Return to Transcripts main page


Ocean Silt Could Hamper MH-370 Search; Survivors Recount South Korea Ferry Tragedy; U.S. Navy Standing By in South Korea; MH-370 Families Are Fed Up; MH-370 Salvage Will Be as Hard as Search.

Aired April 16, 2014 - 11:30   ET



ANGUS HOUSTON, JOINT AGENCY COORDINATION CHIEF: This is an area that's new to man. But that part of the Indian Ocean has a lot of silt on the bottom. And if we have silt on the bottom, that can be quite layered, quite deep, and that would complicate how things are on the bottom.


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: The underwater vehicle being used to scour the Indian Ocean for Malaysia flight 370 is equipped with SONAR technology but it's having trouble getting to the ocean floor in the sea area. There are a lot of challenges here.

Our Stephanie Elam is off Santa Barbara, California for a little show and tell for us of SONAR.

Stephanie, it's interesting. It's almost as if this sub is taking pictures with sound. Tell us about that.

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Exactly, Christi, that's a great way to put it. We wanted to come out here and show you how it works.

I want to introduce you to James Coleman. He is a senior hydrographer with Teledyne Recon.

James, we know the Blue-21s, they are equipment with Teledyne Designs SONAR, but there's multiple types of them?

JAMES COLEMAN, TELEDYNE RECON: Yeah, that's right. This is an example. There's a variety of SONAR technologies available to them in the search. Primarily, they're going to use side-scan SONAR. This is a separate technology. This is the multi-beam symmetry. This is a 7125.

ELAM: How do they work?

COLEMAN: The SONARs all work on the same fundamental principle. They're going to be emitting sound. As that sound hits the sea floor and comes back to the SONAR, it's going to come up to interpret the sound coming back into either an image or data about what's on the bottom of the ocean. ELAM: We know twice now this AUV has gone into the Indian Ocean and has had issues and has popped back up. What kind of difficulties may they be encountering?

COLEMAN: It's a very complicated process. From the perspective of the SONAR, it's actually very good to have the SONAR deep. It will produce very good data when you're nice and deep, away from the surface. But the complexity is getting that SONAR down near the bottom. They have to get close to the sea floor. They have to dive through tens of thousands of feet in sea water. There's lots of complications that can go on on the sea bottom.

ELAM: I want to look at how this data comes in. One of the things they're looking at is, the lower they are, the better the resolution is, correct?

COLEMAN: That's correct. And in a detail -- they have to make a decision in terms of what size of object are they looking for and what level of detail are they going to find it? Because the higher the level of detail, the smaller the area you're going to search in any one point.

And we have talked about mowing the grass and that's come up a number of times. This is out here now, so we have got a portion of the map that we have already built up. There's track lines, and they're going to be running the AUV across these track lines. They're going to be slowly building up this map as far as what's on the sea floor.

ELAM: Part of the issue with the Indian Ocean is so much of this sea floor isn't mapped?

COLEMAN: Correct. They only have a very general idea of what's down there. As they go down to the bottom of the ocean, and they start building this map, they're going to learn more information. They're going to learn, is there a lot of clutter, or is it just generally calm and silty, and they can use lower resolution to cover a broader area.

ELAM: And figuring out whether or not they do see any plane debris.

So, Christine, when you think about this, see this, it's a slow going process and they have to re-do their mapping process each time because they are pretty much flying blindly because they don't know what's at the bottom of the sea floor.

ROMANS: And they also seem to be testing the limits of the device too. I would love for you to ask James, we were expecting 16 hours down, two hours of mapping, we were looking at a 24-hour period. But they have had some technical issues?

ELAM: Yes, they're having those technical issues on that 24 hours of going down.

That's part of the deal because the reason why it takes so long is because it's so deep, right? COLEMAN: It's very complicated, actually. They're planning extremely long distances. So they have to be sensitive to the weather. And the weather can change a lot on the Southern Indian Ocean. They have to dive this vehicle through tens of thousands of feet of sea water. There's a lot of interconnected components. You have SONAR, you have navigation, you have electronics, you have vehicle control. If any one of those goes, you have a problem and you need to get the vehicle back up.

ELAM: A lot of process there. And also because it's gone for so long, it takes time for it to come back up, too, Christine.

ROMANS: The deeper water, the more patient you'll have to be.

Thanks so much, James.

Thank you, Stephanie Elam.

Ahead @ THIS HOUR, survivors recount the terrifying moment when their ferry boat capsized in freezing waters off of South Korea.


ROMANS: First, a loud bang, then screams of terror. Survivors of the South Korean ferry tragedy say that, in a matter of minutes, their fun trip to a resort island turned into a nightmare.


UNIDENTIFIED SOUTH KOREAN FEMALE (through translation): I almost got trapped. I was told I could have jumped through the exit but I couldn't.


ROMANS: Many jumped into the freezing water trying to escape. At least four people are dead. But 160 people were rescued. Already a major rescue. And searchers are looking for almost 300 passengers that are missing at the hour.

Lieutenant Arlo Abrahamson, with U.S. Naval Forces, Korea, joins me on the phone from Seoul, South Korea.

Lieutenant, what is the U.S. Navy doing or offering to do to help at this point?

LT. ARLO ABRAHAMSON, U.S. NAVAL FORCES, KOREA (voice-over): Thank you, Christine, for having me this afternoon and this morning, or this evening here in Seoul, Korea.

First, I would like to express that our thoughts are with the passengers of this Korean ferry that sunk today, this is a terrible tragedy and our hearts go out to those families.

ROMANS: What can the U.S. do with the resources we have deployed there? ABRAHAMSON: Sure. We have the (INAUDIBLE), which is an amphibious assault ship, and it is in the vicinity of where the ferry sunk off the coast of South Korea. We are standing by. We are not conducting any search and rescue operations this evening, but the ship has been in contact with the on scene commander from the Republic of Korea navy and Coast Guard. And we are standing by and we have informed them that we are ready to assist as required and we'll be ready to assist with our capabilities, just as soon as we are requested to do so.


ROMANS: -- when they decide they need some help. So tell me, what kind of capabilities are we talking about here? When you see a ferry like this, with already 164 people rescued, but 300 some missing, on its side, listing, in very cold waters, what would a typical Navy response be?

ABRAHAMSON: Let me just say, the response thus far by the Republic of Korea, navy and Coast Guard, we work very closely with these agencies. We have a very close partnership and they have done a superb job thus far. They were on the scene very soon after the ferry sunk and they have been doing a great job.

As far as the capabilities the U.S. Navy has, we have the NB-22 Osprey. We have the MH60 helicopters that have rescue capabilities and that also has divers and small boats that could assist in a search-and-rescue operation. And search and rescue is something we practice routinely in the U.S. Navy. We operate routinely with our Republic of Korea navy partners. So for these kinds of operations, when we are called to assist, we have the capabilities and we are ready to assist as needed.

ROMANS: You say you do these sorts of rescue training and missions frequently. What kind of challenges are there when you've got a ferry upside down, water in some of the passenger ways and also air pockets and cold waters? That must be very difficult for dive teams.

ABRAHAMSON: Indeed. And every one of these search and rescue operations is unique and there are unique challenges. It is very difficult. But again, this is something that our Navys practice on a routine basis? So the U.S. Navy is ready and standing by to assist our partners in the Republic of Korea navy and Coast Guard when they're ready to have our assistance.

ROMANS: Lieutenant Arlo Abrahamson, thank you so much. And let us know if and when you're called in to help. Thank you.

Ahead @ THIS HOUR, find out what it's like to be on the ocean floor. How is the deep sea terrain affecting the search for flight 370?


ROMANS: New developments @ THIS HOUR, the search for MH-370 by the Bluefin. While it was on deck, authorities downloaded data from the device. Initial analysis of that data shows nothing significant. Meanwhile, the families of the Chinese passengers missing on that flight are fed up. They say there have been too many lies and broken promises so today they stormed out of a Malaysia Airlines briefing.

It's been 40 days of waiting and hoping and praying for answers for those family members.

I want to bring in Raghu Murtigudde, who's a professor of atmospheric and ocean sciences at the University of Maryland. He's joining us from Washington.

Professor, analysis is being done on a sample of oil, a two-liter sample of oil that was collected a few days ago from the search zone. We're expected to get those answers this afternoon. The ocean is full of all kinds of junk, including lots of different kinds of oil and petroleum products. How likely is it that this oil came from the missing jet liner?

RAGHU MURTUGUDDE, PROFESSOR OF ATMOSPHERIC & OCEAN SCIENCES, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND: Well, it is in the right direction. It's downwind from the area where the pinging came from. But it's in the middle of a so-called garbage patch, which collects stuff from every direction. They're going to test it. The more important question may be, 38 days after the crash, would the oil have survived this far? Temperatures are cold, so it depends on how warm the temperatures are and how strong the winds are for how long the oil takes to either evaporate or emulsify and sink to the bottom.

ROMANS: And they'll probably test it to see if its engine is from a 777, it must have a particular fingerprint.

MURTUGUDDE: It definitely will.

ROMANS: Seabed. Let's talk about the seabed, below the ocean surface where they collected that oil and talk about the seabed. It's thought to resemble rolling hills, thought to be covered with deep layers of silt. Some have said the rolling hills could actually aid the search. The Bluefin-21 at least it won't have crevasses and canyons to deal with. But the silt could be a problem, because it could be deep and it could hamper the visibility issues. Tell me about the conditions could help or hamper the effort to recover the wreckage of the plane.

MURTUGUDDE: If you can imagine the bottom topography there is quite complicated, so you have a deep basin where you're looking at it. To the left it has the 90-degree bump at the bottom of the ocean. So you have this complicated terrain, but it's got this silty sediment which can roll down, it can -- if the airplane crashed on the side, for example, it could have caused a land slide down there. So it can get buried in silt, which is very soft, as has been said quite often. And it's very dark. The pressure -- you can imagine at the surface, you have one atmosphere or each of us is carrying about 15 pounds per inch on our shoulders and heads. Every 10 meters, it increases by another 15 pounds. So at 5,000 meters, you have a 500 atmospheres sitting on top of the airplane which can push it further down. So it's a very difficult condition.

ROMANS: Difficult to find any wreckage, and then to recover wreckage, equally difficult.

MURTUGUDDE: To lift the stuff, for example, to get the black box out of the tail section, if they have to dismantle it and the plane is sitting there not broken up, then that's going to be a big task. Things like Bluefin are not equipped to do that, so you need ships at the surface that will lower equipment to go in and do the job of dismantling or lifting stuff that needs to be lifted up from the surface that deep.

ROMANS: It's the most difficult search, the most difficult mystery in human history. You're detailing, sir, exactly why that is.

Thank you so much.

MURTUGUDDE: Thank you.

ROMANS: If the Bluefin finds the needle in the deep, dark haystack, the next challenge remains getting the needle out. What could salvage crews face? And if the search is staying under water, why is there just one lonely sub down there looking? We're going to answer those questions that you've been asking us coming up next.


ROMANS: Let's assume the Bluefin sub search finds 370. If and when that happens, the complications really begin. The salvage operation could be as tedious as the search operation.

Our Akiko Fujita shows us what it might look like.


AKIKO FUJITA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's a search to the puzzle buried under mountains of trash in a landscape so remote in pitch black. The search area more than 40 times the size of Los Angeles.

ERIC CRUMPTON, ROV OPERATIONS MANAGER, GLOBAL DIVING & SALVAGE: You're not only fighting the depth, you're fighting maneuvering down there, but now you're fighting the ocean trying to pull you a different way.

FUJITA: Eric Crumpton builds and runs remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, for Global Diving and Salvage in Seattle. He's worked on everything from tanker trucks to planes. He says every job is a delicate maneuver complicated by the harsh elements.

(on camera): What conditions are we dealing with here?

CRUMPTON: The Indian Ocean is notorious for high seas. On a regular day, they're going to have 14 to 16-foot sea swell.

FUJITA: He says, when the time comes, it will likely take the ROV more than three hours just to make the three-mile journey to the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Its SONAR and pings, the only guides in complete darkness. Pilot Warren Posten maneuvers the ROV to begin the task of salvaging if wreckage is found.


FUJITA: A control room similar to this usually sits on the ship above the wreckage. Poston manipulates these tiny arms to maneuver his way to the debris.

Take a look at his operation off the big island of Hawaii. The ROV uses power tools underwater to fix a pipeline. Here, the robot struggles to pick up a small tool. This operation alone took two weeks in 2,000 feet of water, a small task compared to retrieving MH- 370s flight recorder which could be about three miles under water.

POSTEN: They just shift through the trash until you find it. You might need to pull every piece of that trash up before you find it lying under something.

FUJITA: The challenges don't end once the debris's collected. Lifting thousands of feet to the surface is a science in itself. Sometimes it takes several trips. The journey, three hours each way.

CRUMPTON: The most dangerous parts of any recovery is getting that from the water on to the surface.

FUJITA: It's not just objects either. 239 people were on board Malaysia flight 370.

Warren recovered other plane crashes. He's seen the graves that remain.

POSTEN: How hard is that? It's -- I guess it wouldn't be any different than a fireman or policeman or soldier. It's a job.

FUJITA: Keeping emotions in check, the delicate balance crews face while retrieving crews to an underwater mystery.

Akiko Fujita, for CNN, Seattle.


ROMANS: Let's bring back our analysts, Mary Schiavo and Jeff Wise. They're going to answer some of your questions. And we've been getting a lot of questions from viewers about this case.

Here's one of them. If they'll end air and surface search soon, why aren't they going to commit more resources to the underwater search -- Mary?

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, they probably will eventually, but for right now, if they believed the Bluefin could do the job and use its SONAR capabilities to map the ocean floor, they actually will commit more resources and have to commit more resources under the sea. ROMANS: The next one is interesting. In the absence of real information, there's a lot of big theories. If a malicious event, is it possible to remove or drop the black boxes out of a flying plane at low altitude into the ocean and continue?

Jeff, this sounds like something that could happen only in a comic book.

JEFF WISE, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Unfortunately, I think that's probably the limit --


ROMANS: Technically, maybe, possible, but --

WISE: It's physically possible. It is possible to stop, to shut down, the cockpit voice recorder and the data recorder. It's been done in the past. But actually, physically removing the black box in order to throw it out, I don't think that was really --

ROMANS: In the absence of real information, any pieces of this plane, this is leading people to really ask some big questions.

WISE: There's just been -- we have so little information. The story is really unprecedented in terms of aircraft investigations.

ROMANS: Here's another one. Do pilots know what cargo their planes carry and are they allowed to refuse to take that cargo, Mary?

SCHIAVO: Well, they're supposed to. The pilot has to sign a manifest and has to sign off on the cargo. Not only weight and balance but sign off on the loads. Those are the United States loads. Whether pilots for Malaysia air had those same rights, that was a big issue on the ValueJet 592 back in '96, the pilots may not have been fully aware there were oxygen canisters and tires and other things in the cargo hold that burned rapidly. So they're supposed to be able to know but in real life not so much.

ROMANS: Mary, can we assume that investigators are really scouring what was in the cargo hold of that plane? Clearly, they're looking at all the passengers. They must be looking at everything that was in that plane.

SCHIAVO: They're supposed to be and they better be because that really is -- cargo in the cargo hold can make a difference between a safe flight or a deadly flight so they better be scouring it because the most important thing besides taking care of the families who have lost loved ones on this one is making sure it never happens again.

ROMANS: That's why so much expense is being -- time and expense is being deployed here because it is -- it is a piece of machinery that is so critically important to the entire air transport system, you have to figure out what happened there.

Here's another question. What country will get the black boxes, Jeff, when and if they are recovered? WISE: That's a really great question. Malaysia is in charge of this investigation. It's up to them to decide if they want to do it themselves or ship it to another country. Now, the country that has the most experienced looking at Boeing black boxes is the NTSB. The question is, politically, are they going to want to do that. There's a lot of tension. And some reports in the Malaysian press that, actually, it was the CIA that instigated this accident in order to cause tension or something. So, you know, we have to be aware that the story's being reported differently in different parts of the world. So we don't know at this point what they'll do.

ROMANS: There are different national perspectives. That's a very good point. There's even some tensions between China and Malaysia now because some people on board were Chinese. They feel as thought the Malaysians were lying to them.

Mary, the last question to you. Angus Houston and the Australians are in charge of the search at this point. They might not necessarily take control of the black boxes.

SCHIAVO: Well, they have said that they're going to leave that up to Malaysia but since Malaysia's publicly stated they don't have the expertise to download and decipher and read out the black boxes, without a doubt they will assign other countries to do that. Australia can do it, but they don't have the experience with large planes. So I suspect it will be U.S., Britain, France and Australia.

ROMANS: Mary, Jeff, thank you.

And thank you, everyone, for all of your questions and for joining us @ THIS HOUR.

"LEGAL VIEW" with Don Lemon starts right now.