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Searching the Ocean Floor for Flight 370; Ukraine Teetering on Brink of Civil War; Oscar Pistorius' Last Day of Testimony; Lunar Eclipse Turns Moon Red

Aired April 15, 2014 - 04:30   ET



VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news this morning: a sea bed search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The Bluefin submarine is returning to the ocean floor for a second day after it hit a huge hurdle. Just hours ago, investigators revealed what it saw on its first day near the ocean floor.

And this morning, there are new questions about what was happening in the cockpit moments before the plane vanished.

We're covering all the angles, live.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Pro-Russian protests spreading this morning in Ukraine, defying the country's demand they disarm. The standoff escalates.

Will civil war break out and will Russia officially get involved? We are live.

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BLACKWELL: I'm Victor Blackwell. Bottom of the hour now.

Good to be with you.

ROMANS: Nice to see you.

BLACKWELL: Good to be with you this morning.

And we're getting to the breaking news first this morning in the search for Flight 370. The Navy has just revealed that an underwater search vehicle, the Bluefin-21, saw nothing of interest in its first trip scanning the ocean floor, a trip cut short because the unmanned sub had descended too far below the ocean surface.

Now, the Bluefin-21 is called the best hope yet for finding wreckage from the jet, and this morning, search crews are preparing to lower it again into the Indian Ocean to look once more for the plane's missing for now 39 days.

Erin McLaughlin is live in Perth with the latest on the search.

Erin, up to this point, there had been this thought that the Bluefin was going to save this mission, it was going to save this long search for 370, and on day one, no answers.

ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Victor, I think the important thing to remember here is that nothing quickly happens when we're dealing with these kinds of ocean depths. The Bluefin was down there for only about two hours, when you consider that it takes about two hours for it to descend to the ocean floor and then another two hours to get back up.

And so, really, the fact that they hadn't found anything in this particular mission, given that it covered only a fraction of some 15 square miles that it was supposed to cover today is not particularly all that surprising.

Now, we understand that it has not been yet put back into the water due to bad weather, but as soon as the weather clears, they will put it back into the water. Authorities here have said all along that this was going to be a very slow and painstaking process. The first day of this mission is anything to go by, that certainly seems to be the case.

Now, in terms of what happened or what went wrong on this particular mission, we understand that the Bluefin-21 was down on the surface when it came across waters deeper than the 2.8 miles that really are at the brink of its capabilities. And so, in response to that, it resurfaced. The technicians aboard the Ocean Shield are currently reprogramming it before sending it back down.

But really, officials who, technicians who understand this kind of technology saying that given the depths we're dealing with here, this kind of thing is not that uncommon, Victor.

BLACKWELL: And also, the black boxes that they're searching for could be under those feet of silt. So, patience is certainly something people will have to have as they continue to search.

Erin McLaughlin in Perth -- thank you.

ROMANS: This morning, there are also new developments in the investigation into why Flight 370 turned off course. A U.S. official tells CNN a cell phone tower in Penang, Malaysia, tried to make contact with the co-pilot's cell phone some 30 minutes after the jet made its left turn and headed back over the Malay Peninsula. Now, the phone was apparently turned on at that time.

Let's go to Kuala Lumpur. Senior international correspondent Nic Robertson is there for us this morning. He's been covering this investigation.

Nic, walk me through what this means and what authorities believe was going on at the time of this contact with the cell phone tower. This is not a live phone conversation. It's a cell tower and the phone making contact.

What does that mean?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Sure. So, let's look at the location here. Penang is on the west coast of Malaysia, the Malaysian peninsula. So, the aircraft we know makes that sharp left turn, comes back across the Malaysian peninsula. Penang is right on the coast there.

So, what we're being told is that the cell phone, the co-pilot's cell phone reached out to the cell tower to try and make a connection. Cell phones will try to, when they are on, try to connect to the nearest available cell tower. So, that's what appears to have happened.

What does this mean? It potentially means that the plane, while it was flying over Penang, was at quite a low altitude. We know from information we've received from sources here that another 80 miles further on, out over the sea, it is by then 4,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level. It has come down from cruising altitude.

So, this is more information indicating that the plane was at a low altitude, potentially, as it crosses back over the Malaysian peninsula. And although we don't have this information about what was behind, what was the reason for the cell phone, the co-pilot's cell phone to reach out to the tower, it is certainly an intriguing detail in of itself for investigators here.

What we are learning from officials today about the black box, we heard from the transport minister today, saying when the government here gets that black box, when they've given it to capable authorities who can extract the data, he says the full information will be revealed. This is what he said.


HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, MALAYSIAN ACTING TRANSPORT MINISTER: I don't think it's important who gets custody as far as I'm concerned, and this is my own personal mission. It is finding out the truth. And when you want to find out the truth, definitely we have to review what's in the black box, so there's no question.


ROBERTSON: So, whether or not that black box can provide important information about the timing of when that cell phone call was made, what the plane was doing at that precise point, it is all information that is so pertinent to the investigation here right now -- Christine.

ROMANS: It really is. And you have to wonder if other passengers on board may have had a cell phone that was on in their bag, in their pocket. I mean, certainly not everyone turns it completely off when a plane takes off.

If there was some sort of trouble, could there have been more communication with other phones with that cell phone tower? I'm sure, I'm sure investigators are going to be looking at that.

ROBERTSON: Certainly, that's something for them to look at, and there were 239 people on board that aircraft. Some people perhaps had more than one phone, phones registered in China, in Malaysia, in other different countries as well.

So, there's a lot of phone records to go through, and potentially, quite a number of cell phone towers that the aircraft may have passed over at a low altitude. So, a lot of very technical, very specific data-checking to be done by Malaysian authorities here, and, of course, a number of cell phone providers providing different services here.

So, it just adds layer after layer of complexity to the investigation, but any handshaking between a phone and a cell tower as it passed over the Malaysian peninsula is going to be hugely informative for investigators, Christine.

ROMANS: All right, Nic Robertson in Kuala Lumpur -- thank you, Nic.

BLACKWELL: Ukraine this morning is teetering on the brink of civil war, many believe. The government now is asking for international peacekeepers to help it deal with pro-Russian militants, and those militants have taken over government buildings and refused to step down. And despite promises that Ukrainian security forces will move in and force them out, no major operation has begun yet.

Last night, President Obama and president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, they spoke, trading barbs over who is behind the escalating violence.

Phil Black is live in Kharkiv, Ukraine, with the latest.

Phil, tell us more about that conversation and what you're seeing there on the ground.

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The conversation, Victor, is one with two very stark, different positions, one where Russia says that the actions, the uprisings that are happening here are organic, they are grassroots, they are a result of the poorly functioning new government in the central government in Kiev. The United States' position is very much that this is all being orchestrated, encouraged by Russia, by special forces here, perhaps, and certainly by the presence of a large Russian military build-up just on the other side of the border.

And so, it is within this environment that the Ukrainian government is dealing with an ongoing trend. Its authority here in the east is slowly ebbing away. It appears that there is very little it can do about it, and it is in this context that Ukraine's government has suggested to the United Nations the idea of an international peacekeeping force here under a United Nations mandate.

It is something of an extraordinary suggestion, one that perhaps does point to just how desperate the government here is. We can only imagine the appetite within western governments to see their soldiers here on the ground facing up against Russian forces just across the border.

But the other big hitch in this potential idea is that such an operation would need approval from the United Nations Security Council. Russia has a veto on the Security Council. It is impossible to imagine a scenario where it would allow western forces to be here on the ground so close to its own border, within this territory where it clearly believes it continues to have a sphere of influence.

But for the Ukrainian government, the question remains, what can it do, because every day this situation continues to escalate, its authority diminishes. And so far, tough talk hasn't worked. Talk of amnesties and negotiations, that hasn't worked either. But what is clear from this suggestion regarding a U.N. peacekeeping force is the Ukrainian government does believe it needs further support from the international community to prevent its country from fracturing further, Victor.

BLACKWELL: And possibly on the brink of civil war, as we've said. Phil Black for us in Kharkiv -- Phil, thank you.

ROMANS: All right. Happening right now, dramatic testimony in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial. The Olympic athlete facing questions about the night he says he accidentally shot and killed his model girlfriend. Can the prosecutor tear apart his testimony? He's sure trying. We're live next.


ROMANS: In South Africa right now, Oscar Pistorius testifying for a seventh day at his murder trial. And once again, prosecutors trying to catch the sprinter in inconsistencies over what happened the night he shot and killed girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Listen.


OSCAR PISTORIUS, OLYMPIC RUNNER: I'm sorry, my lady, I'm getting confused.

PROSECUTOR: Why would you be getting confused?

PISTORIUS: My lady, what I heard, and if I can think of now, the door didn't open. So it couldn't have been the door opening.

PROSECUTOR: If that's your problem, Mr. Pistorius, and I've dealt with it, you are thinking of a version constantly and you're not dealing with the question. You're constantly thinking of a version.

PISTORIUS: That's not true, my lady.


ROMANS: CNN legal analyst Kelly Phelps at the courthouse in Pretoria.

You know, the prosecutor, Kelly, said this would be the last day of his cross examination. He seems to be really -- I mean, Oscar Pistorius said he was confused. He's hammering him about what kinds of sounds, what kinds of movements he saw and heard behind that closed door, really trying to trip him up.

KELLY PHELPS, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Absolutely, and this has been his strategy since he began cross examination, what feels now like such a long time ago. But it has to be said, yesterday, he picked up a lot of momentum in pursuing that strategy with Pistorius, and today has been somewhat more of a stop-start day. He started with lines of arguing around inconsistencies and then dropped them and moved on to another one.

So, we haven't quite seen the same level of momentum achieved today that he had achieved yesterday.

ROMANS: It's interesting, though, he keeps poking all of these inconsistencies, but isn't that sort of part of his defense, that Oscar Pistorius was confused, acted irrationally? There were these bits of information and stimuli in the room, he freaked out, basically, and started firing through the door? I mean, isn't that -- isn't that what he's saying happened?

PHELPS: Absolutely, and these -- the evidence of these inconsistencies really can be mobilized by both sides to try and support their argument. So, we've seen Nel using it, relying on it to try and suggest that the only reasonable deduction that the judge can draw from that is that he must be lying.

But we see the defense relying on some inconsistencies, saying, well, hang on a second. On a fundamental level, we've kept our story the same. The fact that small details shift and change in your mind over time is natural and a byproduct of the fear and terror that a person would feel in that situation, and ultimately, the judge will need to decide which version she finds the most compelling.

ROMANS: How is Oscar Pistorius holding up? A couple of times, I heard the judge say, you know, speak up, your voice is very soft to Mr. Pistorius, I can't hear you.

PHELPS: Yes, well, actually, inside the court, which most viewers wouldn't have a view to, the volume is much softer than the live feed that we hear over the television. So, there's only one microphone in front of Mr. Pistorius that broadcasts just to the judge's desk. So, there's not very good acoustics in the courtroom, and therefore, we've seen her ask many witnesses during the trial to speak up, because it can be very difficult to follow from inside the courtroom.

ROMANS: Is he as emotional now as he was in the first few days of testimony?

PHELPS: I think he's been a lot more calm and composed today than he was yesterday. Yesterday, he certainly seemed to allow Mr. Nel to get under his skin and he was quite frustrated and emotional, crying on a number of occasions, and in fact, a few postponements had to be called.

Today, we do hear his voice quivering somewhat, but on the whole, he's managed to maintain his composure and also, very importantly, stand his ground in terms of refusing to be led down a path by Mr. Nel, as he is essentially opening the door for Pistorius to do that, far more success yesterday.

ROMANS: And Mr. Nel saying you fired at Reeva. You shot and killed at Reeva. He says, no, I did not fire at Reeva. I fired into the bathroom at what I thought were intruders. They are deadlocked at that different version of events.

PHELPS: Yes, and this has been the same gridlock, essentially, that we've seen right back from bail, because, of course, very unusually for an accused person, Mr. Pistorius actually gave an enormous amount of detail with regards to his version of events as early on as bail, and that has meant that he has had more pressure to remain consistent with that version.

But equally from Mr. Nel's perspective, it probably accounts for some of the level of detail in his cross examination, because, of course, Mr. Nel has been able to prepare for that cross examination as far back as the bail hearing.

ROMANS: Fascinating. And the testimony continues as we speak. Kelly Phelps -- thank you, Kelly, in Pretoria.

BLACKWELL: Breaking news overnight: severe storms tearing down homes in the South and the danger does not stop there. Indra Petersons is here to track the latest. That's coming up next.


BLACKWELL: Boston and the nation pause today to mark a solemn anniversary, one year since the bomb attack on the boston marathon, an attack that left three dead and more than 260 people injured. A memorial ceremony is set for this afternoon, bringing together the survivors, those who helped them and their families, and there will be a moment of silence to mark the exact time when the first bomb went off.

And still, the city seems more focused on moving forward than looking back. Look at this. "Boston Strong" banners hang everywhere, and the marathon will go on as scheduled next week. A lot of the runners taking to the course say that they are doing this to honor those who were impacted by the bombing.

ROMANS: All right, it could be another dangerous weather day from the South to the Northeast. Severe storms marching their way East.

Take a look at these pictures. This is Mississippi, not far from Biloxi. Officials say strong winds flipped some trailers at an RV park. Dozens were damaged, and at least two people were hurt.

BLACKWELL: Indra Petersons is tracking the storm.

And big differences you can expect today, I guess.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Huge differences. I mean, that's how you know we are setting up for severe weather. You're talking about warm air and cold air being right next to each other.

And take a look. Right now, you're talking about rain. These are current temperatures. But on the back side of the cold front, we're actually talking about even snow, yes, snow right not in towards Cincinnati, where temperatures are at the freezing mark, if not below. So, what is going on? Once again, all that moisture's out there. And look at the explosive nature here. Down towards the southeast and kind of the eastern seaboard here, we are still talking about the threat for severe weather.

So, this is the first thing, from Norfolk, all the way back through Florida, the chance for thunderstorms, long straight-line winds out there and even large hail is possible. But on the other side of it, as the system makes its way through, it's going to be some heavy rain spreading even into the northeast.

But look at this, look what happens overnight, the temperatures drop, right? Let's zoom in a little closer. What does that mean? Yes, more snow filling in, even into the Northeast as those temperatures go down tonight.

We're talking way down. I mean, look at this. We're talking about 30s, even going way down into South. New York City 34, so a chance for even some flurries overnight tonight as we hit those morning lows.

Look where we're seeing heavier amounts, two to three inches possible Upstate New York, even in through Vermont, and of course, heavy rain will be the bigger story as we see that spreading out towards New York City, about two inches out towards New York. Behind it, the big thing will be the temperatures that were oh so nice are going oh, so down, about 20 degrees down.

ROMANS: I know. It was snowing at my parents' house in Iowa yesterday.

PETERSONS: Iowa. This is New York, come on!

ROMANS: I know. I don't want it to come here.

BLACKWELL: Thanks, Indra.


ROMANS: A spectacular sight in the skies. Overnight, the moon turned blood red. The lunar eclipse, the first of four we'll see over the next two years.

Paul Vercammen live in Los Angeles where he got a good look at it. Lots of other folks gathered to watch.

You know, right where you are -- I mean, I saw someone tweeting earlier saying, look, we spend all of our time looking at our cell phones, at our iPads. This is a rare story when everyone comes together and looks up together at the sky, not at their devices -- Paul.

PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was indeed quite a sight to behold here. We can still show part of it to you. With the naked eye, you can see it's a partial eclipse right now.

And I am now standing among the die-hards. They say 2,500 to 3,000 people gathered around the observatory tonight right in front of me, Richard, among others, using their amateur telescope to catch a glimpse, sharing this experience with all their friends.

And I have to tell you, the director here of the observatory, he was downright giddy earlier with excitement.

Let's take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, every time you see the sky conspire into a special event like a total lunar eclipse, you not only get the pleasure of a huge crowd of people coming in for the surprise, but the surprise itself. And it really is a surprise.

I mean, we know what causes these eclipses, we know roughly what they're going to look like, but every one is a little bit different.


VERCAMMEN: And looking back here live, you can see a partial eclipse, the lit part, kind of a clipped thumbnail there. But the people who came out today had an absolutely spectacular sight.

We'll say the color was more of a copper red in person, not, you know, a bright vermilion or anything like that. Also, this talk of omens and four total lunar eclipses coming in 2014-2015, they didn't want to talk about that here. They were all about the science and astronomy.

Back to you now, Christine.

ROMANS: But we're going to have other shots to see. I mean, I know a lot of people with young children. They want to hit all four of these into mid-2015.

VERCAMMEN: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that surprised me was how many young children were here, and of course, nobody cut school or anything like that, but we have a lot of youngsters on spring break, and they were out here.

As you know, it's almost 2:00 in the morning here.

I don't know, how many of you think you'll catch all four total lunar eclipses?

Well, thank you.

ROMANS: You're awesome!

BLACKWELL: You're awesome, Paul.

VERCAMMEN: We've got a lot of die-hards. Well, thank you so much, Victor and Christine. I'll send it back to you.

ROMANS: They're all sleep-deprived.

VERCAMMEN: Of course, all of these folks, of course, do not have school tomorrow. They're all giddy is what they are.

BLACKWELL: This is considered research, though.

ROMANS: Exactly.

BLACKWELL: I mean, so, you could take a class, if you want.

ROMANS: All right. Paul Vercammen -- thanks, Paul.

BLACKWELL: We'll be right back.