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AirAsia Search Set To Resume; Interview with John Kirby; Seven- Year-Old Girl Survives Plane Crash; North Korea Blasts Obama Punishment

Aired January 5, 2015 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, desperate hunt -- as searchers prepare to go out after days of rough weather looking for bodies and wreckage from AirAsia Flight 8501. There are now new questions about why the airliner took off at all on its final flight.

Are other aircraft at risk?

North Korea fires back -- the hard-line regime responds harshly after the U.S. accuses it of a massive cyber attack and slaps it with new sanctions.

And sole survivor -- a 7-year-old girl somehow lives through the small plane crash that kills her family and she walks through the freezing woods for help. We have new details.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


With dawn about to break off the coast of Indonesia, search teams are preparing to resume the hunt for bodies and wreckage from AirAsia Flight 8501. It's been more than a week now since the airliner plunged into the Java Sea and rough weather still is plaguing the recovery effort.

Sonar has located what may be several large pieces of wreckage from the plane. Searchers may have just found -- may have just found the airliner's tail, which holds the critical flight and data recorders.

Our correspondents, our analysts, our special guests, they're standing by with full coverage. I'll speak live in a few moments with the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby.

But let's begin with CNN's Gary Tuchman.

He's joining us now live from Surabaya in Indonesia -- Gary.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the sun rises here in Surabaya in about 15 minutes. And with it, another search day will begin. And the hope is that divers are able to get underwater in the Java Sea for a significant amount of time. It's believed the divers are needed there to get most of the passengers who are thought to still be strapped in their seats at the bottom of the Java Sea in the airplane.

The hope is also the divers can find the black boxes.

One hundred twenty-five of the 162 passengers are still missing.


TUCHMAN (voice-over): Strong winds, heavy rain and big waves are hindering efforts to find victims and wreckage from AirAsia Flight 8501. The air search was called off Monday because of bad weather in the Java Sea. But there's been some progress in recovering the victims as the search enters its second week. Three more bodies were found, helicopters used to lift them from the Java Sea onto ships.

They're then flown to Surabaya for indication. Officials said some of the bodies found over the weekend were still wearing seatbelts. So far, 37 victims have been recovered and 13 of them have been identified. An Indonesian naval captain told reporters they may have found the

tail of the plane, which includes the crucial black box voice and flight data recorders. If confirmed, it would be a major breakthrough for the accident investigation.

Authorities found five large objects they hoped were parts of the aircraft. But at least one of those objects turned out to be a sunken ship. Over the weekend, the Indonesian Navy sent special equipment to help divers, who encountered muddy waters with no visibility. And the U.S. Navy is assisting Indonesia in the international search effort.

The USS Fort Worth joined the USS Sampson over the weekend.

While the search continues, so does the investigation into why the plane went down with 162 people on board. Indonesian officials said the airline was approved to fly the route four days a week, but did not have a license to fly on Sundays, the day it disappeared.

AirAsia Indonesia says it will cooperate fully with the investigation. In the military, flights between the two cities have been suspended.


TUCHMAN: Right now, the weather conditions are good, but that's the way it's been for much of the last eight days, good weather conditions in the morning and then things deteriorate in the afternoon. This weekend, divers were able to go under. The weather was half decent. When they got under, though, they described the visibility as quote, unquote, "zero."

They're hoping to get under and there's better visibility today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Gary.

We're going to get back to you. Stand by.

As the search continues, the next phase picks up, investigators in Jakarta awaiting the wreckage and the black boxes.

CNN's Kyung Lah is joining us now live from Jakarta.

What's the latest over there -- Kyung?

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, if where Gary is is the heart of the search, what's happening here in Jakarta is looking into the cause, the why, and the reassembly of the plane. As those debris -- as the debris field is found, as those items are brought back here to Indonesia, what will happen is that in a hangar, they will be reassembled.

We are also hearing that there is another lab here, that being a DNA lab to look into any body parts, people who may not be found whole. So there are a couple of laboratories working here.

But the crux of this investigation and knowing exactly why this plane went down will be finding the black boxes. If that tail section, if that is, indeed, the tail section, then the black boxes will be pulled up, they'll be brought here. And then, Wolf, the very, very big question of exactly why AirAsia went down, perhaps that will be answered -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, once they find those two black boxes, the flight data recorder, the voice recorder, how long will it take experts over there, Kyung, say, how long will it take to actually decode what's in those two black boxes?

LAH: Well, we've heard from the NTSC. And what we do know -- which is the version -- the Indonesian version of the NTSB.

What we know about the black boxes is that there are two components, the voice recorder and the data recorder. The voice recorder, they're expecting to have some data right away, so that the conversations between the pilots -- why was there no distress call as soon as the plane turned?

And then, that is the information that will come out right away.

But as far as the data, that's really where you get into the weeds, where you really understand what happened with the plane.

Was there some sort of a malfunction, was this weather, all those big questions, Wolf. That could take days, perhaps even weeks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kyung Lah on the scene for us.

So we're going to get back to you, as well.

This is one of these flight data recorders. It's actually orange. This is what they're looking for and they can find a lot of important information once they retrieve this so-called black box.

Should Flight 8501 have taken off at all?

Serious questions are now being asked about AirAsia's compliance with regulations. There are questions, as well, about Indonesia's track record when it comes to flight safety. Let's bring in our aviation correspondent, Rene Marsh.

She's looking into this part of the story.

What are you finding out -- Rene?

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Indonesia's air safety record, in a word, is being called troubling. The problem, lax standards and not enough regulation to effectively manage the airlines as well as the airspace itself.

Now, it's been reported that the doomed airline pilots, they may not have received extensive weather reports prior to them taking off.

Now, if that is true, it's almost like the pilots were essentially flying blind. A top Indonesian aviation official did tell CNN today that the matter is under investigation. But he insisted that the standard is for pilots to be briefed in advance on weather.

Now the other part of concern, Wolf, AirAsia was not approved to fly the route from Surabaya to Singapore on the day that it went missing.

So the question is, why was it allowed to take off?

That is all under investigation. But safety experts say this all plays into a larger issue. It illustrates, they say, that Indonesia has a significant safety problem with controlling its airspace. The FAA in this country rating it -- giving it a poor rating -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a real serious question then. And I guess the question that jumps out at me is there were just these issues, issue after issue involving this specific AirAsia flight -- taking off, whether it was allowed to take off, did it take off earlier than scheduled, the airport.

What are they saying about all of this?

LAH: Well, over the weekend, we had another incident involving a different AirAsia flight. And, you know, it just doesn't help matters, because you have this investigation into this crash going on and then you had another incident this weekend.

Passengers on board this other flight said that they heard a loud bang when the plane was essentially taxiing, preparing to take off. They were understandably very spooked by this loud sound. They reported to local media that they thought that the engine had blown out. But the airline downplayed all of that. They downplayed the incident, saying it was only an auxiliary unit that failed. That unit is used to power the engine. So they say the engines did not fail.

All of that being said, once the issue was fixed, some of the passengers reportedly still refused to get on the plane. So the airline had to refund them.

This just goes to show, a trickle down effect here. You have one situation with 8501 and that crash, it's really spooking passengers in this recent case here, as well. So, you know, it's bad P.R. for the airline, in a nutshell -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. You can't blame the passengers for being spooked at all.

Rene, thanks very much.

U.S. Warships, U.S. Aircraft they are certainly are taking part, a very active part, in the AirAsia search.

Joining us now to talk about that and more, Rear Admiral John Kirby.

He's the Pentagon press secretary.

Admiral, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: First of all, how is that search operation for the U.S. Navy going right now?

KIRBY: Well, it's going pretty well, actually. We've got two ships, as you said, on station right now. They're working very closely with the Indonesian Navy and the Indonesian search and rescue agency, which has lead for this operation. So we're doing our part.

The USS Sampson has two helicopters. They've been flying almost around the clock, trying to look at the surface of the ocean to find debris. And, of course, they have found and recovered some 15 bodies.

Then you have the Fort Worth, which, is also there, a small littoral combat ship, a very shallow draft, about 15, 16 feet. So she can go to shallower waters where other ships maybe can't go. She has a team of divers on board. And they are operating two what we call towed fish. These are toad, basically mini sonar devices that you tow behind one their boats -- actually, both of their boats -- to see if we can't help map any of the surface of (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: Are American sailors, divers, actually going in the water?

KIRBY: We have divers that are certainly capable of doing that, but they have not done any diving yet.

BLITZER: Why is that?

KIRBY: Well, there's not been a need for it right now. The Indonesian Navy has divers, as has been reported. They did try to get underwater. The need just isn't there for our divers. But they're prepared, they're ready to do it if required.

BLITZER: Do you have enough equipment, manpower on place right now to deal with this search?

KIRBY: We are working very closely with the Indonesians to meet the needs that they have, the requirements that they have. And based on what they've said they've required and needed from us, we've really -- we've gotten all (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: Have they asked for more?

KIRBY: No. Not that I'm aware of.

BLITZER: So right now -- all right, so this report that the Indonesian Navy -- an admiral from the Indonesian Navy says they found what looks like the tail of the aircraft...


BLITZER: -- that contains these so-called black boxes...

KIRBY: Right.

BLITZER: -- is that the -- what do you know about that?

KIRBY: Well, we've seen those same reports and certainly hope that it's true. But we don't have anything to confirm that it is true.

BLITZER: So they haven't -- you haven't 100 percent confirmed that it is the tail?

KIRBY: We have not.

BLITZER: On the other hand, you haven't seen any evidence it's not the tail?

KIRBY: That's correct.

BLITZER: So you're still investigating that right now.

KIRBY: Everybody is still looking for (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: But collaboration with the Indonesians is...

KIRBY: It's very good, very close. I mean this is a Navy that we operate with all the time. And we have a very close relationship with the Indonesian Navy. So it's easy for us in that regard.

BLITZER: So what -- where does it stand right now, because you found, what, 30, maybe 40 bodies. But there's 162 people who were on board that aircraft.

KIRBY: Right. Well, it's hard to say. I mean as I said, we -- the Sampson has recovered 15 of the 30 some odd bodies. Thanks a lot more, obviously, that need to be found. It's very difficult to know exactly where they are. It's certainly possible that many of them are still strapped into their seats.

BLITZER: And the difference between the Sampson and the Fort Worth, they have different missions, is that right?

KIRBY: Well, the Sampson is guided missile destroyer, a much bigger ship designed for anti-submarine warfare and anti-air warfare. The Fort Worth is a smaller ship, about 100 sailors. It's a littoral combat ship, the smallest ship that we have in the Navy in terms of combatants. And it's a new class. In fact, we only have a few of them in the water right now. So it's a completely different type of ship, different capabilities.

BLITZER: And these black boxes, they have these pingers and they have batteries. They'll go for, what, another 20, 21, 22 days...

KIRBY: It's roughly about 30 days.

BLITZER: Before all of a sudden they go silent.

KIRBY: That's right.

BLITZER: But you really have to be nearby in order to hear that ping, right?

KIRBY: You've got to be somewhat close by. But now the thing about -- sound in the water can actually travel pretty far, based on the temperature gradients and the currents. So sound can go pretty far. It's not about having to be right over atop of it. It really depends on the characteristics of the seas underneath the surface.

Now, this tow fish that we are deploying off of the Fort Worth, there's two of them. They basically can do the job of a towed pinger locator. We don't really need a TPL in this case because of the depth of the water, which is only about 150, 160 feet.

BLITZER: And you think that they'll be able to detect the ping from the so-called black boxes?

KIRBY: The tow fish is very capable of detecting the ping from the black boxes. Absolutely. It's also a side scan sonar. So it does two things. It also can map the ocean floor to help us locate wreckage and find it.

BLITZER: But so far, there have been no pings detected?

KIRBY: There's been nothing detected.

BLITZER: As far as you know?


BLITZER: Let's say there is a ping that's detected. And we hope it happens.

Who will be responsible for going down there and actually collecting these black boxes?

KIRBY: Well, that's...

BLITZER: Will the U.S. Navy do that, the Indonesians, somebody else?

KIRBY: We certainly have salvage capability inside the U.S. Navy. Again, we're not anticipating a need for that. We're -- we want to be sure we're ready for it in case it comes. We have had no request for that kind of work yet. That's something that really the Indonesian authorities are going to have to work out.

BLITZER: But the US...


BLITZER: -- has -- might have better capabilities than the Indonesians.

KIRBY: We certainly have very, very good capabilities. (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: Now, if you hear a ping, do you have to send divers down there or can you do that mechanically?

KIRBY: It depends. I mean it depends on the depth of the water. I think it could be done mechanically with submersibles. There's no question about that. The water is very deep for diving. You can get divers to that depth that are properly equipped for it, obviously. But we're just going to have to see. We've got to really find this first and then we can make those (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: Because I've been told it's very dangerous for divers to actually go in. That water is not only rough, but there's a lot of stuff floating around there.

KIRBY: Right.

BLITZER: A diver hits any of that, that could be a...

KIRBY: Well, and the currents. The underwater currents...


KIRBY: -- are very strong there. So all that -- all that risk has to be mitigated and factored in.

BLITZER: All right, I want you to stand by, Admiral.

We have a lot more to discuss, including some -- apparently, some major new threats to U.S. Troops in the Al Anbar Province in Iraq right now.

Stand by. Much more to discuss with that.

Including what's going on with North Korea. The North Koreans issuing some new threats.

What's going on there?

Much more coming up.


BLITZER: As searchers prepare to resume the hunt for the wreckage and the bodies from AirAsia Flight 8501, we're back with Rear Admiral John Kirby, the pentagon press secretary. So let's just wrap it up right now on this AirAsia situation. The

investigation, the search continues. But right now, does it look promising? Because daylight is just starting over there. Does it look like something is going to happen within the next few hours?

KIRBY: It's hard to say within the next few hours, Wolf. But certainly, every day we find more debris. Every day, we're recovering some bodies. So all that is good progress in this regard, and eventually, it will help investigators get to the bottom of this very, very terrible tragedy.

I think it's important for us all to remember there's a lot of families out there that are -- they are grieving some loss.

BLITZER: A hundred sixty-two people on that plane. And remember, there were, what, about 3,000 of these similar Airbus commercial aircraft flying around right now. And everybody wants to know what brought that plane down to make sure they learn the lessons so that none of those other planes go down either if, in fact, there was some kind of catastrophic mechanical failure or anything like that.

KIRBY: Absolutely. We all want answers.

BLITZER: That's why it's an important story.

Let's talk a little bit about another important story going on while I have you right now. What's happening with those 320 -- I think they're mostly Marines...

KIRBY: Right.

BLITZER: ... who are at the Al-Assad Air Base...

KIRBY: Right.

BLITZER: ... in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq. They're coming under fire from ISIS troops. They were surrounded, this area.

How worried should their families be, these American Marines?

KIRBY: Well, I think it's important that we put this in a little bit of perspective, Wolf. It is true that the Al-Assad Air Base has received some indirect fire in the last few week or so, couple of weeks. It's infrequent. It's not a -- you know, it happens frequently, but it's not like, you know, multiple attacks every single day.

It's also important to remember the size of Al-Asad Air Base. It's a big base. It's about 25 square Miles, roughly the size of Boulder, Colorado. So it's a big place.

There's 320 Marines there. There's also an infantry unit, Iraqi soldiers that are being trained by these Marines. So it's not just that U.S. troops are potentially at risk here. And I don't want to mitigate or completely minimize the fact that there is a risk of this indirect fire. But this kind of fire is what we would call unguided and unobserved. In other words, it's just random, sporadic. You might get one one day and three the next day. And there's -- it's done no damage. It has hurt nobody. That doesn't -- again, I'm not trying to...

BLITZER: But they could get lucky?

KIRBY: Yes. I mean I'm not trying to say that there isn't a risk here. But it's a low risk at this point.

So it's not like ISIL has surrounded Al-Asad. Again, this is about the size of Boulder, Colorado. These are one-off -- they come in and they launch a rocket or they'll launch a mortar and then they go away. They don't stay to see, you know, where it lands.

BLITZER: You've got to remember...

KIRBY: That's not the target.

BLITZER: ... these ISIS troops, they took over the second largest city in Iraq a few months ago, Mosul, a city of about two million people. That's a lot bigger than Al-Asad Air Base.

KIRBY: That's right. And I don't want to completely minimize the risk here. And when we deploy troops into harm's way, they know that there's a risk that they're taking. And force protection is a serious, serious consideration that we've applied to all the troops that are over there. They have the right to defend themselves. And before we put those Marines on that base, we did a site survey to try to improve force protection measures, to make it as safe as possible.

BLITZER: Do you have contingency plans to evacuate them if necessary?

KIRBY: Of course we do.

BLITZER: How do you do that?

KIRBY: Well, I wouldn't get into it right here on national TV, but obviously, we have the capability to try to help protect our troops and certainly come to their rescue if they need it, come to their aid.

BLITZER: And these are still non-combat troops, even though, potentially, they're facing some serious combat?

KIRBY: The mission is non-combat. The mission for these Marines is to train, advise and assist the Iraq ...

BLITZER: Do they get combat pay, these troops?

KIRBY: Of course they do. They get ...

BLITZER: So they're not combat troops, but they're getting combat pay.

KIRBY: They get what we would call hazardous duty pay, not, there's -- there's not a -- not a thing called combat pay, necessarily. But hazardous duty pay. So they're being -- they are getting extra special pay for the job that they're doing in Iraq. And, again, no one's trying to say that there's no risk at all. Of course there is. But we try to manage that and mitigate it the best we can.

BLITZER: All right, now, let's talk about North Korea while I have you, for a moment.

Apparently the regime in Pyongyang now threatening retaliation, to do something in the face of these expansive U.S. sanctions that have just been imposed. How would -- there's still, what, 30,000 American troops along the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

What's going on?

KIRBY: Well, you're right, there's a lot of troops there on the Korean Peninsula. We are very -- we're very studious about our obligations to the -- our treaty alliance there with South Korea. So there are troops there.

There's no change in the force posture there on the peninsula, which is always -- obviously, we're always very vigilant. But as a result of this, there's no major security change on the ground for those troops.

BLITZER: And so they're still there. But you haven't seen any new threats, really? I mean they're uttering words, but they haven't done anything like getting ready for a new nuclear test or an intercontinental ballistic missile test...


BLITZER: ... anything along those lines to threaten South Korea or Japan?


BLITZER: Or anything along those lines?

KIRBY: No, we haven't seen that.

BLITZER: It's just words right now?

KIRBY: Right now, it's rhetoric. And we haven't seen any physical security threat, additional security threat to what already exists on the Peninsula.

BLITZER: And the U.S. ...

KIRBY: It's a very tense environment.

BLITZER: ... and the U.S. government still believes North Korea was, in fact, responsible for the cyberattack on Sony Pictures?

KIRBY: Yes. We do.

BLITZER: You haven't backed away from that at all?

KIRBY: No, we haven't.

BLITZER: Despite the fact that some cyber experts are raising questions about that?

KIRBY: No. No change to our policy on that.

BLITZER: More sanctions expected, do you think?

KIRBY: Well, I don't know. I mean what these authorities give the president the ability to impose sanctions. Now, again, as he made very clear, at a time and place of our choosing, and sort of in the manner we want to do that. And I have no new announcements on that.

BLITZER: Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.

Thanks very much for joining us.

The efforts to recover victims and wreckage from AirAsia Flight 8501 have been hampered by rough weather. CNN's Paula Hancocks has experienced that firsthand on a search vessel in the Java Sea. Paula is joining us now live. So tell us, Paula, how did it go?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we've been hearing so much about these summer monsoons down here in Indonesia and this adverse weather, officials telling us that that is the biggest obstacle to finding the debris and the bodies.

Now, on Sunday we've had a chance to travel out with a search-and- rescue vessel and see exactly how it hampers their search operations.


HANCOCKS (voice-over): The deserted beaches of West Borneo, Indonesia, belie the horrors out at sea. More than 100 nautical Miles to the search zone, calm waters and sunshine soon disappear.

(on camera): We've been on the sea now for about four hours. We've got another three or four hours to go. And as you can see, the weather has started to close in the closer we get to this crash location. But we're being told that, even though these waves are fairly high and, you can see, it's a lot choppier than it was, that this is still considered fairly good weather. This is better than it has been for some days.

(voice-over): The crew looks for debris and bodies. One of them spots something. He's unsure what exactly. The captain calls it in, a larger ship in the area will investigate.

This search-and-rescue boat has a specific mission, to deliver a pinger locater to help with the vital search for the so-called black boxes. But the captain is nervous about the weather.

"I feel a heavy moral burden," he says. "I have a responsibility to keep those on board safe, but it's so important to help find bodies and debris."

"Larger ships can cope with these conditions," he says. "But this is not a large ship."

Sector four of the search zone, the contact boat is in sight. Time to hand over the equipment. Easier said than done.

(on camera): One of the men who's in charge of that equipment was going to jump across, but quite frankly, he doesn't want to. He said it's simply too dangerous.

Next job, transferring the boats from which to operate the equipment, a task the crew struggles with until dark.

Before having to admit defeat, at least for today. An exhausted crew returns to land with only half the mission accomplished.


HANCOCKS: That really is a huge international effort to find the plane and also its passengers. We know, of course, as you've said, there are two U.S. ships on site at this point helping. There's also assets from Australia, from France, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, just to name a few. But of course, without better weather, there really is a limit to what they can do -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Paula Hancocks, good work. Thanks very much.

Let's continue the conversation. Joining us, our aviation analyst, Miles O'Brien; our aviation analyst, the former NTSB managing director, Peter Goelz; our CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes -- he's former FBI assistant director. Also joining us, CNN analyst David Gallo of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

David, Indonesia says they may have found the suspected tail of the plane, this according to Reuters. How significant would that be, given the fact that both the flight data recorder, the voice recorder, the cockpit recorder apparently located on that tail?

DAVID GALLO, CNN ANALYST: Sure. It would be fantastic. But, you know, we begin every day with some encouragement. We end every day with so much uncertainty. It's a bad pattern. And the thing that worries me is that a calmer surface means we can get people in and out of the water a little bit easier and safer and hold position easier.

But the visibility, if we're waiting for that to improve, that could be weeks. It could be a month away before the monsoonal visibility increase -- is better at that depth.

BLITZER: What worries a lot of people, David -- yes, I was going to say a lot of what people are worried, you just heard the rear admiral, the Pentagon press secretary, John Kirby, say they haven't heard any pings at all yet. How worried should we be that no pings have been detected?

GALLO: I don't know about worried. But if there's any -- if we have to rely on visual, that's why those black boxes are painted orange, so you can see them visually. Then we're in serious trouble, I think, for the time being. If the pings are working, they've got enough assets out there. It

comes down to a good plan so they don't miss any spots. But you're right. We haven't heard anything that they've tried and failed or not listening. But the admiral's right: they've got equipment on board the Fort Worth that could locate those pings and maybe produce a better map that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the seaport.

BLITZER: Let's hope they find and detect some of those pings right away.

Miles, you know, it's shocking to me that this plane wasn't even authorized. This commercial airliner wasn't even authorized to fly on that day; yet, it went off on that route.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Yes, I think we have to be careful. I'm not sure it's a direct contributing cause of the accident. But in the grand context of this, it's important to look at this. If the airline wasn't getting approvals to fly, what other things was it omitting or not doing? Were the weather reports being handled properly? Were -- was the minimum equipment -- that's the amount of equipment you need to fly an aircraft -- was that followed and adhered to? Was the maintenance done properly? It raises some questions. I don't think it necessarily had to do with the crash directly.

BLITZER: The Indonesian ministry of transport, as you know, Tom, they're investigating right now what happened here. But potentially, I think there could be criminal investigations if, in fact, this plane took off just because it took off, even though it wasn't licensed to fly on that day...

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Possibly. But you have the air traffic controllers, the ground controllers, the pilots all assuming that that administrative detail has been handled or they wouldn't be on the schedule to fly that day. The only question I see for safety is whether or not they weren't authorized, because the sky was already crowded with other airlines that don't fly every day but didn't fly out Sunday.

So if it wasn't too crowded of a sky, I think it's not an issue other than administrative and that there would be a possible fine or sanctions against the airline by the government. You know, or the insurance company liability could be affected. But I don't think it's a safety issue unless the sky was already too crowded.

BLITZER: Or unless, as Miles says, they didn't get the information because it wasn't licensed to fly. They didn't get the indications of bad weather or whatever that a pilot would have received in advance or maybe he wouldn't have even taken off if he would have gotten that kind of information. But that's subject to the investigation.

FUENTES: But I would know that it's not getting information on Sunday that he got on Thursday.

BLITZER: It's a problem. Reuters, they're saying that this AirAsia plane made what was described as an unbelievably steep climb before it crashed. What does that say to you?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, first of all, you have to put it into context. We don't know where the radar was located, what kind of radar it was. When we remember Flight 370, there were numerous reports that proved not to be completely accurate, based on primary radar returns. We just don't know whether it's accurate or not. I'm not putting a lot of faith, you know, into that climb.

But it could show that it hit some sort of tremendous weather pattern that forced it up. But unbelievably...

BLITZER: Unbelievably steep, what does it say to you, Miles?

O'BRIEN: Well, it could have been an incredible updraft or it could have been...

BLITZER: What does that mean?

O'BRIEN: You know, an up-swell of air. You know, basically a thunderstorm is a giant heat engine. It's just cycling air around. And you could get 100-mile-an-hour updrafts that would send you on quite a ride. There's no question about it.

But remember this information on altitude is coming from the transponder. And that information comes from the altimeter setting on the airplane, the barometric pressure. There could have been all kinds of things which caused problems with that, including icing or a dramatic change in barometric pressure because of the storm.

So as Peter says, we don't know how accurate that rise was.

BLITZER: Could icing, bad weather actually have damaged the engines of that aircraft?

O'BRIEN: It could have. It's unlikely that that's the sole cause in this...

BLITZER: Because I thought those planes are built for that...

O'BRIEN: Absolutely.

BLITZER: ... to withstand any kind of threat like...

O'BRIEN: When you're going to fly into something like this, you put on continuous ignition, which is like holding the car key on in your car, to make sure it doesn't stall out. If that had failed or if the pilot had not initiated that, the engines could have flamed out.

But when we talk about icing, there's a whole other array of things to consider. Whether big, large pieces of hail, which could damage the aircraft. That's kind of obvious. You could ice over some of the instruments which capture air speed and the altitude, all kinds of things. You add that all together along with this upswell and you've got a wild ride.

BLITZER: David Gallo, let's get back to the search. It's pretty murky down there. Visibility, some people say there's zero visibility down there. What do they need, based on your experience, that they don't have right now?

GALLO: You know, ten feet would be great. And the thing, Wolf, it's one thing to be able just to identify these pieces and make sure they're bits of the plane. But if they've got to try to lift them or penetrate into a fuselage to pull out bodies or the black boxes, I don't think they're going to do that. That's an incredibly dangerous situation to be in, given the currents and all the things floating around in the water.

BLITZER: Do you think, Peter, all of these A-320s, these Airbus aircraft -- there are about 3,000 of them flying around right now -- need to be inspected because of what happened? There was another incident, as you know, over the weekend. Another plane had loud noise. There was -- fortunately nothing happened. But should there be some sort of inspection going on?

GOELZ: No, it's premature. This is a workhorse. It's got a good record. I don't think there's any reason to issue any kind of emergency inspection order, because we don't know what happened yet.

BLITZER: And there was no mayday. How do you explain that?

O'BRIEN: Something catastrophic happened, Wolf. And I think it's important to point out here, if there is a flaw in the aircraft, we need to know. There are a lot of these planes flying every day all over the world. And the fact that we're waiting on good weather and listening for a ping to find out this basic information is ridiculous. It's the 21st century. There are better ways to do it.

BLITZER: And what does it say to you there was no mayday?

GOELZ: Well, it means absolutely it was catastrophic. And as Miles said, we need to have some sort of way of continuously tracking these aircraft where we're not waiting for weeks, months, perhaps years.

BLITZER: Hard to believe in this day and age they don't do that. Stand by. We're going to continue our investigation of what's going on.

We're also getting new details about a deadly plane crash here in the United States. But a 7-year-old little girl, she got out alive. She found help, all on her own. This is an incredible story. We have new information.

Also ahead, North Korea lashing out at the United States. You're going to hear what its leaders are now saying about the punishment President Obama ordered for the cyberattack on Sony Pictures.


BLITZER: We're following a truly remarkable survival story in western Kentucky where a little 7-year-old girl not only lived through a plane crash that killed her parents, her sister and her cousin. She walked nearly a mile through dense woods to get help. The wreckage is being moved to help investigators figure out what exactly happened.

Let's bring in CNN's Martin Savidge. He's near the crash site for us in Kentucky.

What have you learned, Martin?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're talking about 7-year- old Sailor Gutzler. And this is the door and the stairs that she walked up to to get help. Let me show you over here.

This is the remote part of Kentucky and the woods from which she emerged after that horrible crash of her family plane. How she got from there to here is nothing short of miraculous.


SAVIDGE (voice-over): Behind this precious face lies the incredible strength and courage of a survivor. Friday night, 7-year-old Sailor Gutzler freed herself from the upside-down wreckage of her family's plane, moving past the bodies of her mother, father, sister and cousin, walking nearly a mile to Larry Wilkins' home in remote western Kentucky.

LARRY WILKINS, FOUND CRASH SURVIVOR: Well, she was bloody. Her nose was bloody. I can't say for sure, but I think maybe her lip might have been cut. But her little legs was what really got your attention, because they were striped up all over.

SAVIDGE: From his back steps, Wilkins shows me the way she came. Even now, he still can't believe she made it, shoeless, wearing only shorts and short sleeves with temperatures in the 30s.

WILKINS: When you consider what she just walked through and she had just seen her parents and her sister and her cousin, that all three were dead, you know, was amazing.

SAVIDGE: I decided to backtrack the way she came.

(on camera): Pretty quickly I find the going is tough, downed tree limbs everywhere.

(voice-over): The brush is incredibly dense and overgrown, branches snag and grab as you move, while needle-like thorns tear at your clothes. Even in broad daylight, the potential pitfalls are everywhere. Steep and slippery slopes, ditches and pools of water.

The brush swallows you quickly, leaving you disoriented and blocking the view of any landmarks.

As I struggle, I constantly remind myself, I was ready for this. How could an injured, traumatized and frightened 7-year-old make her way in the near pitch dark and chilling mist?

In the end, I give up, and GPS guides me back to where I started. Larry Wilkins says one wrong turn could have left the little girl lost for weeks. WILKINS: All woods. And there's quite a few coyotes around here,


SAVIDGE: He believes the light in his yard could have attracted the little survivor, or something else, telling me, heaven had a hand, as well.


SAVIDGE: Wolf, there are so many ways that this could have gone wrong for this little girl. First and foremost, we should point out, this is primarily a vacation area. There's a lake nearby. People come here in the summer. In the winter, I'm told only three homes are occupied. It just so happened she walked up to one of them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How's she doing? I know she had some injuries. How's she doing right now, Martin?

SAVIDGE: Larry Wilkins, the man inside the home here, obviously feels a very strong connection -- He's 71 -- to this 7-year-old child. The grandfather called him last night and said she's doing about as good as can be expected. She is in the hands of family and being cared for, Wolf.

BLITZER: What a miraculous story, I must say. All right, Martin, thanks very, very much. Martin Savidge on the scene for us.

Coming up, a new blast from North Korea because of the punishment President Obama ordered for its cyberattack on Sony Pictures. Will its harsh words lead to dangerous actions?

And right at the top of the hour, the search is now set to resume for the wreckage of that AirAsia jetliner. Can they find the plane's black boxes before the batteries on their locater beacons give out?


BLITZER: North Korea is complaining loudly and bitterly about the latest economic sanctions President Obama imposed as punishment for the cyber attack on Sony Pictures.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto. He's working the story there. New developments unfolding even as we speak.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: No question. Relations between the U.S. and North Korea entering familiar but worrisome territory of combative rhetoric. North Korea calling the U.S., quote, "repugnant and hostile," after the U.S. in effect doubling down on its assessment that North Korea was behind the Sony hack, imposing, punishing new economic sanctions.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): North Korea's first response to new U.S. economic sanctions was unyielding and angry. Lashing out, Pyongyang said the move proved the U.S. is still not away from inveterate repugnance and hostility towards North Korea.

The administration has used harsh language of its own accusing North Korea of, quote, "destructive and repressive actions" including the attack on Sony aimed at blocking the release of the movie "The Interview."

JAMES FRANCO, ACTOR: You want to kill Kim Jong-Un?

SETH ROGEN, ACTOR: Totally. Totally, I'd love to assassinate Kim Jong-Un. It's a date.

SCIUTTO: The administration is not wavering in its view that Pyongyang was behind the attack, even as private cyber security firms have raised the possibility it may have been an inside job.

JEN PSAKI, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: As the FBI made clear, we're confident, we remain confident that the North Korean government is responsible for this destructive attack.

SCIUTTO: Targets of the new sanctions? Three government entities including its main intelligence agency in charge of cyber operations and 10 individuals involved in weapons sales and overseas trade.

Senator Robert Menendez called the latest round of sanctions on North Korea just a good first step.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: I really do believe that we need to look at putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism which would have far more pervasive consequences.

SCIUTTO: The new sanctions come as the North Korean leader Kim Jong- Un signaled openness in his annual new year's address to renewed talks with his country's sworn enemy, South Korea. However, few analysts see the outreach as genuine.

VICTOR CHA, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: He had to say something about North-South relations. If you read the rest of the speech, it's much more worrying, the idea that they want nuclear weapons for good. In addition, they want economic assistance from the outside world. So that's not a positive sign at all.


SCIUTTO: The U.S. goal here, I'm told, is to deliver the proportional response the Obama administration has promised. Strong enough to penalize North Korea but not to provoke it further. The U.S., for instance, has not yet blocked Pyongyang from access to dollar- denominated trade but the White House also made clear that these sanctions, Wolf, are not the final step.

And I'm told that the FBI director James Comey is going to have a speech tomorrow where he makes clear that the FBI is standing by its assessment that North Korea was behind it, that the FBI has the goods despite, as you know, private cyber security organizations say it might had been an inside job. WHITFIELD: All right. We'll look forward to his speech tomorrow.

From the FBI director. Thanks very much, Jim Sciutto.

With us now on THE SITUATION ROOM, Stephen Yates. He was deputy assistant for National Security to the then Vice President Dick Cheney, Christian Whiton was a deputy special envoy for human rights in North Korea during the Bush administration and Georgetown University professor Victor Cha. We just heard from him in Jim Sciutto's report.

Stephen, let's parse out North Korea's utterances, its response to the newly announced U.S. sanctions. They're saying the sanctions, in their words, will only harden North Korea's will, the resolution to defend what they call the sovereignty of their country.

Is Kim Jong-Un threatening more attacks, more provocative actions? What's your analysis?

STEPHEN YATES, FORMER CHENEY DEPUTY ASSISTANT: Well, basically what they're saying is part of a piece. It's kind of what we expect. I mean, North Korea is one of the most flamboyant foreign ministers when it comes to rhetoric, and so this is part of that same piece.

We're dealing with a profoundly uncertain regime in North Korea right now and so I think the United States government is at a big disadvantage of trying to game out what is most likely. This is a regime that shouldn't have been able to but has detonated nuclear devices, shouldn't have been able to continue but has engaged in proliferation and shouldn't have been able to engage in the cyber attack it's been accused of. So we failed to thwart them over multiple two-term presidents of both parties.

BLITZER: So what -- Victor, what can the U.S. do? What could Kim Jong-Un realistically do to retaliate for these latest U.S. sanctions?

CHA: Well, Wolf, I think the most likely things that we expect to see are more missile tests or even a fourth nuclear test based on all the open source. It looks like they're prepared and ready to do that. They do want to demonstrate that they have a rogue mobile ballistic missile that they haven't shown yet except they put them on parades.

In terms of what the United States can do, I mean, I think that these sanctions are just the beginning of what to me looks like a much more targeted strategy of trying to get at the points outside of North Korea through which the regime gains hard currency.

The naming of these 10 individuals in the executive order are 10 people who have not been named before and they're very clearly linked to state-backed companies and activities that bring money to the regime through arm sales and through other sorts of activities, so I think this is the beginning of what I hope is a much broader strategy that gets at North Korean individuals, not just for nuclear proliferation, but that's very important but also for human rights violations as well as cyber activities.

BLITZER: Christian, these new U.S. sanctions that have been opposed against North Korea, do you believe they make it more difficult for North Korea if you assume that North Korea did, in fact, launch that cyber attack on Sony Pictures? Does it make it more difficult for North Korea to engage in more of these kinds of cyber attacks?

CHRISTIAN WHITON, FORMER STATE DEPARTMENT SENIOR ADVISER: No, I'd say not at all unfortunately because it's not a real deterrent. Unfortunately most of the companies and individuals named have absolutely no exposure toward Western finance or any sort of international finance if you look at what they're selling, illicit arms, counterfeit narcotics, other counterfeit goods. These aren't being done through reputable banks that can be held to account.

I mean, think of suitcases full of 500 euro notes. Think of heavily laundered money which North Korea learned it had to do in particular after the 2007 sanctions against the bank that did this with the North Korean regime. We're so effective against it. So, you know, what Mr. Menendez said, the senior most Democratic senator on the Foreign Relations Committee, that North Korea should be put back on the terrorist list more steps like that would be important because what we've seen so far is pretty minimal.

BLITZER: You know, at the same time, Stephen, that North Korea is making these threats we also heard Kim Jong-Un say let's have a dialogue with South Korea. Where does that play into this?

YATES: Well, over the years that's often been a part of things. Sometimes they try to play tough with America and draw closer with the people of the South. In the way they think of things. I don't know that it has worked terribly well and North-South relations are fraught with visits that come with a heavy price tag of transferring hard currency to North Korean leadership and there have been scandals in the past that have enveloped presidential administrations of South Korea.

I don't think the current administration there is interested in that. But it's not necessarily new for them to smile with one hand and then try to be forceful with the other.

BLITZER: Stephen Yates, Victor Cha, Christian Whiton, guys, thanks very much. We're obviously going to stay on top of this North Korea story for our viewers.

Coming up, after days of rough weather, searchers are about to resume the hunt for the wreckage and the bodies from AirAsia Flight 8501.

We have full coverage coming up right at the top of the hour.

And a member of the Ferguson grand jury, get this, a member of the Ferguson grand jury is now filing suit demanding to be allowed to speak publicly and tell us all what exactly happened during those grand jury procedures. Going to take a closer look at the possible fallout.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Happening now, back in the air. The search of the AirAsia crash site is now resuming. Crews are fighting storms and frustrations. Could they have made a significant new discovery?

New help from the U.S. The Navy now deploying sonar to scan the sea floor. We're learning more about the desperate hunt for the black boxes before their pingers die out in a matter of days.

And Ferguson lawsuit. Will new legal action by a grand juror unleash new outrage on the streets if they reveal more about why the police officer Darren Wilson wasn't indicted in the death of Michael Brown?

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: We got breaking news this hour. AirAsia recovery crews are hoping for an early morning window in dangerous weather that forced the air operation to be called off again. It's just after sunrise off Indonesia., and the search should be getting back under way right now; 37 bodies now have been recovered, along with several large pieces of the wreckage.