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THE SITUATION ROOM

The Mystery of Flight 370

Aired March 10, 2014 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: a SITUATION ROOM special report, "The Mystery of Flight 370."

The search widens in the air and at sea for any trace of the Malaysia Airlines jet that vanished after takeoff three days ago. The mystery deepens. We're looking at all the possible theories of what went wrong, from mechanical failure to terrorism, and new details about a pair of stolen passports linked to the flight.

The frustration grows. Families of the missing passengers and crew are desperately waiting for solid information, as lead after lead winds up going nowhere.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM, 6:00 a.m. Tuesday in Malaysia, and another day of desperate searching begins for that missing jumbo jet with 239 people on board.

It's been about 72 hours since it vanished after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur without a distress signal or any hint about what happened, no smoke, no debris, no ping from the flight's data recorder, or so- called black box.

Let's check some of the new developments this hour. Thai police now say two tickets for Flight 370 that were linked to stolen passports were bought by an Iranian man or someone acting on his behalf. Authorities are scrambling to see if there's any connection between the stolen passports and the plane's disappearance.

Air and sea crews searching for the missing jet have been told to comb a larger portion of the Gulf of Thailand between Malaysia and Vietnam. They're also focusing in on the Andaman Sea near Thailand's border after radar data indicated the plane may have turned around and headed back towards Kuala Lumpur.

And now we also have more on the stolen passports and whether there's any reason to believe there's a terrorist connection.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's got the very latest -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we have some new information coming in just in the last few minutes.

And that's that the FBI here in the U.S. has now received specifically the thumbprints of those passengers who boarded that Malaysia Airlines flight with stolen passports. They're now going to take those thumbprints as well as images that have been shared of them to check against U.S. terror databases that would have lists of people with suspected ties to terrorism or known ties to terrorism.

That's what they're doing right now. Now, I continue to be told by multiple intelligence officials that at this point there's nothing to indicate that this was an act of terrorism. However, they continue to check out every lead, and checking these thumbprints and these other materials, photos, biometrics against that terror list can fall under that category.

We also, as you mentioned, got new information today about how those tickets were bought by this Iranian middleman. And that's something else that may be checked out, although I was just told by another official it's too early to say whether that is an indication of terrorism either.

Still, as with everything with this flight, there are many, many questions and as of yet, no hard answers.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): With the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 still a mystery, investigators are now trying to determine who was on it when it disappeared.

Attention is focusing on two men traveling on stolen passports from Italy and Austria. Today, Malaysian authorities described them as non-Asian in appearance. CNN has learned that both tickets were purchased as seen here on this receipt by an Iranian middleman named Kazem Ali. He bought them last-minute with cash and asked for only one-way tickets, all potential red flags.

(on camera): Does that add to the concerns about terror or does it take away?

BOB BAER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It adds to my concern because a terrorist group would go to a fixer -- a well-known one. They piggyback on drug smugglers, immigration smugglers as well. So, absolutely, they could go to this guy. He may know nothing about it. He's just given a sum of money and said get these people on the airplane and get them passports.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): The passports the mystery men use had been reported stolen to Interpol in 2012 and 2013, but it appears the airline never checked the passports against Interpol's database.

Multiple U.S. intelligence officials tell CNN nothing so far indicates this was an act of terrorism. Some terror analysts, however, see echoes of past terror plots in Asia.

MARY SCHIAVO, FORMER TRANSPORTATION INSPECTOR GENERAL: People forget something called the Bojinka plot. The Bojinka plot was a plot to take out 12 jetliners over the Pacific Ocean. And they were aiming for U.S. jetliners, but they did a trial run and they did a trial run on a Philippine jetliner and they used fake passports. SCIUTTO: The flight's disappearance comes only weeks after U.S. authorities warn in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics that terrorists might try to hide explosives in toothpaste or cosmetic tubes before boarding flights.

Soon after, officials warned airlines terror groups were working on advance designs of shoe bombs intended to avoid detection.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: Now, there has been at least one claim of responsibility by a group calling itself the China Martyrs Brigade. Regarding that claim, a U.S. intelligence official told me -- quote -- "No group by that name has previously been identified" and it wasn't clear who was behind that claim, Wolf, so undermining that detail.

There's so many details out there, some of them have meaning, some do not have meaning. That's what intelligence agencies are sifting through right now. But, as they sift through, they don't have anything substantial at this point to point to terrorism.

BLITZER: And no one has claimed responsibility, any serious organization or individual, and as you point out, that raises some questions as well.

But the U.S. has dispatched all of the real lead investigators from the FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board. They have dispatched all these experts to the region to try to come up with some answers.

SCIUTTO: No question. I think what we're realizing here is, whether this was an act of terrorism or a mechanical failure, it doesn't look like we're going to know for certain for some time. And there's precedent for this.

You remember the Air France flight over the Atlantic in 2009. It was a long time before we knew that TWA 800 -- remember that theory about a short circuit in the fuel tank. You know, certainty, it appears, in this case is going to take a long time.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto with that, thanks very much.

The families of the 239 people on board the missing plane have been told to prepare for the worst. Most are from China, but three of the passengers are U.S. citizens, two of them young children, 4-year-old Nicole Meng, 2-year-old Yan Zhang.

The only American adult on board, 51-year-old Philip Wood, he is an IBM executive who had been working in China, was about to relocate to Malaysia. Back home in Texas, Wood's brother says he and his family want answers, whether the plane crashed, or was it an act of terror or even a hijacking.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM WOOD, BROTHER OF PASSENGER: That would be a whole lot better than what we have been thinking. So I'm crossing my fingers that, you know, maybe there's a happy ending to this. You know, this is pretty fresh, and we're processing it, and we have just had a little bit of time to be together as a family. We're pretty calm. We're pretty strong. And, you know, we're hanging in there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The families of many other passengers have been waiting anxiously at the airport in Beijing, where Flight 370 was headed.

CNN's David McKenzie is in Beijing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, first, it was shock, then anger and frustration by the family members here in Beijing who are wanting to know some clarity about where their loved ones are on that missing Flight MH370 that vanished over the skies of Vietnam early Saturday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I'm not going home until I know what happened. We have lost loved ones. And they need to answer our questions. When are you going to tell us? And what are you going to do? We still don't know if they are alive or dead.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Still no information and still waiting. I am not happy with the airline's arrangements so far.

PAUL YIN, GRIEF COUNSELOR: I think first and foremost is a quick resolution, because this not knowing is probably the most agonizing.

MCKENZIE: Tonight, relatives burst out of Beijing to Kuala Lumpur, the staging ground of this extraordinary search-and-rescue effort.

Despite the many hours, they say there still might be hope for people to find their loved ones, but that hope is fading fast, and authorities telling people here that they should expect the worst. They should expect bad news. It's been an extremely difficult time for these families. More than 150 people on board this ill-fated flight were Chinese nationals. And this country is reeling from this disaster -- Wolf.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What a disaster it is, David McKenzie in Beijing.

Still ahead, we're getting information on the pilot of Flight 370. Our own Richard Quest actually flew with him in the cockpit. Richard is standing by. He will join us live as we go deeper into this mystery and discuss what investigators should do next.

And lessons from the past. We will search for an answer. We will take a look at some of the searches for other planes that vanished and how the puzzle was finally solved.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Nearly three dozen aircraft and 40 ships from 10 countries have been searching for the Malaysia Airlines jet that vanished three days ago. So far, they failed to find any trace of the Boeing 777.

Let's bring in CNN's Richard Quest and FAA Chief of Staff Michael Goldfarb.

Richard, you actually interviewed the co-pilot only, what, about a week or so ago? Tell us about that.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I was flying from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur for a story on Malaysia Airlines and how the company is being turned around by the chief executive and the changes they're making.

And we were granted permission to film in cockpit, which is quite rare, but it was fully supervised and approved. And the co-pilot or the first officer was Fariq Hamid, who was the first officer on the doomed Flight 370.

And he was in the process of transitioning from the narrow-bodied fleet, the 737, to the 777. He was thoroughly looking forward to this. He had been training for weeks and months in the simulator and this was one of his first handful of flights actually at controls of the metal itself. And of course he had an extremely senior captain with him, a training captain of many years and many hours experience.

Fariq himself had about 2,500, 2,700 hours, so an experienced first officer, but inexperienced on the 777. It's one of those coincidences.

BLITZER: Michael, tell us about this Boeing 777. How safe of a plane it is? What kind of a track record does it have?

MICHAEL GOLDFARB, FORMER FAA CHIEF OF STAFF: It's extremely safe, Wolf.

It has a very, very good track record. The airlines love it. It's had a couple of things I think we have reported on. It's had a problem with some of the fasteners. The FAA fined it $2.7 million for quality control problems in the production of the 777, but that was 2008.

And this plane is 11 or 12 years old and presumably those problems had been fixed. It also a problem with a frozen fuel injection into the Rolls-Royce engine in Heathrow and, as has been reported, the tip, the wingtip had been repaired. So, from a physical structure position, this plane is as solid as it gets.

BLITZER: Richard, what do we know about the actual pilot of the -- the lead pilot of the plane? I take it that this pilot had posted videos of a flight simulator he actually had in his home?

QUEST: Yes, Captain Shah is the, again, very experienced captain, training captain, senior captain at Malaysia Airlines. He absolutely loved flying. He actually had a flight simulator in his home, not a full-motion one, but as you can see there, in which he would give lessons and he would instruct and he would perfect his own technique.

Now, because first officer Hamid was relatively inexperienced on the 777, it was a senior captain that had to be in the left-hand seat. And from everything that I have read and everything I have heard about Captain Shah, he absolutely adored and loved flying. In fact, they both did because Hamid made it quite clear this was doing something he'd always wanted to do.

BLITZER: Given the fact, Michael, that this plane appears to have disappeared, isn't there a better way that these major, huge airliners could be tracked so that they can't simply disappear? What needs to be done?

GOLDFARB: OK. Wolf, first, let's step back a bit. We have speculation run amok because we have no facts.

As you know, the speculation on the cause is always wrong because it's a unique accident. It rarely happens. I do believe that they will find the so-called black boxes. The Gulf of Thailand is only 260 feet deep at its deepest point, as opposed to Air France, where we're talking about 12,000 feet.

They will find it. They will find where the plane is. The problem is simply that over the oceans, we don't have satellite communications. It's considered expensive. The airlines haven't really adopted it yet, and the authorities haven't either.

We can have simultaneous information being distributed on these planes, as opposed to having to have the black boxes, but it's really kind of a cost issue simply since we don't have a lot of -- thankfully, a lot of crashes. But let's take two or three of the leading theories, one, corrosion.

Malaysia Air flies over oceans, so highly salt water can corrode and can cause a fatigue stress fracture in the hull, as we saw with Hawaiian Air in the 1990s or 1980s, I believe. But they have good anti-aging programs at Malaysia Air. This plane is not that old.

So, it doesn't seem like that is going to lead anywhere. Point two, some report the plane had turned around. Well, in Air France, we saw where the pilots lost control of the aircraft, the plane was wavering. If this plane had turned around, one would think the pilot would have radioed ground control or radioed his own air station. We really have a mystery.

I think that we will find out the cause. If it was catastrophic failure, I think you remember Payne Stewart, the golfer, who all of them had a catastrophic depressurization at high altitude and within seconds they were incapacitated.

We have tons of rumors. I think we have just got to, unfortunately, let the investigators take the lead and we will definitely figure it out. Last point, we have to figure it out, Wolf, because all of the 777s around the world need to understand if there's something systemic in this crash that needs their attention in their maintenance or in their operations of their own planes. BLITZER: And you have pointed out, Richard, that this plane was flying about 35,000 feet, and you said that's really the safest point for a major jetliner like this, right?

QUEST: In the so-called phases of flight, and there are up to 18 different phases of flight, from taxi to rollout to takeoff to climb -- it being in the cruise is by far the safest.

The engines aren't producing 100 percent and, one, the aircraft is on autopilot, it's on a predestined path. You do have to guard against what's known as the startle effect. When something goes wrong, the pilots can often be very much -- because they are lulled into a sort of serenity by nothing happening.

But, besides that, the big question here and then where Michael is -- what he was talking about and the information we have got is that the aircraft stopped or didn't send any of the automatic data that you would have expected.

In Air France 447, there were 24 messages sent automatically from the aircraft to Air France maintenance and to the company. Now, we don't have any of that in this case. Not only do you have the ending of the radar, but you don't actually have any clues or early clues. So I agree completely with Michael. It is a case of just waiting until this wreckage is found, which it will be.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Richard Quest, thanks so much. Michael Goldfarb, thanks to you as well. The mystery continues.

So are there any similarities between this mystery and other plane disasters? We're looking at the controversial crash. It has stumped investigators and sparked conspiracy theories.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following the desperate search for Flight 370 three days after it vanished without a trace while heading from Malaysia to China.

It's not the first time something like this has happened.

CNN's Martin Savidge has been looking at other plane disasters shrouded in mystery.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Even in our world of satellites and cell phones, giant airliners can disappear, at least for a while. The last was Air France Flight 447 in 2009. The Airbus 330 with 228 people aboard vanished beyond radar on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.

JEAN PAUL TROADEC, DIRECTOR, BEA (through translator): People who go on the planes want to know what happened. SAVIDGE: It took search crews five days to find any debris and two years to locate the plane and its flight recorders on the ocean floor.

Eventually, investigators determined mechanical failure and pilot error were to plane. Then there was Egypt Air Flight 990. It too went down mysteriously in 1999 on a flight from New York to Cairo, killing 217 people.

Like the Malaysia Airliner, Egypt Air 990 was less than an hour into its flight, cruising at altitude, when it suddenly nose dived into the Atlantic with no distress call. Eventually, U.S. and Egyptian investigators came to two different conclusions. The NTSB said a co- pilot intentionally crashed the plane. The Egyptians cited mechanical failure.

Even when there are witnesses to a plane crash, there can be mystery and controversy. And TWA 800 is proof of that. Upwards of 1,500 people say they saw some kind of fire trail in the sky July 17, 1996, leading to speculation it was a missile and terrorism that brought down the 747, killing 230 people.

Former ABC correspondent Pierre Salinger fed the flames of conspiracy, incorrectly claiming it was a U.S. Navy ship that shot the plane down. It was painstaking work by investigators, who concluded an explosion in the plane's center fuel tank was the real culprit.

In some airline mysteries, it's not how the plane went down that grips the public, but how passengers survived. Such was the case of Flight 571. In 1972, a charter plane crashed in the Andes Mountains. Of the 45 passengers on board, only 16 would live to tell about it. The tragedy was made famous in the 1993 film "Alive," depicting survivors eating the dead to stay alive the 72 days it took for rescue.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SAVIDGE: In all these examples and more, airline disasters that began as mysteries in most cases eventually were found and solved. Experts believe that will be the case with this latest one, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Martin Savidge reporting for us, thank you very much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. Now let's step into the CROSSFIRE with Marc Lamont Hill and S.E. Cupp -- guys.