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Breaking News

Nine Injured, One Dead Found in Cuban Plane Search Area

Aired September 19, 2000 - 2:22 p.m. ET

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

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We're continuing to follow the story of the Russian-built plane allegedly hijacked out of Cuba this morning with Cuba reporting 18 people aboard: 16 passengers, two crew. We have, within the past half hour, gotten word from the Air Force of a signal from a beacon and people plucked from the water in the Florida Straits.

We're going to check in now with our military affairs correspondent, Jamie McIntyre, who is at the Pentagon keeping close watch on all of this.

What are you hearing about this rescue at sea, Jamie?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN MILITARY AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, the Pentagon did confirm just a short time ago that they have a report from the U.S. Coast Guard that 10 people were taken from the sea near some airplane wreckage by a merchant ship. But the location that was given was 180 miles south of Key West, Florida, and that would put the location -- if that coordinate is correct, that would put it south of the main island of Cuba. So it adds a bit of complexity to what actually happened in this story.

Now, this plane, an AN-2 Colt, as you said, Soviet-built, took off at about 8:45 this morning and was reported missing, or that contact was lost with the plane by Havana just 15 minutes later. The last known location was given as 60 miles south of Florida, and that's where the search initially began.

But then the Coast Guard got a report of a second possible location and some of the search area shifted and we're just now getting reports, as CNN's Mark Potter reported from Coast Guard headquarters down in Miami, that 10 people were taken from the water.

Now, we're told that nine are OK or nine people were alive and that one person was apparently dead. So that was a total of 10 people recovered by a merchant ship near some airplane wreckage. So it sounds like it might be this incident, but there are still many, many questions that have to be answered, chief of which is, where was the plane going? Was it, in fact, heading toward the United States and was it north or south of Cuba when it was found? We're going to have to check that out because this information is just coming in now.

WATERS: Right. The question I've been asking all along is about these radar sightings. Whose radar? And where did the information come from that the plane was 60 miles, say, south of Key West?

MCINTYRE: Well, that was a report by the Havana air traffic center to the Miami air traffic center, which then went to the FAA, which then went to the Air Force, which scrambled F-15 fighters up to go look for it. So that was -- it's not clear at this point whether this was, in fact, tracked on radar. The Pentagon says that it's AWACS airborne monitoring plane did not establish any visual or radar contact with the plane. So they didn't see it on the radar.

WATERS: Can you hang on just a second, Jamie?

MCINTYRE: Sure.

WATERS: We have Petty Officer Robert Suddarth of the Coast Guard on the line.

Petty Officer Suddarth, what can you tell us about what we're hearing about a rescue at sea south of the Keys.

PETTY OFFICER ROBERT SUDDARTH, U.S. COAST GUARD: Yes, sir. I can tell you that the motor vessel Chios -- or I'm not sure if that's the right pronunciation -- Dream -- C-H-I-O-S -- apparently is on scene with 10 people: nine injured, one deceased. They picked these people up out of the water I think 180 miles southwest of Key West, 60 miles west of the west end of Cuba. We're not sure if they are from the aircraft, although it's probable. They picked these people up and we have a C-130 aircraft en route to search for additional survivors and to confirm that the Chios Dream is on scene and has these people on board.

We have helicopters en route to medivac the injured to trauma centers if need be, either in Key West, Miami, or wherever. But that's the information -- that's the latest information I have right now.

WATERS: This Chios Dream, that's the name of a merchant ship?

SUDDARTH: It is -- whether it's a -- it may be a merchant ship. It's not a Coast Guard cutter...

WATERS: Oh, OK.

SUDDARTH: ... it's a civilian -- it's owned by a private company. They've contacted us and told us that they have the 10 people on board: like I said, nine injured, one deceased. And that may or may not be a total from the aircraft. We do not know that now. We have the C-130 heading en route to look for any additional people in the water and, like I said, also the helicopters to get the medivac of the injured immediately.

WATERS: We're seeing some videotape as we talk of the Coast Guard helicopter search within the past little while.

When you say probably these folks are from the plane we've been hearing about, do you also know if this location 180 miles southwest of Key West is the approximate location of that beacon signal we've been hearing the AWACS picked up?

SUDDARTH: Actually, I don't know anything about the beacon signal, I just know that the -- like I said, that we were notified that the vessel picked up the people. It was approximately in the search area that we were searching for the airplane. We're not confirming that they are from the aircraft. We still haven't confirmed that absolutely. We're just, right now, we know that 10 people have been taken aboard this motor vessel, and we are en route to confirm that these people are on there and try to get them off as quick as possible and to a hospital if they are injured.

WATERS: Are there any weather problems? We know there's a weather system going through the area, but does that cause any problems for you?

SUDDARTH: I think the weather was not great, but it wasn't -- it wasn't -- it wouldn't complicate any kind of medivac or anything like that. It was, I think, four- to six-foot seas, 15-20 knot winds. Last I heard, the visibility was also pretty good. So I don't think there should be any problem with the medivac or that kind of thing.

WATERS: All right, thank you very much for helping us, Petty Officer Robert Suddarth with the Coast Guard.

Jamie, hear anything there that helps you?

MCINTYRE: Well, he did clear up one thing. We were told initially this was found 180 miles south of Key West. He said it was south-southwest. In fact, he said 60 miles west of the western coast of Cuba. So that puts it off the screen here, if you look at our map on the screen right now. But it also raises questions about which way the plane was actually heading. Was it heading toward the United States or was it heading for some place else?

And we still don't have any confirmation that the plane was in fact hijacked, as Havana traffic control center said to Miami when they first issued that communication between. They said they had a hijacked plane with two children on board and they needed more information from the United States.

So there's still a lot of questions about what happened with this plane, where it was headed and what the circumstances are for it landing in the water.

WATERS: And we, of course, are working hard to find the answers to those answers. Jamie McIntyre from his post at the Pentagon will keep watch there -- Natalie.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: And one of those you just posed to the Coast Guard, Lou, was: Is this vessel carrying these nine injured and this one person who is dead in the area of that beacon that was detected by an AWACS plane?

Let's make contact again with CNN's Carl Rochelle, who's also watching this story from Washington -- Carl. CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Natalie, it could be in the exact area. They haven't told us exactly where what beacon was. They did get a signal from -- there was a report that they had received a signal from the emergency locater transmitter, the beacon signal. That continually puts out a signal that can be monitored by both civilian and military aircraft to take them into the area.

It may very well be that this is a case that that is exactly where that beacon is. The information I have is concurrent with what we hear from Jamie and also what we hear from the Coast Guard, that they are in the area and that they have picked up nine survivors and one dead person in the area of a bunch of aircraft wreckage. And they're, of course, trying to confirm that that is in fact the airplane that was missing.

A suggestion for you: This airplane disappeared from a radar scope. It is not without the realm of possibility that if in fact it was hijacked, it deliberately tried to get below the Cuban radar area, the area where it can be seen on Cuban radar as it continued away from that, because if in fact it was hijacked and the hijackers were in control of the aircraft, they would have wanted to get away from where they could be detected by Cuban radar in case an airplane was about to try to round them up and bring them back in for some reason. So it is possible that they deliberately went below the area of the radar and then continued on in another direction.

We do know that the Coast Guard flew a search-and-rescue aircraft over the area where the plane was last reported seen and found no sign of wreckage and no sign of the aircraft. That is when they began looking further around.

Apparently, when the airplane went down, a motor vessel, a private vessel -- not a military vessel -- picked up, found these survivors and picked them up.

One other question: The initial report that we had coming out of Cuba to the United States and passed on to us was 16 people aboard, possibly 18. We now have accounted for nine plus one. That's 10. What happened to the other six to eight people that were -- that were reportedly on the airplane, Natalie?

ALLEN: And if this pilot was trying to bring this plane down -- we still don't know why this plane went down, if it did; there's so many unknowns here -- how would this pilot try to maneuver that landing at sea, Carl, in what appears to be to save lives? Now we have nine people alive on a vessel.

ROCHELLE: Well, Natalie, there were reports that it was a float plane, and apparently it is not a float plane. Landing an airplane like that with fixed landing gear is an extremely difficult situation to be in. There is no training for making a landing at sea, usually because it is a destructive landing. The first experience you get in actually doing that is the first time you ever land a plane at sea, and few people outside of perhaps a military pilot who has lost one has had a chance to experience that and come back and carry that experience on into a second landing. But the airplane landing gear sticks down, of course, could stub the toe of the airplane, if you will, and cause it to flip over. That could cause the airplane to sustain damage. It is not an easy thing to do, although the pilot training manuals all give you scenarios in which you would approach the particular back of the wave if you were approaching, depending on which way the wind is. You should always land into the wind unless the waves are particularly destructive in that area, in which case you'd want to land in the direction of the waves.

But it's all theoretical because there's no practical experience here until you do the first one. If in fact the plane went down and there are nine survivors, then he didn't do a bad job at all, even though at least one person is dead. Here again, we don't know what happened to the others or whether there were actually 16 people on board the airplane.

But nine survivors means he didn't do a bad job of getting the airplane down, he or she, whoever the pilot was.

ALLEN: Carl Rochelle, one of our many correspondents working the story. Thank you, Carl.

Now on for more, here's Lou.

WATERS: It's just past the half hour, and if you're just checking in -- we know a lot of people do check in at about half past the hour -- we're closely following the story of a reported hijack of a plane out of Cuba at 8:45 Eastern Time this morning. It was reported hijacked by the Cuban air traffic control people to the FAA in the United States. Since then, we have the report of the plane down somewhere in the Florida Straits. We heard the report of a beacon being picked up, and then Mark Potter, in our Miami bureau, who joins us now, reported just a short while ago survivors being plucked from the water by a merchant vessel at sea.

Mark, what's the latest on that?

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What we're hearing now is that this took place, the discovery of these 10 people, the nine survivors and the one dead, 180 miles southwest of Key West. We've been told it's about 60 miles west of Cuba. We heard from an official at the Coast Guard in Key West that it's north of the Yucatan Peninsula by about 120 miles.

But for those of you who have nautical charts, we can solve this problem easily by giving you the coordinates. They have never changed since we started reporting this, and the Coast Guard is saying that the vessel (AUDIO GAP)...

WATERS: OK. We have a satellite problem from Miami, but Mark Potter is reporting what he's hearing from the Coast Guard. Of the nine survivors in the water 180 miles south-southwest of Key West, 60 miles west of Cuba, Mark was about to explain the flight path of this plane, which is still a mystery, because at one point, it was reported 60 miles south of Key West, Florida, which would not jibe with what we're hearing now. But there's a lot more to be discovered.

As soon as we re-establish contact with Mark, we'll clear up some points of the story -- Natalie.

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