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Search for Flight 370 Hampered; Son of Flight 370 Pilot Breaks Silence; The President & The Pope

Aired March 27, 2014 - 04:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news overnight: the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 partially suspended. Ice, turbulence and thick clouds making the search impossible for planes. Crews reporting zero visibility.

Ships in the area are still looking for debris. Investigators racing against the clock to figure out why the jetliner may have crashed -- as the pilot's son, the captain's son, breaks his silence.

We have live team coverage breaking down the very latest.

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Poppy Harlow, in for John Berman today, Thursday, March 27th, 4:00 a.m. here on the East Coast. A lot of news this morning.

We begin with that desperate search for Flight 370 cut short by very bad weather, 11 aircraft evacuated from the search area in the southern Indian Ocean just a few hours ago, after spending a few hours looking for those 122 objects photographed Sunday by French satellite, but not a single sighting. Ships, though, do remain in the area searching for any sign of that missing plane, all while investigators dig deeper into the background of Flight 370's captain, to find out if he, or who could be the one who possibly took this jetliner down.

Let's begin with the latest on the search off the coast of Australia.

Andrew Stevens is live for us from Perth this morning.

Good morning, Andrew.


We're actually here inside the Perth air force base, just waiting for the Australian flight to return. It didn't get down there. It was turned around halfway down because of that bad weather.

Now, you can see behind me, here's one of the P-3 Orions. That's one of the Australian planes. Usually at this time of the day, this place here is pretty much empty of search aircraft, but as you say, bad weather over that scene has pulled all the aircraft back. And remember, this is the second time that this has happened in two days, so losing valuable time over that search target. I can tell you, though, that there are ships in the area, Poppy. They haven't been driven off the target by this storm, but you have to wonder just how much they'll be able to devote to looking for the debris and how many people are going to be need to actually get this ship sailing through this really, really bad weather.

Earlier, we spoke to the U.S. Air Force about their own experiences down on that search zone. This is what they had to say.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were informed the weather was zero visibility with severe turbulence and severe icing. So, fairly high-risk flying conditions and with the visibility the way it is, very low probability of seeing anything out there at all.

REPORTER: Is there any point in going out there today, given the weather?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is no point. The risk does not outweigh the potential rewards for finding them.


STEVENS: Now, I can tell you, Poppy, that at this stage, the search coordinators say that this bad weather's likely to continue for another 24 hours, which means that there is a possibility that they could get some aircraft down on to that site tomorrow, but it's so frustrating, because those reports yesterday coming from French satellite pictures, talking about a debris field, a potential debris field, 122 objects in there, some quite large ones, 70 feet, 80 feet long, which could -- and I underline the word could -- indicate a wing, perhaps, of a plane. That debris field is going to be obviously quite messed up by the hard weather down there.

So, it just makes the search conditions even tougher, just to try and connect the dots down there, just to try to find a piece of debris which actually links that area, that search zone to the downed airliner, Poppy.

HARLOW: Absolutely. I mean, you're talking about a search area about 2,500 kilometers off the coast of Perth, 122 potential objects sighted on March 23rd. This is four days later.

Have the folks on the ground there, Andrew, given you any indication of just how far from that initial location that the satellite spotted this debris could have moved and in what direction? Because of this bad weather, does it just make the search more difficult for them and the search area larger and less specific for them?

STEVENS: Yes, the search area, the target zone has been focused on an area east of the flight route that plane may have taken. Now, what we can't tell you at the moment and what they're still gauging is the wind speeds down there. That is going to be critical, obviously, to blowing debris around.

Remember, too, Poppy, this is the second name two days we've had bad weather down there, and these pictures, these satellite pictures were actually taken about four days ago. So, the first bad weather, two days ago, was bad enough to drive ships out of that area, so that was strong, gale force winds. That can blow the debris around. Obviously, the search area is going to have to be expanded it a degree to look around the areas.

I would say, though, that if those big objects, those big, solid objects I talk about, which could potentially be linked to a plane, won't be moving as far. But again, at this stage, it's a very inexact science. Because if you think about it, already we had -- as soon as we had the report, we've had other reports, planes have spotted debris, but still no ship has actually been able to get to that spot to find the debris and no aircraft has been able to go back over and relocate it.

The chief of the defense forces here telling us just a couple days ago, when you use the word close, Poppy, in this part of the extreme southern end of the Indian Ocean, close can be a few hundred kilometers. It gives you an idea of what they're facing there.

So, this will have -- this weather will definitely disturb the pattern of that debris, it will have blown it in directions we're still not sure at the moment, and it is going to make the task so much more difficult.

HARLOW: Yes, they could not be facing tougher conditions between the weather and the expansive area that they're searching down there. Six countries all working together, trying to find any debris from this plane.

Appreciate the reporting this morning, Andrew Stevens. Thank you.

Well, you know, experts say that the search for Flight 370's flight data recorder could take years, and there's, of course, the possibility that it may never be found. But if it is, the crucial communication that investigators will be looking for might be erased. That is because the so-called black box records cockpit conversations on a two-hour loop, so it deletes all but the final two hours.

The key here may be finding out what happened to that jetliner, what was discussed in the first few hours of the flight. So, that is critical. Of course, finding it is the key right now.

ROMANS: That's been the concern from the beginning, the longer the plane flew, the less information they may have from the voice recorder.

Now, let's talk about that investigation here. "USA Today" reporting that the police in Malaysia believe Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah did something premeditated to bring the plane down. This, of course, is "USA Today" reporting. They're ruling out his more junior co-pilot as a possible suspect. But a senior U.S. official telling CNN investigators haven't zeroed in that closely. They are still looking at both the captain and his co- pilot, and there is no motive jumping out at them right now. Basically, everything is still on the table, every potential scenario still on the table -- very important here.

Jim Clancy's been tracking this investigation since day one. He joins us live from Kuala Lumpur.

And, Jim, another wrinkle here. We understand that Captain Shah's youngest son, for the very first time now, is speaking out.

Wrap this all up for me.

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, let's start at the beginning. We have an unidentified, unnamed source in "USA Today" pointing a finger at the captain. There's a lot of politics that are coming into play here. When you're going to accuse somebody of being responsible for the deaths of 240 people -- as a journalist, I think one of the things I've got to require of my sources is you come forward with a name, because you have to be standing, seem to be standing behind what you are accusing someone of.

The son said he has read some of this, has been carried in all of the press. His son, Seth Zaharie, finally reached by a local newspaper, said, "Whatever I've read has not changed my heart. I have ignored these speculations because as a son, I know who my father is compared to other people."

He goes on to say that he may not have been close to him, but he says -- because he was always on duty -- but he said, "We understood each other," That from the son.

Today, I also talked to the former CEO of Malaysia Airlines, who's 81 years old, and he says he remembers the captain on the flight, Zaharie Shah, as a cadet. Listen.


CLANCY: You knew Captain Shah. Some people point a finger at him.

AZIZ ABDUL RAHMAN, FORMER MALAYSIA AIRLINES CEO: He is an excellent pilot, and I think also an excellent captain. I think going the wrong way if they are pointing finger at him.

CLANCY: You also knew the co-pilot. What can you say about him?

RAHMAN: His father learned the Koran by heart, so he also learned the Koran by heart. He's a good Muslim. And I know that captain is a good Muslim.


CLANCY: Mr. Aziz had outmost confidence in both of the pilots and their integrity, and he says clearing their names is not going to be easy until and unless that flight data recorder is recovered and unravels the mystery of Flight 370.

Back to you.

ROMANS: So, we can assume, Jim, we're talking about now multiple investigations, that everything is still on the table here. I mean, they are still trying to figure out was this human intervention, was this some sort of catastrophic mechanical failure. They're still trying to figure out what happened here.

CLANCY: Right. You know, they've cleared the passenger list. Hijacking looks more remote. It's not completely ruled out, but more remote. Did the pilots for one reason or another do something, divert the plane? How would that be possible? How would the other people on the flight permit that to happen?

And then you've got the possibility of catastrophic failure. This isn't -- we just simply don't know the answer to that question. I think we're going to see them going back and looking at a lot of the eyewitness reports from fishermen. There were other reports of this plane flying. They have more radar records.

I know that they're going back over those. There's a lot of leads to still be pursued to try to figure out just what happened that sent all of those people into the midnight air, and they just vanished.

Back to you.

ROMANS: I think that's a really good -- really good context to give about sort of the internal politics of Malaysia and how that may play into finger-pointing from that side of the world. Thank you very much, Jim Clancy. We'll talk to you again very soon.

HARLOW: Meantime, as this investigation continues, frustration, anger, sadness continue for the families of all of those on Flight 370. It has been three weeks since their loved ones vanished, answers and details still very hard to come by. Malaysia Airlines offering families initial payments of $5,000 for their loss, but that is doing little to ease the pain.


STEVE WANG: Most of the family, OK, some of the family may need some money for emergency use. But most of the family, they don't care about how much money you give us. We just want the truth and we just want our relatives back.


HARLOW: David McKenzie has been spending time with the families of Flight 370. He joins us this morning from Beijing on the phone.

Good morning, David.

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Good morning, Poppy. Yes, the families are very much in anguish, waiting, wanting some kind of information, and following every lead that Jim was talking about. Because you know, for them, there are very real consequences to the search, to this mystery, because their loved ones are on board. Today, they're giving a technical demonstration by the officials.

So, family members want more information, but for them, it's an anguishing wait. And I spoke to Steve Wang, who's become a spokesperson for the family members. Take a listen.


WANG: Well, it is a hard time. All of us are exhausted, both mental and physical, with just the wait. So, it is really a hard time. Well, my mom used to say that where there are people, there are family, but one is lost. So, I think it is disaster for my family.


MCKENZIE: Poppy, you can hear in a way, hope fading away for even strong people like Steve. But for these hundred of family members -- they just want concrete information, something that they can grasp on to so that they can, you know, start the grieving process. At this stage, many of them, at least publicly, say they're hoping that there is some kind of miracle that their loved ones are alive -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Completely understandable. You know, we've been hearing from that young man you spoke with, Steve, over the past few days. I know he was hesitant to speak to the media, as many of the family members have been, but these weeks of little answers have made them finally speak out and want to have their voice heard.

You know, he said yesterday to Pauline Chiou that he had maybe a 5 percent, you know, hope that possibly his mother, one of the passengers, was still alive. Do you get the sense there, spending time with these families, David, that many of them still do have hope and do not necessarily believe what the Malaysian authorities are saying, that this plane, this flight went down in the south Indian Ocean, that 239 lives were ended there? Do they still hold on to hope?

MCKENZIE: Well, I think they hold on to hope and also keep asking very pointed questions of these officials here, who have been giving these daily briefings to a mass of hundreds of family members. They're giving them very technical details of why the plane went down, and the family members, they just don't believe it until they have that evidence.

So, it's very difficult publicly for them to say that they've given up hope. It's also a cultural aspect to this. You know, people here want tangible evidence before they give up hope and they don't want to seem to be weak in front of all these people who have become a very tightly knit group.

HARLOW: Absolutely. David, appreciate it this morning. Thank you so much. ROMANS: All right, we're going to have the very latest on the search for the missing Malaysian jetliner throughout the morning.

But, first, President Obama is just over an hour from meeting the pope for the very first time. We're live with what two of the most powerful men on earth are expected to discuss. The common ground between the pope and the president, next.


HARLOW: Welcome back to EARLY START.

Our coverage on the search for Flight 370 continues in a moment. But first, the latest on that catastrophic landslide that's buried a town southeast of Seattle. Officials say there are now 90 people missing or unaccounted for. That's about half the number reported yesterday. Still, though, shockingly high. The official death toll remains at 16, although eight more bodies have been located in the rubble but have not yet been retrieved.

I want you to listen to survivor Robin Youngblood tell Anderson Cooper how she managed to get out alive.


ROBIN YOUNGBLOOD, LANDSLIDE SURVIVOR: My house is matchsticks. There's nothing left. It ripped the roof off. And that's -- I thank God for that, because if the roof had still been on, the house filled up with mud and water, we would have drowned.

The only way we got out was we dug the stuff out of our nose and mouths so we could breathe, but I was able to pick my way through debris and get up to the top and call for my friend, Yedi (ph), from Holland, my student who was with me for a week. And she was pinned under a tree that had fallen, and I couldn't get to her. There was nothing stable to stand on. So, I just yelled at her to dig herself out somehow, even if she was hurt. Better to be hurt and alive, because I could see that the house was going to fill up with mud.


HARLOW: What a nightmare. That mudslide dragged her home a quarter of a mile from its foundation.

Also, you're looking at pictures of her thanking search-and-rescue operators, first responders for pulling her out of the rubble last weekend. Hers is just one of so many stories. I was reading about a young man who was about buried under the rubble and told first responders, don't take me out, go find my wife, go find my wife.

ROMANS: Wow. And, of course, the image of the 4-year-old boy being pulled by rescuers, just unbelievable.

All right. President Obama is in Vatican City this morning and he's about to meet Pope Francis for the first time. The two men, they won't get much time together, but they're expected to discuss what both agree to be one of the most pressing challenges of our time -- the divide between rich and poor -- something the president and the pontiff have spoken a lot about.

Let's bring in CNN Vatican correspondent Delia Gallagher live from Rome.

So nice to see you this morning, Delia. We understand you're going to get a unique look at this event happening inside the Vatican.


Just after we talk, I'll be going up to the apostolic palace to see the arrival of the president and go in as he greets the pope. So, we do get a bird's eye view of this very special occasion. Of course, the meeting itself is private, so nobody is privy to what they actually talk about. And as you said, they only have about 30 or 40 minutes.

But there are some indications, because the president gave an interview this morning to an Italian paper in which he said he thought economic inequality, as you mentioned, would be top of the agenda, and that certainly is in tune with one of the pope's main concerns that he has expressed throughout his pontificate.

ROMANS: Could it be, Delia, do you think, that the pope could mention what is the concern of some Catholic bishops and certainly some Catholics about Obamacare and this contraceptive mandate? Is that something that could creep into this conversation, or would they likely stay on things they agree upon?

GALLAGHER: Oh, no, there's no reason that they need to stay on things that they agree upon. It is true that the pope generally tries not to get involved in policy details of a particular country.

However, the conscience clause, the Obama health care is a big topic right now and it's a topic which the U.S. bishops have spoken out very strongly about. So I wouldn't be surprised if the pope reiterated his support for the bishop's position on that.

ROMANS: All right. Delia Gallagher, we will be checking in, and we will be taking the coverage of this live when it happens, this meeting between the president and the pontiff. Thank you.

HARLOW: First meeting. It will be interesting to watch.

ROMANS: I know. One has an approval rating in the 80s, the other has an approval in the 40s --

HARLOW: Forties.

ROMANS: So, that's an interesting juxtaposition as well.

All right. The search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 partially suspended this morning. Live team coverage breaking on the very latest for you ahead. HARLOW: But, first, here at home, millions waking up this morning to rain, lightning and tornado threats? We're going to tell you where, straight ahead.


ROMANS: All right. We're also following the threat of severe weather stateside. A powerful thunderstorm is expected from the plains to the East Coast starting today.

Tornadoes possible, Poppy.

HARLOW: Yikes! And you know, an unusual snow squall for this time of year being blamed for this chain reaction in West Virginia. Two people killed in this.

Let's get an early look at how the weather is shaping up across the country this morning with Karen Maginnis.

KAREN MAGINNIS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: A very vigorous weather system plowing across the central United States on Thursday could lead to some severe weather, marked right in this red shaded area from St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield, Little Rock, right around the ArkLaTex.

But, it means another round of snow for the Great Lakes. It seems like winter won't give up. Certainly, spring is not here.

But don't give up. Things will change in the next three or four days, anyway. In the Pacific Northwest, some showers coming up for Thursday.

Let's look at the temperatures. Chicago 49. You're not at normal levels, but at least it's improving. It's definitely improving for New York and Washington, D.C., with 40s and 50s. And look at this spring-up of 80-degree temperatures across north-central Texas and temperatures in the 50s in the Pacific Northwest.

Here's the big problem going into Friday, a very vigorous storm system pushes into the Pacific Northwest. The rainfall is expected to be heavy. It's going to aggravate that landslide and debris field that we saw because of the landslide over the past weekend. And the threat of severe storms from the Ohio Valley to the Tennessee Valley and back across northern Louisiana, that's the threat we have to look at coming up for Friday.

Back to you guys.

ROMANS: Did she say Friday? She said Friday.

HARLOW: Yes. We said we're excited for Friday over here.

ROMANS: The only part of the forecast I'm excited about.

HARLOW: When you wake up in the middle of the night, you're excited for Friday. On a serious note, we are following -- continuing to follow breaking news this morning. New satellite images from Thailand reportedly locating 300 objects in the southern Indian Ocean, 300 with the area there. Crews are searching amid this bad weather that's stopped the air search for Malaysian jetliner 370 at the moment. We're going to have live, team coverage for you straight after the break.