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EARLY START

Death Toll Rises as More Bodies Recovered; Searching for Flight 370; Obama Arrives in Japan; Tensions Rising in Ukraine; Colorado Tightens Up on Pot

Aired April 23, 2014 - 04:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news overnight. Divers recovering more bodies in the South Korean ferry disaster. The death toll rising as the investigation into what went so terribly wrong deepens.

Did the crew act fast enough or could more lives have been saved? We are live.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, searching the bottom of the ocean for any sign of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Investigators, once again, coming up empty handed after covering more than 80 percent of the area they believed the plane would be in.

Will it soon be back to square one? What is next? We are live.

BERMAN: President Barack Obama about to arrive in Japan kicking off a one-week high stakes trip through Asia. We are live there as well. Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. I'm John Berman.

HARLOW: I'm Poppy Harlow. It is 31 minutes past 4:00 am here on the East Coast. Let's begin in South Korea this morning; the search for victims on board that capsized ferry is growing more grim.

As divers move deeper into the ship, they are finding more bodies and so far no more survivors. The death toll now stands at 150, almost the same number are still missing. This, as investigators ask why a passenger on board was the first one to call emergency responders, three minutes before the crew made its first distress call.

Let's go directly to senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson. He is live in Jindo, South Korea .

Nic, what is the latest at this hour?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Poppy, that was one of the students calling ashore to the 9-1-1 service here, saying, "Help! The ship is sinking." That was three minutes after that before the crew actually made their call. That's a staggering new detail that we are learning here and really pulls into sharp focus questions about what the crew was doing and how slowly they responded to the situation that was developing around them.

If a young boy, a student aboard the ship, recognizes that there is such a problem that he needs to call 9-1-1 and what we are learning from the divers today is on the third and fourth levels, in the cafeteria, they didn't find any bodies. They were expecting to there. They are trying to find a meeting area on the third floor where they hope potentially to be able to find more bodies.

A lot of bodies discovered around the cabins on the fourth floor. But a new revelation from the divers as well, which if true -- this is reported by Korean media -- but if true, could be very tough for the families. This could switch this operation from a rescue operation to a recovery operation.

What the divers have told Korean media, what they're reporting is we have yet to substantiate this, but what Korean media is reporting is that the divers say they found no air pockets on the third and fourth levels of the ship. They say that this was the area where they were expecting to find the students.

The air pockets were the place, if they were going to survive, that's where they would be. So this, indeed, Poppy, is very grim news.

HARLOW: And you still have more than 150 still missing, the parents waiting where you are, hoping and hanging onto any hope that they possibly can. I know that there's a memorial today, right, at the school where a lot of these students were enrolled.

Is that the case?

ROBERTSON: That is. Families have gathered there. This is a school where most of the students studied. This is a school just outside of Seoul, many miles from here. The families have gathered there for a memorial, even though 70 of the children are unaccounted for. They felt this was the appropriate time.

I'm just going to move over a little bit, and what Brad, our cameraman here, should be able to do is to bring into focus one of the marine police vessels. This is one of the ships that's been bringing in the bodies from out at sea.

They bring them in and what you will see or do is begin to make this turn and it will dock in a few minutes. And what we've seen is the ambulances will pull up to the harborside there and the grim task of taking off those bodies recovered from sea will begin.

This is something that we are witnessing here, that's repeated through the day, every half hour or so another police boat comes in. It is tough for the families and of course, the pain, the memorial service and the pain for the families waiting in a gymnasium not far from here, is just mounting by the hours because for some of them, they are realizing that the news is not coming. And that just hurts all the more, Poppy.

HARLOW: It is devastating. I will never forget the sound that we've been hearing over the past week of the wailing of family members as the bodies have been coming to shore. It is unbearable for them. We'll get back to you for more later in the show. Thank you, Nic.

BERMAN: It's a sad, sad image of that ship coming in. Breaking news overnight in the search for Flight 370. Australia's prime minister is speaking out, promising to keep looking for the jet missing now for more than a month and a half.

But he's indicating that the strategy may soon change and that the search will not go on forever. That as 10 underwater missions are now complete with no sign yet of any debris from the Boeing 777.

And today, bad weather is hampering the hunt from the air. Planes forced to turn back because of the remnants of a tropical cyclone over the search zone. We are expecting an update from Malaysian officials in over an hour. Let's go now to Erin McLaughlin live in Perth for the latest on this search.

Erin?

ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. Three military planes made it up in the air before they took that decision to suspend those aerial operations. No word on if the weather had any effect on the Bluefin-21 today.

As of this morning, It's still amidst completing its 10th mission. As you mentioned, no items of interest found so far, which has Malaysian and Australian officials talking about possible next steps, possible prolonged search.

Earlier today, we heard from the Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, who reaffirmed Australia's commitment to solving this mystery.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ABBOTT: We haven't finished the search. We haven't found anything, yet, in the area that we are searching. But the point I make is that Australia will not rest until we have done everything we humanly can to get to the bottom of this mystery.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MCLAUGHLIN: The Australian defense minister, David Johnston, was quoted in the Associated Press today, saying they would most likely deploy more underwater submersibles, more powerful submersibles, capable of going to greater depths to help in this search.

He also gave a new timetable for this potential -- this phase of the search, saying that it could take them another two weeks to search the remaining 20 percent.

This particular narrow area, an area that they have identified as the most likely place in which they are going to find the plane. Different timetable than when we heard from Australian officials in the past, saying that this could be wrapped up in a next matter of days -- John.

BERMAN: That is interesting, Erin. They have been saying one week, which would be almost over by the end of today, frankly . Now, they are extending it another two weeks. Erin McLaughlin, thanks so much, great to see you this morning.

Coming up later this half hour, we go live to Beijing where the families of those on board Flight 370 are growing more and more frustrated by a lack of information. Ivan Watson is there. So stay with us for that.

HARLOW: President Obama right now is on his way to Tokyo, set to touch down in just a few hours. This is the first leg of an Asian trip that will take him from Japan to Malaysia, to the Philippines and to South Korea, with the hope of building closer ties in those economies, those emerging markets.

Our White House correspondent Michelle Kosinski is live in Tokyo.

It's interesting; this is a long delayed trip he's taking. He had to delay it because of the government shutdown here previously. But two of the countries that he's visiting -- South Korea and Malaysia -- are in crises of their own right now.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely, and trade is a big part of this. There's so much economic growth in this region right now, the U.S. wants to be part of that. Tonight President Obama will meet with Prime Minister Abe of Japan.

And Japan really wants to present this as a close friendship, a strong partnership between these two countries. This trip is seen as extremely welcome here.

What's really been going on behind the scenes, though, leading up to a potential trade partnership, this transpacific partnership that President Obama has so much been is pushing for is the talks are at something of a stalemate.

There's not a lot of movement on the part of Japan to open up more of its economy, especially in agricultural products that important to it, like beef and rice.

So it's not any guarantee there's going to be a whole lot of progress there. But, the Japanese are very happy that this is the first state visit by a U.S. president in two decades -- state visit meaning President Obama will meet with the Japanese emperor tomorrow and the Japanese are heralding the fact that there are two dinners with President Obama here.

Very important to them, especially when you compare it to, as they are saying, oh, there's only one dinner in South Korea. The relationship between Japan and South Korea has been strained. President Obama has been trying to level that out, in some sense.

And relationships here are going to be extremely significant, not only between nations in this region, but of course between the U.S. and those countries and between the U.S. and China.

Even though the U.S. is not meeting with China on this trip, that's the relationship between these major powers that tends to overshadow talks about a range of subjects. Back to you. HARLOW: And Michelle, in Malaysia and in South Korea, do we expect the president to make any comments about the missing plane in Malaysia or on the ferry disaster in South Korea? Do we expect anything or know anything formally?

KOSINSKI: No, we do expect something to be said about it, obviously. In the press conferences and the readouts of conversations, we can't really expect it not to come up.

In fact, South Korea was very happy that in an address the president gave last week, I think it was, that the first thing he mentioned was condolences for what has happened in South Korea.

When you look at all four of these countries, they have all had major disasters of some kind recently or, on the part of Japan, in recent years, with the nuclear disaster here.

It's not as if the president is going to talk about that. There's a lot going on in this region, not only economically, which is the focus of the trip. So there could be other things that will come up as well.

HARLOW: Absolutely. We will watch. Thank you, we appreciate your report this morning, Michelle.

BERMAN: Other things, including the crisis in Ukraine, tensions rising this morning there. Russia blamed for igniting the weeks of bloody protests tearing through that country. This as the United States threatens Russia with more sanctions and moves some of its troops into the region. We're live, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Welcome back, everyone. This morning there are new worries that Ukraine could be spiraling closer to war. A fragile truce seemingly shattered this morning as the acting president of Ukraine claims that an abducted politician was tortured and killed by pro- Russian separatists.

He says an operation to root out those separatists is going to start again. This, as the other side says it's Ukraine that has been hurting them. It is a mess.

And our Fred Pleitgen is live in Kiev.

Fred, what is the latest this morning?

FRED PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think a mess is exactly the right way to put it. You had that incident that happened yesterday with that politician, as you noted, whose body was found near the town of Sloviansk in a river and the Ukrainian government says that the body showed signs of torture. And they are indeed blaming this on those pro-Russian separatists. They also say, at least the president here of this country does, that these pro-Russian separatists have taken an entire region. All of the Ukraine is, quote, "hostage." And so therefore, the government says that it wants to relaunch that anti- terror operation, what it calls an anti-terror operation. The pro- Russian separatists, for their part, are of course saying that they believe that it was right-wing Ukrainian militias who are behind all of this.

There really does seem to be a completely different interpretation of what's going on on the Russian side, on the pro-Russian side and the Western side. Of course, we had Vice President Biden here yesterday. He was saying he expects the Russians to make moves in all of this. He expects them to de-escalate the situation. He expects them to do that very quickly; otherwise, there is the specter of additional very tough sanctions.

The Russians for their part are saying they believe it's the government here in Kiev that's holding everything up. The foreign minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, saying that so far Kiev has not implemented any of the measures that were called for in an agreement between the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and the European Union last Thursday.

So you are right, it is an absolute mess. The events in the east of the country are very murky. And certainly there's no sign that anything is being de-escalated at this point -- John.

BERMAN: No, with all sides taking straight past each other, our Frederik Pleitgen in Kiev this morning. Thank you so much, Fred.

HARLOW: Also new information this morning about that teenage boy who investigators say stowed away in a plane's wheel well all the way from California to Hawaii and survived. Why he may have done it and how he pulled it off. More answers, straight ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HARLOW: This morning, a teenager who stowed away in the wheel well of a flight from California to Hawaii remains in the hospital. As we find out new details of what might have been behind his decision to jump a fence at San Jose's Airport and hide out near the plane's landing gear.

A law enforcement official tells CNN the 15-year old was trying to get to Somalia to see his mother. He spent some six hours on the ground before the plane took off and appears to have simply picked the first aircraft that he reached, not realizing it would take him some 38,000 feet in the air to Hawaii, not to where he was apparently trying to go.

Classmates say the boy is quiet, shy, really they never expected something like this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was really shocked, you know, and I'm just really glad that he made it and he's all right right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we would have seen him doing this, probably the last person you would expect. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He never talked about going to the airport?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, that was a surprise.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Well, San Jose Airport is reviewing security to try to figure out how this teen scaled a six-foot fence, topped with barbed wire, went unnoticed on the ground for hours by employees that were patrolling the tarmac.

BERMAN: Recreational marijuana may be legal in Colorado but that state is now cracking down on some edible items containing pot. Legislators in the State House of Representatives there voted overwhelmingly to tighten labeling on marijuana products and limit the amount of concentrated marijuana that can be sold. This comes after two recent deaths possibly linked to the injection of cannabis products. The State Senate is now set to consider these measures.

HARLOW: One year after a devastating blast that left 15 people dead in West Texas, there is a new report that says the fertilizer plant explosion was preventable. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board places the blame with the plant's owner, federal regulators and also local authorities, saying all did not do enough to keep that plant safe or keep residents far enough away.

Many of those killed in the explosion were firefighters. More than 200 others were wounded.

I was down there after that. It devastated that entire community. And the homes, people lived so close, some of the homes, the ceilings just collapsed when this happened. It was shocking and now very frustrating to hear these answers.

BERMAN: But still, not a lot of answers about how it happened.

HARLOW: About how -- very good point.

BERMAN: All right. Frustration growing for the families of those on board Flight 370. They have so many questions and they are getting so few answers. We are live in Beijing right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: This morning, still no sign of any debris from Flight 370. That's more than after a month and a half of searching. The families of those on board say enough is enough. They want answers. They are tired, they say, of what they call stonewalling from investigators.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's just the same thing over and over. They say they are going to send technical experts and then just a mouthpiece shows up. They can't ever answer a question. They never give any information.

So why keep bringing the families through that point of crisis? It doesn't make any sense.

There's a very interesting saying, the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expect a different result. And I think we are in an insane situation right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Senior international correspondent Ivan Watson is live in Beijing.

Ivan, it seems from the perspective of the families, the officials at this point just can't do anything right.

IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean the crisis is not new. I mean, it's been more than 45 days since the plane disappeared and still there are vacillations, there are reversals of statements principally made by Malaysian government officials, whose every word are being hung on by these families desperate to learn something about the last moments when this plane was in the air.

Right now, the Malaysian government says it's got a senior diplomat, the deputy foreign minister of Malaysia, meeting with Chinese diplomats here in Beijing, but pledges to have a one-on-one, face-to- face meeting with the members of these so-called families' committees that formed up, representing the families of the 153 Chinese nationals who were on board the missing flight.

No meetings have taken place between some of these high level officials and these Chinese families, much to the consternation of these next of kin.

One of the claims that some Malaysian government officials made is, hey, why are the Chinese so uppity? Why are they making so much noise? There are 14 nationalities that were aboard that plane.

We have heard and you just heard from a member of the lone adult American passenger on the plane. Many of them have also shared this anger at the lack of information, the lack of transparency about the investigation into the fate of this missing plane -- John.

BERMAN: Our Ivan Watson live in Beijing this morning, been reporting on these families for more than a week now, a tough, tough task given the strong feelings they have. Our thanks to you, Ivan.

HARLOW: All right. EARLY START continues right now.