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THE SITUATION ROOM

Latest Developments in Search for Flight 370

Aired March 14, 2014 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: All right, Bill, thanks very much.

Happening now, breaking news. The mystery of Flight 370. We have new information on the plane's apparent westward turn toward the Indian Ocean. U.S. officials and industry sources say the signals show the plane may have been intact for five hours after contact was lost. We're going to show you where the search is now focused.

Also. U.S. officials say volatile lithium batteries were carried in the plane's cargo hold. They've been blamed in previous air crashes.

Could they have caused a catastrophic fire or explosion?

And investigators are even considering the possibility the plane may have landed in a remote island chain. We'll have a reality check on that.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: But we begin with dramatic new information leading to more conflicting possibilities about what might have happened Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. A full week since that jet with 239 people aboard simply disappeared.

Here are the latest developments.

U.S. officials say the plane apparently crashed in the Indian Ocean, with classified analysis showing it may have taken one of two different paths. A U.S. warship is joining the growing search effort there.

U.S. officials say investigators are looking into concerns that lithium batteries carried in the cargo hold could have played a role in the airliner's disappearance. Those volatile batteries have been blamed in previous crashes.

A catastrophic fire caused by batteries wouldn't explain, though, the signal suggesting the plane flew for hours after contact was lost. An aviation source telling CNN Flight 370 was apparently intact for five hours.

Reuters cites sources saying the plane deliberately was flown far off course using recognized navigational waypoints.

We have the kind of coverage that only CNN can deliver.

Our correspondents are standing by.

But let's go to the Pentagon right away.

Barbara Starr has got brand new information -- Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, CNN has learned there is a new classified analysis that the Malaysians, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, the FAA and U.S. military intelligence officials all joining forces, looking at every scrap of information, all of the satellite data, the pings off the airplane that we've talked about, radar hits, everything they have. And they have come up with this following analysis.

They now believe that it is most likely when the plane crossed back over the Malay Peninsula and flew to the west, toward the Indian Ocean, the calculation is it took one of two turns. That it flew either to the northwest, into the Bay of Bengal, off of India, or it flew essentially to the southeast, further south, toward the island chains down in the far Indian Ocean.

These are hundreds of square miles now being searched.

But the critical thing, Wolf, is this now begins to narrow the search into specific areas. None of this is for certain. This is an analysis that they have done based on the data that they have collected, based on what they know, what those pings were, how far the plane may have flown in those hours and what they can discern from all of the satellite and radar data.

So now the Indian Navy and some U.S. airplanes are searching that northern box, if you will, in the Bay of Bengal. The Indians taking quite a substantial role with their military in looking for the plane, as well as the US. And down further south, as you see on that map, the USS Kidd, that warship that left the Strait of Malacca and is now entering the Indian Ocean, its helicopters also looking, scouring the sea surface and the air for any sign of a debris field -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Barbara, why such two very different directions, two options, one north, one south?

Why did they come with -- this intelligence analysis come with two different end points, if you will?

STARR: We don't have perfect knowledge of that. We don't have, let us be very clear, all the information that the government of the United States and the government of Malaysia has.

But our understanding from people we've spoken to is this is based, when they put all that data together.

What we now know, for example, is the Inmarsat satellite picked up some of those pings. They were able to analyze some location information.

The radar gave them some location information. It gave -- the pings went on for about five hours, which tells them how long the plane might have been flying in some sort of relatively stable flight situation, because, again, remember, we've also been told that the emergency beacon system that would have indicated a crash, an impact into the ocean or on land, perhaps, that never went off.

So this plane was in some sort of flight condition, by all accounts, for up to five hours. And that also has contributed to this very high tech calculation that is now being made.

But again, Wolf, it is a calculation. They will look everywhere they feel they need to.

BLITZER: And you quote these sources, as part of this classified intelligence report, Barbara, as saying that it likely crashed in the Indian Ocean.

Does that mean they don't believe it's possible it could have either crashed on land or landed on, actually, on land?

STARR: You know, this is such a tough question to answer. As the days have gone on, I think all of us, everybody looking at this situation, acknowledges that all options, if you will, remain open. We've talked to U.S. officials who say they're not ruling anything out, but, you know, they do believe that logic would dictate, at this point, if a plane crashed or landed anywhere on land, such a large aircraft, so many people, in today's world of modern technology, it would have been found.

It's not to say that they're totally ruling it out. And I have to tell you, Wolf, along with the big question of what happened to the plane, again, not ruling anything out. They don't believe, at this point, there's any indication of terrorism. But the U.S. intelligence community is looking at every single scenario, even before they know what happened, to try and get any clue, does it -- does it match any pattern of any logical explanation?

So far, they can't come up with anything.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara, good reporting.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you.

Let's take a closer look now at those lithium batteries carried in the airliner's cargo hold. They can be very volatile and they've been blamed for crashes in the past.

Let's bring in our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown.

What are you looking at -- Pamela?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're learning investigators are looking at whether lithium batteries in the cargo hold of the plane may -- and I stress may have been a factor in the plane's disappearance.

Now, this is something they're looking into based on cargo information provided to officials and the fact that lithium batteries have sparked plane fires in the past.

So let's take a look here. This is a lithium battery. This is what you see. This is coming from a laptop. Airplanes ban passengers from putting lithium batteries into checked baggage.

In fact, you might recognize this little tag here at the very bottom. This is from an airline. At the very bottom, it says "dangerous goods, including spare lithium batteries, are prohibited."

So here's why. Lithium batteries are more prone to causing fires than other types of batteries. And I want to cite this FAA document here. It says, "Batteries that are not involved in an initial fire may ignite and propagate, thus creating a risk of catastrophic event."

So it's also believed, Wolf, that a large quantity of lithium batteries may have caused a UPS plane crash back in 2010. And, as we mentioned, airlines banned passengers from bringing spare lithium batteries on planes.

Now, if this happened, it's important to point out here, it would have made the other theory of the plane flying up to five hours based on satellite pings highly unlikely. So, Wolf, it really seems like we can just poke a hole in just about every theory that's out there.

According to a law enforcement official I spoke with earlier today, investigators are also keenly aware of other theories that have caused plane crashes in the past, like the TWA 800 fuel tank spark, the suicidal pilot such as what happened with the Egypt Air flight and other analogies like stress on the air frame and overheating of oxygen generators, like what happened in a Florida plane crash back in 1996. These are all theories investigators are looking into, Wolf.

We're a week into this, still with no answers. At this point, it's really just speculation. There are many unknowns than knowns.

BLITZER: There certainly are.

Pamela Brown with that report, thanks very much.

Let's bring in our CNN law enforcement analyst, the former FBI assistant director, Tom Fuentes.

This latest information that Barbara Starr is reporting on, this classified intelligence assessment, U.S. and Malaysian officials coordinating, thinking the plane either went to the northern part of the Indian Ocean or the southern part of the Indian Ocean and likely crashed, what do you make of that?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Wolf, I'm highly skeptical. Either they have precise information and satellites and the pings and all of that, the radars, helped them know exactly what direction that plane went. Now, I don't see how they can say it was going west and suddenly it went north or south. Either did go north or it did go south or it kept going west. This reminds me of chasing fugitives in the FBI and they tell you, well, they either went that way or that way.

BLITZER: It doesn't -- it also doesn't tell us whether or not somebody commandeered that plane after the transponders were shut down, if you will, or before the transponders were shut down, or whether this was some sort of mechanical, catastrophic failure.

FUENTES: Well, it certainly, to me -- but I'm not the aviation expert like you've had on the air all day, but, you know, it sounds funny to me that this plane can take so many zigs and zags and turns and go north or go south. I mean they have more turns than an air show.

BLITZER: I mean and even if you believe it, it flew for four or five hours after losing control with -- losing communications with air traffic controllers on the ground, you have to wonder, was it actually going in a specific direction toward some location?

Was it just randomly on autopilot, flying someplace?

What was going on?

We have no clue.

FUENTES: No. We have to clue. And it also, as Pamela Brown mentioned, it would eliminate the theory that a battery caught fire and exploded, or some other oxygen tank or something caught fire, because the plane, all the alarms would go off, the fire suppressors would go off and they would be trying to get that plane on the ground as quickly as they could, whether it was the nearest Vietnam airport or turn back to KAL or another Malaysian airport. They would not be flying around -- halfway around the Indian Ocean with a plane on fire.

BLITZER: So you're still working under the assumption that this was a person or persons who caused this disaster, not some sort of mechanical failure?

FUENTES: Well, even there, if the batteries went off, if there was a fire and if the warnings didn't go back to the Kuala Lumpur officials, then we need to be having debris in the ocean where they first looked, day one, because that would be right on the flight path, right at the time the transponders went off. If all of that corresponded, that was the first place of the most intensive search.

Where's the debris?

So that's the only...

BLITZER: Because if lithium batteries were the cause of this disaster, how could that plane have flown for four or five hours after a huge explosion from lithium batteries?

FUENTES: Exactly.

BLITZER: Yes. All right, thanks very much, Tom Fuentes, with that report.

Up next, the search efforts are being refocused based on the new information indicating the airliner crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean, along one of two likely flight paths. I'll speak about that and more. A U.S. Navy commander aboard a ship in the region is standing by to discuss.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: And there's more breaking news, this time coming in from "The New York Times." We just posted a very important report, dateline Malaysia, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, "The New York Times" says, "experienced significant changes in altitude after it lost contact with ground control and altered its course more than once, as if still under the command of a pilot." This according to American officials and others familiar with the investigation.

"The New York Times" ads that radar signals recorded by the Malaysian military appear to show the missing airliner climbing to 45,000 feet above the approved altitude for a Boeing 777-200 soon after it disappeared from civilian radar and made a sharp turn to the west, according to a preliminary assessment by a person familiar with the data.

The radar track, which the Malaysian government has not released, but says it has provided to the United States and China, then shows the plane descending unevenly to an altitude of 23,000 feet, below normal cruising lessons -- levels, as it approached the densely populated island of Penang, one of the country's largest.

There, the plane turned from a southwest bound course, climbed to a higher altitude and flew northwest over the Strait of Malacca, toward the Indian Ocean -- Tom Fuentes, you heard this report as I read it to our viewers here in the United States and around the world.

What do you make of this new development?

We have not confirmed what "The New York Times" has, but "The New York Times" is quoting their sources.

FUENTES: Wolf, my concern with this is the impact it's going to have on cooperation with the Malaysian authorities. You know, we've had people criticizing them all week, that they weren't sharing enough information and they weren't cooperating, they weren't making the data available to the U.S. experts.

Now suddenly, we have media report after media report citing information from people close to the investigation. If that -- whether it's true or it's not true, just citing that is going to create an enormous political problem for the NTSB and FAA people on the ground in Kuala Lumpur, because their colleagues are going to be saying, is this what we get for sharing with you?

BLITZER: Yes. FUENTES: Suddenly, it's on "The New York Times" or on CNN?

BLITZER: Well, that's an important point that you make. But if, in fact, this "New York Times" report is true, that the plane was shifting altitude, going up to 45,000, going down to 23,000, then going back up, it would indicate someone was in command of that aircraft. It was not on autopilot or something like that. Someone was in charge.

Hold on for a moment, because joining us on the phone now is U.S. Navy Commander William Marks.

He's with the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet.

He's aboard the USS Blue Ridge.

Commander, we spoke yesterday. You were telling us your ships were moving into the Indian Ocean. I assume they are there, at least one, the USS Kidd.

Are others in the Indian Ocean there now?

How is the search going?

COMMANDER WILLIAM MARKS, U.S. NAVY SEVENTH FLEET: Good morning.

We are starting out our day on Saturday morning here in the Asia Pacific. It's about 5:00 in the morning here.

So we do have the USS Kidd that moved into the northwest part of the Strait of Malacca yesterday. Throughout the night last night, they move just a little bit west. Now it's about as far west as you can go into that entrance to the Strait of Malacca as you can get, or a little bit northwest.

So you have the USS Kidd. And from my perspective here, look -- as you look west and you transition west to the Indian Ocean, ships alone are really not quite as much of a solution as they were in the Gulf of Thailand, just because of the expanse of the water.

So you have to look at what other assets you have.

The Kidd has helicopters. And we have a P-3 and a P-8. The P-8 seen (INAUDIBLE) some flying time today.

But compared to a civilian helicopter, those patrol aircraft (INAUDIBLE) in one flight, may fly about a nine hour chunk at a time. They'll cover 10,000, 11,000, 12,000 square kilometers, square miles, excuse me.

So, really, when you look at the expanse of the ocean there, that's going to be our best asset.

BLITZER: Do you have enough aircraft in the region, together with other international partners, specifically the Indian Air Force, to undertake this kind of massive search in the northern part of the Indian Ocean as well as the southern part?

MARKS: So the international effort is growing. At last count, I had 57 ships, about 48 or so aircraft. And that's from 13 countries now participating. So the international effort is growing.

However, so did the search area. So, as we look upon our day here, we're looking at the number of assets we have and the scope of this area. And we just have to take it little by little. That's the best you can do out here.

BLITZER: Is your search focusing in on the northern part of the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, for example, that area, or further to the south, hundreds of miles to the south, near Christmas Island, as it's called?

MARKS: We're looking with our P-3 and today the P-8, we're looking essentially west of Kuala Lumpur. So if you're there, draw a line due west and go approximately (INAUDIBLE) from that. That was our last search area. For today, I'm going to have to look this morning (INAUDIBLE) it will probably be pretty close to that.

BLITZER: Yesterday, you told us here in THE SITUATION ROOM, you've basically gone from searching a chess board to now searching a football field.

Do you want to revise or amend those comments or give us some up to date clarification?

MARKS: Well, I think that's accurate. And it's a -- it's a challenge. We are very closely watching -- we're watching the crews. We're watching our (INAUDIBLE) and our equipment. We're watching how much our people can go out and be like on a 24 hour basis.

So I think that's accurate. The -- there are more questions. And I'm out here. I listen to the news. (INAUDIBLE) and it's to a point now where it's almost day by day. And the information changes. So it's a very challenging situation.

BLITZER: One final question, Commander, before I let you go.

You've spoken of how emotionally challenging this is for the men and women of the United States Navy and the Marine Corps who are involved in this search right now, and that grief counselors may be necessary.

What's the latest on that front?

MARKS: So we bring those out here in case the personnel -- or excuse me, in case, during this search, the people on board would have been found on the surface of the water, the bodies or fragments of the bodies. And that that's what those counselors are for.

From our experience, when you have to recover the remains of bodies, that is extremely emotionally taxing. And so we have a very good support system for that. And that's what we are watching out for.

BLITZER: Well, our best wishes to you, Commander, and all of the men and women of the United States Navy and the Marine Corps and all the U.S. military personnel and the members of the Coast Guard and others who are involved in this extraordinary search.

We'll check back with you, of course, Commander William Marks of the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet.

He's aboard the USS Blue Ridge, the command ship.

Coming up, we have new clues pointing to the missing airliner crashing somewhere, potentially, in the Indian Ocean.

But why?

Scrutiny is being directed at the pilots. We're taking a closer look at these two men.

Plus, some investigators still haven't ruled out the possibility that the plane may have actually landed in a revote island chain.

We're going to have a reality check on that, as well.

Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: And we're following the breaking news that is coming in, this time from "The New York Times." It's reporting that the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 experienced significant changes in altitude after ground control lost contact and altered its course more than once, as if still under a pilot's control. "The New York Times" citing American officials and others familiar with the investigation. It says, "Radar signals appear to show the missing airliner climbing to over 45,000 feet above the approved altitude limit soon after it disappeared from civilian radar, then making a sharp turn to the west. Radar then is said to have shown the plane descending unevenly to an altitude of about 23,000 feet. That's below normal cruising levels."

"The Times" reports the airliner approached Malaysia's large and densely populated island of Penang before climbing once again and then flying northwest over the Strait of Malacca, tomorrow the Indian Ocean.

This follows the CNN report from our own Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr citing a classified analysis of electronic and satellite data conducted by U.S. agencies and the Malaysian government, calculating that the flight likely -- likely crashed into the Indian Ocean on one of two possible flight paths.

Both flight paths are calculated from a point after the plane crossed back across the Malay Peninsula.

Tom Fuentes, our law enforcement analyst, former FBI assistant director, is with us right now.

The fact that the -- if this "New York Times" report is true, and we haven't confirmed it. It's "The New York Times" citing their sources, the plane went up to 45,000, down to 23,000 and then back up to 30,000. It was very erratic. What does that say to you?

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Well, it says possibly that there was some type of a fight for control of the aircraft within the cockpit. Now it could be that the captain and the co-pilot fighting over the controls like we had in the EgyptAir pilot suicide crash or it could mean a separate hijacker in there who's not a good pilot and maybe he can't control the plane from going up or down.

It could mean that they deliberately took it to -- a high enough altitude to cause passengers and others to pass out --

BLITZER: Because if it would have been up at 45,000 feet they may have passed out.

FUENTES: Right. They may have passed out. And then they would have oxygen. But they could, you know, wake up again when it comes back down. So I don't know if that would be a good excuse or not. But certainly it would indicate that there is some type of erratic flying going on indicating a problem controlling the aircraft on the part of the pilots.

BLITZER: And if they can determine through radar or various means the altitude going up and down flying in this erratic way and in a direction, they have pretty good information if you believe that.

FUENTES: Well, that's the next question. They can tell where that plane is at within 15,000 feet elevation but they can't tell within 10,000 miles where it flew to? That's the confusing part to me.

BLITZER: Yes, that remains to be seen, obviously, as well. All right. Thanks very much. Don't go too far away.

Tom Fuentes reporting on the latest news.

The breaking news. U.S. officials say the airliner, apparently, likely, this according to our sources, Barbara Starr sources, crashed in the Indian Ocean some place with classified analysis showing it may have taken one of two different paths. And as investigators scramble to come up with clues to the disappearance of the flight, scrutiny is being directed at the two pilots.

CNN's Pamela Brown once again joining us.

Pam, you're looking at these two pilots. What are you finding out?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, there are so many unanswered questions here about what happened to Flight 370 and why it possibly changed course like we were talking about and that has put the two pilots and their previous behavior squarely into focus. We still have a lot to learn about them but we do know is that what was said in the cockpit right before the plane vanished gives you few clues.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): All right, good night. Those are the words heard from the cockpit of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. What we don't know is who in the cockpit said them. Was it 53-year-old pilot Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah or 27-year-old First Officer Fariq Ab Hamid, or someone else?

Like everything with Flight 370, the meaning of the words and the pilots themselves are a mystery.

Just weeks ago, our CNN's Richard Quest was granted legal access into the cockpit with First Officer Fariq Ab Hamid seen in this exclusive video. It wasn't the first time Hamid had a guest in the cockpit.

JONTI ROOS, INVITED INTO COCKPIT: Air hostess came to us and asked us if we would like to move into the cockpit. And after which we did, and that's where we spent the flight.

BROWN: Jonti Roos told CNN's Piers Morgan that while on vacation, she and her friend flew from Thailand to Malaysia on a plane piloted by Hamid and another pilot, taking these photos and smoking cigarettes in the cockpit. After hearing Roos' story, Malaysia Airlines said, "We are shocked by these allegations."

CAPT. ZAHARIE AHMAD SHAH, MALAYSIAN AIRLINE PILOT: Hi, everyone.

BROWN: We don't know as much about the Pilot Captain Zaharie. In this YouTube video he shows an interest in home improvement. Sources told CNN that police have been outside Zaharie's home every day since Flight 370 vanished. They have not yet entered or searched the home according to Malaysian officials.

With new information from U.S. officials saying Flight 370 may have flown up to five hours after the last contact with the pilots, there are more theories and questions about what happened. Was there mechanical and communications failure? Could it have been a suicide crash by one of the pilots? Or did someone enter the cockpit and take over the plane?

MARK WEISS, FORMER AMERICAN AIRLINES PILOT: There seems to be a real trail that leads to something taking that aircraft. That doesn't just happen by accident.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And Wolf, from what we have learned, the pilots have recently started working together on that Boeing 777. Officials say they are looking at every possible scenario including whether the pilots had any psychological issues. So many people are wondering in light of that why Malaysian officials say they hadn't searched their homes. U.S. officials we've been speaking to, Wolf, said that would have been one of the first things they would do in a situation like this.

BLITZER: You would think, Pamela brown, of course, that would be logical. Thanks very much.

Tom Fuentes is still with us. Our law enforcement analyst. Former FBI assistant director.

You've worked on these international investigations. Why wouldn't they go into that home just to rule out the possibility that someone untoward might have happened?

FUENTES: Well, I think, Wolf, the only explanation I can think of is that maybe in their legal system they don't quite have enough probable cause to get a search warrant to actually go into their homes because there's been no indication specifically that there was wrongdoing on their part so --

BLITZER: But the pilot, the lead pilot, the 53-year-old pilot, he had in his home the simulator of a cockpit, if you will.

FUENTES: Right.

BLITZER: And a lot of people are suggesting, well, maybe they should take a look at that, see if he was looking at various destinations, looking at various dress rehearsals, anything along those lines.

FUENTES: Right. You would think they'd want to look at that and his computer and e-mails that he sent and received, and phone record, bank records, are either of them in financial trouble, are they in trouble with their employer? Do they -- you know, in some kind of a situation with the Malaysian Airlines that maybe they are about to be fired and we don't know it and they haven't released that.

So there's a lot of things like that that we don't know about but doesn't mean it wasn't done or isn't being done.

BLITZER: We have former colleagues from the FBI who were there, you'd think they would want to do all of that?

FUENTES: Well, I mean, they would make the recommendations and like I said, it may have already been done. But they're not going to report back to, you know, the public in the U.S. that this is -- they're doing this, they're doing that. I think that's -- that aspects of what the police are doing in the investigation is still going to remain confidential so that the agents in Kuala Lumpur maintain their trust with their colleagues.

And that's why I'm talking about this -- the other leaks that are coming out from sources and, you know, concerning the radars and the satellites and all that. You know, that creates a huge problem for the people working side-by-side with our Malaysian colleagues.

BLITZER: Tom Fuentes, thanks very much.

Up next, the man who helped find Air France Flight 447 said there is something suspicious. I'll ask him about the latest theories. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: Yes, we're following the breaking news surrounding the mystery, mystery of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Our Barbara Starr at the Pentagon reporting that a classified analysis of electronic and satellite data conducted by U.S. agencies together with the Malaysian government calculating that the flight likely crashed in the Indian Ocean in one of two possible flight paths, the northern part of the Indian Ocean or the southern part.

And "The New York Times" reporting just moments ago that the flight went through very erratic changes in altitude after it lost contact with ground control.

Joining us now is David Gallo, the director of Special Projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He was part of the team that found Air Force (sic) Flight 447 in the Atlantic.

David, what's the difference if you're searching in the northern part of the Indian Ocean around the Bay of Bengal as opposed to hundreds of miles further south? Is it basically the same kind of water level or is it very different?

DAVID GALLO, CO-LED SEARCH FOR AIR FRANCE FLIGHT 447: Well, it's a bit -- the water levels are a bit different. It can go from -- in the northern part very shallow and in fact there the seafloor is all the sediments that came down the Ganges so it's a very sedimented smooth bottom. Relatively smooth bottom. But if you move further south and to the west you start to get into rugged volcanic terrain and the water depth there can get down in some spots over 2 1/2 miles. And that means a totally different type of technology that would be needed to do an underwater search.

BLITZER: What's the new technology you would need?

GALLO: Well, in Air France we had some -- something akin to underwater drones, autonomous underwater vehicles, AUVs. And we had several of those on one boat and they could make an incredibly detail map working together in concert to, in essence, the track lines were like the most precise lawn mowing or field plowing that you can get.

The last thing you want to do is to go into that haystack and miss the plane, go over an area and say it's not there and have -- and miss it and go on to the next place. So we wanted to be sure, we did every spot probably at least three times.

BLITZER: It's now been one week since the plane went missing. How strong are the currents in those waters that could have really moved debris or whatever is left of that plane around?

GALLO: You know -- you know, Wolf, we're looking at an area so big. It's -- area wise, it's as large as the entire North Atlantic. And the conditions vary wildly, and it can vary every day -- one day from the next about the winds, the currents.

You know, in Air France 447, we had -- we had the last known position. That was important. But more importantly we did have floating debris that we were able to backtrack over five days, not an easy thing, to give us an X marks the spot about where that plane impact the water in estimation.

But the other thing we had was ACARS data that cut off abruptly after four minutes. And so we knew that that plane was probably airborne four minutes and we could draw a circle that was roughly 40 miles in the radius. It's a big area but nothing compared to what we're looking at here.

BLITZER: Yes. Four minutes as opposed to five hours. That's a huge, huge difference. A plane with a full tank of gas could really go some place.

GALLO: You know, Wolf, that's -- I just -- when you mentioned the Pentagon report, you used the word crashed into the Indian Ocean. Do we have any idea that that plane -- you know, it makes me suspicious that maybe someone knows since they can track these variations in altitude that they think the plane go down.

Because otherwise, if it's five hours, five hours after -- not the Bay of Bengal, five hours could take it out past India into the Arabian Sea. So are they saying now that they think the plane crashed? Because that's a real --

BLITZER: They say likely -- they're saying likely, according to this one classified analysis that our Barbara Starr got ahold of. But they don't know. They're still not ruling anything out by any means. They are not ruling out the possibility it could have landed somewhere, could have crash landed.

GALLO: Right.

BLITZER: They simply don't know. This is an analysis basically that we're been reporting.

GALLO: Understand. But five hours implies that they ran basically -- were flying until they ran out of fuel or they landed somewhere and left the engine running. So, you know, it's those kinds of clues, for us, you could say, well, what do you care about that? You're an underwater researcher. We want to be sure that we get as close as possible as that X marks the spot on the seafloor before we put our vehicles in the water.

BLITZER: Yes, I totally agree with you.

David, thanks very much. David Gallo, helping us better appreciate what's going on right now.

The "New York Times," as I said, reporting the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 experienced significant changes in altitude after ground control lost contact, radar signals appearing to show the missing airliner climbing to 45,000 feet, that's above the approved altitude limit, then later descending unevenly erratically to an altitude of about 23,000 feet. That's below normal cruising levels.

Martin Savidge is in a Boeing 777 flight simulator. He's outside of Toronto right now.

So walk us through these scenarios, what you're seeing over there. You're there with a pilot trainer. Help us better appreciate, Martin, what's going on.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, we were -- Mitchell Casado and I were just trying to go through these numbers that are being reported here. And the first thing that struck us was the altitude, 45,000 feet. That's incredibly high even for an aircraft like this, right?

MITCHELL CASADO, PILOT TRAINER, 777 COCKPIT SIMULATOR: Yes. Well, it's the maximum ceiling for this aircraft. So the ceiling for this aircraft is 41. If you really push it, maybe 43,000 with reduced performance. 45,000 is out of the --

SAVIDGE: I mean, you're taking one big risk to go up that high?

CASADO: That is.

SAVIDGE: Assuming you're in control of the aircraft. And then we talk about this other -- the lower level, that's 23,000 feet that the plane descended to rather erratically.

CASADO: Yes.

SAVIDGE: The key we don't know is over what time frame, right?

CASADO: Yes. And that's the critical missing component.

SAVIDGE: In other words, you could do that over time without too much trouble.

CASADO: Right.

SAVIDGE: But if you're doing it in five minutes, that's one heck of a descent?

CASADO: That's exactly right.

SAVIDGE: Yes. So, you know, that's the problem, Wolf. It's like still more clues but nothing more definitively gives us an answer other than it may indicate the plane where there's a struggle for control.

Now to something else we talked about, the plane that would continue on into the Indian Ocean and going to perhaps the Andaman Islands. Could a 777 land there? We don't know if it did, there's no evidence it did whatsoever, but a simulator, the best thing about it is you can try it. Everything has been loaded. We're going to now make the approach. You might as well get us going, Mitchell, to Veer Savarkar Airport. We're going to find out, is it possible for a 777, 200, to make a landing at this international airport at this particular place in the Indian Ocean? We're starting off roughly, what, five miles out?

CASADO: This is about six miles out. Yes.

SAVIDGE: Six miles.

CASADO: Yes.

SAVIDGE: We're looking at a speed I can see of 147 miles an hour. So by now the landing gear is already down, everybody is strapped in, in the back. You can see in the distance, the air field that we're making the approach to. One of the things I should point out is the runway on this particular airport is not necessarily the ideal landing, right?

CASADO: Yes. That's correct. It's a little narrower that we'd like with the 777. It's more suited for smaller airplanes, A-320, A-321. What we call narrow bodied. This is a wide-bodied jet. So the landing gear footprint is a little bit wider. OK? It's more of a tricky landing. So this is not ideal for a 777.

SAVIDGE: We should also point out if you were doing this for the very first time, you would be pretty concerned as a pilot, obviously?

CASADO: Absolutely.

SAVIDGE: You know this airfield.

CASADO: Exactly. At every airport that an airline flies to is vetted. They check it beforehand, we're trained in a simulator. To fly to a new airport is again unheard of without having the proper training and vetting process.

SAVIDGE: All right. I'm just looking at the indicator, Wolf, we're now about 1,200 feet above the ground moving at an air speed of maybe 152 miles an hour. The other thing you note about this particular runway, it's right up against the ocean. We're coming in from the west and heading towards the east?

CASADO: That's correct. Yes.

SAVIDGE: If this flight goes too long, if the runway is not long enough, we're going to go right into the water. Now a speed of about 152 miles an hour. You can see the topography coming up. It's a simulation but this is designed. There's the warning we're at 1,000 feet. It's an indication of how the land looks around this particular airport.

Again it's a night landing we're doing. It's possible it could have been daylight but a night landing is even more treacherous. Again, everything is loaded in. The weight of the aircraft, the fuel on board, number of people. Everything to simulate a real plane attempting this real landing. He's going to aim for just beyond the green line to set the wheels down. And as soon as he does, he'll want to stop this plane.

CASADO: Absolutely.

SAVIDGE: You can hear the automatic voice counting down the distance, height above the ground. Here we go. Reverse thrusters on, you hear the sound of the engines slowing us done. Essentially, Wolf, it could be done. That's what it proves. An airliner like this could do it. There's no evidence it did.

BLITZER: Yes. But that's amazing simulation.

Martin Savidge, thanks so much for showing us what potentially could happen.

We'll take a quick break. We'll resume the special coverage Flight 370. We're reporting that there's a classified U.S. intelligence report suggesting the likely -- the likely causes of crash in the Indian Ocean but there are other options as well.

Much more of our special coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're again right back to our breaking news coverage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in just a moment but first a quick update on an urgent story happening right now.

Tensions extremely high in Ukraine as Russian troops mass on the border ahead of Sunday's referendum in Crimea. Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Russian counterpart today for more than five hours with apparently no tangible results.

CNN's Diana Magnay is in Crimea. She's got more on the very latest.

Set the scene, Diana.

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, it's just two days to go until this referendum. And we've been driving around the north of the country, and it does not look at all as though the Russian president is trying to de-escalate the situation. We saw heavy weaponry on the streets, long range artillery guns, a major waterway that cuts through the northern part of this region, every single bridge was guarded by Russian troops with APCs.

We talked to some of them. They said they came from Chechnya, some of them, that they've been here a long time and were just following orders, didn't really know the grand scheme of things. A long time before Christmas, they said, since this crisis began, which raises more questions as to when this whole annexation which effectively we're seeing here already was conceived and put into action.

As I said, two days now before this referendum and, of course, it raises questions, Wolf, how free and fair it can be when people have this kind of heavy military presence on their streets, where essentially they are casting their vote with a barrel of a gun at them -- Wolf. BLITZER: And, Diana, people are fearing the worst right now, is that what I'm hearing?

MAGNAY: Well, it depends who you are, and this is a very mixed region. There are many, many ethnic Russians who are very much looking forward to a return to the mother -- to mother Russia, a return to the homeland, who remember growing up in the Soviet Union and feel that Ukraine over the past 23 years has brought them nothing. They think that this will improve their lives especially economically.

There are then of course the Tartars, ethnic Ukrainians and many Russians who much prefer the situation with Ukraine. But if you talk to certainly the pro-Russian government but also a lot of people on the streets, it does feel slightly as though this is already a foregone conclusion and that the -- you know, the writing is on the wall on Sunday, the referendum will go Russia's way -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Diana Magnay reporting for us from Crimea. Diana, thanks very, very much.

And happening now, breaking news in the mystery of Flight 370, after a week of searching, new fuel for the theory that the missing jet crashed in the ocean. Stand by. We have new details of a classified analysis by U.S. and Malaysian investigators.

We're also learning about potentially dangerous cargo inside the jet. Did it play a role in this disaster?

And messages of hope for the 239 missing passengers and crew members. Is there any plausible way that they could have survived?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM."

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: And the breaking news this hour in the weeklong search for a missing Malaysia Airliner. CNN has learned details of a classified analysis of electronic and satellite data conducted by U.S. officials along with the Malaysian government that calculates that Flight 370 likely, likely crashed in the Indian Ocean, in one of two flight paths, one to the northwest, the other to the southeast.

We've also learned investigators are looking into concerns that lithium batteries in the cargo hold may have played a role in the jet's disappearance. That type of battery has been blamed for previous jet crashes. "The New York Times" is also now reporting that Flight 370 experienced significant changes in altitude after it lost contact with ground control and altered its course more than once as if still under the command of a pilot.

Our correspondents and analysts are working their sources. They're sifting through all the new leads and the theories. They are all standing by with a lot more information, but let's go to Barbara Starr over at the Pentagon. She broke this story of this classified intelligence analysis of what happened to Flight 370.

Tell us what you've learned.