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Flight 370 Family Members Reaching Breaking Point; Data Deleted from Pilot's Flight Simulator; Answering Questions About MH370; Tensions in Crimea Threatening to Get Bloodier.

Aired March 19, 2014 - 13:30   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Families of the 239 people on board flight 370 are holding out hope their loved ones will be found alive.

The partner of one of three American passengers, 51-year-old Phillip Wood, believes the plane was hijacked. She made this emotional appeal last night on "A.C. 360."


SARAH BAJC, PARTNER OF PHILLIP WOOD: I'm hoping and I'm asking, please, to not hurt the people on the plane. Find some other way to accomplish what you're trying to accomplish. But don't hurt the people. Let Phillip come back to me, please.


BLITZER: Other families are demanding more answers from the Malaysian government and Malaysia Airlines. They held a protest today at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur.

One mother broke down as she appealed to international journalists for help.


UNIDENTIFIED MOTHER OF PASSENGER: (Translated on screen): We are victims' family from Beijing. We have been here for more than 10 days.

There are more than 30 of us here.

QUESTION: (Illegible) -- Malaysia Airlines told you in the past days?

MOTHER: They just keep brushing us off, (illegible) waiting and waiting for information.

I don't know when we are going to (illegible) -- it's already 12 days -- my dear.

I don't know where my dear is -- 12 days. My son, where is my son?

Why don't you give me an answer? It's already 12 days. I have been here for 10 days.

I am among the very first (illegible) to come here.

They never answer the questions we (illegible) every day.

They just brushed us off.


BLITZER: As you can see, the grieving families reaching their breaking point. It must be incredibly painful not knowing if your loved one is alive or dead, what happened to them.

Mark Dombroff is joining us. He's an aviation attorney in Washington. He has represented airlines in these kinds of flight disasters.

What do you say to a mother like that who is screaming out in anguish because her son is lost?

MARK DOMBROFF, AVIATION ATTORNEY: I think the airline, Malaysia Airlines, in this instance, Wolf, is in a terrible predicament. I think that families, in our experience, over the years want information. That's what they want. And there just doesn't seem to be any information. There's lots of speculation, lots of rumors. There's lots of reversals, of course. But what the families want is information. And the airline is the point of contact for them. And to the extent that the wrath or the anger or the emotion is directed, it's directed at the airline, which itself wants the answers. So I think that saying, be patient or we're working on it or the investigation is on a full-court press, frequently is not enough.

BLITZER: So if Malaysia Airlines hired you, like other airlines have done in these kinds of disasters, what would you tell them? What should they do? What advice would you give?

DOMBROFF: I think there are very sophisticated organization, they operate in the United States, they have a family assistance program in place, whether the accident occurs here or elsewhere, where it occurs. They have brought in third party providers, companies that are experts in dealing with these disasters. I think that one of the things that I would suggest -- and the problem is that they're not running the investigation. Malaysia Airlines doesn't run the investigation.

BLITZER: Malaysian government.

DOMBROFF: The Malaysian government runs it. So to a certain extent, even though it's the national airline, they are indeed at the mercy of, and under the control of the government.

BLITZER: The same thing could happen here if there was a United disaster, the NTSB or FAA would take charge, not the United Airlines.

DOMBROFF: Correct. And, indeed, under Malaysian accident investigation rules -- and they have relatively sophisticated rules -- all investigations are deemed to be private, which means no information gets released. If an accident occurs in this country, the airline is not permitted to comment about the investigation at all. They are party to the investigation. All of the information comes from the National Transportation Safety Board, and customarily, the member of the board who is present on the scene will brief the families on a regular ongoing basis or the investigator in charge will brief the families.

BLITZER: These families believe Malaysia Airlines and Malaysian government are withholding information from them.

DOMBROFF: That is a credibility gap and a trust gap that could be, as more time goes by, very difficult to overcome. I think if I had a criticism, the criticism is not directed at the airline. The airline is in an impossible position in this instance. The airline industry has been so safe for so many years that you do not have the institutional experience that most airlines in terms of how do you deal with these situations. Moreover, the very best emergency response plan is only good for the first several hours. And after that, you're responding and trying to stay out in front. And when, in fact, you don't have the information, you're really limited on what you can say to the families.

BLITZER: Mark Dombroff, thank you for coming in.

DOMBROFF: My pleasure. Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, investigators are trying to figure out why data was deleted from a flight simulator that belonged to the pilot of the missing Malaysian airlines plane. We'll get reaction from the Virginia company right outside of Washington, D.C., that actually made the simulator.


BLITZER: As crews keep up the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370, a key part of the puzzle could be a flight simulator taken from the home of the pilot of the missing plane. We have learned that data from the simulator was actually deleted, at least some of that data, early last month. And work is now under way to try to retrieve it. The company that made the simulator is actually based in Alexandra, Virginia, right outside Washington, D.C.

And Brian Todd is here.

You actually went out to the company and just got back here to the studio. What did you see out there? What did they tell you?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They didn't tell us anything. They didn't want to speak to us. We were told the head of the company was not available, Wolf. I'll mention that in just a moment.

But an update to what you just said. We have been told by law enforcement officials that U.S. law enforcement officials are examining the hard drives of the pilot and the first officer of the missing plane. The hard drive includes software information from the home flight simulator owned by the captain, Zaharie Ahmed Shah, the captain of the missing flight. Investigators, as you mentioned, did discover some data was deleted from the simulator, not saying what was deleted or who deleted it. And it's not necessarily any evidence of ill intent here. We have to say that.

But as far as how unusual this is, on a web forum, one person who uses flight simulators say that that piece of information is meaningless. The people add and delete, load and delete data from simulators constantly. But the owner of one simulator, manufacturer, says he believes it is unusual to delete data, because these files are very small and pilots often keep them on there to measure their progress in flight simulation. So getting differing opinions of whether it's unusual or not to delete data from a flight simulator.

Now as far as that company you mentioned that manufactured the software for Captain Shah's home simulator, that company is PMTG Simulations, based in Alexandra. They make that software. We could not reach their -- the head of that company, Robert Rondozeno, but he did issue a statement on a web forum last night, and here is a quote: "Some commentators have focused on Captain Shah's love of the flight simulation hobby as a suggestion he may have played a role in the disappearance of MH370. Such wild conjecture is not only insulting to those of us who wear or worn the stripes of a captain." But he also said it could hurt the flight simulation hobby industry. And he also said that other than being a customer, Captain Shah had no connection to his company.

BLITZER: So at this place in Alexandra, right outside Washington, they just do the software.

TODD: They make the software for simulators. And I'm not sure if they actually manufacture whole simulators or not but do a lot of that type of thing and very reputable company. And their product is good. But they didn't want to talk to us.

BLITZER: And now we're told the FBI is going through the hard drives to see what was deleted, if there is anything suspicious at all. No indications yet?

TODD: That's right.

BLITZER: Brian, thank you.

Up next, the many of you who have important questions about flight 370, we're going to try to get some solid answers to as many of them as possible. Our panel of experts standing by.

And later, tensions in Crimea threatening to get bloodier. We're going to tell you about a standoff at a Ukrainian naval headquarters.


BLITZER: Nearly two weeks after Malaysian Airlines flight 370 went missing, we're really no closer to knowing where it is, what happened to it. Many of you have very specific questions about this mysterious disappearance. We're going to put some of those questions to our panel right now. Joining us once again, our aviation analysts, Mark Weiss and Peter Goelz; and our law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes.

Here's a question, Peter, for you.

How could the plane climb to 45,000 feet and then down to 23,000 feet if they reset flight plan and cockpit? Plane doesn't do that on its own.

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: They do not. And those numbers and that scenario is still under great question. Because the drop to 23,000 feet would have had the plane approaching almost the speed of sound. But when a plane is at the outer edges of the radar's effective range, the returns become very --


BLITZER: So you don't necessarily buy that notion --




BLITZER: -- 35,000 -- went up to 45, down to 23. That was reported a couple days ago in the "New York Times."

GOELZ: I'd say we hold that one.

BLITZER: Here's a question for you, Tom.

With the largest U.S. naval base in the Indian Ocean, why didn't the U.S. Navy see this plane? We have radar there.

TOM FUENTES, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST & FORMER FBI DEPUTY DIRECTOR: If the plane didn't get anywhere near it, that's a gigantic area. And if they weren't looking and nobody said until several days later that it even went west, there would be no reason to be looking for it and know it went through their space. It may not have gone through their radar space.

BLITZER: Here's another question, Mark.

Mary Kirkpatrick wants to know, why wouldn't the flight attendants alert air traffic control that something was amiss on the flight?

MARK WEISS, PILOT & JOURNALIST: Well, you have to alert air traffic control from the cockpit.

BLITZER: You can't do it from the -- beyond the cockpit?

WEISS: No, you can't.

BLITZER: No button you can push that a chief flight attendant or anybody could push? We've got a serious problem here? WEISS: There's no method in the cabin.

BLITZER: Why is that? That sounds like that's a problem.

WEISS: Well, I'm not sure that's really a problem. You think about it, it's also a security control.

BLITZER: If somebody gets into the cockpit and locks the door, and it's a bad person, wouldn't the flight -- wouldn't you want the flight attendant to report to the ground, ground control, hey, we've got a problem up here.

WEISS: There's been a lot of controversy whether or not you should have locked and cockpit doors. That has certainly been one of the questions always asked. But at this time in answer to Mary's question, no, you can't respond to the ground control.

BLITZER: Should they reconsider that, put some procedure, some button back there that a flight attendant could use that we've got a disaster going on here?

WEISS: Well, on 9/11, Betty Ann called American Airlines from an air phone. But I think there might be some unintended consequences to having that capability in the back of the plane. I think it needs to be looked at. But I think it's got some challenges.

BLITZER: Here's another question for you, Tom.

There was no increase in terrorist chatter after the plane went missing. Was the chatter level too quiet after such an event?

FUENTES: No. I think from a what I've heard, Wolf, it was just about the average amount of people calling each other and talking about things. The chatter that usually -- what they were looking for was the bragging chatter. Because, among the terror groups, look how great we are, we pulled this off, we did this, we did that. And then other people calling other people, did you hear what they did. And so really, it's more of the post event glory that they're seeking.

BLITZER: One person -- one expert said to me -- I don't know if this is realistic or not, Tom. I'll throw it out to you. You used to work at the FBI. In the aftermath of all of the NSA surveillance stories, these terrorists out there, they suspected everybody is listening -- or at least the NSA is listening to their chatter, if you will. And they don't talk on the phone or on their cell phones or pass messages along on their computers the way they used to.

FUENTES: Well, the problem with that theory is that then they can't coordinate any attack and can't arrange for anything. So they still have to --


BLITZER: They do it --

(CROSSTALK) FUENTES: -- is they still have to talk to each other. No matter if they think they are being listened to or not. That's the problem with them.

But here's the other problem we haven't talked about. We've looked at the terrorism cases in the U.S. How many times did, if we had the so- called lone wolf, who isn't talking to anybody, who isn't e-mailing anyone? In the Fort Hood shootings, Hasan was e-mailing Anwar Awlaki in Yemen, but he wasn't telling his friends, neighbors, coworkers. He was not --


FUENTES: Right. No one in the U.S. or his coworkers knew he was thinking about that. That's the other problem. We've had other attacks where there was no advance -- you look at the Boston Marathon bombing, the two brothers. Their best friends were saying, no, it can't be them, wrestling team, boxing team, this and that.

BLITZER: Very quickly, I ask you this every day. Mechanical failure or human nefarious involvement?

FUENTES: I'm still leaning towards human nefarious involvement.

WISE: I still think it was human intervention.

BLITZER: That's guys. We'll see you back in "The Situation Room" later today, 5:00 p.m. eastern.

By the way, if you have questions about flight 370, post them to Twitter using #370Qs. Later tonight at 10:00 p.m., Don Lemon will host a special report on flight 370. He and an expert panel will answer many more of your questions.

We will have much more on the missing plane coming up here on CNN.

Also, there are now indications you could be getting more violent. We'll check in with a former U.S. congresswoman, an expert in promoting democracy around the globe. What can be done to end the crisis if anything?


BLITZER: We are going to get back to the missing plane in a moment.

But first, another important story we are working on, in Ukraine, a new ultimatum that could push the crisis in Crimea to escalate to some bloodier sort of conflict. The Ukrainian acting president told pro Russian authorities to release all so-called hostages, including the Ukrainian navy chief, and stop what they call all provocations by 3:00 p.m. eastern later today -- that's just an hour or so from now -- or Ukraine will take action of technical or technological character. CNN is checking on whether that could mean military action.

The latest statement comes as Ukrainian officials say nearly 300 armed pro Russian supporters stormed Ukraine's naval headquarters earlier today. U.S. officials continue to keep a close eye on the growing number of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border.

Former California Congresswoman Jane Harman is joining us. She is director, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, a major think tank.

Congresswoman, thanks very much.

What do you make of these ominous new developments? It's pretty scary.

JANE HARMAN, DIRECTOR, PRESIDENT, CEO, WOODROW WILSON CENTER & FORMER CONGRESSWOMAN: The whole thing is pretty scary. I sure underestimated it. A day ago, I was saying Putin would not annex Crimea because he hasn't annexed the two territories at the border between Russia and Georgia. Then he went and did it. He's had a very swift and decisive military in place, special forces operations in Crimea that intimidated voters. Is he being provocative? You bet he is.

BLITZER: Is he going to move beyond Crimea? There other Russian forces now poised on the border with Ukraine. There is a lot of theory out there that Crimea could be step number one, but then he moves to other parts of Ukraine, even though in a speech before the Duma, the Russian parliament, he said he was not going to do that.

HARMAN: It's hard to get in his head. He is clearly a bully. He is trying to brush off the efforts of the West to impose sanctions and to beef up NATO forces and with exercises along the borders with Russia. Vice President Biden is there and he is more in touch with this than I am.

I think the right answer has to be we don't know. We have to have a very clear response. I think do we have to step up the economic sanctions, not withstanding the objections of many firms in the U.S. and Europe, who have close economic financial and energy ties and depend on energy from Russia. I think we have to think medium term -- there is a good op-ed today from Tom Friedman -- calling for what he says is an earth race, to match the space race. The last time we were in a Cold War paradigm with Russia, and that is in a smart way to develop all of our energy resources, including renewables and clean energy, and have a strategy to export to Europe and keep us independent of Mideastern Oil. If we do those things, that could truly scare Russia.

And the goal now is to push back against a bully. This guy is a bully with a messianic view of Russia. Calling him names is not helpful. But cornering him in a way that can be effective would be helpful.

BLITZER: A diplomatic off-ramp, is it too late? Is Crimea, for all practical purposes, now part of Russia?

HARMAN: At the moment, the answer to that has to be yes. And that was predicted by some folks. And Bob Gates said it was gone. There has been a vote. Russia has acted. We think the vote is illegal. We're not going to recognize it. I think the things -- one thing I didn't mention in addition to sanctions and beefing up NATO resources around the borders of Russia to support our allies -- they could invoke Article Five, and we would have to come to their defense. But the other thing is to help Ukraine stand up a transparent and effective government. Ukraine has had bad governments since its basic revolution. Even Tymoshenko, who is talked about as a savior there, is an oligarch, and her government is not given high marks. Standing up something different and helping them do that and providing aid and getting around Congress' impasse --


HARMAN: -- will be better.

BLITZER: Jane Harman, we've got to leave it there. But we'll continue this conversation.

Thanks very much.

That's it for me. I'll be back 5:00 p.m. eastern in a special two- hour edition of "THE SITUATION ROOM."

"NEWSROOM" starts with Brooke Baldwin right now.