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Buildings Collapse in New York City; FAA Ready to Help Interpret Radar Data; No Clear Idea on What Happened to Flight 370; Explosion Triggers Building Collapse

Aired March 12, 2014 - 13:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington. We're watching two major stories. One, a deadly explosion in New York City that's caused two buildings to collapse. We'll have a live report from the scene in a few moments. Stand by for that.

We're also now in the fifth day since a Malaysia airlines plane simply vanished without a trace. There are still more questions than answers about the plane's mysterious disappearance.

Here's what we know right now. Malaysian officials have expanded the search area. It now covers 27,000 square miles. That's almost double the size from just a day ago.

The last words heard from the crew of the plane were, quote, "all right, good night." That according to the "Strait Times" newspaper. One of the crew members is seen here in an earlier CNN video. The last message was reportedly sent as plane entered Vietnamese air space. Malaysian authorities are asking U.S. experts to help analyze radar data. That data suggests the plane reversed course, headed back across Malaysia.

Let's bring in our CNN Aviation Correspondent Rene Marsh. She's watching all of this for us. Let's begin, Rene, with the airliner's last confirmed location. What are Malaysian officials now saying?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, here's what we know for sure. Take a look at this map here. The last location of the plane, based on civilian radar, puts it at 150 miles off the coast of Malaysia over the South China Sea. Now, all other information about the plane crossing the peninsula that you see there and ending up in the middle of the Malacca Straits is still not definite and we'll explain why in just a moment.

But the bottom line is, today, Malaysian authorities acknowledged they need more help from experts to make sense of all of this radar data. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HISHAMMUDDIN BIN HUSSEIN, TRANSPORTATION MINISTER, MALAYSIA: The way forward, ladies and gentlemen, is to be more express to analyze both the civilian and the military data, in the east or in the west and then all in the water. And this is exactly what we are doing today. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MARSH: All right. Well, three NTSB investigators are there. The FAA, which has expertise in air traffic control. They have two experts and a regional rep there. They've been on the ground for two days. Also Boeing, the manufacturer of the triple seven, also there. They are there to answer any questions about the plane's technology, how it works, the capability of the plane. But to be very clear, Wolf, they are not asking the NTSB to lead the investigation. We are still very much in the search process -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So, what's the major challenge in appreciating, understanding this radar data because it seems to be open to some interpretation?

MARSH: Absolutely. So, here's what we have so far. The civilian radar, and let's throw back up that map one more time, it says that the plane's last known position was right there, over the South China Sea. And we know that it was the plane because, at that point, the transponder was on. But the military data now that we've been talking about since yesterday, authorities are saying it may have, an emphasis on the may have, picked up the plane, veering hundreds of miles off course, crossing over the peninsula, putting it in the middle of the Malacca Straits.

But the reason why they're not certain is because military radar only detects the presence of an object in the air. It doesn't identify the plane to know that it was Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. They don't have those identifying factors. There were other planes that were in the air at the time. So, this military data is limited in that sense, in that you only know that something was there in that area. But they are hedging it a lot, saying that they believe it to be. But they really have to get in and that's why they've called in the NTSB to analyze this, to get a little bit more certainty as to whether that was truly the plane that showed up on the military radar -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. The NTSB has a lot of experience in this area. Thanks very much, Rene, for that.

Let's dig deeper, right now, with Steve Wallace. He's the former director of the FAA's office of accident investigation. And our CNN Law Enforcement Analyst Tom Fuentes. He's the former assistant FBI director. Steven, what -- Steven, now that the NTSB -- Steve Wallace. Now that the NTSB is involved, apparently going to be involved, why is it so difficult -- if the Malaysian Air Force says it spotted this plane going across Malaysia, no transponder, but they have radar information, why is it so hard to interpret it -- interpret that radar?

STEVE WALLACE, SENIOR AVIATION CONSULTANT, O'NEILL AND ASSOCIATES, FORMER DIRECTOR, FAA OFFICE OF ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION: Well, I'm glad to hear, just now, that the U.S. experts and the NTSB has some very first-rate radar experts and the FAA experts, as well, looking at that data. Because without the transponder on, you're just looking at the bounce off the skin of the airplane. This is basically radar that is designed to help you see somebody who doesn't want you to see them, like an enemy. So, that primary radar is just a -- sort of a -- is kind of a fuzzy blip. So -- and well, whereas with the normal transponder, you're going to have a data block that says who the airplane is, the speed and the altitude and all of that.

BLITZER: So, it's -- so, they think, the Malaysia Air Force, this was the plane, the triple seven, flying across Malaysia, over the sea to the west of Malaysia, without the transponder going for an hour and 10 minutes. But what you're saying, it's open to interpretation and they can't be sure?

WALLACE: Well, that's right. I mean, you're focusing on the right question here. There is really -- there is - there is some lack of confidence in this data. But it's good now that I hear the U.S. experts are looking at it.

BLITZER: Will the NTSB be able to clarify that?

WALLACE: I think they will greatly be able to improve our confidence in it.

BLITZER: You know, we've been talking, Tom, about cooperation with the Malaysian authorities right now. You're very familiar -- the FBI has a couple resident agents who are in Kuala Lumpur all the time.

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Right, Wolf, I've been able to verify that those agents were invited into the Malaysian command post the night the plane disappeared.

BLITZER: That would be late -- that would be Saturday morning.

FUENTES: Five days ago.

BLITZER: Yes, 1:30 a.m. or 2:30 a.m. Saturday morning overnight --

FUENTES: Right.

BLITER: -- between Friday and Saturday.

FUENTES: Yes, the FBI has an outstanding relationship with the Royal Malaysian Police Department. And that cooperation is -- has been in the past and is currently excellent. But the situation here isn't the law enforcement dilemma. It's the technical dilemma of why the transponders were off, what happened to the aircraft, the physical aspects of what happened to the aircraft and why. And then, the look at all the other information.

BLITZER: Because, Steve, and you've done these kinds of investigations over at the FAA, you know, the key question is, why was that transponder -- the two transponders on that Boeing triple seven, why were they shut down? And there are a lot of theories out there, four main theories, mechanical failure, hijacking, pilot error, terrorist attack. I mean, we don't know, obviously, and I don't -- I suspect no one knows right now.

WALLACE: So, accident investigators are loathe to speculate but they draw on what they have seen in the past. So, airplanes have gone off course. You know, Korean Airlines double O seven because of a misuse of the NAV system. Recently, we had the Ethiopian pilot decide to fly his own airplane to Geneva. And we've had transponders turned off by pilots. The combination of the change in course and the simultaneous loss of the transponder signal, it has to raise further the specter that --

BLITZER: But does that it suggest mechanical failure to you --

WALLACE: No. I think --

BLITZER: -- or some human development, whether terrorist, hijacking, a pilot suicide desire, something along those lines?

WALLACE: That sort of human element. The likelihood of a failure like this is extremely remote. The airplane has redundant transponders. It has multiple redundant means of communication, data link and different kinds of radios. So, there -- and there was no communication. So, the mechanical failure here is probably not likely.

BLITZER: So, (INAUDIBLE) investigation, Tom. I know the FBI is already involved, NTSB officials are either there or on the way or whatever, Malaysian authorities, the international community. Everyone wants to know how could this happen. So, if assuming it may be a human who is responsible for turning off those transponders on that Boeing, how do they go about -- do they look at everybody on that plane? What do they do?

FUENTES: They'll look at -- with that information about the transponders being shut off, who shut them off? So, immediately you look at the character, the background of the individuals flying the airplane. Is there something wrong? Had they had other issues going on in their personal lives that might affect this that they might want to take their own life and take other people with them? That has to be looked at. Did somebody get in the cockpit? These reports that some of the pilots may have entertained young ladies in the cockpit while they're flying or other people may have come in, you know, it does no good to build a fortress around the flight deck if you allow visitors to routinely visit. That means you're opening that door, creating a vulnerability that someone could exploit and get into the cockpit, take control of that airplane.

As Steven mentions, if you physically shut off the transponder and the radio and then don't radio, that airplane is still good to go. It had enough fuel to fly to China, to Beijing, China. That means it's good to be in the air another 3,000 miles. They could have flown that plane to New Delhi. They could have flown to Australia, to the Philippines. You know, so it could have gone down over the Indian Ocean, it could have gone down over the Pacific Ocean. You know, that would just massively increase the search area for the physical location of the aircraft. And until that location is determined and until the flight recorders are recovered, there is going to be no certainty about what happened in that cockpit that night.

BLITZER: How extraordinary is this disappearance, a disappearance of this huge plane? It simply vanished. How -- in all your years investigating these kinds of situations, give us a perspective, some historic perspective on the disappearance of this flight.

WALLACE: This is most unusual, particularly because it's such a modern, high-tech airplane. I mean, in the jet air, we had airplanes crash because of -- disappear because of massive structural failures. We just don't have those anymore.

BLITZER: Or pilot error.

WALLACE: Or pilot error or, you know, an engine exploding or a bulkhead failing that causes loss of the control system. But in any of those cases, there should be time for a distress call. And besides, those are accident causes that have been virtually eliminated as recurring events. So, I think we have to keep in mind that it's not unlikely that, at the end of the day, I'm confident we'll solve this. It'll be something we haven't seen before.

BLITZER: Ever.

WALLACE: Yes.

BLITZER: Really. All right, we'll continue to watch. Steve, thank you very much. Steve Wallace, former director of the FAA's Office of Accident Investigation. Tom Fuentes, our CNN Law Enforcement Analyst.

We'll have much more coming up this hour.

Also, another major story we're following. A massive explosion ripping through two buildings in New York City causing both of them to collapse. There are now fatalities, serious injuries. We're going to take you live to the scene when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We'll get back to the mystery surrounding the disappearance of that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in just a few moments. There are developments unfolding right now but there's another major story we're following right now in New York City. Emergency crews, they're on the scene of a horrific explosion in New York. It's caused two buildings to collapse and severely damage several surrounding buildings. At least two people are confirmed dead, 18 others are injured. The blast happened nearly four hours ago in East Harlem. It set off a five- alarm fire that is still burning.

A Con Edison official tells CNN there was a report of a possible gas leak about 15 minutes before the explosion. Investigators smelled gas in the air. Law enforcement officials stressed to CNN, they are seeing no connection, not seeing any connection to terrorism. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York held a news conference just a few moments ago. Here's what he had to say about the operation that's underway right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO, NEW YORK: We know we've lost two people already. We know at this moment preliminarily that 18 are injured. Different levels of injury. And we also know that there will be a search through the rubble of the building as soon as the fire is put out, looking for those who are missing. There are a number of missing individuals. I emphasize that those who are missing could well be safe in another location.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's go to the scene right now. Don Lemon is joining us. He's there.

Don, you know this area well. You don't live all that far away. I know you live in Harlem.

First of all, tell our viewers -- a lot of people know New York, where exactly these buildings are located.

DON LEMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): They're located between 116th -- hang on, Wolf, sorry. I have a - I had a mask on my face. They're handing out masks to everyone in the neighborhood.

This building is between 116th and 117th Street on Park Avenue, which is a major artery right in east Harlem. Some people call it Spanish Harlem. Well, this is east Harlem. And this is a heavily trafficked area. It's right next to the metro north train station. All those metro north trains have been stopped.

But let me just give you some color from the scene because I believe I have the best vantage point here. And it's too bad that I don't - I don't have a camera with me. I managed to get inside the police line before they closed it off and I went into the community board office with the councilwoman, and she allowed me to stay in. So I'm looking from perhaps just a few hundred feet away, not even - not that far.

I am seeing firefighters with buckets sort of in a chain kind of way. You know how they hand the bucket - they pick up the debris up with their hand, they put it in the bucket and they hand it to the fireman behind him, and then he hands it to the fireman behind him, and they make a new pile from that debris.

There were cars that were parked right out in front of the building, Wolf. And what they did, the NYPD came in with their tow truck, the NYPD tow truck, they removed about four of those cars so that they could make more room for the piles of rubble and also for the medical examiner.

And I do have to say this. Again, this is confirmed from my eyes. I don't know if this is an additional death or an additional body. But just about 10 minutes ago, I saw a body being put on a gurney, and being put inside the medical examiner's truck. I don't know if it's one of the two who are dead, or I don't know if it's - if it's an additional body. But the medical examiner has set up, of course, the medical examiner truck. And I'm looking at movement now. All of a sudden -- hang on, the firefighters are moving in. It appears they have cleared an area, Wolf. And they are -- they have -- a number of them have moved closer to the area and I don't know what that means. But I haven't seen them do that since I've been standing here for the past two hours. But, anyway, the medical examiner set up a truck on the sidewalk with a black tent over it and that's where they're bringing the bodies, if they do find bodies inside of this rubble. The smoke -- the fire is still going. It dissipates for a bit, and then it builds back up. And then they -- there are still two hoses that they are -- at least that I can see from here, that they are spraying on the fire, and the smoldering. I imagine there are hot spots inside - inside of there. But I am noticing now that the firefighters are standing on top of this huge rubble pile, Wolf, and they're taking these buckets and they're moving them back and forth. And I guess when they make - when they find their way or they make room, they move in a little bit closer to the area.

And I don't know when they move in like that, if that means that they have found another body or something that's interesting, if they have heard something. But since I have been standing here, I've not seen them move in with such force.

And, again, the wind keeps changing. Everyone who's in the area, all the emergency people, the firefighters, the police department, members of the medical examiner's office, the Con Edison, which is the gas and electric company, everyone here has on one of those facial masks. And you can smell -- there's -- the -- I'm smelling gas. The smell of gas is getting heavier and heavier in the air. And that concerns me. Because we are standing not far from where Con Edison, I would imagine, is trying to turn off some sort of a gas main or get to the gas main. But all of a sudden the smell of natural gas or whatever the, you know, the agents they put into it so that it smells, it's become really heavy in the air here, Wolf.

And that's the latest from the scene that I'm seeing here.

BLITZER: Yes, that sounds ominous to me, Don. You may want to start moving away from that area because in the initial explosion people smelled gas about 15 minutes before the explosion, and then all of a sudden there was this explosion. These two buildings in the surrounding buildings, these are old buildings, right, built before World War II.

LEMON: Yes.

BLITZER: Were they residential, office? What kind of buildings were they?

LEMON: It's mixed use. So here's the thing. As you and I - we've discussed this. Harlem is in the middle of what they call regentification (ph) or - it's in a renaissance. And so there - you know, nothing is cheap in Harlem anymore. It's the new -- if you're on the east end of Harlem, where this is, this is the new upper east side. They call it the upper upper east side. If you're on the west side where I am, it's the new upper west side.

And so it's mixed use. There are a number of tenant buildings that were built probably pre-war. There are -- I'm looking at the building on the corner that's next to this building, and that - that's a brand- new building. It has to have been built within the last three or four years. And the community center that I'm standing in is probably a building that was built back in the '20s, maybe the '30s. And so they believe that this was in a - in a -- there was a residential area on top of this building. There was a piano store, and then there's also -- man, that smell of gas is really - it's really strong. (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: All right. Don, let me recommend that -- you may want to get away from that area.

LEMON: Well, they're not moving anyone out, Wolf, but (INAUDIBLE) -

BLITZER: Well, maybe they should.

LEMON: Yes, maybe they should. But if they - if they start to move, I'll let you know. But there's also a church and then a piano store. And then now all of a sudden -- I'm not sure which pictures, I don't have access to CNN, so I can't see it, but now the smoke is really, really heavy over this building. And I don't know if that's from a change of wind or if the hot spots -- if one of the hot spots, you know, is all of a sudden restarted here. And now I'm seeing more police officers and this is NYPD tactical unit also coming on the scene and they are going door to door now to talk to people, Wolf. That's the latest.

BLITZER: Are they wearing gas masks?

LEMON: No. No one is wearing gas masks. Every once in a while that -- listen, there's the smell of gas that happen - has been, you know, this faint smell that has been here since this morning. And I would imagine the people who are -- who live here, that's what they smelled this morning.

But it gets stronger, you know, occasionally. And I don't know if it's from a change of wind. But, I mean, what I just smelled now -- I hadn't smelled for the last two hours since I've been here - it is really strong. But no one seems to be put off by it. Some of the electrical workers are not running or moving or moving anybody back. They're just sort of taking it in stride. So I would imagine that they have it under control.

But if you're looking at live pictures of that scene now, I mean I'm standing really close to the scene and I can barely see the firefighters from my vantage point because of the smoke and the haze. And just to sort of give you an idea of what I'm looking at, I'm standing right on the -- just on the north end of 117th Street. And where this building is collapsed is just - just on the sort of south of 117th Street. And so I'm looking uphill. And if you're on the other side of 116th, you probably can't see what I can see, because you're looking uphill and you can't see the firefighters.

I'm looking dead on at the firefighters. They're standing on this debris and I'm looking as if I'm standing, you know, on my front porch looking at my neighbor's house. And what I can tell you what I'm seeing right now is that they're taking those buckets and they're putting debris in them. They're also taking up things like big chunks of 2x4 and I've seen metal rods and they were taking them and handing them and throwing them back. And the pile of debris that they're standing on now is the manmade pile that they pulled from the building.

So they went into the building, removed the debris, and then build another pile and then they stand on that pile, and then they go (INAUDIBLE) and then they dig and then they build another pile behind them and then they dig and then they build another pile (INAUDIBLE) behind them and they just keep gingerly going into it like this, you know, a little bit at a time. And they're using their hands, they're using picks. And I've seen them use shovels. And there's also a backhoe that they have been using, as well. And I'm also keeping a close eye, Wolf, on the medical examiner's office because I'm seeing gurneys, as well. But only -- I've only seen one body that they have put into that medical examiner's van.

Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Don, stand by. I'm going to get back to you. I want you to -- if you have a chance, ask some of the firefighters, the other authorities there, what's going on, that intense gas smell that you're -- that you clearly are smelling right now. How worried should we be? We'll get back to you, Don, momentarily. Don't go too far away. But if that gas continues to escalate, that smell, you may want to get a little bit further away. We'll check back with Don Lemon in a few moments on this explosion, two buildings collapsed in New York City.

Also, we'll update you on the search area for Flight 370. It doubles in size. Malaysia now asking for outside help. Experts are needed to pinpoint where to even look. We have new information, right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're going to get back to Don Lemon in a few moments. He's on the scene of those -- that explosion in New York City collapsing two buildings. Don Lemon is there for us. We'll get back to him in a few moments.

But let's get some more now on the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Did that airline -- did that plane veer off course and go in the opposite direction? And if it did, why? What was the last radar contact with Flight 370? Five days after the plane simply vanished, officials still don't seem to have many answers, if any. Tom Foreman is joining us right now.

Tom, Malaysian authorities have failed to clarify the aircraft's last known moments, movements, shall we say. What can you tell us about the search area, though?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the search area is just getting bigger. That is not typically what you want to see happen in a circumstance like this. Very hard on family and friend out there who want to know what happened.

This is what we know. We know when the plane took off. We know when it stopped sending a transponder signal. But then it gets very murky. One of the things we were being told yesterday was this idea that there is