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Objects Detected in South Indian Ocean; Explaining Issues With Water Searches; Families Desperate for Answers

Aired March 20, 2014 - 12:00   ET




JOHN YOUNG, AUSTRALIAN MARITIME SAFETY AUTHORITY: This is a lead. It is probably the best lead we have right now, but we need to get there, find them, see them, assess them to know whether it's really meaningful or not.


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Caution in every syllable, but 13 days after the utter disappearance of a wide-bodied jet carrying 239 souls, today there is a very specific location to focus the search, and it's here. About 1500 miles off the southwest coast of Australia in the unforgiving waters of the southern Indian Ocean. That's where satellite imagery, released today by the Australian government, revealed that what could be actual debris from Malaysia Airlines flight 370, or just as possibly not.

One piece of something is huge -- 24 meters long, that's about 79 feet. And the other piece is five meters, about 16 feet long. The find was announced by Australia's prime minister no less -- four days after the photos were actually snapped by those satellites.

To many that seems to give a little extra weight to this lead but a preliminary flyover by American and Australian search planes sadly turned up nothing. In part because of the weather, low clouds and rain. As luck would have it though a Norwegian freighter that just happened to be in the area is now actually on site as we speak, but the problem is it's now midnight in that area. So we don't expect any new discoveries for several more hours at the very least.

And even if it's confirmed that objects spotted halfway between Australia and Antarctica are pieces of flight 370, finding the rest of the plane and of course finding the occupants of that plane and solving the mystery of how this all happened in the first place and how they ended up in that very remote area, well, these are still challenging, challenging problems.

I'm joined here in New York by CNN's safety analyst and former air accident investigator David Soucie and also from CNN center in Atlanta meteorologist Jennifer Gray is going to join us with how the weather is factoring into all of this and could thwart our efforts to find anything at all.

Jennifer, if you can standby for a moment, I want to bring David Soucie in about this. All hands on deck, it feels like a code red, assets all dispatched to this very specific area, all based on a four- day-old satellite photograph. To a lay-person it seems crazy, but is it only because that's all they've got?

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: You know, Malaysia said this is the best piece of evidence we have. Unfortunately that doesn't mean anything. What that means to me is they have no other evidence. That's concerning and disturbing to me, however I don't want to take away hope that this is part of that aircraft. There's Poseidon (ph) aircraft, we've got a Ryan aircraft looking. These aircraft are the most advanced aircraft possible. They're designed to find and locate even small submarines, search and destroy small submarines. The Poseidon has integration with drones so the drones can pass back and forth, kind of like the old Sars (ph) aircraft you used to see --

BANFIELD: That's for when you know where you're searching. At this point these are four-day-old photographs. How much extrapolation - how quickly can they extrapolate based on the currents and the weather and every other possible problem that could lend itself to thwarting this effort, how fast can they get that information down before actually searching the right area?

SOUCIE: Remember where we got this information in the first place where to search was from the NTSB and FAA calculating currents and fuel and that location and then from the currents and wind drift --

BANFIELD: So we're there. We're at the extrapolated location?

SOUCIE: Absolutely. Yes.

BANFIELD: So if it really is something -- and let's just say at that length, 79 feet long sounds an awful lot like a shipping container which fall off of freighters all the time.


BANFIELD: If it is a shipping container, will we find that based on the extrapolation, the science and math?

SOUCIE: I think so. Because, again, these Orion and Poseidon aircraft can find that. They're designed to find things like that. Of course ships are bigger than that, but they're capable, very capable of finding something smaller.

BANFIELD: Whatever's on that satellite photograph.

SOUCIE: I think we're going to find it, yes.

BANFIELD: God hope it is what we're looking for in particular and particularly those people. Jennifer, just weigh-in if you would on that particular issue of weather and currents and how that has factored into those four-day-old photos. JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, well, the visibility was very poor because they had a front move through. All of that has pushed to the east. So when the sun comes up in the next six or seven hours, we should see clear skies, conditions should be much, much better. And looking forward to the next 48 hours looks like most of the rain is going to stay on the north and east side roughly 200 miles away. We're good in that regard.

We also have to look at the winds. This part of the world is known for very, very strong winds. But luckily over the next couple of days we're not going to see winds any more than say 15 to 25 miles per hour. Winds can definitely push debris, also the current. So those are the two things we're going to be watching very, very closely.

This is our CNN exclusive forecast model. You can see over the next couple of days those winds not getting over about 20 to 25 miles per hour. And that's in the far end.

Okay. This is where the search area is right here. This is a very, very strong current. The west Australian current where it can move objects -- it's moving at about a foot per second. So that's the worst case scenario that if this what we think could be debris gets into that current, that's going to be your worst case scenario because it's going to be very, very hard to find. Where it is right now though the currents are very weak. So if conditions stay like they are now, and they can get to it quickly, Ashleigh, looks like that's going to be our best case scenario.

BANFIELD: That's a lot faster than I thought, Jennifer. David, weigh- in here if you would, please, I heard - I think it was you earlier this morning calling the point of impact a scatter point. Meaning if that plane hit the water and did exactly that, scatter, does that change the equation for finding it? Meaning, if it went in more or less in tact at least or if it went in in hundreds or God forbid millions of pieces, does that change the idea of being able to find it, make it easier, make it harder?

SOUCIE: Absolutely makes it harder if it did. What I'm hoping and by looking at the size of this and if this is the part of the aircraft and it's big, then it's hopeful there could have been an unsuccessful ditching attempt. In that rough of the sea you wouldn't be landing it on the Potomac where it's nice and calm for example. You're landing in surf, in waves.

BANFIELD: The reason I ask that is because I can see it being double- edge sword here. A scatter point with a million pieces at least gives you the opportunity to have something floating and a lot more opportunities to spot something. One particular piece, a large piece, say almost the entire fuselage, that's one spot you got to find in that entire ocean.

SOUCIE: There's pluses and minuses to both. Because remember those small pieces --

BANFIELD: Some of them float. SOUCIE: Some of them float. But look at the granularity of that picture there. You see that 80 feet, that little spot. That's not even that clear. So you can imagine if there were pieces of seats and other kinds of debris --

BANFIELD: I have to wrap this one up because we are going to get to those other issues you talked about, but if this really is wreckage, what comes next? What happens with it? What's the next process that we're going to embark on?

SOUCIE: The next process is again to find that scatter point and the point of impact. The reason that's most important is because that's the most likely place to find --

BANFIELD: Everything else.

SOUCIE: -- emergency locator transmitters.

BANFIELD: And by the way, bodies, that's got to be priority number one, isn't it? Not wreckage, bodies.

SOUCIE: That's the first thing that happens. There's really two different teams that do that so it happens concurrently. Many times on an accident site there are still bodies -- we call them souls on board, they're there, but it's a concurrent process. Because you don't want to disturb evidence. And at this point, I hate to be morose --

BANFIELD: And one may lead to finding more of the other quite frankly. David, standby if you would. I have a lot more questions for you. Jennifer Gray, thank you for that as well.

There are all kinds of variables. I'm sure you are probably thinking many of them at one moment and there are still new ones that come along every day in this search. Depths of the ocean where the debris was found, the terrain of the bottom of the ocean where this plane just might be lying. We're going to get out some of the maps and the 3-D models and show you what searchers are dealing with and how it is possible, believe it or not, to be right on top of the wreckage and still not know.


BANFIELD: Being called the best lead so far, and 13 days after that Boeing 777 vanished with 239 people on board, here it is. Satellite photos appear to show two large objects in a very remote part of the Indian Ocean. In fact, one of the most remote parts. Our Tom Foreman joins us live from Washington with a virtual look at the scene. And now what's become a more focused search scene.

Also still with me is safety analyst David Soucie. We're going to zero in on this, Tom, 2800 miles from where this plane took off. Before we even get to the point of why on Earth the plane would be out there, take me to that area and show me what we're looking at.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we're looking at right now really is a high seas race to get more assets to that area. The bulk of all the search fleet out there, airplanes and ships, are moving down into what was the southern arc here which the U.S. officials have said all along they thought was the main place. And to that specific location because of these pictures.

You were looking at them a minute ago and it is very easy to take a look at these satellite images and say, boy, there's really not much there. But one of our producers just had confirmed a short while ago that these are from an American company called Digital Globe. They've been supplying some satellite images to the search teams down there. So the Australians are getting these from Digital Globe.

This doesn't look like much, but there's a reason for that. By law Digital Globe cannot release the highest resolution images, by U.S. law. So what the teams down there are likely looking at is a much, much higher resolution image than this. We don't know which particular Digital Globe facilities did this, but we know some of them have the facility to get down to like 14-inch resolution. Which would mean if I put a license plate on top of a car and you took a picture of it, you couldn't read it at 14 inches but you would know what color it is. What they may be looking at may be a lot sharper than this.

That may be why as we move into the three things to check here, that may be why credibility seems high. Why the Australian government says we believe in this. What else do you have to consider whether or not this is real evidence? Obviously it's going to make a difference what size you're talking about. We're talking pieces here that are 78, 79 feet long.

Think about this plane. This plane is about 200 feet, wing tip to wing tip, about 200 feet end to end, could you get a piece that big out of it? Yes, you could. Would it float? Well, that's a different matter. So that takes us to the last question, which is the notion of location. The location is right. We know that to be true. But you were talking a minute ago there about the idea of whether or not you could be right on top of it and not see it. Absolutely you could.

Think about this. In any body of water, when you take an image from right above, you can see down into it a little bit, but if you're at the water level or near it in a plane or a ship, close enough to see a small piece, then you get all sorts of reflections, all sorts of white caps, many, many interferences that can make it harder for you to see what might be right below you.

And, again, as you noted earlier, everything's moving. On top of that, when you start moving down into the water, even if you have good search capabilities, it gets complicated.

We talk about the pinger all the time. The pinger that would be part of this flight-data recorder in the best conditions has a range of about two miles.

Well, from where you would be on the bottom here in the Indian ocean, almost anywhere in the Indian Ocean to the surface, it's going to be about two miles. So, you can't just go along the surface and say, let's listen for it here. You can try, but your chances of hitting that range are very limited.

So all of those things come together. That's why, as you noted just moments ago, you could be very close to the source and still have quite a hard time finding it.

This is one of the hallmarks of almost all airplane searches, and some of them can make it very, very difficult, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: It just makes you feel a little bit more hopeless as if the size of this entire search wasn't hopeless enough.

In fact, what you just said, David Gallo was on last night with Anderson Cooper, and he just happened to mention -- he went over his old maps from the Air France wreckage and noticed that they were right on top of that old wreckage and did not even know it and went right over it.

So it's so distressing to hear that. Actually, as luck would have it, I have just been told by my producer we've got David Gallo who's available. Mr. Gallo, can you hear me?

DAVID GALLO, WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTION (via telephone): I can, Ashleigh. How are you?

BANFIELD: Oh, thank god. What perfect serendipity that you'd be on the air right now.

GALLO (via telephone): Well, my laptop's not cooperating, so I was hoping to Skype in and for my reason it says it's full. Too many movies, probably.

BANFIELD: I tell you what, go right to what I just said.

I heard you say that on Anderson Cooper's show last night, that when you went back to your old maps. you discovered you were right on top of the wreckage.

It doesn't bode well for laypeople like me who hear that and think we don't have a chance. How can we --

GALLO (via telephone): Well, you know what? Yes, and I don't -- and I'm sorry to give you the hopeless feeling, but because, you know, on paper these things work, the pingers work.

They're the right frequency. The people that design them know what they're talking about. You should be able to hear them a long way away.

But in practice if they're in a valley, if there's a mountain, and there's plenty of those at the bottom of the sea, or if there's thermal layers in the ocean, the oceans can play a lot of games with sound. That's the same way you can hide a submarine just beneath the surface -- beneath the thermal layer. No matter what the sonars are, you can still hide a submarine because the oceans do strange things with sound.

So you have to -- it's something you've got to listen for because if it works it's fantastic. But, you know, we have to count -- plan to do other things, as well.

BANFIELD: You know, Air France wasn't that long ago, but I guess in the grand scheme of technological innovation it was light-years ago.

So are we much better off now in terms of the gear that we have employed in this search than we were when you were looking for that wreckage?

GALLO (via telephone): Yeah, I think we're a little bit better. Make -- you know the ocean -- most people don't understand the whole world of ocean exploration. It's not the same as the world up here under the sun.

We don't have GPS. It's pitch black. The pressure's crushing. So we have to deal with all sorts of obstacles.

But we've made incremental things. But the thing -- I'm a bit frustrated because what we haven't done since Air France was come up with a system where we can respond rapidly to something like this.

It's going to take a long time, in my estimation, to get the kinds of tools we're going to need onsite.

The planes can get there fairly quickly, but to put a research vessel on the site with the kinds of tools you need to work 2,000-, 3,000-, 4,000-meters deep is going to take a bit of time.

I think there's probably some things in Australia that can be used, but to bring things from other parts of the world is slow going. It's months.

BANFIELD: Yeah. And the Malaysians have already said they don't even have the submarine capabilities to do that kind of work in their fleet.

David, thank you. And I hope you can stay with us throughout the program. I've got a lot more questions for you. David Gallo joining us live via telephone.

Just fantastic information when it comes to the oceanographic aspect of what this search might entail.

And when David said that it could take a long time, think about the families for a moment, because they've been waiting already two weeks, almost entirely two weeks.

But if it takes years and years, they still need the answers. As you might imagine, the discovery of this debris that might have actually come from the plane is evoking a lot of different emotions for these relatives of the passengers.

You're going to hear from some of these family members. They are absolutely desperate for anything they can get.

But what does today's discovery mean for them? You'll find out, next.


BANFIELD: It is certainly a double-edged sword for the families of the passengers of Flight 370.

If these images in a remote area of the southern Indian Ocean are indeed debris from the Malaysian Airlines plane, well, it could certainly bring the families some closure after a 13-day nightmare.

But that closure would come with squashing their hopes that their loved ones may still actually be alive somewhere.

The latter is certainly true for Sarah Bajc who has said over and over that she's hoping her partner, an American named Philip Wood, is being held hostage somewhere, instead of the other alternative.

And she spoke with Chris Cuomo on "NEW DAY" this morning and gave her reaction to these latest developments.


SARAH BAJC, PARTNER WAS ON FLIGHT 370: It's enough to make us all anxious again after a couple days of quiet, but I'm cautiously pessimistic that it's not a piece of the plane.

I keep hoping that somebody took this flight for a reason, which means they would have preserved it and tried to hide it someplace, tried to take it someplace.

So, if this debris is indeed part of that plane, then it kind of dashes that wishful thinking to pieces.


BANFIELD: Bajc is most certainly not alone in her emotions. A short time ago Malaysia Airlines held a briefing for the families at a hotel.

And I want to bring in our Atika Shubert in Kuala Lumpur. Atika, what have the families been told about this latest development, and how are they managing, the families, with regard to where they're going to be as this search narrows?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, we know they were shown the satellite images that were used to pinpoint this debris, but they have been told there's no confirmation that it is the plane at this point, that they're still sending search planes out there to try and verify it.

So, a lot of the families are reserving judgment. They're still trying to hold themselves together until they know for sure whether or not it's the plane.

Two fathers I've spoken to said that they're hopeful that somehow miraculously the passengers survived, but they realize that this, if confirmed, could mean obviously that the plane has crashed, and so, they are also bracing themselves for the worst.

But most of the families that went in for this briefing were very stoic. I think they -- they're really trying to keep it together before they know what's really confirmed.

But it's very, very difficult. And they don't know what's going to happen next or what they're going to do.

At the moment, many of them are staying in these hotels, and they're just getting these sort of occasional briefings from the Malaysia Airlines. But for many of them that is just not enough. And they simply want closure at this point.

BANFIELD: All right, Atika Shubert, live for us.

Clearly, these families wanting any information they can get, certainly wanting an end to this disaster, but the information certainly may not be the kind that they were hoping for.

Satellite and the images that they give off have been certainly critical in the search for the missing plane, but they're also raising some questions as well, like timing.

Why are some of them not released until days later after the pictures have been taken? And why are the pictures so grainy?

We touched on that topic, but when it comes to national security, how much more critical is national security than finding people, a plane, or God forbid, bodies?

We're going to dig deeper on that, next.