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More Heartbreak in Ferry Disaster; Teen Stowaway; The Captain's Choice

Aired April 21, 2014 - 11:00   ET


MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN, HOST: Plenty of sweat and cheers for all of the racers there, John. So glad you're there. Thanks so much. We'll check in with you from the Boston marathon and go back live. Thanks for join us, and at this hour, divers on a desperate search to find anyone who might have survived that ferry disaster off South Korea, but the death toll is rising. Devastated families are getting the most unbearable news.

It is mission number nine for the underwater drone on this 45th day of the search for flight 370. Still no sign of the missing plane. Nature is about to whip things up in the Indian Ocean.

And Al Qaeda is on the run in Yemen after drone strikes killed dozens of militants.

PEREIRA: We start at this hour in South Korea where another day brings more heartbreaking loss for the families of those lost in the ferry sinking. At least 87 are confirmed dead, 215 people are still missing and most of them are high school students. The ferry is now at least 30 feet below the ocean surface. Diver, look at the conditions, they're struggling to search the freezing, murky waters.

They're now trying to get into the cafeteria where officials believe most of the students were when the vessel started to capsize. South Korea's president is calling the actions of the captain and crew members, quote, akin to murder. The captain and six others are now under arrest, but no amount of retribution against those in charge of the ferry can bring any comfort to parents who have lost a child. Here's our Kyung Lah.

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPODENT: The first police boat returns from the search site. Parents waiting, bracing. They return one by one in identical, plain, white bags. Behind the screen, initial inspection. A blanket to cover. A short march back to land.

Parents rush to the white tents to identify their children. You must have said, daddy, save me, weeps this father. No one is immune to the sound of losing a child. As the families leave the tents, so, too, do the stretchers emptied. Returning to the gurneys that await the next boat. Another group of someone's children. Another march back to the tents. 13 return in this group. But more than 200 are still missing. Gurneys on the left side of the dock, divers board ships to the right to continue the search. To bring the rest home. Kyung Lah, CNN, South Korea.

PEREIRA: I think it's hard to imagine even how the families are coping with this tragedy. Our Paula Hancocks joins us from South Korea.

And Paula, I mean, just agonizing to watch these family that is are struggling with making these identifications. But for the families that haven't found their loved ones yet, are they still holding out hope? We know that this is still being called a search and rescue operation even though no survivors are being pulled from the water.

PAULA HANCOCKS: Well Michaela, unfortunately, no survivors have been pulled our since Wednesday, since the day that this ferry sank. Were now going into the sixth night here, Monday evening, since this ferry sunk. And inevitably hope is fading fast. But as you say this is still a search and rescue operation, we spoke to one official, just a couple of hours ago, and he said that even though they haven't found any air pockets it's not beyond the realm of possibility that there could be air pockets within the ship basically because it has not sunk to the bottom of the sea.

He said that it is at this point about 30 to 50 feet below the surface of the water, but it's been there for some time and it's maintaining that floatation level. So of course this is still a search and rescue operation, but I think inevitably many families will understand that that hope at this point has to be fading. The fact that they haven't pulled anyone out alive since Wednesday.

PEREIRA: Every moment that passes I'm sure that must be agonizing. Also, I'm curious, how are they actually letting the parents know if their child has been found? How are they identifying the bodies and communicating that to them?

HANCOCKS: Well, it is a heartbreaking scene in the -- harbor behind me. What they were doing just a couple of hours ago when there was a cluster of-- victims, of bodies found and they knew were coming back the shore, there was an official on a loudspeaker effectively describing who had been found, they were describing the gender, the height, the weight, the clothes that that particular passenger was wearing. And there were many passengers around listening, wondering if that's their child and if they could recognize what they were wearing.

PEREIRA: Such heartbreak, I can imagine it's permeating all of the area there in Jin Do(PH). Thank you for bringing us that report, Paula Hancocks. We appreciate it.

Want to turn now to the unrelenting search for flight 370. At this hour the U.S. Navy's drone, bluefin-21, is now conducting the ninth mission deep in the Indian Ocean. Erin McLaughlin joins us now from Perth. Lets talk about this, day 45 now since that plane vanished Erin, what is the latest for us at this hour?

ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi Michaela, well this is a really critical few -- next few days in this search operation. They're looking at the place which basically representing their best guess as to where they are going to find that black box. That's based on exhaustive analysis of that -- those acoustics detections, one in particular, the second acoustic detection that they picked up at American operated towed pinger locator that they picked up April 8th. It lasted a total of 13 minutes. It was the stronger of the four.

So what they're doing now is they're searching a six-mile radius around that point. And officials say that as of this morning, there are about two thirds of the way through searching this narrowed search area, not clear how much ground to be able to cover so far today but Australian officials saying that they expect to have completed this area within the next week. At that point, they are gonna kinda stop and assess.

Now, that timetable, of course, is dependent on a number of factors. The first being that the fact that the Bluefin-21 continues to operate as expected and then the second, of course, being the weather. Now, there is a cyclone called jack north of the search field currently making it's way down south. They feel that it will have dissipated, forecasters say it will have dissipated, by the time it reaches the current search area but it certainly may be a factor. Some of the wind and rain going forward.

PEREIRA: Well, we know the wind and rain can really can hamper the efforts there. This is a pretty gnarly area of the sea to begin with. Erin, thank you for the latest on the search efforts. Our aviation experts are standing by and they are going to answer your questions about this ongoing search for flight 370 a little later this hour. Of course, don't forget if you want to tweet a question us the hashtag #370qs. Don't forget to look us up on Facebook, as well.

Want to check some other head lines for you at this hour. In Yemen, al Qaeda is under attack. At least 30 militants have been killed in strikes across a mountain ridge in southern Yemen. This comes after a drone strike Saturday where at least 13 people were killed, including ten suspected al Qaeda militants. A Yemeni official said it was a joint U.S.-Yemeni operation. But, as a rule, U.S. officials do not comment on drone strikes.

Vice president Joe Biden has landed in Ukraine to meet with leaders there. It is a country on edge after a weekend of deadly violence. In eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian protesters say six people were killed at one of their barricades in a shoot-out Sunday. A deal to resolve the crisis is largely being ignored by pro-Russian supporters who are refusing to lay down the arms. Thousands of Russian troops remain near the border.

The FBI's looking into a teenager's claim that he flew from San Jose, California all the way to Hawaii in the wheel well of a jumbo jet. The 16-year-old was found wandering the tarmac in Maui dazed and confused. Now if his story pans out, this means he would have flown almost five hours at altitudes reaching 38,000 feet without oxygen and under sub-zero temperatures.

That has some experts doubting his story. However officials say surveillance video in San Jose shows the teen walking toward the Hawaiian airlines jet and then video at the Maui airport shows him crawling out of the plane's gear area. A live report coming up for you with more on this mystery from San Jose coming up later this hour.

Right now, a break. Ahead at this hour, anger, outrage and now criminal charges for the ferry captain and some of the crew members. The captain could face up to life in prison if he is found guilty. Why did he leave the passengers behind?


TRANSLATOR: Finding survivors is the strong desire of the whole nation. Our position is the same as the missing people's families. We're all volunteers. We're in the same position. We cry every day and search for the missing people. I cry whenever I think about it.

PEREIRA: That's one of the many volunteer diver that are searching in that cold, murky water off the coast of South Korea. There's very, very low visibility but they're desperately trying to find any survivors of that ferry disaster. It is absolutely heartbreaking and now there are so really disturbing questions emerging from the tragic story. Why did the captain leave the ship as the ferry started to sink and why wasn't he at the helm in the first place? I'm joined by Rod Sullivan. He is a maritime lawyer and professor at Florida Coastal School of Law. Really a pleasure to have you with us here today sir.


PEREIRA: Why don't we talk about these charges first of all that the captain is facing. They include negligence, bodily injury resulting in death, however he is defending the orders that he issued for passengers to stay aboard the sinking ship, saying the current was too strong, water was to cold and no rescue boats were nearby. Does this captain have any defense for his actions?

SULLIVAN: Well, you have to look at a couple of different charges. First of all, Korea is one of the few countries that has a code that actually requires the captain to stay on board the vessel until all the passengers are off. So under the Korean seaman's code he will be found responsible for getting off the ship before the passengers.

But that particular charge only carries it with a $5,000 fine. The more serious charges are failing to render immediate assistance to the -- passengers which can carry with it five years and then negligent homicide which can carry with it a sentence of life. Does he have any defenses? The answer is, yes, he has some defenses, though.

In the light of many maritime tragedies in the past, for instance the Exxon Valdez or the Summit Venture, which hit the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, the captains have been charged, but ultimately they have been freed from criminal responsibility for their actions.

So in the heat of today, we all feel like these ship's officers and the captain are criminally responsible, but maybe when the charges finally come before the courts, may not be found to be so.

PEREIRA: And I guess then there's a whole separate question about civil charges if there's some sort of civil suit, as well. Now let's talk about the crew members. Several of them are charged. What kind of charges could they be facing?

SULLIVAN: Well, they could be facing many of the same charges. But let's look at the crew members have said. The third mate on watch, a 26-year-old licensed officer, says that the steering gear failed causing the rudder to go hard over. And her story is backed up by the helmsman. So if in fact there is a mechanical failure that initially caused the vessel to list to one side, then you can't really hold those officers responsible for the actions. Now with regard to the captain --

PEREIRA: Go ahead.

SULLIVAN: The captain -- in my opinion, the captain made a very bad error here. There were only 30 minutes between the time that the first steering gear failure happened and the time when the deck was tilted to 50 degrees.

Now, at 50 degrees, it's really not possible for anybody to climb without hand holds or without any kind of place to grip up the deck of a ship and escape. So by delaying the passengers and putting on their lifeboats and getting outside, he really caused their death.

Was this a reasonable action to take? I think that perhaps while the ship had initially lurched over to one side it was possible that that was a good move, but once it was determined that the vessel was going to continue listing further to one side, it was no longer then a reasonable thing to do.

PEREIRA: If those people had a chance to get out of the boat, they might have -- they might have stood a fighting chance.

Rod Sullivan, want to say thank you to you for joining us at this hour. We appreciate your expertise.

Ahead at this hour, drone attacks. Al Qaeda militants just days after they were caught on video rallying. We're gonna speak to a Navy SEAL and a former CIA agent about the situation in Yemen.


PEREIRA: Welcome back to @this hour.

We're learning more about new drone attacks targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. At least 30 al Qaeda militants have been killed in strikes across a mountain region in southern Yemen. This ongoing offensive started with a weekend drone strike. That killed at least 13 people including 10 suspected al Qaeda militants.

Want to invite to the show Robert Baer. He was a case officer for the CIA and is our national security analyst. He is in Irvine, California. Good to have you with us.

Chris Heben is a former Navy SEAL, joining us from Cleveland.

Gentlemen, good to have you both with us at this hour.

Bob, first to you, let's talk about the connection between these strikes and the emergence of that video that we saw last week showing this large gathering of al Qaeda in Yemen. Connection between those two things?

ROBERT BAER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think the Yemeni government is clearly been embarrassed by this meeting right in the center of its country. It had been pretending that it had conquered al Qaeda problem. In fact, it hadn't, and this is the reaction. There's also been allegations that it sent the army into the tribal areas to take care of it. So I think there's a direct connection, yes.

PEREIRA: Chris, let's turn to you. The White House, we know their policy is to not talk about drone strikes. Yet Yemen -- in fact a high-level Yemeni government official saying this was a joint mission with the U.S. Who is behind it?

CHRIS HEBEN, FORMER NAVY SEAL: Well, I would tend to believe the Yemeni official. It's true we don't publicize the bulk of our drone strikes. But what people need to realize is that the Obama administration has pulled the trigger on drone strikes many more times than the Bush administration has done. Obama has sent some drones to some targets. That is -- that is an undisputed fact.

So, you know, this is Yemeni pow wow was a very big deal. It was al Qaeda's overt message to the world, "Hey, we are alive and well and thriving. And we are doing it in Yemen. We're doing in here. We're doing it there."

So an embarrassment to Yemen, a slap in the face to them and as well to the U.S. government. So -- but, you know, we are tight-lipped with our predator drone usage. But it is a fact Obama has pulled the trigger many more times than the Bush administration did. So I have no doubts that we're behind it.

PEREIRA: There's certainly some bluster with that we video. And Chris, that video certainly raised a lot of concern about al Qaeda in Yemen, concern about their presence and their might in the region.

So boldly kind of gathering with very little concern seemingly of an air strike or another attack. Do you think this mission over the weekend stems that concern?

HEBEN: I do. I do. You know, when al Qaeda has an agenda just like U.S. Special Operations command does, just like the Department of Defense does and NATO. This video is part recruiting video. It's part slap in the face. It does many things for al Qaeda. It emboldens them. It helps them to recruit people into the fold so, you know, they know what they're doing on a world scale.

PEREIRA: Bob, we know that the strikes destroyed the training facility as well as killing a number of militants. Talk to us about this continuing threat that this terror group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses to the U.S. and other countries. BAER: Well, I think it's a significant threat. We know that al Qaeda in Yemen is capable of building airplane bombs. These can be snuck through most security systems, use a highly-specialized explosive. It's -- they can hide it in, for instance, any sort of common powder like ink powder, and so they can hit us when and where they want.

It is clear that they have a rear base there that they can operate at will. They have learned to go off cell phones. Intelligence collection is almost impossible. Even the Yemeni government, which I've worked with in the past, can't get up into those tribal areas. So they can hit back at al Qaeda up there, but who are they actually hitting? It is really a morass for intelligence gathering.

PEREIRA: Do you expect some sort of retribution for the attacks, Bob?

BAER: Oh I think absolutely. I think we'll see it. Look, they want to get back on the map, al Qaeda. They haven't -- you know, Nairobi last year. They want to do it again. This propaganda tape was urging its followers in Europe, the United States, everywhere, to go out and hit us. And I think they'll make an attempt, next 12 months. It's hard to say.

PEREIRA: Bob Baer, Chris Heben, thank you so much, gentlemen, for joining us at this hour.

HEBEN: You're welcome.

PEREIRA: Ahead, we're answering some of your questions about Flight 370, so be sure to send them our way. Tweet, Facebook, e-mail, whatever you would like to do. Homing pigeon. I'm all good.

Plus it's been a little more than a year now since the Boston marathon bombing. John Berman is there. He's right near the starting line.

John, how are things? Tell us about the atmosphere.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN, HOST: It's fantastic, Michaela. They just started the fourth and final wave here. Thousands of runners taking to this course right now as we speak, including one runner that I followed now for a full year. What he and his family went through is simply remarkable, and when we come back, you will hear his journey and the journey they have all made together as a family. Stay with us.