a little bit deeper.

Our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown, is still with us. "New York Times" reporter Michael Schmidt joins us, William Dermody, the world news editor for "USA Today," CNN law enforcement analyst the former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes.

William, I will start with you.

Your reporting breaking potentially new ground. Tell our viewers precisely what "USA Today" has.

WILLIAM DERMODY, "USA TODAY": Well, like Pamela says, a look into Captain Zaharie's background has not found anything that would indicate that he would have been capable of such a terrible act. They have looked into his finances, according to our source, who is a high- level source for the Kuala Lumpur Look, department. They found nothing amiss, according to this source.

They also haven't found any indication of militancy or ties to militant groups. However, they're drawing their conclusion that he deliberately committed this act. And they're doing it based on the fact that they believe he is the only one really capable of doing all the things that had been done on that plane to divert it down to the South Indian Ocean.

BLITZER: Michael Schmidt of "The New York Times," you have been doing a lot of reporting on the pilot and co-pilot. What are you hearing?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, U.S. investigators say that that's plausible, but as we were saying before, there's no evidence to back it up.

But when you hear this come from the Malaysians, you have to wonder whether this is just another misstep of theirs. Are they just trying to put a bookend on the end of this story the same way when they came out the other day and said that the plane -- that everyone on the plane had died?

I'm a bit skeptical of it, because they seem to be making a conclusion without really much to back it up.

BLITZER: There is a political connection in the sense that he was active with the political opposition in Malaysia, including with the opposition leader who was sentenced to a long prison sentence, and supposedly he was either in the courtroom or near the courtroom during that sentencing. And people have been making that political connection for whatever reason.

DERMODY: Well, that's true.

But we don't know if that's what could have upset him in such a way that he would commit such an act, and there's no evidence yet of that, except that he was, of course, according to friends, pretty upset about what had happened in the courtroom during the sentencing. However, the police source we talked to is not a political appointee of any sort. And he's been a longtime investigator who has worked on previous investigations against militants, of which Malaysia has had its share.

BLITZER: You're reporting that the captain of the plane, the 53-year- old captain, was inside the courtroom when this political opposition leader was sentenced?

DERMODY: At the courthouse.

BLITZER: OK, because we have reported that he was near the courthouse, but not necessarily inside the courtroom.

DERMODY: At the courthouse.

BLITZER: So what do you make, Tom? Because from the beginning we have all said everyone would be derelict if they didn't look at the pilot and the co-pilot. I'm sure the FBI has been looking as closely as they possibly can at both of them, precisely because there's at least two cases, an Indonesian plane, the Silk Airlines, an Egyptian plane, EgyptAir, where the pilots, according to U.S. investigators, did deliberately bring those planes down, killing all the passengers because they wanted to commit suicide.

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: That's true, Wolf. But those cases, the opinion that the co-pilots crashed the plane was based on cockpit voice recorders where they could hear the struggle in the cockpit, knew who was at the controls, knew from the data recorders what exactly those aircraft did as they crashed.

In this case, you don't have that. So this judgment is being made on the absence of other evidence.

BLITZER: Why don't the Malaysians release the recordings of what the pilot and the co-pilot were saying to ground control during the first 40 minutes of that flight? They haven't released the audiotape and they haven't released the transcript.

FUENTES: I don't know. But you have to realize too that there's two separate investigations going on, and all of the confusion and changes in reporting have been based on the technicians looking at radar, looking at satellites, looking at civil aviation radar from the air traffic controllers in Kuala Lumpur.

That's completely separate from what the police are doing. The police have zeroed in on the cockpit crew, the other crew members, the passengers, the cargo, the ground crew from day one. And they have been unrelenting and haven't come off of that position.

So, all of that, though, has not revealed anything that would indicate that the pilot or co-pilot did this.

BLITZER: Pamela, are you hearing what -- when we heard James Comey, the FBI director, say in the day or so they expect to complete their investigation of the hard drives of the flight simulator that was taken from the pilot's home, the hard drives from his personal computer, the co-pilot's computer, and they will make that available to Malaysian authorities. Will they also make it available to all of us? Will they release that information to the public?

BROWN: My understanding, Wolf, is that they are going to hand that information over to the Malaysian authorities and then let the Malaysian authorities decide if they want to release it or not.

Again, we have to keep in mind Malaysians are leading this investigation. They gave the FBI this hard drive to analyze, to look at that deleted data. And the FBI has been doing that. It has a full-tilt drive, as my sources say, to recover that data and be able to paint a better picture of who these two men are.

BLITZER: Where is this investigation heading, based on your reporting, Michael?

SCHMIDT: Well, just back to the point that we were talking about before about this being the pilot who brought it down, if it was the pilot who brought it down, why did he take it in a different direction? Why didn't he just take the plane down on the path it was headed on? And that's what I don't understand.

It just doesn't -- it doesn't add up, because I think in the previous cases in which the pilot took the plane down, they did it on the path that the plane was on. But instead here, we're looking off the coast of Australia.

BROWN: And it kept flying for, we think, based on the latest --


BLITZER: This the black box. It's really orange, the flight data recorder that we have right here.

One of the suspicions I have heard -- and I don't know if you guys want to weigh in -- is that, if, in fact -- and we don't know the pilot did this or anybody else did it -- wanted to fly seven hours away, ditch the plane in the Indian Ocean because they didn't want anyone to get access to the black box, so they wouldn't hear if there were any fighting -- fighting going on in the cockpit, there wouldn't be any record, if you will, of any conversations that were going on or any information from the flight data or the voice recorder.

You have heard that suspicion as well.

FUENTES: That's right, that the recorders may never be found. And then if they are, the voice recorder part of the recorders is probably going to be written over and there will be no cockpit voice recording that occurred at the time of the initial turning off the transponders and the ACARS stopping the broadcast and the plane making the left turn, and then other left turns.

All of that will be lost from the voice recorder. These pilot suicides in the past, it was determined by the voices. The data recorder will tell you the plane went up, down, sideways, left, right, but it won't tell you why or who was at the controls. The voice recorder will reveal that information, and if it's written over, it's gone.

BLITZER: If they never find this flight data recorder or the voice recorder, we may never know, William, what happened specifically, right?


DERMODY: Well, right. The investigator that we talked to is -- they're under the impression --

BLITZER: The Malaysian investigator.

DERMODY: Yes, the Malaysian investigator is under the impression that some relatives of the captain may know a little more about this situation than they're revealing.

BLITZER: Are they saying which relatives, the wife, the kids?

DERMODY: No, they won't say.


DERMODY: But they're focusing on trying to press several of the people he knew to see if there's something in here that would give them an indication of perhaps if there is a motive or not for this.

We should keep in mind that there were some actions that took place on the flight that had to be, they believe, done deliberately. And through, as Tom says, somewhat a process of elimination and doing background checks on everyone on the plane, they believe that the captain is really the only one capable of doing that. And although the co-pilot has plenty of experience, they just don't believe he would be able to do what was done.

BLITZER: You have always suspected a human being was responsible, not mechanical failure.

FUENTES: But if we go back to 9/11, the hijackers didn't have a whole lot of hours in an aircraft. They didn't have thousands like the co- pilot. And somehow they managed to find the World Trade Center, narrow tower, and crashed in to two separate towers in midair without a problem, crash into the Pentagon without a problem.

And they had almost no experience and they made those aircraft do pretty substantial turning and rerouting and descending and altitude to accomplish it.

BLITZER: You're leaving open the possibility that somebody got in the cockpit.

FUENTES: I'm leaving everything open, Wolf.

DERMODY: Well, keep in mind on that, too, that I think many authorities have looked into the background of the passengers, and, according to our source, they have found nothing that indicates they took any pilot training, like the terrorists did on 9/11, or that they had any ties to militancy, which of course we knew immediately after --


BLITZER: Pam, you want to make one more point?

BROWN: No, I was just curious. We're three weeks into this, though.

The first week, I think they were just trying to kind of get their bearings. There was a lot of focus on whether it was a mechanical failure. I'm just curious to hear from Tom, though, would we really have that in-depth of a look at these passengers to really know as much as we need to know to make any decisions?

FUENTES: No. And that would take months to have that in depth.

And what we don't know also is if you have so many stolen and lost and counterfeit passports being use in Asia, it's very easy to also add to that false driver's licenses, other information. So you could -- the fact that nothing's come up derogatory on the passengers, it could be they don't even have the right identity for many of the passengers.

BLITZER: We have got to wrap it up. Anything else?

SCHMIDT: I just find it hard to believe that you couldn't learn how to do this. Sure, the pilot was the one with the expertise, but given all the information that's out there on the Internet and everything, I just find it hard to believe that you couldn't learn how to do that.

BLITZER: Someone else potentially. And we will continue our investigation, and you will continue yours, and we will see what we come up with. Guys, thanks very, very much.

Still ahead, Flight 370's families in shock and grief. What are their legal rights as the investigation moves forward, especially if there's evidence the plane was deliberately crashed? And we're also mapping out the search in the Indian Ocean, how crews are trying to track down dozens of possible pieces of debris in an area around the size of Denver, Colorado. CNN's Tom Foreman is standing by.


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news this hour, the search planes heading from Perth, Australia, back out over the Southern Indian Ocean.

They're looking for the newest clue, 122 objects detected by satellite imagery. They will travel more than 1,500 miles just to get to the search area. That's slightly farther than the distance from here in Washington, D.C., to Denver, Colorado.

The lack of any solid evidence of the plane so far could complicate any lawsuits or efforts to compensate passengers' families.

Let's talk about the investigation and legal options.

Joining us, our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, along with our asks analysts Miles O'Brien and Peter Goelz.

Jeffrey, hypothetically, assuming the pilot was responsible, pilot suicide, as has been the case in at least two other major disasters, who would be legally liable as far as compensating the passengers are concerned?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, let's start with the basics.

The basics are that under the international treaty known as the Montreal Convention, every passenger is almost certainly entitled to about $175,000 from the airline. But if a court proceeding could show that there was the fault of the pilot or otherwise the fault of an airline employee, the airline could be responsible for a great deal more money. So if the pilot or co-pilot brought it down, the airline would be responsible for enormous damages.

BLITZER: And would Malaysia Airlines, Miles, go along with that if it was determined the pilot for whatever reason brought that plane down in the middle of the Indian Ocean somewhere? Would Malaysia Airlines step up and say, yes, we hired this guy and we're now going to pay off all these families?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: They'd be forced to, I would imagine, if that were the case. But again we're a long way from any proof of that fact.

This idea of homing in on the pilot admittedly would be at the top of my list, but there are still a lot of things that we can't rule out, including the fact that this plane could have been commandeered. For all we know, he was a hero that was trying to get a bomb that was on board away from land. We don't know.

BLITZER: As far as compensation -- you have been involved, Peter, in a lot of these investigations -- Malaysia Airlines, no matter what, is going to be shelling out a lot of money.

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, they're going to pay, but their defense, once it goes into litigation, Malaysia Airlines turns over their defense entirely to their insurance underwriters.

They mount a defense. Malaysia doesn't even have a say in what kind of defense they're going to mount. And so they will aggressively challenge any suits.

BLITZER: And Jeffrey, getting back to Malaysia and Malaysia government, the Malaysian Airlines, there are these two other cases. U.S. Investigators concluded the Egypt Air flight was pilot suicide. A Silk Airlines flight that went -- that crashed was pilot suicide. That's an Indonesian airliner.

If in fact, this is a similar kind of situation, would there be pressure on Malaysia, as the Indonesians did and the Egyptians did, to simply deny that it was suicide? It was mechanical failure, they both claimed earlier.

TOOBIN: That's -- there would be that pressure, because it's one thing for an international body or even the NTSB to conclude what the cause of an accident is, but an airline is not going to pay unless a court finds them liable. And that's a very different thing.

And here you have the additional complexity of a Malaysian airline, mostly Chinese passengers, wreckage that hasn't even been found yet that may be near Australia. So the question of which country's court is something that's going to be very complicated to resolve.

There have been at least some initial efforts to try to bring a case in the United States. It happened in the past couple of days, but you know, this is very early. This could be just intercontinental ambulance chasing. So, you know, this is all going to take a very long time to be resolved, legally.

BLITZER: Peter, you were directly involved over at the NTSB with the Egypt Air investigation. What happens in a situation like this when there's a multinational investigation. How do you determine who really is responsible?

GOELZ: Well, it is very complex. Sometimes in Silk Air, even though the NTSB determined that the probable cause was pilot induced, U.S. courts ruled differently, and family members got large settlements.


GOELZ: From, I believe, the underwriters.

BLITZER: From the insurance companies.

GOELZ: That's right.

BLITZER: Underwriting the Silk Airlines.

GOELZ: That's right.

BLITZER: And what about the Egypt airlines? Who paid for that?

GOELZ: I'm not familiar about that. But I know there were multiple lawsuits that went on for years.

BLITZER: This investigation, Miles, and you've covered a lot of these over the years. This could go on and on and on, especially if they don't recover this, the flight data recorder. If they don't recover wreckage -- and it's possible they might not -- we might never know, really, what happened.

O'BRIEN: You know, and I hate to hear that said, but I think that's where we are right now. Can you imagine if this could be an enduring mystery? This could be like Amelia Earhart, you know? It's -- it is quite possible, if you don't find those boxes, that you won't have a definitive answer. We can say all day long that we think the pilot did something, but we have no proof. BLITZER: Got to find the proof; you've got to find the evidence. If in fact, as the "USA Today" editor was suggesting, that they're honing in on some relatives now, they're trying to get some more information on this pilot, we'll see what they come up with. We'll see what we come up with with our sources, as well.

Guys, thanks very much.

Just ahead, Tom Foreman is standing by in our virtual studio. He's going to give us a closer look at the step-by-step process the searchers are now using to identify a possible crash zone.

And I'll speak with Richard Quest about the batteries the plane was carrying.


BLITZER: Even though satellites are sending back images that might be debris from Flight 370, it's still up to searchers in the planes and aboard ships to find whatever is floating in the Indian Ocean, and that will take a slow, methodical amount of work.

CNN's Tom Foreman is joining us from our virtual studio to give us a closer look at how it's done -- Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, they have a really impressive fleet if you think about all the craft out there to help them search in this area: 11 aircraft, 5 ships from all these different countries.

But all you have to do is bring in the map of what they're trying to look for, and you start realizing what a challenge it remains. All that they're up against.

Think about this. If you're coming out of Perth, and you're trying to get through this particular area where the objects were spotted, that's about 1,600 miles of travel before you even start doing your job. This is a big, big challenge.

Here's another way of looking at it. If you were to widen this out and look at the overall area that they're trying to search in the southern corridor down there, if you look at this, 621,000 square miles, yes, these planes have different capabilities. The ships have different capabilities.

But as a practical matter, by the time they make that trip and do their searching and get back, they can cover about 5 percent of this grid on a good day. Which means if the weather is right, the conditions are right, all the equipment holds up and everything goes perfectly, it would take them 20 days to work through just this grid, and that's just a portion of what they're looking at.

Here's another way of talking about that. And let's narrow it down to just the area with the potential objects in it. If you talk about that, you're talking about an area that's about 12 1/2 miles by 12 1/2 miles. Imagine taking off in a search plane from Washington, D.C., in the morning, flying all the way across the country, trying to get all the way out to Colorado, so you've covered a tremendous amount of ground, then going down to the city of Denver and, within the basic outlines of that city, trying to fly all the way in and from the air spot a particular trash can or a particular person or a particular car, something relatively small. That's essentially what they're trying to do.

And in most cases they're only going to have two or three hours over the city to look before they have to fly all the way back to refuel and start again the next day.

So Wolf, that gives you a sense of why this is so difficult, even with all these great tools out there. Something spotted in the water. Finding it is a big, big challenge and will remain so.

BLITZER: It's a huge job, especially when the water is very, very choppy, dangerous weather, not easy to fly around there, certainly on boats either. All right, Tom, thanks very much.

A source who recently worked on Malaysian Airlines 777s tells CNN the pinger batteries on Flight 370 may have already stopped sending signals from the flight data recorder, voice recorder and so-called black boxes. The information comes from a recent audit of the airline's parts, storage and maintenance procedures.

Let's bring in our own Richard Quest, who's in New York. Richard, explain potentially the significance of this development.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: According to a source, who told David Soucie that the batteries on the underwater locator beacons, according to this audit, they discovered that the batteries were being stored in a too-humid area and against what the manufacturer said should be, which was in a cool area.

Now, because of obviously the humidity in Malaysia, storing the batteries for a prolonged period of time in this area could degrade their operational performance by up to 50 percent. If that is true, then, of course, the battery's now being activated with the crash into the water, those batteries may already have been exhausted and come to the end of their useful life. So in other words, there may be no pingers.

That is according to one source, who basically said he told Malaysia to start storing the batteries properly in cool surroundings. They did so for a while, but then went back to the old ways.

Now, on the other side, the makers of the pingers, they say that, frankly, the pingers and the batteries, they're designed to work in all sorts of extreme temperatures, and that shouldn't really be a factor. It's more the age of the unit rather than the batteries and such.

But it is a worry. I would say, Wolf, since this is the battery at the end of it. This is the pinger. And now, of course, on the side of the pinger, you have the battery that will provide the source to keep going for 30 days.

Now, Wolf, I would say that, until we have some form of confirmation one way or the other, at worst this is a worrying possibility that those pingers may already have stopped transmitting if those batteries were improperly stored.

BLITZER: And they would only have 12 or 13 or 14 days left if they were properly stored.

QUEST: Right.

BLITZER: What you're saying here and we have one of these flight data recorders here with the battery here, the pinger here, if in fact, it's not emitting any noise, any sound, any indication at all right now, even if they find the debris, it may not make much difference. Is that what you're saying?

QUEST: Yes. I mean, they found the black boxes on 447 two years after the pingers stopped, so it's not -- it's not an open-and-shut scenario, but certainly, look, if these batteries were improperly stored by Malaysian Airlines and if it's proven that that degrades the operational performance, then frankly, the searchers' task has just got that little bit more difficult, because they've still got to find the debris field. They've still got to work out where it is. They've still got to find the plane. And this best opportunity, Wolf, to do so with the pinger may just have got a little bit more remote.

BLITZER: What do you make, Richard, of this "USA Today" report, the newspaper "USA Today" report quoting a high-ranking Malaysian law enforcement source suggesting that the pilot, the senior pilot, the 53-year-old pilot deliberately took command and diverted that plane, flew over the Indian Ocean for whatever reason? U.S. sources telling us we have -- that they have no confirmation of this whatsoever. They've not come to any definitive conclusion. What do you make, though, of this "USA Today" report?

QUEST: I think it's like every allegation against the pilots of this plane. We clearly know that somebody did something, and the plane was turned deliberately. That's the phrase being used.

If you look at the flight plan or the flight path, it was clearly moved deliberately west and then south. So yes, the body of evidence that somebody did something is growing by the day and in doing so, Wolf, starts to diminish the mechanical option.

But -- and here's where I disagree with "USA Today" and all those who would happily try and convict one of the pilots -- you cannot, you must not go that next stage and say it was one of the pilots because, to use the phrase that I'm afraid you've heard me say so many times over the last three weeks, we just don't know.

BLITZER: Good point. They're quoting this high=ranking Malaysian police officer as coming to this conclusion, I suspect, based on circumstantial evidence.

One of the things they point out was that the 53-year-old pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah, he had the expertise to do this. He had flown a triple-7 many times. The junior pilot, the 27-year-old, on the other hand, was relatively new to a 777 and had only flown in it, what, about six times or something, although this was his sixth flight. What do you make of that point that this senior Malaysian law enforcement officer is telling "USA Today"?

QUEST: Until I've heard it officially, I'm going to leave that firmly where it belongs: a piece of the jigsaw on the table but not part of the picture. It's simply too risky. It's simply too -- it's simply too unfair, Wolf, in my view, to basically be judge and jury on a man whose -- you know, we don't -- Miles O'Brien summed it up earlier. This man could have been saving the plane, not dooming it.

BLITZER: Richard Quest, thanks very much. Good work. Appreciate it.

Up next, the grim prediction from the governor of Washington state, where the death toll is now rising after a devastating landslide.

And we're also monitoring the takeoffs as planes head toward the southern Indian Ocean. They're looking for any sign of Flight 370.


BLITZER: Breaking news right now coming out of Boston. We're learning from a public safety source one firefighter was killed this afternoon in a massive nine alarm fire in the city's Back Bay neighborhood. Boston Emergency Medical Services say it transported 18 patients to area hospitals. The Boston Fire Department says the blaze broke out in the basement of a brownstone quickly climbed up a four story building, more than 150 firefighters and 20 or 30 trucks responded.

In Washington state, rescue crews are using bulldozers, shovels and their hands in the hunt for victims of last weekend's deadly mudslide. Two dozen people are known dead.

Today, the Washington governor told CNN's Jim Sciutto he expects a big increase in the death toll.


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

GOV. JAY INSLEE (D), WASHINGTON (via telephone): Yes. I don't think anyone can reach any other conclusion. It's been very sad we've not been able to find anyone living now for about 36, 48 hours. So, it's extremely discouraging and I -- 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.


BLITZER: Let's go to CNN's George Howell. He's joining us from near the disaster area with more on the very latest -- George.

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in just a few minutes ago here in Darrington, officials tell us that they did find more victims today though they are not releasing any numbers the official number that we have at this point is that 16 people died in this mudslide and that investigators, the search-and-rescue teams found eight additional victims yesterday but they have not yet removed from the mud.

Today, we spent some time trying to learn more exactly about what's happening there on the ground and we learned that more resources are on the way.


HOWELL (voice-over): It's a slow laborious process moving through the mud and debris searching for victims. This video the very latest taken from the disaster zone as the rescue and recovery operation continues.

Even the mayor of nearby Darrington admits --

MAYOR DAN RANKIN, DARRINGTON, WASHINGTON: This project is so big, you know, we can't do this ourselves. The magnitude of it and the severity and the distance material traveled and the energy that it took to get there is, is something that you can't wrap your head around.

HOWELL: Locals began digging right away, trying to help each other. But now more regional and state resources are in play.

To cover the one square mile of land, officials tell us there are seven excavators on the ground to help sift through the mud. Five gravel trucks to load and remove debris -- one bulldozer on site, 16 timber cutter and 85 urban search-and-rescue crews along with dozens of volunteers. Two Black Hawk helicopters are also en route to search from above.

(on camera): With so many teams and crews on the ground you find tent cities like this where search-and-rescue crews are setting up for the long haul and now we know that more federal help is also on the way.

REP. SUZAN DELBENE (D), WASHINGTON: The emergency declaration was focused on making sure there were resources right away in terms of emergency response. Right now they are looking at expanding that to help with debris removal and ongoing efforts as we look to recovery in that area.

HOWELL (voice-over): It's helped that Congresswoman Suzan DelBene knows will make a big difference in the days and weeks ahead. And although it's welcomed in these parts --

RANKIN: We pride ourselves on our resiliency and our self-reliance.

HOWELL: -- help isn't something this community is used to asking for.

(END VIDEOTAPE) HOWELL: So, with all of the equipment, with all the trucks that are out here, we also hear from officials that it really comes down to the volunteers, and the search-and-rescue teams, the boots on the ground, people that are searching, scanning, looking in those void spaces where homes may have been demolished or cars may be buried in the mud, Wolf, as they don't look for victims.

And the next news conference, we hope to get more information in the next two hours. But again, the latest information that we have is 16 are confirmed dead and additional eight remain in the mud not yet recovered, Wolf.

BLITZER: Our heart goes out to all those folks.

All right. Thanks so much, George Howell, reporting.

It's now Thursday morning, the sun is up in Western Australia. Stand by. We'll have an update on the latest from the search area from Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.


BLITZER: Take another quick look at the breaking news in the mystery of Flight 370. The search for debris is resuming with a very specific new target, 122 objects spotted by satellite in the southern Indian Ocean. Experts call this a credible lead that could -- I repeat could -- lead to a break in the case. Those planes are taking off right now.

Meanwhile, there are conflicting reports about the investigation into the captain of Flight 370. CNN sources say there's no hard evidence to suggest the pilot was solely responsible. The newspaper "USA Today" is reporting police in Malaysia are focusing in on their suspicions the pilot deliberately -- deliberately -- diverted the plane. That investigation continuing.

Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter, tweet me @WolfBlitzer, you can tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.