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CNN WOLF BLITZER REPORTS

American Airlines Flight 587 Crashes Into Queens Neighborhood After JFK Takeoff

Aired November 12, 2001 - 17:00   ET

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


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Today on WOLF BLITZER REPORTS: the crash of American Airlines Flight 587.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I looked out the window and there was the plane, going down. Nose first, belly facing us, going straight down.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Those who live at the site of New York City's latest disaster are no strangers to tragedy.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If September 11th was an earthquake in this neighborhood, this has been a terrible aftershock.

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BLITZER: We'll get accounts from eyewitnesses.

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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was like a sonic boom or something. It was very loud, and it was very close. That's why we turned and looked, because the sound was so close. So we turned and we saw it come down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I saw fire under the left side of the engine. And then debris started falling from plane.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Was this an accident, or something else?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We have not ruled anything in, we have not ruled anything out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

Within the past 30 minutes we've received these pictures. You clearly see the tail section of American Airlines flight 587 being lifted out of Jamaica Bay.

Nearly eight hours later, officials say they do not know the reason an American Airlines Airbus crashed today in New York City, with massive loss of life. The federal government says all the information at hand points to an accident, not an act of terrorism. American Airlines flight 587 crashed in a residential section of Queens, just minutes after takeoff from Kennedy Airport.

On board were 255 passengers and crew. All are presumed dead. Fire from the crash engulfed a number of homes, destroying four and doing lesser damage to more than a dozen. About 15 people were hurt, but as of right now, there are no reports of deaths among the people on the ground.

Flight 587 was bound for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. It departed Kennedy Airport behind schedule at 9:13 a.m. At 9:17, air traffic controllers lost contact with the Airbus A-300, which crossed Jamaica Bay and crashed into the thin peninsula known as the Rockaways.

An engine detached from the rest of the craft and landed at a gas station. Several witnesses said they believed they heard an explosion before the plane broke apart. Other witnesses are quoted as saying the plane appeared to be straining to climb, just before it plunged to the ground.

President Bush, who met this afternoon with Former South African President Nelson Mandela, received word of the crash within 10 minutes this morning, during a meeting of the National Security Council. This afternoon, the president expressed condolences.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The New York people have suffered mightily. They suffer again. But there is no doubt in my mind that the New Yorkers are resilient and strong and courageous people, and will help their neighbors overcome this recent incident that took place. May God bless the victims and their families.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Initially, federal officials discussed shutting down the commercial air system, but decided against it. The crash investigation is being led by the National Transportation Safety Board, with assistance from the FBI. Of the 255 people on board the tragic flight, about 150 are believed to have been Dominicans.

Before we continue, there's been a stunning turn in the events in America's new war on the ground in Afghanistan. Backed by United States air support, anti-Taliban rebels have now captured half of Afghanistan's major cities in a matter of three days. The latest to fall: the city of Herat in the west. Unclear is whether rebel forces massing outside Kabul, the capital, will attack anytime soon. A Northern Alliance spokesman says the rebels will not attack Kabul soon. We'll have much more on this later in this program.

First, though, the crash today of American Airlines flight 587. To begin our coverage, let's go live to CNN's Jason Carroll. He's near the site of the crash in Queens.

Jason, give us the latest, please.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I can tell you that the acrid smell and the smoke are gone, but the emergency crews are still here. So far, they've recovered some 161 bodies from the site of the crash. Mayor Giuliani saying that six people are missing from this section of Queens.

The mayor also committed the fire department for quickly extinguishing the fire, putting things out. He says no definite conclusion, in terms of a cause of this crash. We've been talking to witnesses all day long, ever since early this morning, and they tell us: first, they heard some sort of a loud sound. One woman described it, she said it sounded like a sonic boom.

This section of Queens is located not far from JFK airport, about 5 miles. One woman saying she thought at first perhaps it was a sonic boom coming from a Concorde. But then another witness saying that after he heard the loud noise, he knew something was wrong because the noise was so loud. He said that it literally shook is homes, shook the windows, shook the plates.

When they went outside to see what had happened, they said they saw a plane in the sky. It appeared as if it was on fire. It split into several sections and then crashed into the neighborhood.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was absolutely nothing that one could do. Homes were engulfed in flames. The smoke was black and very thick and choking. And the lines were popping. The utilities were exploding. Very few if any police at first, because it just happened right after. I just, servicing an account, and I just jumped into the car, figuring maybe I could help. But there was nothing I could possibly do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CARROLL: Right now you should be looking at video that the Coast Guard released just about hour ago. What you're seeing is some of what they recovered from Jamaica Bay. They recovered several pieces of the plane, including what appears to be the tail section of the plane. Also, we're told parts of the wing may have been recovered there as well.

Earlier this afternoon during a press conference, Governor Pataki said that the pilot may have dumped much of his fuel into Jamaica Bay, and that may give a hint to what had happened here. Perhaps, he says, it may have been mechanical failure.

Mayor Giuliani also speaking at a press conference today. He was saying that because the plane nose dived into the neighborhood, into the homes here, he said that that minimized the damage.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR RUDY GIULIANI (R), NEW YORK: This is a very difficult thing to say, because the consequences so far are catastrophic. The number of people lost in this crash appears like it's going to be even more than TWA flight 800. So I don't mean in any way to minimize this. But it could have been far worse. There are any number of ways this could have been far worse.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CARROLL: The mayor also saying at this point he was unaware of any survivors. We can also tell you, Wolf, that this is a neighborhood that was already in mourning. This is a neighborhood where a number of people had died in the World Trade Center disaster. They were already in mourning, and now they have to deal with this -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jason Carroll in Queens, thank you very much. And as is often the case with stories like this, we rely on those who witnessed the tragedy for much of our early information. Here are some of their observations on this crash.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I heard a loud crackling noise and I looked up. And I saw the left engine coming away from the plane and I saw a lot of debris coming from behind it. It immediately veered over to the right and it came, nose-down, only a block away from where I was working. When it hit, it immediately exploded.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were in the kitchen having coffee, and we heard an explosion. It sounded like the Concorde, the sonic boom. And my wife said to me, "What's that?" And the next thing we know, we felt a shudder and the room just exploded. My daughter got blown through the patio doors. My wife got blown into the living room, and I got blown out the patio doors behind my daughter.

The black smoke, I just started yelling out for my daughter, to see if she was alive. I grabbed her and I ran in, and Eileen was alive in the living room. We ran out of the house and the whole back of the house was on fire.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We heard a huge boom, and I ran out onto my porch, and I saw like a mushroom of black fire. We just ran up the block because everybody was like, "run, run, run!"

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A huge fireball, and I jumped off the second floor of my house. It was horrible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I saw very distinct orange explosion, and I think I saw part of -- or the whole wing fall, and then the airplane just arched directly down into Rockaway, where I live.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I saw the plane like it was taking off from Kennedy in a climbing position. I saw the fire under the left side of the engine. Then suddenly, I saw debris start falling from the plane. Then it looked like the left side engine of the wing, like it separated from the plane.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I hear the plane coming very low, low. I say, "oh, God, I hear the noise." Right away I walk outside, I see smoke.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And this just in: We're now learning from senior defense officials that as soon as that crash was detected, U.S. military authorities scrambled jet fighters around major airfields, airports around the United States. Already some F-15 Eagles were airborne at the time. They were armed. Other combat air patrol were the skies over the United States.

All this was done as a precaution, once again, as first word of the crash of the American Airlines plane was detected. Senior U.S. officials did scramble military fighter jets as a precaution. And this investigation into the crash, of course, is still in its very early stages. But some progress already has been made.

For that, let's go to CNN national correspondent Susan Candiotti. She joins us now live with more -- Susan.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good everything, Wolf.

You know, one of the first things coming to mind after this happened, was this another terrorist attack?

Well, an FBI spokeswoman tells us, quoting here, "we don't have any information to believe it is an act of terrorism." Investigators do say everything is in play here, including mechanical failure. Now, a spokesperson for the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Bob Graham, briefed by intelligence officials, says there is no reason to believe terrorism is involved.

Now, not long ago a very critical piece of information was recovered, and that is the cockpit voice recorder. This of course, very important because it will allow investigators to hear what was going on, moments before that crash. That, just a short time ago, arrive from the crash site in New York back here in Washington.

You see here, NTSB officials having brought that recorder back for analysis. It just now arrived and they'll be going over that bit of information. What they're still looking for is the flight data recorder. This would include information also critical from all of the gauges in the cockpit. It measures the altitude, the rate of climb, wing-flap spoilers, and perhaps most importantly, engine performance.

Now, also something very, very important that we learned not long ago, and that is this: officials in New York say that the pilot dumped fuel in Jamaica Bay. Now, that would appear to indicate that the pilot had some warning of trouble and apparently may have made an attempt to minimize the enormity of what was about to happen by getting rid of fuel.

Now, the NTSB go-team that responds right after every crash is already on the ground in New York. They quickly assembled a group of investigators who have different specialties. They left from Washington, as always, and hit the ground running. They'll be looking at maintenance records, the background of the flight crew, interviewing ground personnel, looking at the passenger manifest. Looking for clues.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARION BLAKEY, NTSB CHAIRWOMAN: We are launching a major launch. We expect to have somewhere between 14 and 18 separate investigative troops. We will have between 60 and 100 people on-site up there for our organizational meeting tonight. And of course, at that point we expect we will know a great deal more about the circumstances.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CANDIOTTI: Now, the NTSB is leading the investigation. The FBI, providing assistance. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms standing by to get involved. And one of the other things they're looking at, Wolf, is to check to see whether there was any fuel contamination. So they'll be looking at all those holding tanks at JFK to see if that might be involved. BLITZER: Just want to alert our viewers that we're looking at live pictures now of that flight voice recorder being removed from Regan National Airport here in D.C. You can see the flight voice recorder being taken now to the NTSB, to go through that, to try to determine more precisely what's going on.

Susan, before we -- as we watched this picture of the flight voice recorder leaving Reagan National Airport in Washington, I just want to make it clear to our viewers. The NTSB is the lead investigative agency, but the FBI is still very much involved in this investigation, right?

CANDIOTTI: That's correct, because no one really knows what's happened here. And in light of everything that's been happening lately, they will leave no stone unturned. They've got so many different things to look at here, so many people to talk to, to investigate. To look at surveillance cameras, for example, at the airport, to talk to ground personnel, really go over that passenger manifest, the list of people were aboard, to try to figure out exactly what happened here.

Was this a horrible mechanical failure, or was it something more? And it is the hope of investigators that they'll be able to perhaps learn more by listening to what the pilots were saying. And perhaps, indeed if that pilot was dumping fuel, maybe that does indicate that this was a mechanical failure.

BLITZER: Susan Candiotti, thank you very much for that.

Let's get some further perspective on the crash. For that, we turn to Peter Goelz, the senior vice president director of Worldwide Crisis Communications. Prior to that, he served as managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Peter, what's your take on this, the fact that he was dumping fuel as of course the plane crashed?

PETER GOELZ, FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: Well, if he was doing that, it means that he had time to set it up to do that. It also could mean that the fuel tanks in the wings had been ruptured and the fuel was just spilling out. So you won't know until you get a look at that flight data recorder. That will tell you conclusively whether he had moved to dump fuel, or whether the fuel just came out of a ruptured tank.

BLITZER: The fact that they now have a flight voice recorder, and presumably have started listening to those tapes, based on your experience, will that be enough to a give good indication whether this was a mechanical problem or some foul play?

GOELZ: Well, it will give you some indication. But oftentimes, the flight crew -- these guys only had a couple of minutes. They were fighting to save this plane. Oftentimes, they don't communicate what's going on in the cockpit. They are fighting hard to save their passengers' lives and to save their plane. You just don't hear a lot. You'll ill hear tones from the engines from the flight control systems, but -- hopefully, it will be helpful, but it may not be.

BLITZER: And the flight data recorder, of course, is a separate box?

GOELZ: Yes, it is, and it monitors upwards of 200 different flight control functions. That's the real critical element in this investigation. You need to get that data downloaded. You need to get a look at it to see exactly what was happening during those final seconds.

BLITZER: We have a picture of this Airbus A-300, and we can put it up on our screen. When you look at it -- you see it right behind you on the monitor -- you look at these two engines. These are huge engines.

GOELZ: That's correct.

BLITZER: When one of those engines, whether this one or this one right here, is to fall off, something has to happen that is catastrophic.

GOELZ: Well, they're designed to fail without the cowlings being breached. If this was a catastrophic failure, in which material was flying out of the engine, that is a very serious event. And it really has implications for all of those kinds of engines that are made.

BLITZER: Is there any history, as far as you know, of the A-300 Airbus having any problems that could have resulted in this?

GOELZ: This has been a pretty safe plane, and it's had a pretty good flight record. All the specific engine has had some problems, but nothing of this magnitude.

BLITZER: Based on what you know -- and obviously, this is very preliminary, and all of the history shows that these initial reports can very often be very wrong -- you're leaning towards assuming this is an accident?

GOELZ: Well, that's what the initial information looks like. But I have to tell you, finding that stabilizer in Jamaica Bay throws a real question mark into this.

BLITZER: Tell us again, why that is.

GOELZ: Because you look towards what comes off the plane first, gives you an indication of what was happening. If you have a piece of the engine that came off first, then you look there. If you have a stabilizer sitting in the bay some quarter of mile away, that throws whole different direction in the investigation.

BLITZER: And presumably, you're suggesting that could be sabotage?

GOELZ: Well, I don't know. I mean, you need to look at it. You need to find out why that piece of stabilizer was sitting in the water. BLITZER: There's been a lot of speculation during the course of this very traumatic day, that birds are a problem at John F. Kennedy Airport. Tell us about that.

GOELZ: Well, they have been. It's next to a wildlife refuge. The runway is just adjacent to it. There was an accident some 22, 24 years ago where an ingested bird caused the plane to crash. It is a concern. And a good-sized bird coming into an engine can cause a lot of damage.

BLITZER: And if we take a look one more time, you need to say, if we go to these two engines over here, this engine or this engine -- as the plane is taking off, it sucks in a big bird, that could cause the plane to go down?

GOELZ: They are supposedly designed to withstand that. Occasionally they do not.

BLITZER: OK, Peter Goelz, thanks for joining us. Appreciate it very much.

GOELZ: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: President Bush was notified within minutes of the crash of American Airlines flight 587. CNN senior White House correspondent, of course, is John King, and he's covering that angle of the story -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, at this hour tonight, senior administration officials telling us their preliminary belief is that this is an accident, and they are investigating it as such. That is why the National Transportation Safety Board is the lead agency. But the administration also saying it can rule nothing in and nothing out, and that the president is awaiting more information from the investigative team on the scene in New York.

You can only imagine the sense of anxiety and urgency here at the White House. Mr. Bush was in his morning National Security Council meeting, receiving an update on the military developments in the war in Afghanistan, when a military officer from the White House situation room walked into the room, slipped the president a note. As you noted, it was just moments after that plane went down in New York.

The president later in the day met with Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa. The two leaders came out into the Rose Garden after their meeting in the Oval Office. The president recounted how, just two months after the tragic terrorist attacks in New York and here at the Pentagon, he found himself once again on the phone with voices on the other end quite familiar.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: It is heartbreaking to pick up the phone and call my friend Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki, and once again express our condolences. And at the same time, assure the people in New York that our federal government will respond as quickly as possible. we set our FEMA teams over, the FBI is over there. And this investigation is being led by the National Transportation Safety Board, to make sure the facts are fully known to the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Mr. Bush declining to take any questions. One reporter shouted out a question, "sir, any reason to rule in or out terrorism?" Mr. Bush would not answer. Officials say he will not because of the cautious approach they want to take here. They realize anything the president says could add to the anxiety of an already nervous nation.

But we should stress, tonight administration officials say the preliminary findings are they believe that this was an accident. They still say, thought, that they cannot rule anything in or out.

At one point this morning, Wolf, it was before the White House, the decision: should the president order a shutdown nationwide of airport system? The FAA, in the end, in Conjunction with the White House, decided not to do that. Again, that because of an early belief that this is not terrorism -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John, but of course having said that, I'm sure the officials at the White House are very concerned this will have another psychologically damaging impact an Americans, especially as the travel season begins, Thanksgiving, Christmas, people getting ready to fly as usual. This is going to set back that effort to get the country's economy, in effect, back on track.

KING: It certainly will. The psychological effect could be devastating. It was just the other day, Wolf, the president had an announcement here at the White House, announcing -- he was asking governors to send more National Guard troops to airports around the country.

The headline on a statement put out by the White House noted that he president was taking steps to make holiday travel more safe. So there is the psychological impact. Also, a devastating potential economic impact here, not only on the airline industry, but the travel and tourism industry, and the trickle-down effect from that.

At the same time, however, officials say the president obviously wanted to speak out publicly today. And we will hear from him again tomorrow. He has a news conference scheduled after very important deliberations here at the White House with the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Again, the president being updated throughout the day.

You heard him voice his condolences earlier. The administration taking a very cautious approach. It seems very odd to say this because of the tragedy, but they are hoping this was just an accident -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John King at the White House, thank you very much.

And whatever the cause of today's plane crash, it has already created a ripple effect of fear and uncertainty across the nation. That report, right after the break. We'll also have more on the investigation into the cause of the crash.

And from Afghanistan, the stunning battlefield gains of the rebel Northern Alliance. Those stories and much more, when we return.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

The airline industry was expected to lose an estimated $5 billion this year, but that was before flight 587 went down. Paul Ruden is with the American Society of Travel Agents. He joins us now to talk about the possible ripple effect of today's crash.

Mr. Ruden, thank you very much. This is devastating, as far as the travel industry in the United States is concerned, isn't it?

PAUL RUDEN, AMERICAN SOCIETY OF TRAVEL AGENTS: Well, it's certainly not going to help. I hope and believe, however, that the American public can distinguish between an aircraft accident, which, as far as we know, is what this was, and an act of terrorism. History shows that aircraft accidents, as horrible as they, and this one's certainly maybe among the most horrible ever, because of the ground damage -- these accidents don't result in prolonged impacts on travel.

BLITZER: But psychologically, aren't a lot of people going to assume the worst? That even if the government says it was an accident, they're going to suspect, well, maybe there was some foul play? The fact that it comes almost exactly two months since September 11th out of JFK, John F. Kennedy Airport, which of course was the site of one of the other planes that crashed on September 11th? People are going to get nervous.

RUDEN: Well, there are a lot of factors like that that I hope are just coincidences that point in that direction. But again, I think the NTSB is on the case. They are very professional and very thorough, and I think we will soon have more details about what actually transpired, what caused this aircraft to lose it integrity. And those kinds of facts, when disclosed, have in the past reassured the public.

It would also be a good idea if Congress would pass the airline security bill promptly, and the president would sign it. That would go a very long way, I think, to restore public confidence.

BLITZER: They have to resolve that difference over whether the screeners at the airport should be federal employees, the 28,000 or so, or private employees, supervised by the federal government. No indication they've resolved that yet.

Is it too early to estimate whether today's crash already has had an impact, in terms of cancellations?

RUDEN: We've had some anecdotal information from our members, who have been getting inquiries from people asking about what the agents think. And the answers usually are: we don't know enough yet. And we haven't seen a whole lot of cancellations. So I'm hope that people will be patient.

There was a report earlier that passengers out of National Airport were leaving pretty much as planned, accepting the apparent information that this was an accident.

BLITZER: Is there anything that the travel industry specifically can do, in terms of crisis management right now, that can reassure the American public to go out there and fly? As I pointed out earlier, Thanksgiving is coming up, Christmas season is coming up. You guys depend a lot on air travel right now.

RUDEN: That's right. And the season is not going well, as a result of September 11th and the federal government's response to it. This is a very bad period. But I think that the public has got to rely upon, as we do, the federal government in this situation, to be honest with us, which I believe they will, and to do their job. There are already 60 to 100 people committed to the project.

And I think we'll have better information, perhaps even in 24 hours, than we have right now. And it's really not a good idea to speculate too much about how people are going to respond, until we have some more facts.

BLITZER: Paul Ruden, thank you very much. Good luck to you.

RUDEN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

And for complete coverage of the crash of American Airlines flight 587, log onto cnn.com. Among the features, listen to eyewitness accounts of the crash and share your thoughts on our message boards. The AOL keyword, of course, is CNN.

Investigators, meanwhile, look into Osama bin Laden's claims that he has nuclear capabilities. That story and the latest in the war in Afghanistan, when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

And while we keep our eyes and ears on the latest developments in the crash of Flight 587, we also want to turn to America's new war and the extraordinary events right now on the ground in Afghanistan.

After taking the strategic town of Mazar-e-Sharif on Friday, Northern Alliance forces have taken the western city of Herat and are advancing on the capital of Kabul. Before the September 11 attacks took place, the Northern Alliance controlled a very small part of the territory in Afghanistan's northeastern corner. Now, with the taking of Herat, its influence stretches across most of Northern Afghanistan.

And with airfields nearby most of these key cities, it gives the alliance, and, ostensibly, the U.S.-led coalition, close-in bases to attack Taliban forces who have strongholds in Southern Afghanistan. With key cities of Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat now in Northern Alliance hands, the next logical target seems to be Kabul. Northern Alliance troops are advancing on the Afghan capital, but they say won't enter the city, at least for now.

CNN's Matthew Chance has been watching from north of Kabul.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: More confirmation from the Defense Ministry of the Northern Alliance that what we have been witnessing throughout the course of today is indeed an attack, an advance towards the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Defense officials have been telling us about their latest gains in the advance, saying their forces have taken three kilometers of territory and are three kilometers towards the Afghan capital. They also say that some 31 Taliban prisoners of war have been captured near the strategic air base of Bagram, just south of where I'm standing right now.

So throughout the course of today, we have, of course, been seeing many thousands of troops of the Northern Alliance in buses and in trucks bolstering those frontline positions north of the Afghan capital. We also got pictures earlier of what appeared to be Western military advisers, apparently coordinating the U.S.-led airstrikes against those Taliban positions.

Now, there has been concern expressed in Washington that the Northern Alliance need not advance right into Kabul itself, but rather stand outside the city. But given that concern, despite that concern, there have still been these advisers apparently coordinating strikes. And we have been witnessing pretty heavy attacks by U.S. coalition warplanes on those Taliban positions north of the Afghan capital.

The Northern Alliance, for its part, says that it will not enter the city; it will advance towards it, but will wait outside the gates, if necessary, before any ethnically broad-based agreement is forged and on the table. Only then, they say, will they enter.

Matthew Chance, CNN, Northern Afghanistan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And joining us now with his assessment of these major turns in the fighting in Afghanistan, we are joined by the retired Air Force major, General Don Shepperd, a CNN military analyst.

General Shepperd, thank you.

(AUDIO GAP)

BLITZER: For example, if we take a look at over here Mazar-e- Sharif, of course, that was taken on Friday. Kabul right now is the area where the Northern Alliance forces have moved just outside of.

How significant are these developments?

RETIRED GEN. DON SHEPPERD, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Very significant.

First of all, Mazar-e-Sharif gives the Northern Alliance the ability to resupply their forces and bring in humanitarian aid from Uzbekistan -- Kabul of course being the capital, political significance there. And the Northern Alliance now controls the road of resupply. So the Taliban is cut off for resupply from its forces up towards Mazar-e-Sharif and the Kabul area -- very serious for the Taliban.

BLITZER: And if we will put another map on that shows Herat in the western part of Afghanistan, if you look at that map -- right over here, for example, Herat -- this is in the western part of Afghanistan -- Kabul over here. This is where the Northern Alliance forces are just outside of the capital of Kabul.

But that's a significant development as well, isn't it?

SHEPPERD: It really is.

What's happening here is very similar to what happened in Vietnam in 1975 and also in the Gulf War in 1991: a total collapse of enemy resistance all at once -- and, in this case, something different, which is supported apparently by the indigenous population. It looks like the population is rising up against the Taliban and wishing them good riddance on the way out. So, again, the Taliban are in a world of hurt right now.

BLITZER: Is it too premature to say that it looks like a rout? Or some would say the Taliban are deliberately withdrawing to perhaps thin out, get the Northern Alliance stretched out over a wide area for which they could strike back.

SHEPPERD: Well, rout is probably the right word right now, Wolf, but there are some cautions here: 15,000 troops on the Northern Alliance side now trying to control an area the size of Texas -- or the size of France, if you will. That's a lot of area for 15,000 troops. They are going to have to consolidate their gains. There could be some reattacks by Taliban troops who get together.

But their communication has been devastated. Their supplies have been devastated. They are under constant air attack. Any time they mass to reattack, it is going to be -- they are going to be in a world of hurt.

BLITZER: Was the pounding by the U.S. air strikes the decisive element in setting the stage for these advances by the Northern Alliance?

SHEPPERD: Absolutely.

And the difference is, now when we find something, we can hit it. We can do it day or night. And we can hit it in all kinds of weather. That's been the decisive factor. It doesn't mean that troops on the ground don't have to go do the work. But, on the other hand, the air has been really decisive in this conflict so far, Wolf.

BLITZER: And, finally, General, is it your sense the U.S. and its coalition partners, the military side will take advantage of this and set up air bases or forward positions in, for example, Herat or Mazar-e-Sharif?

SHEPPERD: Not necessarily.

General Franks will decide that. It could be that we stay outside Afghanistan and operate from the bases we already have. On the other hand, we will be able to bring in to all those captured air bases humanitarian supplies for the population there. It also will be able to move Northern Alliance and coalition forces at will by helicopter of C-130 aircraft.

It doesn't mean that U.S. forces will be introduced. But Taliban and the al Qaeda have to worry about that. Again, it's getting to where the Taliban can look at each other in the trenches and say: This being a Taliban is not a good idea.

BLITZER: General Shepperd, thank you very much for your insight. Appreciate it.

And we have a developing story that we are monitoring right now. We have just learned that a U.S. commercial jetliner on route from Pittsburgh to Washington's Reagan National Airport has been diverted to Washington Dulles Airport after sky marshals on board the airliner determined there was a problem.

We are going to be monitoring this late development. We will be right back right after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back.

We are following a developing story here in Washington, D.C.

A U.S. Airways flight en route from Pittsburgh to Washington Reagan National Airport has been diverted to Washington Dulles Airport just outside of Washington. It is now on the ground over at Dulles after sky marshals after aboard the plane, aboard the U.S. Airways jetliner, determined there was a problem. We don't know what that problem was. They decided that it would be better to bring the plane down at Dulles Airport.

I am now being told that one of the problems involved some unruly passenger. We are going to monitor this development and have additional details as they are made available to us. But, once again, that U.S. Airways flight, that U.S. Airways plane is now on the ground over at Dulles Airport just outside of Washington, D.C.

There are also some other late developments we are following in the aftermath of the crash of American Airlines Flight 587, including these: Officials say they do not know the reason an American Airlines Airbus crashed today in New York with a massive loss of life. But the federal government says all the information at hand right now points to an accident, not an act of terrorism.

This afternoon, the tail of the plane was recovered from Jamaica Bay near the Rockaway section of Queens, where most of the plane went down. Flight 587 crashed only minutes after takeoff from Kennedy Airport. On board were 255 passengers and crew. All are presumed dead. Fire from the crash engulfed a number of homes, destroying four and doing lesser damage to more than a dozen. About 15 people were hurt. But as of right now, there are no reports of deaths among the people on the ground.

Flight 587 was bound for Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. It departed Kennedy Airport behind schedule at 9:13 a.m. Eastern. At 9:17, air traffic controllers lost contact with the Airbus A300, which crossed Jamaica Bay and crashed into the thin peninsula known at the Rockaways.

Within hours of the crash, investigators recovered the plane's cockpit voice recorder. The device was flown to Washington for analysis. Several people who saw the crash say they believed they heard an explosion and saw parts of the plane break apart. But other witnesses are quoted as saying the plane appeared to be straining to climb just before it plunged to the ground.

Meanwhile, Dominican officials are quoted as saying there were 150 Dominican citizens on the Santo Domingo-bound flight. A travel agent tells CNN that the flight included at least 176 passengers of Dominican descent. That was the scene today. This was the scene, in fact, today at Santo Domingo's main airport as family and friends received word that their loved ones would not be arriving.

For those family members in New York, many have gathered at a hotel that has become a makeshift headquarters for sharing information and grief.

CNN's Hillary Lane joins us now live from New York with more on how they are coping -- Hillary.

HILLARY LANE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is an all-too- familiar role for the Radisson Plaza here on the grounds of JFK International Airport.

It has served as a family counseling and relief center for TWA Flight 800 back in 1996, for EgyptAir, which left from here and crashed near Newport, Rhode Island two years ago -- and now once again a flight leaving JFK crashing just minutes after takeoff, but right here in this neighborhood.

So what has happened here is that Red Cross workers began arriving about 20 minutes after they got word of the initial accident. And there are about 100 to 125 working in total. There are chaplains, nurses, mental health workers. They are providing all sorts of services, anything that they could possibly do to make this less difficult for the families.

And the families began to come over early in the morning, being brought over from the terminal. Many of them had come to the terminal to see loved ones off. And so one of the emotions that many are reported to be feeling is just an incredible sense of disbelief that they had just seen a person alive minutes ago, waved goodbye, and then lost them just minutes after takeoff.

They have kept the media, for the most part, outside. I did go into the hotel just a short while ago. And you really, truly can feel the grief when you walk in the door. The room is very warm. There are people throughout the lobby off in corners, hugging, trying to counsel each other. It really is very, very a difficult situation to see -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Hillary Lane, in Queens, New York, thank you very much.

And the recovery of the plane's cockpit voice recorder will likely play a key role in determining the cause of today's crash. For now, though, questions about the last moments of Flight 587 continue to mount.

To help us answer some of them, we are joined by Jim McKenna, an aviation specialist, and from Los Angeles, Robert Ditchey. He is an airline safety consultant and an expert in engines.

Let me begin with you, Mr. Ditchey. What is your take right now based on what we know? And it's only hours, of course, since this crash.

ROBERT DITCHEY, AIRLINE SAFETY CONSULTANT: Well, of course, all of us are speculating at this point. But the two things that stand out as exceptional are that the engine -- at least one engine apparently separated from the aircraft -- and another that the rudder or vertical stabilizer separated from the aircraft.

Those two things are not necessarily related. But the fact that they did leave the aircraft before the fuselage hit the ground, that's very interesting from an accident-investigation point of view.

BLITZER: Mr. McKenna, what does that say to you, those two facts that Mr. Ditchey just pointed out?

JIM MCKENNA, AVIATION ANALYST: Well, they're almost contradictory indications of what might have caused the crash, Wolf.

The fact that the engine appears to have broken into several parts and landed in separate places in the Rockaways led a lot of folks early on to wonder whether this was not a severe engine breakdown. But when you find a major piece of the airplane like the vertical fin in the water, distant from the main wreckage site, you have to ask yourself how that could have gotten there.

It could have gotten there by some sort of structural breakup of the airplane independent of any engine failure. It could have gotten there by a bomb or something flying off of the airplane and hitting the tail and weakening the tail to the point where it failed.

BLITZER: Mr. Ditchey, the assessment that we just heard from Mr. McKenna points possibly -- possibly -- to acts of sabotage, not necessarily simply a mechanical problem. What do you see right now as far as you are concerned?

DITCHEY: Well, first of all, I agree with what he said.

Secondly, what concerns me is the apparent cleanness of the separation of that vertical stabilizer from the fuselage. I mean, it came off in a very clean fashion, from what I could see. And that disturbs me as to what might have possibly caused that. In other words, it wasn't torn off, or there wasn't something that hit it and knocked it off, tearing it apart. It looked like it came off cleanly. And that concerns me.

BLITZER: But, Mr. McKenna, all the authorities so far seem to be suggesting that this was an accident, not necessarily terrorism or anything like that. Are they premature in that assessment?

MCKENNA: No, I wouldn't say they are premature, but that's exactly why the cockpit voice recorder will be a critical piece of evidence in this investigation. Once that's in the lab at the NTSB here in Washington, investigators will be able to get a quick read on whether there was anything unusual in the terms of extreme vibrations or a loud noise that might point toward an explosion.

I don't want to stress too much the possibility of an explosion on this airplane. There are scenarios in which the structure of the airplane could fail in a way that would leave that tail in the water as clean, as pristine as it looks now. And the investigators will want to take a look at that possibility of structural failure as well.

BLITZER: Do you think, Mr. Ditchey, that authorities who are investigating this are rushing to a judgment that may be more palatable, more comfortable to the American public of mechanical failure as opposed to sabotage?

DITCHEY: Well, there's enormous pressure right now to come up with an explanation as to what happened. This is perhaps unique in aviation history, that you have the combination of a terrorist threat with mechanical failure. It has never happened before.

The economic pressures on the industry are enormous. And so, yes, there is pressure to come up with solutions and explanations as quickly as possible. And that's not good.

BLITZER: All right, we have to leave it right there. Mr. McKenna and Mr. Ditchey, thank you so much for your expertise.

And coming up, we will turn our attention back to the war in Afghanistan -- very dramatic developments unfolding even in the midst of this air crash in the United States. Advancing Northern Alliance troops are approaching Kabul, while the Taliban seem to be on the move.

We will have the latest on America's new war.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. Let's take a look at some of the latest developments in the war in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials have interviewed two prominent Pakistani scientists as part of an investigation into Osama bin Laden's claims that he has weapons of mass destruction. The scientists made at least four visits to Afghanistan over the last two years, which they said were for humanitarian purposes. But Pakistani officials say those visits also involved high-level contact with the al Qaeda network and at least one of those scientists met with a bin Laden lieutenant.

Backed by U.S. warplanes, rebel troops of the opposition Northern Alliance are advancing on the Afghan capital of Kabul. A spokesman says the Northern Alliance will not try to capture the city now, in a bid to spare civilians further fighting. This advance comes just after the Northern Alliance captured the key western city of Herat.

As the Northern Alliance scores battle victories in some of Afghanistan's crucial cities, some military doors are opening for allied forces hoping to penetrate deeper into the country.

For more on that, we turn to Joie Chen. She's in the CNN "War Room" -- Joie.

JOIE CHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we have certainly talked about the importance of Mazar-e-Sharif before in the strategic position of that city.

Take a look at our big map here. Of course, Mazar-e-Sharif sits not very far at all from the Uzbek border, about 35 miles or so. Controlling Mazar-e-Sharif and particularly the airfields that are very close by it could be very important, both for expanded military operations and humanitarian aid operations as well.

But the Alliance's success at Mazar-e-Sharif also tells us something about how the battle is being fought. Take a look at this scene of Alliance fighters. Yes, these are on the move in the fight for Mazar-e-Sharif -- one of their rafts crossing the Kochca (ph) River near the village of Serok (ph). Is this is a sophisticated fighting force?

Well, TIME.com, having interviewed a series of Alliance commanders, reports that in the battle for Mazar-e-Sharif, one of the commanders, General Dostum, sent 600 men on horseback into battle against the Taliban's tanks. Now, the battle strategy, we're told, is ride straight at them. The tank will only have time to get off one or two rounds before you get there.

On the impact of change, well, we don't have any recent pictures yet from the ancient city. But from the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif, there are reports that women have, for the first time in years, since the Taliban took power, have been seen worshipping at the central mosque. And the Associated Press reports that music, which is banned by the Taliban, has been heard coming from stores. As well, they say they have seen men who had been wearing the Taliban-ordered beards -- the ones that the Taliban had required them to grow -- men in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, we are told, have been lining up at barber shops to have those shaved off.

Still, there are some great concerns, though. CNN has received reports of reprisals by Alliance fighters as they move back into the city, which was also, incidentally, the last to fall into Taliban control when they came into power. So Mazar-e-Sharif is an important prize, both for morale and confidence-building. Bear in mind it also has those two airfields nearby that we talked about. One Alliance commander said that control of the airport there is even more important than controlling the city itself, because it could -- and we do stress it "could" -- be used to establish a forward base.

Now, on the issue of forward bases, how would they be established? Well, we are using here a very generic animation to depict this. First, we know that many of the airfields have been disabled by U.S.-led strikes. But if an airport is secured by allied forces, the United States and its allies could land paratroopers, maybe special operations folks, maybe the Army Rangers here. They would use helicopter carriers, most likely the Pave Low, which can carry about 30 troops, or the smaller MH-60, the Pave Hawk, which carries about dozen troops in.

In these very early operations, some troops would be put to work to repair any damage on the runways. You see them depicted here. And then, to make use of the airstrip, the forces would need to establish some sort of air control tower. That would let forces bring in greater mobility, say Humvees and some additional forces. These could be sizable force additions, though, perhaps something from the 10th Mountain Division.

Finally, the heavy hardware might be brought in. Those big transports might come in as well, something like the C-130 or the C- 17, which would bring in tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Clearly, Wolf, there would be a great deal of opportunity if a forward base was established. And you talked with General Shepperd about that before. But right now, there is a great deal of interest on Mazar-e-Sharif and what it will mean to next phase of the operation.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Joie.

And we will be right back with more coverage of the crash of American Airlines Flight 587.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: I'll be back in one hour for another hour of coverage of the crash of Flight 587 -- among my guests: Robert Francis, the former vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Until then, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. CNN's coverage of the crash continues with "LOU DOBBS MONEYLINE," which begins right now.

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