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EARLY START

Search for Flight 370 Ramps Up; Crisis in Ukraine

Aired March 31, 2014 - 04:00   ET

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


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news this morning: the search intensifying for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. Right now, ships and aircraft looking for signs of the wreckage. Time is ticking to find the vanished jetliner's flight data recorder. The batteries and the so-called "black box" will only be active another six days, meaning that unless it's found soon, we may never know what happened on board that flight.

We'll bring you live team coverage this morning of the search, the latest on the investigation into why the plane may have crashed and how frustrated the families are dealing with this mounting questions and seemingly no answers.

Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman. Great to see you. It is Monday, March 31st, 4:00 a.m. in the East.

And the search for Flight 370 is ramping up this morning as the clock ticks down on that remaining battery life on the plane's black box recorders. It is estimated they will only ping for about 30 days, and time is running out. As Christine said, about six days left.

Ten aircraft, ten ships will be scouring the search zone in the Indian Ocean today, west of Australia, looking for any sign of Flight 370. Australian officials had described four orange objects spotted Sunday as a promising lead, but they've just confirmed to CNN they are not related to the plane. They're just pieces of fishing equipment. This morning an Australian vessel, the Ocean Shield will make its way to the search area, carrying a high-tech U.S. navy pinger detector that can scan under water for the plane's black boxes.

Australia's prime minister, Tony Abbott, says if the Flight 370 mystery, if the mystery is solvable, they will solve it. He spoke exclusively with CNN's Atika Shubert.

Atika joins us live from Perth, Australia.

Atika, what's the latest?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, another disappointing find that those orange objects, it turns out, according to the "Associated Press," saying that they were fishing objects. And of course, the coordinating team confirming to us that they had nothing at all to do with the plane. It's been nearly four weeks now and no sign of the plane at all.

So, when I spoke to Prime Minister Abbott about the search, I asked him, how confident is he that he's getting the right information or that he's even looking in the right place?

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY ABBOTT, AUSTRALIAN PRIME MINISTER: We are searching a vast area of the Indian Ocean. This is a very, very difficult task. It's far more difficult than the search for the Air France aircraft in the Atlantic Ocean a few years ago, because we had very precise information as to where that aircraft had come down.

We've just got very general information about where this aircraft has come down. But nevertheless, we are giving it the very best shot we can. And if anyone can find this aircraft, it's us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SHUBERT: And as you can see, here at Pearce Air Base, planes continue to take off and land. In fact, we're expecting another two, Malaysian and Korean C-130 to land here and returning from the search in about an hour or so.

But Australia says they will continue with this search. In fact, the prime minister told me that they are not going to be winding it down. In fact, they're ramping it up. They have 10 planes in the air today, 10 ships in the ocean and they expect to have more out tomorrow -- John.

BERMAN: Atika, more resources than they've had yet, but it does have to be discouraging, nevertheless, when we get these reports like the one we just got back, that those objects that had provided so much hope, those orange objects they pulled out on Sunday really turned out to be nothing.

SHUBERT: It is discouraging, and the search teams that have come back, they're not -- you know, you can see the disappointment on their face, but they say this is how search and recovery goes. Every day you just have to keep at it, because you never know when you're going to be able to sight that one piece of debris that helps you find out where the crash might have been located.

So, it's imperative that they get out there, because that window is closing, John.

BERMAN: All right. Atika Shubert for us in Perth, where you could hear the planes taking off behind her. Good to see you, Atika.

ROMANS: All right. Meantime, we're learning more about the Malaysian government reaching out to the CIA and its counterparts in Britain and China in this investigation, to take a deeper look at the passengers and the crew. This is fueling new speculation about just what might have happened to the jetliner. Let's go to CNN's Jim Clancy in Kuala Lumpur. He's been following all these investigations and their different twists.

Jim, what's the latest here on what investigators are looking into?

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you said it, but I think we have to put it in perspective here. They have so little data, whether it's down on the search area where Atika is -- as we heard from Prime Minister Tony Abbott, they only have a general idea, they only have so many clues telling them where to look for this aircraft.

Well, here in the investigation, it's the same. There are only so many known facts. And certainly, the passenger manifest, the list of the crew members, that is one of the facts that they know for certain.

This would make the third, perhaps the fourth time that they have gone through that list, and I think that they want to do it, they want to submit it to agencies like the CIA in order to further examine, to scour that list. Let's face it, they don't have that many facts to investigate right now, and so, they want to make sure they're not overlooking anything. And so, that's why they've asked for these agencies to come in, to re-examine the list, to go over them to determine if once and for all, they can say there's absolutely no terrorists on board this list.

In order to support all of these wild theories, you have to have a perpetrator. So far, they have said there is no one subject to any suspicion about being involved with a known terror group. It simply doesn't exist, and there is no way to explain it, so they want to investigate further -- Christine.

ROMANS: That's a really good point. They have so few facts, they need to really, really investigate the facts they do have, because there's no plane, there's a changing zone where they think the plane went down, and so few answers.

Thank you so much, Jim Clancy in Kuala Lumpur on the investigation for us.

BERMAN: And just think of the toll this must be taking on those families still waiting for any kind of word about their loved one, and that wait very much goes on.

CNN's Paula Hancocks spoke with the husband of a flight attendant who told her how difficult it is to answer questions from his children.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I even promised them I'm going to bring her home, but I really don't know where she is now. And now I'm not sure whether I could bring her home. Of course, I'm still hoping for God's miracles, but just like what we want is the reality, the true story.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: That's just heartbreaking. The majority of those on board Flight 370 are from China. Relatives continue to demand more information about the flight and the search from the airline and also the Malaysian government. They did just receive a briefing in the past hour or so.

So let's go to CNN's Pauline Chiou live in Beijing.

Any sense, Pauline, what they heard?

PAULINE CHIOU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, in fact, John, that briefing is still going on, and there's a lot of discussion right now about the four emergency beacons that are on that aircraft. This is the ELTs, the emergency locator transmitters.

Now, this is a continuation of a discussion that we had yesterday, at Sunday's briefing, when one woman asked about the ELTs. And it was discovered that four of them are on the aircraft. And when a plane makes impact, these four emergency beacons are supposed to emit signals. And a malaysian airlines engineer has said that as of now, no signals have been received, and Malaysia airlines and the government doesn't know why.

So, that's a big question mark. So, we're continuing the discussion today, and the technical team here is answering those questions, and that's ongoing right now.

Judging from the questions that families are asking, they're presenting some scenarios, John. One person saying, perhaps the plane landed somewhere, and that's why these emergency beacons haven't gone off. Or another scenario, perhaps there was a gradual landing into the water and then these ELTs are submerged in sea water, which might affect the range of the signals. And then a third scenario that was presented by a family member, maybe it was sabotage, maybe someone inside the plane turned off these beacons.

So, John, the officials here are not -- they are not going there in terms of speculation. They don't want to answer those questions about scenarios. They're only answering the technical questions about how these beacons work at the moment -- John.

BERMAN: It's so fascinating to me, Pauline, that the families in some cases are asking questions as technical and deep as sometimes reporters and investigators seem to be asking. I understand many of the relatives did go to Kuala Lumpur over the weekend. They're asking for an apology from the Malaysian government.

How effective has that mission been?

CHIOU: Well, they've been very effective in getting their voices heard. And about 30 relatives left Beijing late Saturday night. They arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, and they immediately had a news conference, and they asked for an apology from the Malaysian government for the delays in the beginning of the search, wasting precious time, they say.

They also wanted an apology from the government for saying that the plane has gone down without direct evidence. And the third thing that they're asking for, they're demanding a meeting with officials from Boeing, because the aircraft is from Boeing. It's a 777.

Also, officials from Rolls Royce, the maker of the engines, as well as Inmarsat, the satellite company which provided the data which prompted the Malaysian government to make that announcement. And you're right, John, it's very interesting when you come back to these briefings with these questions that the relatives are asking. They are like detectives.

In fact, one official here asked a woman if she was a lawyer, because she was so methodical in the way she asked questions, and she said, no, I'm just a school teacher.

BERMAN: A school teacher who loves someone on board that plane and will make you think in ways maybe you would not have before.

Pauline Chiou live for us in Beijing. Thanks so much for that report.

ROMANS: All right, we're going to bring you the latest on the search for this flight throughout the morning.

But first, fear in Ukraine. Is Russia about to invade? Russian troops building at the border. Diplomatic talks between Russia and the U.S. breaking down. Breaking news this morning, Russia's prime minister in Crimea. We're live with the very latest on that next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: All right, welcome back, everyone.

It is a race against time now to find Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The search now more than three weeks old, which really does mean it is just a matter of days before the battery power of that plane's black box recorders, it runs out. There is some discouraging news this morning. Four objects spotted by an Australian crew in the Indian Ocean search area turned out not to be related to the plane. There was a lot of hope this weekend about those objects, but now authorities saying just pieces of fishing equipment.

Today's search team, 10 planes, 10 aircraft -- 10 ships, I should say, out in the search zone.

ROMANS: Remarkable. March 8th, this happened on March 8th, and what we're finding is all of this technology zeroed in on the zone and we see a huge, drifting garbage dump in the ocean, trying to pick through that to find any clues they can. Still -- I mean, the headline is we're no closer.

BERMAN: No closer.

ROMANS: We're no closer.

All right. More on the search for Flight 370 in a moment. But, the sense situation on the border between Russia and Ukraine this morning is huge story. Secretary of State John Kerry says the U.S. and Russia are both committed to a diplomatic solution, but talks Sunday produced no breakthrough in the crisis. And with some 50,000 Russian troops -- 50,000 stationed at the border with Ukraine, fear of an invasion is palpable.

CNN's Karl Penhaul is live for us this morning near the Ukraine/Russia border. A big concern, these Russian troops massing there, and a big concern that this political de-escalation has not happened yet.

Karl, what can you tell us?

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Definitely a lot of concern here, Christine, and absolutely no assurances from those diplomatic discussions that the Russian troops will back away from the border. The border is about 10 miles that way, and this, where we are now, is a logistics and medical facility set up by the Ukrainian army.

My guess is you don't set up medevac and field hospitals unless you really feel that that Russian invasion is coming, and these men certainly do. In the fields around, we have seen armored personnel carriers dug in, we've seen T-80 tanks also dug in. What they're planning for here is the possibility of a tank battle in some of this potato farmland around here.

But while the Ukrainian military is making its preparations, the civilian population is also making their preparations as well. They're not standing idly by. There is a strong tradition here during World War II of guerrilla war against the Germans.

And what the local people are doing now is breaking down into self- defense committees, and they, too, say they will join the fight if the Russians roll in. They say they will launch a guerrilla war using the forests and the swampland around here to fight back against the Russians.

Even yesterday during a Sunday mass at a Ukraine unorthodox church, we met a priest there and he was preaching to his flock and said to them quite clearly, let's hope, let's pray that the Russians don't come, but if they do, we must stand and fight. And he said to me, he said, I'll be one of the first ones there in the firing line, leading my villages against the Russians, Christine.

ROMANS: Wow, remarkable. Karl Penhaul, thank you so much for that. Setting up a medevac field hospital certainly shows you how palpable those concerns are in that region.

BERMAN: Stunning to see him reporting from that location.

ROMANS: Unbelievable.

BERMAN: All right, it is a big day here in the United States as well. Last call for Obamacare as open enrollment comes to a close today. The White House has been franticly trying to boost the number, 6 million enrollees as of last week, another 2 million visitors to healthcare.gov this weekend.

Critics say many hurdles remain and some suggest the administration is cooking the books. The final tally could take weeks to determine. Those who fail to get any coverage face a fine of up to 1 percent of their income.

ROMANS: That's right, and eventually, the IRS will take it right out of your tax refund if you're not paying for your health care.

More troubling questions for General Motors this morning. A parts supplier now says the company accepted ignition switches in 2002 -- 2002, knowing full well they did not meet specifications. Two-point- two million vehicles have been recalled. The defect linked to 13 deaths, 31 crashes. Congress is investigating why it took G.M. over a decade to act and why federal regulators twice declined to step in.

CEO Mary Barra testifies before Congress Tuesday. That's tomorrow. That's going to be a very big test of her big job running G.M.

BERMAN: The death toll in Oso, Washington, the landslide there keeps rising. There are 21 confirmed deaths now with 30 people still missing or unaccounted for. This weekend, Brenda Neal got the news she hoped wouldn't come about her missing husband.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRENDA NEAL: They said they found him. They recovered his body yesterday and they've identified him. So, of course, we melted. I dropped the phone and I screamed a little bit and that. But you know, somewhere inside, we knew it was going to be -- it was a very likely thing, but we had been holding on to not feeling that he's gone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Officials say search crews still have not given up hope that they will find survivors in the mass of mud and debris that's there.

ROMANS: A sobering warning on climate change this morning. A new report by U.N. scientists says the worst is yet to come. It's the second of three planned reports as nations try to find consensus on a new global climate treaty next year. It details rising oceans, melting arctic ice, dwindling water supplies. It warns, if greenhouse gases are not reined in, the world's food supplies could be in jeopardy and coastal communities put at risk.

BERMAN: All right, and then there were four. Kentucky punching its ticket to Dallas in the Final Four with a huge win! Look at this shot from Aaron Anderson with two seconds left right there.

ROMANS: Wow.

BERMAN: Kentucky wins 75-72. That shot, insane! This is the Wildcats' third Final Four appearance in the last five years. So, the matchups are set for March Madness beginning Saturday. You're looking at UConn versus the Florida Gators right there, Kentucky against Wisconsin. You do notice that Iowa State, the Cyclones are not there.

ROMANS: I know, that's too sad, but I'm going to root for Wisconsin.

BERMAN: You're going for Wisconsin, Midwest?

ROMANS: I like to stay with my neighbors.

BERMAN: Go big ten. Go big ten.

But that shot from Aaron Henderson was crazy, crazy.

ROMANS: Unbelievable. Good luck to all of them.

BERMAN: Good luck.

ROMANS: And Cyclones, you had a fantastic season. Proud of you.

BERMAN: You're handling it so graciously. It's actually annoying. I was hope you would be more bitter.

ROMANS: I was crying on Friday.

BERMAN: Twenty-one minutes after the hour right now.

The search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370. Time is running out to find the flight data recorder. Right now, a ship with the only black box detector on board is about to launch. We're live with all the new mounting problems facing the search crews, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Good Monday morning to you. Welcome back to EARLY START. Twenty-four minutes past the hour.

An Australian warship will soon be heading out to the Flight 370 search zone, carrying a U.S. Navy listening device, a device that's capable of detecting those pings from the jetliner's black box, detecting it from great distances.

It's going to take the Ocean Shield a few days to reach that search area. CNN's Will Ripley is tracking all this. He's live off Garden Island in Western Australia.

Tell me a little bit about what they're planning to do here.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, we're now about two hours away, less than two hours away from this scheduled departure of the Ocean Shield, an Australian ship that is normally used for humanitarian purposes but is being tooled with those high-tech tools from the Navy for this search mission. After they take off from Sterling Air Base here on Garden Island, which is Western Australia's biggest air base, they're going to be heading to rot nest island where they'll be conducting some tests, making sure this equipment works properly before they head out towards the Indian Ocean search area. It will take about three days to get there.

The captain of the boat that we're on has been talking a lot about these pretty challenging weather conditions that the ship could face. The water's only about 100 feet deep right here. Out there, it's 14,000 feet deep and things can get really ugly in a hurry. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CAPTAIN RAY RUBY, CHARTER BOAT CAPTAIN: Some days it's really calm, but other days it's absolutely wild. That's why the air force can't fly sometimes and the visibility with the rain and that, you can't, just can't see anything. And if there's anything in the water, everything just looks white because the wind just whips the top off the water and everything is white.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RIPLEY: Now, of course, for this equipment to work -- for this equipment to work, you need to have a smaller search area than what we have right now. Right now, the ships that are out there are searching an area the size of Poland, but the underwater, giant underwater microphone, that pinger locator can only hear a signal about a mile radius around it.

So, it's really not going to do much good unless we get a better idea of where the wreckage might be, Christine.

ROMANS: Will, thanks so much. Will Ripley for us off the coast of western Australian.

BERMAN: The ship has a very important mission, but a mission that isn't yet applicable until they find debris and can narrow down the search zone. That's the problem right now.

ROMANS: That is so frustrating.

BERMAN: All right. Our breaking news conference on the search for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 continues with more team coverage right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)