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Army Officials Give Update on Blackhawk Helicopter Crash; Russia Arrests American Journalist, Accuses Him of Espionage; . Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired March 30, 2023 - 10:00   ET




JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Top of the hour this Thursday. I'm Jim Sciutto.

JESSICA DEAN, CNN ANCHOR: Great to be with you, Jim. Hi, everyone. I'm Jessica Dean.

And any moment now, officials at Fort Campbell in Kentucky will be giving everyone an update after two Blackhawk helicopters collided overnight, killing nine U.S. service members. That is according to an Army official. We're standing by for that, and we'll bring it to you live as soon as it happens.

SCIUTTO: Yes, the governor among those who will speak there.

Plus, Russia has now arrested an American journalist, it says, on suspicion of espionage. Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, detained in a small town east of Moscow. The Wall Street Journal strongly defending their reporter, the Kremlin says, he was caught red handed, refuses to offer any details. Their track record on this kind of thing begs a lot of questions. We're going to have details ahead.

DEAN: We begin this hour, though, with that tragedy in Kentucky. Again, we're waiting for that press conference to begin at any moment.

But, first, CNN Pentagon Correspondent Oren Liebermann joining us with more. Oren, what are you learning this morning?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The latest update we got from a U.S. Army official was that nine service members were killed when these two HH-60 Blackhawk helicopters crashed. We're trying to learn more details about what the crash exactly was, whether it was a collision with each other, a collision with some other object. Those are the key questions right now, and perhaps some of those will be answered in just a few moments when we expect a press conference to start now.

DEAN: All right. It sounds like that's starting now. So, let's listen in. BRIG. GEN. JOHN LUBAS, DEPUTY COMMANDER FOR OPERATIONS, 101ST AIRBORNE DIVISION: The army has deployed an aircraft safety team from Fort Rucker, Alabama, who will arrive later today and will immediately initiate an investigation to help us understand what caused this crash in order to prevent accidents like this from happening again. This is a truly tragic loss for our families, our division and Fort Campbell. And our number one priority is caring for the families and the soldiers within our combat aviation brigade.

Our entire Fort Campbell community is surging resources and support, and our thoughts and prayers are with these families and these soldiers during this difficult time.

Ladies and gentlemen, Governor Beshear would like to deliver some short remarks.

GOV. ANDY BESHEAR (D-KY): Good morning. Today is a tough and a tragic day for Kentucky, for the Four Campbell and for the 101st. The nine individuals we lost our children of God. They will be mourned and missed by their families, by their communities.

We are blessed to live in the freest country in the history of planet Earth, but we must remember but that freedom relies on those who are willing to serve, some of which pay the ultimate price.

You know a lot about loss in Kentucky, especially these last three years. We're going to do what we always do. We're going to wrap our arms around these families and we're going to be there with them, not just for the days but the weeks and the months and the years to come. We're going to let them know that they are loved, they are special. And if they'll allow us to carry some of their grief, we'll do that for as long as we can. My faith teaches me that while the body is mortal, soul is eternal, and we will see them again.

This morning, I talked to Governor Bill Lee, who expressed history for this loss and his similar commitment to these families. There are no state lines when it comes to taking care of these families and helping them with their grief.

Finally, I also want to thank the first responders who came from the entire region there on the ground immediately after this incident, doing everything that they could. The first responders included the Kentucky State Police, Trigg County Emergency Management, Trigg and Christian County Sheriff's Offices, Trigg and Marshal County Rescue Squads, East Golden Pond and Other Trigg County Fire Departments, Trigg County EMS and the Christian County Emergency Management.


Listen, here in Kentucky and I know in Tennessee, we love Fort Campbell. We love all the people that live here and work here. They are part of our community of who we are. They're loss today is our loss, and we're going to stand with both those that are here today and, again, we're going to make sure that these families know that they are loved and they are not alone. Thank you.

LUBAS: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm prepared to answer your questions.

Yes, ma'am.

REPORTER: What did this training entail?

LUBAS: Yes ma'am. This is a training progression, and, specifically, they were flying a multi ship formation, two ships under night vision goggles at night.

Yes, sir.

REPORTER: Michael Ward with Channel 4 out of Nashville. For folks unfamiliar with the training exercises, is it typical to have that many people on the helicopter? Was it five and four or how many were on each helicopter? Is it typical to have that many on a helicopter and that sort of training exercise?

LUBAS: Yes, sir. It was five and four, and it is fairly typical. There's a pilot, a co-pilot, a crew chief, and then often you'll have medics or other personnel on the aircraft as well.

Yes, ma'am.


LUBAS: We have a safety team coming from Fort Rucker, Alabama, who specialize in aircraft safety and specifically these investigations. We hope to have them on the ground sometime later today. And they're bringing a very diverse and talented team that will look at every possible contributing factor. And I think in a short time, we will have a much better understanding of what may have contributed to the to this accident.

Yes, ma'am.


LUBAS: Yes ma'am, thank you. They were all based at Fort Campbell in the 101st Airborne Division.

Yes, ma'am.

REPORTER: I wanted to know a little bit more about the helicopters that were (INAUDIBLE). Can you just give us a little bit of (INAUDIBLE) on what they are for and what they do?

LUBAS: Yes, ma'am. They are a variant of the Blackhawk. And these specific aircraft were medical evacuation aircraft. However, we believe that they were -- the action occurred when they were doing flying, not deliberate medical of actual evacuation drills. Correct.

Yes, ma'am.


LUBAS: At this point, we don't know. We're hopeful that when we get the team from Fort Rucker here, and they're able to pull some of the data out of the on board computers that we will have a better understanding of exactly what happened.

Yes, ma'am.


LUBAS: No, ma'am.

Yes, ma'am.


LUBAS: Yes ma'am. Despite our losses, we were lucky because they're able to land in an open field across from a residential area. So, thankfully, there were no additional casualties or injuries as a result of the aircraft crash.

Yes sir.

REPORTER: Jerry (ph) ABC on Nashville. Are these helicopters you talked about getting data from (INAUDIBLE), are they equipment like a black box like we hear with passenger planes go down or is it for this computer-type instruments (INAUDIBLE)?

LUBAS: Yes, sir, they do have something very similar to the black boxes that we see on the larger aircraft. And we're hopeful that that will provide quite a bit of information of what occurred.

Yes, ma'am.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE)? When would you expect to reach out to the families (INAUDIBLE)?

LUBAS: Yes ma'am. We started next of kin notification early this morning. We have some family members that are in the local area that we were able to contact fairly quickly, but we also have some family members across the United States and a few outside of the United States.

So, that process is ongoing.


We're doing everything we can to notify families as quickly as we can. But I don't have a good estimation on when the final notifications will occur.

Yes, ma'am -- sir.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) of KTC. Have you any had any sort of an estimate as to the rapid response time that's been talked about a lot in an average time with which Fort Campbell and Trigg County and Christian County were able to respond?

LUBAS: Yes. I don't have an actual response time but I will tell you that we know that they responded incredibly quickly and immediately established communication with our leadership here at Fort Campbell. And then, jointly, we were able to secure that location and get the right folks there to start helping at the site.

Yes, ma'am.

REPORTER: Were there any transports to medical facilities nearby or (INAUDIBLE)?

LUBAS: No, ma'am, there were no transports off the crash site.

Yes, sir.

REPORTER: How was the folks made aware of the crash? Where they being monitored by radar? Was there radio communication, or was it people in the area that called 911?

LUBAS: Yes, we had other aircraft in the vicinity, so we were actually notified via multiple means. One was by the Trigg County. First responders was one of the calls. And then we also had aircraft that were able to quickly move to that location and actually stayed overhead for quite some time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'll take two more questions.

Yes ma'am.

REPORTER: (INAUDIBLE) in Nashville. When, to your knowledge, or ever did something like this happened here at Fort Campbell during a training exercise.

LUBAS: That, I will have to follow up with you. I'm not sure of the actual date of the last accident, especially to this extent, but I can follow up with you after this with an answer.

Yes, ma'am.

REPORTER: Going forward, how will you take extra safety precautions to ensure that this doesn't happen again?

LUBAS: Yes, that's a great question. Everything we do, safety is integrated into this. And for context, when we do any training, but especially aviation training, they do very, very detailed planning, very detailed rehearsals. Depending on the risk of the operation, they're doing has different levels of approval from the command. So, we will always relook our safety precautions in our measures. But this was like all of these training events, safety is a primary focus for us.

Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you all for attending. This concludes the press conference. You'll be able to find a press kit with the Q.R. code you're provided. If you didn't get one, I will provide one to you. DEAN: And, again, you were getting an update there on that helicopter crash, what they called a truly tragic loss. We know that nine service members were killed. They were flying two Blackhawk helicopters, five soldiers in one, four in the other. Getting more details, it was -- it happened at night. They were using night vision.

I want to bring in CNN's Oren Liebermann, who is still with us from the pentagon, CNN Military Analyst Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, former Commanding General for the U.S. Army Europe and Seventh Army. Great to have you both with us.

Oren, let's start first with you. Walk us through what we've learned now about the training and what was going on when this collision, this crash happened.

LIEBERMANN: This crash of these two HH-60 Blackhawk helicopters happened last night as part of a training exercise, we learned from Brigadier General John Lubas there. He is the deputy commander for operations for the 101st Airborne Division, and he gave us some more information about what was happening here.

As you pointed out, there were five soldiers on board, one of the helicopters, four on board the other, and he said, that's typical in terms of the crew that would be on board these Blackhawk helicopters that are specific variant of the Blackhawk for medical evacuations. In terms of the crew, that would be a pilot, a co-pilot, a crew chief, as well as some medics onboard the Blackhawks themselves when the crash occurred.

Now it's unclear what the circumstances were that led to the crash, whether it was a collision between these two helicopters that were flying in a two-ship formation, whether they collided with something else at low altitude or whether it was some other circumstance that led to these crashes that killed the nine service members on board the helicopters. There were no survivors. We learned a short time before the press conference, according to a U.S. army official.

He did say he hopes that we learn more soon because there will be an investigative team or investigations team coming from Fort Rucker, Alabama, that he hopes will arrive in a short time, that they will be able to look at some of the data on board from the helicopters themselves. He said those are similar to black boxes, what we would look at from a civilian aircraft crash, which would be something like a cockpit voice recorder and a flight data recorder. And he was looking to those who give some more information about the circumstances that led to the crash or the moments before the crash.

He said, emergency responders -- actually, it was Governor Andy Beshear who said emergency responders from a number of different services and a number of different areas near Fort Campbell in Kentucky, right by the Kentucky/Tennessee line, arrived on scene very quickly after the crash.


But at that point, because of the circumstances of the crash, as we learned again, nine service members killed in the crash, nine soldiers, members of the 101st Airborne Division, there were no survivors. And now, the question what happened that led to this and, of course, the efforts on the part of the army to reach out to the family members of those who were killed here. Jim and Jessica?

SCIUTTO: We have our Dianne Gallagher in Fort Campbell. We also have General Mark Hertling, who has, of course, served for many years and flew many times in Blackhawk helicopters. Mark, General Hertling, given your experience here, a couple of points. One, the fact that a medevac helicopter was part of this, what does that tell us and just the danger as well of nighttime operations, even during exercises.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, a couple of things, Jim, and Oren summed it up very well, on a Blackhawk, there are always two pilots, a pilot and a co-pilot, and there are always two crew chiefs both on the left and right doors.

So, one helicopter had their crew. The other one had an additional passenger, more than likely a medic in the back. HH helicopters have -- the medevac helicopters, the ones with the big red cross on the side, are there to evacuate wounded soldiers. So, they were training in evacuation.

And when you had that one other soldier in the back, more than likely a medic, but in the back of those HH helicopters, there are cassettes that you can load up litters, that you put wounded soldiers onto and carry them away from the battlefield.

The other thing that I'd point out that this is all happening at night. U.S. Army trains continuously at night, but that's a challenge for aviators. They have to do it. But when you're talking about night vision goggles when you're flying an aircraft, and I'll demonstrate, pardon me for this, but you have to goggles like this in front of your face and that's where you can see using the illumination from whatever is out there, stars, moonlight.

Last night, I looked it up. The moon rose at noon yesterday. It set at 3 59 this morning, so they had good moonlight, about 50 percent illumination from moon illumination last night, and that helps see with night vision goggles. The problem is, it's a limited scope of being able to see because you're literally reduced to the two soda straws of your binoculars.

The other thing I would say, you know, they're going to look through what might have happened. As Oren said also, it could have been a wire strike. The aircraft could have hit each other. They could have -- you know, their tail rotor could have hit a tree as they were coming off the landing zone or going into the landing zone. That's why General Lubas said that they were going to bring in experts. There's a safety center at Fort Rucker, Alabama, that immediately sends out teams to investigate these kinds of crashes.

The last point I'd make well -- well, two more, if I may, Jim, General Lubas, I don't know him, but when he stepped away from the podium, I noticed he had 201st patches on his left and his right sleeve. That means he's been to combat with this unit. He knows the capabilities of this air assault unit with helicopters, and he mentioned how much planning goes into any kind of helicopter operations. That's critical to understand.

The last point I'd make is, you know, the majority of U.S. army soldiers today are married, more than 60 percent are married. So, when you're talking about the notification of next to kin, you have to go to both, you know, potentially wives and children, spouses and children as well as family members.

SCIUTTO: Yes, that's a good point.

DEAN: That's a great point, and so much context there. And, again, just to remind everybody, we were told in that press conference that they are in the process of notifying next of kin, that they're spread out not just in that general area but across the country and the world.

I want to go to Dianne Gallagher, who's on the ground there. Dianne, what more are you learning about the recovery and response effort there?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, General Hertling mentioned that the safety team coming in from Fort Rucker will be here. They're going to sort of put that together and asking, trying to get to the scene or anything like that. I was told it would be several hours before we would be able to get closer to the scene there in Trigg County.

And, look, Trigg County is a rural Kentucky county, but part of Fort Campbell actually is within that county. It's a sprawling installation that straddles the Tennessee and Kentucky line. I lived here as a kid. I'm an Army brat. This is their service members and their families who live out in Trigg County. It's rural.

And according to Kentucky State Police, where this crash happened was a field in a wooded area and there were no other civilian injuries, casualties impact whatsoever. There were plenty of witnesses, though, who described hearing a pop and then the helicopters crashing.


I do think that it's important that Brigadier General Lubas said that they were flying, they believe, when this happened, that they do not believe that there was something else going on. They do believe that they were flying when this happened, noting again that this was a multi ship formation under night vision goggles.

Mentioning, Jessica, the fact that they are still working to notify next of kin, the fact that some of them are outside of the United States or across the country here, trying to make sure that they do that, they said, before they have any sort of identification is released of these members of the 101st.

It was a planned training flight. This is something they said. A lot goes into this. They work to do this. The governor, Andy Beshear, coming out here and speaking, he got here this morning. He was initially one of the first confirmed there were, in fact, a fatalities in this crash soon after 101st doing the same. Again, all nine members of those two Blackhawk helicopters died in this crash just before around 10:00 P.M. Central Times, so 11:00 P.M. Eastern Time.

They also noted that there was no sort of radioing. There was no signal or call for help before this happened. There was no notification to anybody back here at the post or any sort of anybody else to let them know that perhaps something was going wrong.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Well, General Hertling made the point in night vision goggles, your field of vision is limited. We'll see if that was a factor here. Dianne Gallagher, Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, thanks so much to both of you.

DEAN: And let's turn now to an alarming headline out of Russia this morning. American Journalist Evan Gershkovich is right now in Russian custody after The Wall Street Journal reporter, who is based in Moscow, was arrested on suspicion of espionage.

SCIUTTO: CNN's Jeremy Diamond standing by at the White House. First, we go to CNN Senior International Correspondent Matthew Chance, who is in Moscow. I wonder, Matthew, how Russian authorities are describing this at this point.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're absolutely kind of committed to the idea that this individual, Evan Gershkovich, 32-year-old reporter for The Wall Street Journal, was not -- was up to no good. The foreign ministry saying that he -- whatever he was doing in Yekaterinburg, the Russian city, 1,100 miles or so from Moscow, it was nothing to do with journalism.

Within the past hour or so, a court in Moscow, where he's been arraigned, has designated his case top secret. It's revealed in a press statement that Gershkvocih has denied guilt. He hasn't accepted that he is guilty of espionage. And so they've remanded him in custody in a pretrial detention center. We don't know exactly where, but probably here in Moscow, for nearly two months, until May, the 29th. And so that may well be the next time we catch a glimpse of this 32- year-old American citizen.

There's been a brief media scrum outside the courthouse where that decision was handed down. The lawyer who has been designated dated to defend Evan Gershkovich came out and said, look, I wasn't even permitted access to the case. I haven't even been allowed to take part in the process. And so that does not bode well for the prospects of this young Wall Street Journal reporter who now faces these very serious charges, which, remember, carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in a Russian jail.

DEAN: All right. Matthew, thank you for that reporting.

I want to go now to Jeremy Diamond at the White House. Jeremy, The Wall Street Journal, which employs him, released a statement saying The Wall Street Journal is deeply concerned for the safety of Mr. Gershkovich. What more are U.S. officials in the White House saying this morning, Jeremy? JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Jessica. And The Wall Street Journal also said that they have vehemently deny any of these spying charges that are being leveled against their reporter. The White House has yet to release a formal statement on this matter. But what I can tell you is that White House officials and State Department officials have been working to gather information about his arrest.

The State Department actually began tracking this matter yesterday before news of his detention and ultimate arrest actually became public. This is obviously going -- comes at a time of severe tensions between the United States and Russia over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and this is going to be yet another facet of the diplomatic tensions between these two countries.

And you can expect that this is going to be at the very top of President Biden's intelligence briefing this morning and going to become a top priority for this White House, which we have seen in the past when Americans are detained, that they do work with governments, with actors, third party actors as well as individuals, families, to try and secure their release, but a very concerning situation that's going to become a top priority here at the White House today.


SCIUTTO: We should note, Russia's track record on this does not inspire confidence. They often trump up charges. We had Adam Schiff on in the last hour describing him, in effect, as a hostage, and the trouble, of course, they can often be an attention for years.

Ongoing negotiations for the release of Paul Whelan, also accused of espionage, how does this factor into those efforts?

DIAMOND: Yes, that's right. And you'll recall, Jim, that you know the U.S. tried to secure Paul Whelan's released alongside the release of Brittney Griner back in December. Griner was released in a prisoner swap in exchange for the Russian -- convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Russia, though, would only accept a one-for-one swap rather than the two for one that the U.S. had originally proposed.

And so this now further complicates matters as it relates to efforts to secure Paul Whelan's release, because now you, once again, following a situation where there are two Americans who have been accused of spying, one, Paul Whelan, who was already convicted to 16 years in prison, and now Evan Gerhskovich, who faces similar charges.

And we know that when you see the Kremlin already coming out and saying that they believe that they have caught this reporter, quote/unquote, red handed, that significantly decreases the possibility of this being ruled some kind of misunderstanding. Instead, it appears that this is following Russia's playbook of using Americans imprisoned on trumped up charges as bargaining chips. Jim?

DEAN: As you said, Jim, they don't have a great track record on this. Jeremy Diamond at the White House for us, thanks so much for that reporting. Still to come this morning, nothing to hide, that's what former Vice President Mike Pence insists after a judge ruled he must testify in the January 6th probe. But will he appeal the ruling?

SCIUTTO: A newly released dispatch call reveals a former classmate of the Nashville shooter tried to get someone to check on them after receiving a concerning message via Instagram, a dispatcher said they could not send anyone. We'll explain why, coming up.