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White House Spokesman Joe Lockhart Holds Press Briefing on Hijacked Cuban Plane Down in International Waters

Aired September 19, 2000 - 1:22 p.m. ET

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

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Joe Lockhart, White House spokesman, is at the podium briefing reporters on this Cuban hijack, or apparent Cuban hijack, of a plane this morning.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

JOE LOCKHART, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... from Havana air traffic control to FAA in Miami around 10:00 this morning that a Cuban domestic flight had been hijacked and was in international airspace. At that point, FAA informed DOT. And all other relevant law enforcement airport officials and the Pentagon were notified.

At this point, the Coast Guard has launched or diverted three boats to the scene. The U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat Monhegan is arriving on the scene now, along with U.S. Coast Guard Falcon jet. There are three HH-65 helicopters that will be on the way shortly, and another patrol boat, the Nantucket, is en route. The Coast Guard cutter The Courageous is also on the way, and a C-130 has been dispatched to the scene.

As is custom in cases like this, F-16s and F-16 -- 16s were launched, although they never picked up the plane on radar. AWACS are now being deployed in the area, looking for a signal or a beacon from the downed aircraft.

All this information is incomplete, as is, I think, the story is unfolding, but we did -- wanted to bring you up to date on what we knew.

Other questions? Yes.

QUESTION: I know security was very tight around the Blair House and Secret Service did a great job. But despite all that, a man was found in the prime minister's bedroom. He was arrested and the case is now...

WATERS: They're onto another subject, apparently. We're waiting for questions, perhaps.

But as Joe Lockhart said, the information is incomplete. That's what Carl Rochelle has been telling you from Washington.

We did hear Joe Lockhart say, Carl, that they were looking for a beacon or a possible beacon. Do we know if there is a beacon on a plane like that?

CARL ROCHELLE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that is a -- and here, again, that's a floating question. And the reason why is if it was a U.S. aircraft, yes, there would absolutely be a beacon on board because U.S. regulations require what's known as an ELT for emergency locator transmitter to be on board all of the aircraft that are involved in almost any kind of operation.

And that emergency locator beacon is triggered by the G-forces of a crash, or you can turn it on yourself. If you made a safe landing, you can reach over and flip the switch and it would go on. And it sends out something that sounds -- the FAA describes it as a down- swept tone, something that goes, whoop, like that. And it repeats that particular signal on 121 1/2 megacycles or kilohertz or megahertz, and on 243 megahertz, so that it can be received by both military aircraft and civilian aircraft -- and a frequency that is routinely monitored by airlines and military aircraft.

So if they had one on board, yes. But I'm not sure that Cuban civil aviation authorities require an emergency locator transmitter beacon on board that aircraft.

The interesting thing is, Lou -- there are a lot of things we don't know, but what we do know is that the Havana air traffic controllers did, in fact, contact the U.S. air traffic controllers in Miami this morning about 8:45 to tell them that an AN-2 Antonov aircraft had left their air space and was reported to be hijacked heading in a northwesterly to westerly direction, generally in the direction of the United States.

That information came from the Cuban air traffic control authorities. That's where the original figure that we were given of 16 passengers on board. There have been some assumptions made that that was 16 plus a crew of two, which would give you 18. Beyond that, the data is sort of fuzzy in there: What particular model of the AN- 2, what was the configuration of it? We have heard that it was a float plane. We have also heard that it was an agriculture spray plane, which would mean it wouldn't have floats, if that was the use of it. We've heard that it was a plane that the Agriculture Department used to ferry people around Cuba.

So depending on which one of the three configurations we have there, it can carry up to 20 people. It is a single-engine biplane. It is something that is a staple of the Russian area. That's what they use to ferry a lot of people around, and of course in a number of client states. Cuba being a client state of Russia at one point, of the old Soviet Union, had some of these aircraft. Don't know how many.

But it is a workhorse. It's a fairly simple aircraft in the sense of it isn't fancy like a jet airplane, doesn't have a lot of fancy stuff on board. It is -- it has an engine, it has a couple of wings and a lot of capacity and a lot of carrying capacity. But beyond that, we don't know: Disappeared off the radar scope. The Coast Guard did fly their Falcon jet over the area of it. The Falcon is a small business-class jet that the Coast Guard has that flew over the area, did not see any sign of wreckage nor of the aircraft.

What does that mean? Well, one thing it means is that the aircraft could have descended below the area, below the altitude in which the Cuban radar could have seen them, and at that point continued on for one mile, five miles, 10 miles, 20 miles, and ultimately went down at sea and may still be around there somewhere. It could have gone down in another area. It could have turned back. There are a lot of possibilities out there.

The Coast Guard isn't willing to say right now that the airplane crashed until they actually know what the disposition of the aircraft is. But as of the last point, they had seen no wreckage, no oil slick on the water and no sign of the aircraft and no word from the people on board. It never did show up on radar screens in the United States and it did not make an attempt to contact the -- well, perhaps. I hesitate to say it didn't make an attempt to contact U.S. authorities by communications, but there were no communications received by U.S. authorities from this particular aircraft, whether they were trying to call or not.

So unclear a lot of things out there. But the word did come from the Havana controllers this morning that the airplane had been hijacked and was headed in the direction of the United States, Lou.

WATERS: All right, Carl Rochelle, we'll be getting back to you.

And as Joe Lockhart reiterated, the Coast Guard is firming up their search-and-rescue operation. I spoke with a petty officer from the Coast Guard a short while ago. They're searching a second location where the plane may have gone down. There are three Coast Guard cutters on the scene, three large helicopters are about to be dispatched, there are two more patrol boats headed in that direction, a C-130 has been employed. So they are going full out trying to locate this wreckage.

The main order of the day: save lives, says the Coast Guard.

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