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One Black Box Found at Crash Site in French Alps. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 24, 2015 - 16:00   ET


[16:00:20] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: A passenger jet obliterated.

I'm John Berman, and this is THE LEAD.

The world lead, a plane and the 150 souls on board reduced to rubble when it smashes into the French Alps, now recovery crews just beginning to sift through the debris.

Plus, it dropped 14,000 feet in six minutes, and all the while the pilots kept eerily lint. Now that French investigators have one of the black boxes in hand, how soon before we know why just this plane went down?

And the loss, much more than just names on a flight manifest. We're now learning the first details of exactly who these passengers were, families, babies, 16 high schoolers, their class trip turned into a tragedy.

Welcome to THE LEAD, everyone. I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper.

And we begin today with breaking news in our world lead. Right now in the French Alps, reports say that recovery crews just suspended operations, darkness forcing them to stand down for the night. And that word recovery is really all too telling. The 150 people on board this plane, Germanwings Flight 9525, they are all likely gone.

French aviation investigators are in possession of a black box from the plane. They're trying to figure out just why this jet went down this morning. A French official tells CNN the Airbus A-320 slammed into a cliffside and was in his words completely obliterated.

Video captured from helicopters hints at just how big the debris field is. It shows bodies, remains flung from the fuselage and littered across hundreds of meters of mountain terrain. French authorities say it's unlikely that crews will able to retrieve any of the victims tonight.

CNN is working the story all over the globe.

We will start with CNN aviation correspondent Rene Marsh right here in Washington.

Rene, really such a mystery about what happened to this plane. The U.S. government now says it's all but certainly not terrorism, but, beyond that, what do we know? RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: The facts that we do know, it

actually makes this crash even more perplexing. This is an aircraft, the Airbus A-320, with an impeccable safety record.

The aircraft had just received a maintenance check yesterday and the captain of the plane had been flying with the airline for more than 10 years. What could have gone wrong? Critical to answering that will be the debris and the plane's black boxes.


MARSH (voice-over): Tonight, this is the challenging rocky terrain first-responders and investigators are navigating. Germanwings Flight 9525 with 150 people on board went down in the snowy French Alps, where peaks as high as 10,000 feet.

What seemed like a routine flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf suddenly turned deadly. The flight took off at 10:01 a.m. local time. Flight tracking sites show the plane climbed to a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet, but it only stayed at that altitude for about three minutes before starting an unplanned descent.

LES ABEND, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: It seems to me that it was still a controlled descent.

MARSH: Forty-five minutes after takeoff, the airline's CEO says the plane held at 10,000 feet for about a minute. Eight minutes later, air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane, its last known altitude 6,000 feet. Then Flight 9525 disappeared from Radar.

THOMAS WINKELMANN, CEO, GERMANWINGS (through translator): A terrible, very sad day for Germanwings and the whole Lufthansa family. Sadly, I have to inform you that today we have been informed by the French Department in Southern France that a Germanwings airliner had an accident.

MARSH: A French government official says the plane was -- quote -- "obliterated," human remains strewn several hundred meters. French aviation authorities say the pilot did not send a distress call or signal that there was trouble.

It was air traffic control that declared an emergency because they couldn't reach the pilots by radio, leaving many unanswered questions.

KEITH WOLZINGER, THE SPECTRUM GROUP: Normally, even if you're on an oxygen mask in a depressurized plane or a plane filled with smoke, you are still going to transmit on the radio, you can still set your transponder to the emergency code that air traffic control would pick up. If they're overcome in some fashion, then they may not have been able to respond.

MARSH: Authorities say ground teams have located one of the plane's black boxes, critical in finding out what went wrong on board this plane that's considered the workhorse of aviation.

(END VIDEOTAPE) [16:05:02] MARSH: And in speaking with several pilots today, it really is puzzling as to why the pilots in the cockpit didn't speak at all to air traffic control.

We know that the rule is you aviate, you navigate, then you communicate. So this could be an indication they were trying to get this plane under control until the very last minute. Or it could be a situation, as you heard that pilot say, that they were perhaps incapacitated.

Regardless of what, they need to find out what caused this. We're talking about more than 6,200 of these planes flying in the air worldwide today.

BERMAN: Yes, that's a good point, Rene. That six to eight minutes with no communication is an awfully long time not to say something to the ground.


BERMAN: Rene Marsh, thanks so much for being with us.

CNN's Nic Robertson is closely tracking just what French and international authorities are doing right now to work the scene, this grave scene in the French Alps.

Nic is moving toward that location in Southern France right now, joins me now by telephone.

Nic, the searchers there have now suspended their efforts for the night. What's the latest?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, at lower altitudes, it's been raining. At those higher altitudes, we understand that clouds have been down on the mountains, which have made it harder for the search efforts to continue.

The aircraft, obviously the location discovered, but we're being told that it will be perhaps below zero temperatures tonight, that there could be snow, that snow is potentially forecast for the area. And because the ground is at freezing conditions, it means actually putting recovery workers on the ground is going to be more complicated.

They will need specialist equipment. We have seen how steep and rugged that terrain is. So, at the moment, the operations for recovery for tonight suspended. They will expect -- expected to begin in the morning. How quickly, however, that is going to be very much weather-dependent. And officials are saying this recovery effort could take quite some time, John.

BERMAN: Nic, it's a German aircraft that crashed in France with passengers from all over Europe. Who's in charge right now of the investigation?

ROBERTSON: Well, the air accident investigation will be led by the French agency, the BEA. That's the French air accident investigation agency. They say that they will have seven investigators that they're deploying for this initially.

They will have with them technical advisers, at least one from Airbus itself. Also, the BFU, that is the German air accident investigation authority there, essentially the French sister authority of the BEA, the BFU from Germany will be sending a three-man team to assist with that investigation.

Obviously, getting onto the site is going to be key for those teams. But under European law, it is the French that will be taking the lead in this.

BERMAN: All right, Nic Robertson moving toward the scene of that crash. Again, the search suspended for the night. But they have a complicated day with a serious effort in store for tomorrow. Thanks so much, Nic.

I want to bring in of the former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board and president of the National Safety Council, Deborah Hersman.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Over the last few hours, we have seen pictures from this crash site, this debris field. In the words of investigators there, you can see how that flight was completely obliterated. How will investigators now work this field to find clues about what happened to this aircraft? What do you see?

DEBORAH HERSMAN, FORMER CHAIRWOMAN, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: You know, I would say a lot of times we're focused on the technology, but really it's the environmental challenges that Mother Nature has to offer.

With the fall of night, we're really going to be suspending what's going on, on the ground. That's super challenging for investigators, particularly in a 24-hour world, where everyone is looking for new information and looking for an update. And then we're going to have weather challenges compounding it.

And I think that makes it really hard to get on scene, to find what they need, and to do it safely. You want to make sure you're protecting all of the emergency responders that are doing recovery operations, as well as the investigators.

BERMAN: Obviously, you have to protect the searchers there. Their safety is paramount. But what do you lose over time? Do any clues disappear?

HERSMAN: You know, as long as the scene is not disturbed, either by humans or by other environmental conditions, you probably are going to be able to have some sense of what's going on.

Really getting those recorders is going to be critical. Once they pick the recorders up and they actually get them probably in this case to the BEA's facilities and their lab in Paris, they can read those recorders out really quickly. And that will help guide the investigation to look for clues in that debris field. If they're looking for a component part or some part of the aircraft, it will help guide what they're looking for.

BERMAN: And they do have one of those black boxes in hand right now, presumably on the way to be analyzed as we speak.

[16:10:02] President Obama said something interesting today. He said the U.S. is still assessing how many Americans were on board that plane. It was interesting phraseology. It made me wonder, why does it take so long in this day and age to know how many Americans were on board? Isn't that something that should be immediately available?

HERSMAN: You know, I would say the good thing in aviation is at least you have a passenger manifest.

But you really have to cross-check the manifest to make sure that all of the people who purchased tickets actually got on the plane and that you know where they originated. They may or may not be citizens of the country where they started. We live in an international world. Everybody is connected. You don't want to make a false statement, particularly when it comes to the victims of a crash.

You want to make sure all the T's are crossed and the I's are dotted. That does take time and notification of the next of kin is usually the first priority.

BERMAN: No, it's a fair point.

One of the big mysteries in this investigation right now is why the plane descended that 14,000 feet over six to eight minutes just before it crashed. It appeared, according to the aviation experts we talked with, that it was a consistent descent, indicating perhaps it was a controlled descent. What does it tell you?

HERSMAN: I think it's really so early.

There's a lot of speculation that is occurring. But until they get some of that hard data from the aircraft or are able to identify some evidence, some really hard evidence, I think it's all speculation. It's telling us that there was a controlled descent. It doesn't appear that it was a loss of control in flight, where you see the aircraft plummeting or stalling very quickly.

But I think there's still so much that we don't know. Once they read out those recorders and whether they get the cockpit voice recorder or the they get the flight data recorder, either one of those recorders is going to give them a lot more information than what we have got to go on right now. Not having any communication with ATC, not having any distress calls or reports of equipment malfunctions, we just don't know.

BERMAN: Not to have any communication over that six-to-eight-minute period, when it was engaged in that rapid, though controlled descent, that seems like an awfully long time not to communicate with air traffic control, if they believed there was something wrong.

HERSMAN: That's absolutely right.

But, you know, the challenge is right now we don't know if there was problems with their equipment, with their radios. There's just a lot that is unknown right now. Aircraft have become so dependable. We see really literally thousands of flights every day all around the world that take off and land safely, that it's really understanding what went wrong here to make sure the rest of the fleet is safe and that we have identified any problems that might exist in other aircraft.

That's why there's a sense of urgency here, not just for those families, but for everyone else that flies.

BERMAN: No, the aircraft had been so dependable. It's why when there are events like this finding out the answers as to what happened is so crucial.

Deborah Hersman, former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, thanks so much for being with us.

HERSMAN: Thank you.

BERMAN: So we know that the weather was good as the plane did actually make it to cruising altitude. So what might have possibly gone wrong? There are three different theories that might explain that six-minute-long descent and why the pilots didn't issue a distress call right before the crash. We will lay them out next.


[16:17:47] BERMAN: We're back with breaking news in our world lead. French authorities now have one of the black boxes from today's Germanwings plane crash. That device could be critical in determining what went wrong. All 150 people on board that plane are now feared dead.

Flight 9525 left Barcelona at 10:01 this morning. At 10:53 the plane had its last contact with French radar over the Alps, what happened next remains a mystery. Flight trackers online show the plane had a sharp decline. The question is why?

Tom Foreman is looking into the theories.

And, Tom, one of the possibilities that people are discussing is there was some kind of catastrophic failure.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely. That's one of the ideas -- something just simply came apart in the air.

There are reasons why that would certainly bring a plane down but maybe didn't happen here. Think about this. It's making this flight along this path. This is a workhorse plane, does a very good job flying in a lot of places. And if it loses a wing, or loses a tail, or loses from big part, it is

going to come down seemingly a lot faster than a lot more irregularly than it did in the flight track. We've seen on top of which all of this wreckage seems to be in one spot. It's not scattered all over the place as you expect it to be.

Same thing if you had a catastrophic fire on board or something, that made the crew pass out. Did anybody unable to function after they started pointing the plane down? Could that happen? Yes, but they have oxygen masks that drop down immediately if they have trouble. It's unlikely that that's what would have happened here, and still produce that steady flight to the ground -- John.

BERMAN: What about the idea that there was a problem and the pilots reacted to whatever was going on too late?

FOREMAN: Yes. Now, let's see you had a serious problem and they thought, we can deal with this, we just need a little bit of time. That fits the model that we've been talking about here so often, all day long, we've talked to pilots and we've talked to aviation analysts and crash investigators who have said, look at the pattern of this descent down to the ground. They say it's so uniform and the speed stayed between 500 and 400 miles an hour. It looks like this was being done on purpose, some effort to deal with a problem.

But if that's the case, John -- let's go to the big map again here on the floor -- if they knew they had a problem they were trying to get down, then why didn't they go to one of the many airports available to them really fairly close, and they would have had a chance?

[16:20:07] But no effort of trying to turn, nothing like that, John.

BERMAN: So, it does beg the question -- is it possible, Tom, that there was a problem and they simply didn't know?

FOREMAN: This sounds like a crazy idea, but it absolutely is possible, John. In a cockpit, they have to rely on their instrumentation. So, if you have, for example, some equipment that is giving you a wrong sense of your air speed, like a frozen pitot tube which we talked about, something that's giving you a wrong indication of how high you are in the air, or you simply become so fixated on one thing that you're not paying attention, the truth is this plane could be making its way to the ground and when you hear the alarms and you see the mountains coming towards you, it is simply too late to do anything about it.

It sounds impossible, but that sort of thing has happened before, John.

BERMAN: These are the questions. With the flight recorders in hand, perhaps we'll get some answers fairly quickly.

Tom Foreman, thanks so much.

FOREMAN: You're welcome.

BERMAN: I want to bring in our panel to discuss these possibilities.

David Soucie is a CNN safety analyst, a former FAA inspector and author of "Why Planes Crash", and Les Abend is a CNN aviation analyst and former airline pilot.

David, let me start with you, Tom Foreman laid out some scenarios there. Based on what you've seen so far today, do any of you jump out to you as the most likely?

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: I see the third one does. And it's happened before, as Tom had mentioned. An L-1011 crashed into Dallas with similar circumstances when they were ultra focused on the landing gear lights. Apparently, the landing gear wasn't coming down properly, all three members that were in the cockpit focused all their attention on that and just simply literally didn't see the plane had come off autopilot and wasn't holding its altitude longer and fell short of the runway.

Now, in this scenario, it's highly unlikely, but what we have to look at is this controlled descent. It's almost as if the autopilot had been set at that altitude and this aircraft made that descent because the airspeed, to maintain the air speed at that particular speed, as closely as they did during this entire descent, takes a concentrated effort or the autopilot was engaged to drive it to that point.

BERMAN: Fourteen thousand feet, descended 14,000 feet between six and eight minutes at a consistent speed, at a consistent pitch. That's what David Soucie was talking about right there.

And, Les, that six to eight minutes that it was going down in that descent, no contact from the pilots to ground control to say, hey, something's wrong there. Six to eight minutes seems possibly like a long enough time to say something if you did think there was a problem.

LES ABEND, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Yes, this is the disturbing part of this whole scenario, is that it seemed if indeed they were in a controlled descent, and believe me that is a fair amount of time to descend. It's not an unusual rate of descent. It's a descent that indicates to me that some sort of problem to me on board and they were attempting to rectify it through check lists.

But the fact that they're in a very sophisticated area of radar control, I've flown out of Barcelona. You're constantly talking to air traffic control. The fact they didn't even have a chance to get out one mayday signal -- if indeed that's correct because we don't have all the data from air traffic control at this point in time as far as the transmissions between ATC and the pilots, but I would like to know what was happening between the time in the last contact and what the tone of the voice of the crew that was talking on the radio.

But it all seems to me this aircraft was under control from the pilots' standpoint or from the autopilot.

BERMAN: David, you've had a chance to look at the debris field, that pictures we have all here, that very small pieces strewn about a four- acre area, one investigator said the plane was completely obliterated.

Have you been able to make any judgments based on what you've seen either by the size of the pieces or the wreckage that you could spot?

SOUCIE: Well, it looks like there was two scatter points, we call them scatter points because that's the point at which it hits the ground and the airplane breaks up. It appears to be two scatter points which suggests no in-flight breakup or any kind of failure structurally on the aircraft before it hit the ground.

But it hit one ridge probably separated into two pieces at that point. But it happened so incredibly fast that no one on board would have been cognizant of what was happening at all. It just would have happened incredibly abruptly fasts, but then a matter of tenths of seconds, from the time it hit first and the second part.

Remember, this is a pressurized aircraft. It's basically a solid cell or capsule. So when it does hit the ground, it literally explodes and comes back upon itself. Anything that's in the front comes back upon itself. And that creates collisions with debris coming back away from the dirt, away from the ground and the debris still continuing to come forward.

[16:25:06] So, that's why it's so dramatic and why there are so many small pieces. I hate to be so graphic because I know there's families watching that probably don't want to hear this, but in my experience in the past, families are appreciative of being able to hear, or at least understand what the family member may have been going through.

But the difficult part now is walking this scene and actually seeing the devastation that's in front of you. It's something that I'll certainly never forget.

BERMAN: Yes, it's a very difficult thing, difficult to get there, and then once we are there, the terror and the horror of seeing it all.

Les, the White House put out a statement very early today saying that they did not think there was any kind of obvious terror link. How can they be so sure so fast? And does that rule out the possibility of a pilot doing something, a pilot suicide? We have seen that before.

Look, I'm not saying it is, but how do you rule it out so quickly?

ABEND: Listen, we can't rule out anything, John, certainly, it just from the limited data we have with reference to altitude, rate of descent, the speed, the change in speed, it just seems to me that it wasn't a terrorist event. There's nothing that seems to have indicated that situation. I would believe the White House probably would have done a little research prior to making that statement with reference to the passengers that were on board.

Barcelona is a very secure airport, not saying that systems aren't flawed, but I really don't see this as a terrorist even event. I see it as something catastrophic happened in the cockpit that these folks, the crew members got distracted with, but potentially trying to handle the emergency and they conflicted with the terrain, to use a terminology.

BERMAN: Les Abend, David Soucie, thanks so much for your help. Your expertise so key in helping understand what's going on. Appreciate it.

Coming up, families right now waiting for official word on their loved ones, including 16 teenage students, 16 students and their teachers, also at least two babies. We have new details on the victims of this terrible crash.

And presidential contender Ted Cruz is about to lose his health insurance. So, guess what? He's signing up for Obamacare. And this is the same guy who pledged to kill the president's health care plan if he wins the White House.