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EARLY START

China: "Suspicious Objects" Spotted; Hunt for Landslide Survivors

Aired March 24, 2014 - 04:30   ET

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


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DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone.

Breaking news: a Chinese plane finds objects in the water off the coast of Australia. As we learn new details of 370's path and what happened after it turned off course. We have the very latest on the missing jet and the families desperate for information.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: At least eight people are now dead after a landslide buried homes near Seattle. The mud so thick, rescue crews, they're having trouble getting through it to find the missing. The very latest on that search and what's going on right now there.

Welcome back to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

FEYERICK: And I'm Deborah Feyerick. It is now 32 minutes past the hour.

Well, is it a breakthrough or just one more bitter disappointment in the search for Flight 370?

A Chinese search plane reportedly spotting what they're calling suspicious objects in the southern Indian Ocean. China's news agency says the plane saw two relatively big floating objects and smaller ones scattered over a wider area and reported the coordinates to Australian authorities. The Australians are the ones leading the investigation.

Well, the Chinese plane is one of 10 aircraft back in the air today, combing the remote area off the Indian Ocean, searching for clues. Meantime, military radar indicates Flight 370 dropped as low as 12,000 feet after turning off course and disappearing from radar.

Now, it could give us the best indication yet of just what happened inside the cockpit.

CNN's Andrew Stevens live in Perth, Australia.

And, Andrew, first, what these objects, three different satellites seem to have picked up what they're calling objects of interest, suspicious objects.

What are you learning?

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we're learning not a lot at this stage, Deb. It's very frustrating for everyone. But I think of the three, the images taken by the Australian satellites and then the Chinese satellites are the most relevant to this latest sighting. We also heard yesterday that the French had taken pictures, but that's quite a ways north of this zone of particular interest.

So, these two significant objects, we don't know what they are. They are big, they are suspicious, according to the Chinese, meaning that they could be linked. But we're just getting new information in the last couple of minutes. The people who are coordinating the search, the maritime authorities here in Australia, are tweeting that a U.S. P-8 Poseidon plane has been diverted to that area where the Chinese saw these objects.

Now, the Chinese saw them as they were heading for home, meaning they were running low on fuel, they had to get back and they were quite high, about 33,000 feet. So, at that height, certainly visual sightings are going to be very, very indistinct. The P-8's gone down there. So far, we know it hasn't located what those Chinese observers saw. So, another frustrating lead not developing as everyone would hope it would, but it is still a lead, Deb, and it's all painting a picture, building a picture.

We don't yet know what that picture's going to be. Is it going to be a blank? Can they rule this southern search area out? But at the moment, there is a lot of information coming in to suggest that this remains the most important area, and we wait for further information, if they can find this latest debris.

Remember, the weather conditions are getting worse. Visibility most important, most important to this search now, getting eyes on. Visibility being hurt by the poor weather.

FEYERICK: But, Andrew, you raise another really interesting point, and that is, you have to think of where this area is. It's about 1,400 miles from Perth, Australia, which is where you are. That's really the limit of endurance for planes going out and then coming back, correct? So, they really only have small windows of sort of, to look for this, if it's as far out as you suggest.

STEVENS: That's right. The naval boats going out there, sorry, the planes going out there, they're propeller driven. They get only about two hours on the target, but they're also bringing in sort of small, corporate jets, Gulfstream jets, Global Express jets. They can get out there quicker, they can stay on target longer, for about five hours. So that's helping.

But even so, this is extreme remoteness part of the southern Indian Ocean. It's an area where the weather changes quickly and violently. That's what these pilots and crews have been dealing with, Deb, and it looks like they're going to have to deal with that for at least another 24 to 48 hours. What they need, obviously, are more ships in that area. There's only one ship in the area at the moment, an Australian naval vessel. It is in the target zone. It is not near where the debris was reported. More naval vessels are heading there, particularly Chinese naval vessels, plus a Chinese icebreaker, would you believe, been diverted from Perth here in Western Australia, but that's all taking time to get there.

There's only one vessel on site at the moment, and again, that's coming back to this visual sighting. That's what they need. That is what they are going to confirm, identify any parts of MH-370. That will have to be a very close-up visual identification.

FEYERICK: And you mentioned that U.S. plane that was diverted to the area, the P8. Is there significance to the type of plane that is being diverted? Is it a larger plane that's headed out now to take a look?

STEVENS: It's a larger plane than the workhorse P-3s, which are being used by the U.S., the Australians and the New Zealanders, and it's also got a lot of sophisticated surveillance and imaging equipment inside, so that is obviously going to help to actually locate this debris.

They've also been able to look at drift models. So, the Chinese saw where this debris was, they radioed in the coordinates. The model then, the numbers are then fed into a model which calculates drift, and that information will be able to be, obviously, used by the P-8, by the onboard equipment of the P-8 to help in that search.

But as I just said, Deb, they are out there, they are on target now, and they're still not finding anything. Remember, these planes are not all going out together. They need as many eyeballs for as long as they can on the site. So, the P-8 is the closest at the moment. Other planes are going in afterwards, but they try and stagger it so they get as many daylight hours as they can actually over that zone.

FEYERICK: All right. Andrew Stevens for us, thank you. Fascinating report, perhaps some hope for the families. We appreciate it.

ROMANS: You're so right. It's frustrating watching these developments disappear and then new developments.

This is what we have this morning. Investigators have new leads in the disappearance of that flight. Word that the Boeing 777 dropped as low as 12,000 feet before disappearing from radar. That's raising new questions about just what exactly happened inside the plane's cockpit and why.

Now, CNN's Jim Clancy is live for us this morning in Kuala Lumpur. And let's just try to talk through these latest developments that investigators are really chewing over here, this 12,000 feet detail. Talk to me about the significance of that and what they think might have been happening inside of that cockpit, what we know and what we don't know, Jim.

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: All right, it's a tool. If they have any comment about that, we might hear it in the press briefing that's going to come up with the minister of defense/transport minister in about an hour's time.

But you know, Christine, it's not new for us that the plane changed altitude, that somebody's a little bit more certain about 12,000 feet is interesting. That's not below radar, as has been pointed out.

But the radar itself is notoriously unreliable. The further the plane gets from the target. That is from the radar station, the less reliable it is in order to chart the altitude. Multiple radars can improve on all of that.

But what does it really tell us? It just tells us that someone was inside the plane manipulating the plane, maneuvering the plane.

We know about the turn. Somebody did that. They may have programmed that into the automated navigation system. Maybe they didn't. Maybe they did it by hand, but it's still someone maneuvering the plane.

It could be to respond to an emergency or it could be trying to evade detection. You know, all of this investigation for us right now, at least from the outside, appears to be stalled. We don't know what information they have, but if you cleared the pilots and you've cleared the passengers, where's your hijack theory? Where's your hijack theory if you don't have a hijacker?

So, there's got to be other things that they look at. The problem with the mechanical failure theory is that the plane carried on for so long, about a total of eight hours flight time. But after the incident, after all of this, more than six hours.

So, you've got a situation where it raises a lot of questions. The investigators have to go back. You know, U.S. investigators just think that there's too much coincidence here, the way that things have happened. So, they have to look at it all over again.

Now, I talked to the head of the Malaysian Airline Pilots Association. He said, you know when you look at what really matters, that is finding this aircraft, he says there is something positive that's going on. Listen.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Encouraging things, you know, you've got 20 more nations coming together here regardless of race or political background, you know, helping us out. It is most encouraging. I think never in the history of Malaysia we have got more than 24 countries helping us out, very encouraging indeed. If you go to the international airport, military aircraft now parking down there.

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CLANCY: All right, Subang, of course, is the military air base where the Japanese, the Chinese, the Americans and others have based their planes. Some of them have flown on to Perth. They've been looking for this aircraft. He says, OK, number one, find that aircraft, answer the question of what happened inside the cockpit. But when it's all over, he says the aircraft manufacturers and the aviation industry have to sit down and ask themselves, in an age when you can track packages and trucks and things, have some kind of a locator that can't be switched off. Good point.

Back to you, Christine.

ROMANS: When you can find that phone in your pocket just like that, you can't find a quarter of a billion aircraft with 239 souls on board. Jim Clancy, thanks. We'll check in with you again soon. Thanks, Jim.

FEYERICK: Well, the past 17 days have been pure heartache for the families of those on board Flight 370. Many family members waiting at the airport, a mixture of hope and grief when that plane did not show up. They're desperate for answers that have not come.

CNN's Pauline Chiou is in Beijing following that part of the story.

Pauline, a lot of anger from these families because they're just not getting the specific answers they want from authorities.

PAULINE CHIOU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and it's been like that for the past 17 days. In fact, at the news briefing that they had with the Malaysian delegates today, they asked exactly about that new information that Jim Clancy was reporting on, that a source told CNN that this plane had gone down to 12,000 feet.

One relative asked specifically about that, was that on military radar? Did you know about that earlier on? Why didn't you release that information?

And the answer they got was, sorry, there's no one from the military here, we can't answer that question. So, that's the kind of brick wall that they're hitting at these briefings day in and day out.

Now, earlier today, I sat down in a hotel room with a group of families. They agreed to talk with us, but they didn't want us to shoot their faces. That's because many of their elderly relatives don't know that their families are connected with this Malaysian Airlines flight.

But they agreed to talk to us because they're so frustrated. And between all of these relatives, they have ten parents that were passengers on that flight, and they told us that they believe there's some sort of political motive here, that the government may be hiding something, and that's why they're not getting direct information.

But on the flip side, a special envoy for the Malaysian prime minister said today that the government will be honest with the Chinese families. That's according to CCTV, the state television station here. And also, the Malaysian ambassador says that Malaysia will send a high-level delegation to Beijing every five days. But, Deb, that's the problem. The Beijing families, the Chinese families here in Beijing say they want a consistent point of contact. They don't want different people showing up every five days. They want to ask the same person or the same team their questions -- Deb.

FEYERICK: And what's amazing is that when you do get so much inconsistent information coming from so many different voices, clearly, that breeds conspiracy theories. Do the families believe that possibly their relatives may still be alive?

CHIOU: They actually do. And they say the reason why they do -- I should clarify that. Some of them do, and they say the reason why they do is because nothing has been confirmed. They haven't found debris that's been confirmed to be from this plane. And because of so many of the holes in the explanation that they've gotten from the Malaysian government, they believe that there's something going on behind the scenes. Perhaps there's some sort of negotiations going on behind the scenes that the families are not being told about.

This is coming from them. So, because of that, they feel that perhaps their loved ones may be alive. But, Deb, I did talk to a relative yesterday and I asked him, just as a group, when you go into this huge banquet room that's been turned into a briefing room, what's your sense about the level of hope among all of these relatives, 450 people here? He said it's probably about 80/20 -- 80 percent of the relatives are prepared for some bad news, 20 percent, a small group, still hanging on to hope that they may find their loved ones alive -- Deb.

FEYERICK: Yes, that's what's so incredible. The power that hope gives you to believe.

Well, all right, Pauline Chiou. Thank you so much. We appreciate that.

ROMANS: All right. Back in Washington state this morning, a search- and-rescue operation under way after a square-mile-long mudslide swept through an area north of Seattle. The death toll this hour rising. Eight people confirmed dead in that mudslide in Washington state. Eighteen still unaccounted for. They're still looking for 18 people.

Snohomish County neighborhood is now a pile of muddy rubble.

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SHERIFF TY TRENARY, SNOHOMISH COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE: Total devastation. This is unbelievable. It reminds me of what a tornado looks like when it's touched the ground.

GOVERNOR JAY INSLEE (D), WASHINGTON: Everything within that path has been leveled, and that is something I've certainly never seen before.

CHERENE GRABER, RESIDENT: It's been very surreal. The tragedy is unthinkable. We're just praying for the best and hoping.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ROMANS: Still looking for 18 people unaccounted for. The rescue effort is being slowed because the hillside remains unstable.

Deb, some of those rescuers going in there and they're finding themselves up to their chest in thick, gooey mud.

FEYERICK: Like quicksand.

ROMANS: And they had to be rescued as well, so very dangerous stuff.

FEYERICK: Well, another possible breakthrough in the search for Flight 370. A Chinese plane spotting suspicious objects off the coast of Australia. We'll break down what that could mean in the hunt for the jetliner, that's coming up.

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ROMANS: Could debris spotted by a Chinese search plane in the Indian Ocean belong to Malaysia Airlines 370? China's news agency reports one of its two planes involved in the search spotted these suspicious objects floating in the water. Two relatively big objects and some smaller, white ones scattered over a wider area.

Now, this comes as we're learning more about the plane's flight path. Military radar indicates Flight 370 made a dramatic descent as it turned off course and disappeared from radar.

Now, let's bring in Alastair Rosenschein, a former pilot and an aviation consultant. He's in our London studio this morning.

Alastair, let's first talk about this report that perhaps this plane descended to 12,000 feet. A lot of discussion and speculation about 12,000 feet, the pilot descending to that level.

You are very, very cautious about that development.

ALASTAIR ROSENSCHEIN, FORMER PILOT/AVIATION CONSULTANT: Well, let's put it this way, we add the caveat that maybe it didn't go down 12,000 feet, but if it did, that is easily explained, and in fact, it fits in very neatly with the theory, and a speculative theory I had almost two weeks ago, that the aircraft suffered some form of depressurization.

Now, any pilot will know that the first thing you do in a depressurization is put on your oxygen mask to keep yourself compos mentis, alert, awake, keep from passing out. And you descend rapidly to about your minimum safe altitude. That's the altitude that will keep you above any mountains.

You also want to return back to an airfield, which in this case would probably be Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi, Penang, they're all within close range of where the aircraft was.

So, it would be entirely reasonable to think that the pilot would have dropped down to 12,000 feet. Now, this is done automatically.

So, you know, once you've set the new flight level and you hit your flight level change button, you've turned your heading around, the aircraft will descend under automatics, even if the pilots then become subsequently unconscious.

So, that's not particularly surprising, if that was the case. But did they descend 12,000 feet? We don't know. And if they did, it would have been a rapid descent.

ROMANS: Here's what's so confounding about all this, 15 days, and we get each of these puzzle pieces, they don't seem to fit together, and we're not even quite sure exactly how this all comes into one picture of what happened to this plane. Could it be that something happened here that we have never seen before?

I mean, these flights, these planes, this piece of machinery is so high tech, built with so many redundancies. Are we using our past experience to try to explain a mystery that might be something completely new that we just can't describe yet?

ROSENSCHEIN: Well, it's possible, but it does conform to two or three very, very plausible explanations. But you know, I have to say, this is speculative. And it's perfectly reasonable to be speculative because it's a search-and-rescue. It's not known the accident's happened and that's that. We've got to try to find it, so we speculate.

So, it could have been a hijacking, but I would add a botched hijacking, if that was the case, because obviously, there were no demands made and it didn't divert anywhere. The alternative is, unfortunately, sadly, it could have been a suicide. It would conform with that as well.

So, we have the three things, which would be a technical, possibly depressurization, botched hijacking or a suicide. And those three do fit the data we have now, assuming that the snippets of information we've been given are true.

ROMANS: Right.

ROSENSCHEIN: And we cannot be sure of that.

ROMANS: No, you're right, and we need to find that plane. The suspicious objects now that the Chinese on radar have seen, one large piece, several small pieces, consistent in theory with the size of maybe a piece of a wing.

How important is it to find whatever it is that's out there, Alastair?

ROSENSCHEIN: Well, first of all, this debris, we don't know that it came from the aircraft. There is a lot of debris floating around in the southern ocean. An oceanographer was telling me this the other day. It's important to get hands on. They have to get the ships down there.

I believe they are already, but they've got to get that that debris field. They've got to pull these pieces on to deck and they'll be able to identify them almost immediately as being part of an aircraft or not. And until they have that confirmation, there's nothing to say that the aircraft is even in the Indian Ocean, although I suspect the probabilities, this is a debris field, but they haven't confirmed it yet. Until they do so, one must be open-minded.

ROMANS: Especially in these trade corridors in the ocean. I mean, there's all kinds of junk floating around in there.

Alastair Rosenschein, thank you so much for joining us.

It's really fascinating to hear. You know, it's all speculation, but you have nothing else.

FEYERICK: Nothing else.

ROMANS: And a search and rescue operation.

FEYERICK: And at least it's a search and rescue, that's what they're calling it, so hopeful.

All right. Coming up, President Obama heads to Europe amid Russian aggression. A key meeting with world leaders. We're going to tell you the latest on that, next.

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