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Search in Indian Ocean After Debris Spotted; Anxious Relatives on Emotional Rollercoaster; Colorado Satellite Imaging Company Helps in MH370 Search; Answering Viewers Questions About MH370; Obama Talks New Sanctions on Russia.

Aired March 20, 2014 - 13:30   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Crews searching for any sign of Malaysia Flight 370 now a concrete lead to go on, but it's only still a lead. Here are the latest developments. A multinational search operation is underway right now in the southern Indian Ocean about -- after two objects were spotted bobbing in the water. A commercial satellite captured images of the objects four days ago. Australian intelligence officials analyzed the pictures, determined the objects could possibly be debris from the jet, but they don't yet know for sure. The largest object is about 79 feet long, roughly the size of a Boeing 777 wing. Australian and U.S. aircraft reached the area today, but so far, they have found nothing. Visibility was limited because of rain and clouds. Search planes are due to return to the area at sunrise in that part of the world. That's in about four and a half hours from now. And a Norwegian cargo ship is continuing to hunt for the debris around the clock. The cargo ship is in the area. Officials stressed the objects may just be ocean garbage, like a container or two that fell off of a ship, but they also say the sighting is the best lead they've gotten so far.

And there's also a development in the investigation. A U.S. official telling CNN that FBI investigators, they are confident they will eventually be able to recover at least some of the data deleted from the flight simulator that was taken from the pilot's home.

Joining us now from San Francisco is retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Ken Christensen. He's a commercial pilot, certified aircraft crash investigator.

Ken, thanks very much for joining us.

You have lots of experience in ocean searches like this one. Just how difficult is it going to be to determine -- first of all, to find these two objects and determine whether or not they are from the missing airliner?

LT. COL. KEN CHRISTENSEN, PRESIDENT, INTEGRATED AVIATION SOLUTIONS & COMMERCIAL PILOT, AIRCRAFT CRASH INVESTIGATOR: Well, Wolf, first of all, they have to find -- you go back out and get eyes on the object that was found for the satellite. They have not done that yet. It's dark there now. And when day breaks, they'll go out and look for that again. Once they establish a target, they're going to have to fly lower and see, does this look like an aircraft piece or part or not. If they have ships out at that point or a ship with a helicopter, the helicopter might be able to come off the ship and take a closer look or they'll be deboarding someone in a ship in a smaller boat to verify that.

BLITZER: Because the debris -- the pictures that the Australians released the satellite images, they're four days old. And presumably, given the heavy currents, whatever that was, that debris, it could have moved a lot of miles away.

CHRISTENSEN: Yeah, that's correct. They're very familiar with the currents, both the currents deeper down and the currents on top. And what they would do is, once they see the debris field, they'll see how much the debris weighs, if it's lighter debris, it can blow faster, heavier piece of debris it will move slower. They'll take that into consideration and how many days and use the currents and back those pieces up to the point of origin or the point where the aircraft could have gone in if this is in fact the site of the aircraft.

BLITZER: Given the actual -- it's really narrowed down the area that they're searching right now. It shouldn't take too long to get a plane to fly over, a helicopter to fly over or a ship to get nearby, maybe a submarine, and see what's going on. If, in fact, this is the debris, the next step would be to find more of it, including the flight data recorder, the voice recorder. There's only 15 or 16 days left that it's continuing to send out these beeps, these pings that would determine where they are. That would be a difficult challenge, right?

CHRISTENSEN: Yes, it would. That's a real race. Initially, when you see the debris field, you want to look for survivors. That's probably not probable at this point. But you want to look for that anyway. And then the second thing would be to look for that flight data recorder. Then it goes from a rescue to a recovery phase. You can sort of slow down and do things correctly. But the race to get where the debris field, you're in the neighborhood, and then that's when your sensors go in the water to find the underwater locater beacon, which makes ticking noises. But you need a sensor in the water to take care of that. So it's much, much different than emergency locator transmitter, which if you crash an airplane in the side of a mountain, it would transmit, and a constellation of satellites would pick up and pinpoint you instantly. You have to be closer to an underwater locater beacon because its transmission propagation is not that -- as far as emergency locator transmitter.

BLITZER: I would assume they would want to collect as much -- if this is wreckage from the plane, they would want to collect it and bring it to shore. That's about a 1500-mile sail from, if this is in fact the area, to the closest shoreline, which would be Perth, Australia. That's not an easy challenge, is it?

CHRISTENSEN: No, it's not, Wolf. I think you brought up an excellent point. The transient time from the Australian coast to be on scene where you're going to search is almost five hours for the P-3 aircraft. For the P-8, the U.S. Navy jet, that's a little faster. But for the P-3s, they have about a 13-hour, 14-hour duration. So five hours to the objective area, five hours back is 10. You're only going to be able to be on station for about three hours. So they're going to have a series of airplanes every two and a half hours -- two to three hours taking off from Australia flying out the objective area and relieving the one that's on scene, so the search can continue.

BLITZER: I got a tweet earlier today from someone who said, could drones be useful in searching for the debris. What do you think?

CHRISTENSEN: Drones with the correct sensors on them would be a very good use of that asset. The one thing that drones don't do well, are fly low at low altitudes. So if they have a cloud deck, let's say the cloud deck is 500 feet, the P-3s are able to penetrate the cloud deck and then fly just under 500 feet and continue to search. And that might be a little riskier for the drones. We're not talking small drones. We're talking like predator drones that have long duration, 22 hours of air time.

BLITZER: Good point.

Ken Christensen, thanks very much for helping us.

CHRISTENSEN: You're welcome.

BLITZER: The pressure and the anguish of waiting. We're going to hear from what Malaysia's government is now saying to families and others concerned about the passengers. Remember, there were 239 passengers and crew members aboard this missing flight 370.


BLITZER: Anxious relatives have been waiting and waiting for any news of their loved ones. It's an emotional roller coaster until they find out what happened to those on board flight 370.

This Chinese father, whose son was on the plane, is still clinging to hope.


MR. WEN, FATHER OF MISSING PASSENGER (through translation): This is not confirmed. I think this is definitely not the plane. I have hope from the very beginning. I firmly believe everyone on board is alive. I'm just not sure where they have hidden the plane.


BLITZER: That belief from one father in China.

Most of the passengers are Chinese. And the government promises to fly families to Perth, Australia, if that debris is confirmed to be from the plane.

Meanwhile, in Malaysia's capital, officials have been talking to family members today.

Let's bring in Saima Mohsin, joining us from Kuala Lumpur.

The briefing was closed to reporters, but what have you learned? SAIMA MOHSIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what I can tell you is that about 100 friends, family members, relatives of those on board flight MH370 were packed into that room to hear what authorities have to say. Mostly family members of the Malay, Chinese and Indian people on board that flight. And so everything that was said was translated in each of those languages for clarity to make sure that everyone was accommodated and everyone felt that their voice had been heard and explained to of course crucially.

Now, the mood inside that room has been described to me as very somber, very calm. There was no shouting. There was no upset or angst. The families had come prepared, Wolf. They've come prepared with their questions. They knew what they wanted to know. They knew the answers they need. And crucially, they asked two very important questions. They asked, why did it take so long for Malaysia Airlines to notify everybody of the flight being missing? Now, what they said is, well, we have SOPs, standard operating procedures, to go through, we wanted to make absolutely sure that this flight had indeed gone missing right off our radar and hadn't landed somewhere else or indeed on its way to Beijing. That's why it took so long. They also asked, Wolf, a piece of information that came out a few days ago in one of the briefings here in Kuala Lumpur about the fact that Malaysian authorities said they can't share a lot of primary radar information. Now, primary radar is referring to military radars of different countries that are helping in this search and rescue effort. Malaysian authorities said we simply can't share that. It's far too sensitive for national security. And the families, in that briefing, felt concerned that perhaps something had been hidden from them or perhaps that if they could tell them which countries it was from might just lead them to exactly where the plane might be located now.

One other thing about this briefing, Wolf, is the people that were there representing the authorities, it was a representative of the military, not the chief of defense force. And it was a representative from the transport ministry, not the acting transport minister himself. And crucially, nobody from Malaysia Airlines was there. So there was a lot of comments going around about the fact that a lot of the questions that need to be answered were by the airline and, yet, no one from the airline was there -- Wolf?

BLITZER: That's very intriguing. Clearly, they obviously don't have a lot of answers.

Quickly, Saima, what are they saying about the statement this may be debris from the aircraft? What are Malaysian government officials and airline officials saying?

MOHSIN: Well, they're calling it credible information. They're heavily reliant on what the prime minister said in parliament today. They believe that, you know, if the prime minister of Australia is telling parliament that they believe these objects, these two objects in the Indian Ocean could well be linked to flight MH370, then it's credible information. But they also applied a lot of caution today because they reminded everyone that there is no proof yet. There is no identification. And so we're hanging on these words, "could be, might be." We simply don't know yet, Wolf. And all those aircraft and ships have to first get to the location, locate those two objects and then identify them. A lot of hopes and fears of family members hanging on all of these events. As they'll come through, we'll keep you updated on that -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Saima Mohsin in Kuala Lumpur.

So why don't the flight recorders have GPS data to make them easier to find? One of the questions many of you have asked us. We're going to get answers from our panel of experts.

And later, President Obama reacts to the latest developments in Ukraine, choosing new targets for U.S. sanctions.


BLITZER: The intensified search in the southern Indian Ocean came as a result of satellite images released by Australian officials. But those images actually came from Colorado.

CNN's Ana Cabrera is joining us with more on this part of the story.

Tell us what you're learning, Ana.

ANA CABRERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT; Well, Wolf, these images came from the company called Digital Globe, based in Longmont, Colorado, about 30 to 40 miles north of Denver. It's a satellite imagery company. What's interesting about this is we have confirmed that it was their images they've been providing to officials that ultimately are at the center of this latest discovery and these developments that seem to be possibly very promising. And they issued this statement to us confirming that they were informed by an Australian government official that it was our imagery, they say, that Prime Minister Abbott referred to in his recent comments. "We do not have any additional information." But goes onto say, "We will continue to cooperate with authorities to provide any and all information at our disposal to assist the search."

Now, this company has been involved with the search effort really from the very beginning. Remember, we talked about the crowd-sourcing efforts that have gone on since at least last Monday, about 10 days now, in order to get more eyes looking over this very vast area. And Digital Globe is providing all the imagery a viral effort. We now know there more than 3.6 million people who are participating and looking at these digital images put on the website. This is a platform that Digital Globe uses for their crowd-sourcing campaigns. You are seeing the icons at the top. They are asking people looking on their computer-scanning digital images to identify oil slicks and possible wreckage and a raft or other objects. To this date, there have been nearly 500 million map views from people all-around the world and some 6.7 features have been tagged. What's unclear is that the crowd-sourcing effort led authorities to hone in on these two particular objects that everyone is racing to try to identify or if it was something separate in which the officials happened to look at the imagery independently, Wolf. But an interesting development with the latest breaking news comes from a company right here in Colorado.

BLITZER: Good to know.

Ana, thanks very much.

The fruitless search of fight 370 prompted many questions. Twitter using the #370Qs. We want to put them to our panel right now.

Joining us once again, our law enforcement analyst, Tom Fuentes; our aviation analysts, Mark Weiss and Peter Goelz.

Here are the questions. And let's take them one at a time.

The question I asked earlier: How about using drones to inspect the Indian Ocean? Smart?

MARK WEISS, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Certainly makes sense. A longer time, you can get down to the altitude that you need. It gives a much greater option.

BLITZER: Here's the question now to Peter. How long before images from repositioned high def satellites are available?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST & FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: I don't know that. I think it takes at least 24 to 36 hours.

BLITZER: You don't?


BLITZER: It could be a while.

Here's another question. Why are transponders able to be disabled? Should there not be a redundant system in case of failure?

GOELZ: Everything on a plane is redundant. There is a fear that there may be an electrical short circuit and something that you may have to be disabled for. This will cause the industry and the professionals to rethink that whole approach.

BLITZER: Keep the transponders on, right?

WEISS: You always keep the transponders on.

BLITZER: Turn them off when you get -- they shouldn't be allowed manually to turn them off in the cockpit.

WEISS: Well, you turn them off on the ground.

BLITZER: On the ground is different. When you're flying, keep -- there has to be a way to formulate it so it can't be manually turned off.

WEISS: You probably could do that with a squat switch.

BLITZER: That takes an enormous amount of time, right? Everybody agrees.


BLITZER: I am surprised, after 9/11, they didn't do that. Three of the four planes that were hijacked, the first thing the terrorist did was turn off the transponder. That was something that we haven't learned from them, we should learn it now.

Here's another question, Tom, for you. Are the two stolen passports considered a factor anymore and is it possible that another country allowed them to secretly land?

FUENTES: I don't know about the secretly landing part. Seems far- fetched.

As far as the passports, I would think that is still open as far as were the two individuals given contraband from the guy who gave them the stolen passports and the tickets in the first place. They may be unwitting couriers of something that was bad for the airplane.

BLITZER: Here's one for you, Peter. Where are the subs that run under water? Wouldn't a satellite be able to see what was under there?

GOELZ: There's two subs you're talking about. The naval assets, they don't talk about them. They are extraordinarily good listeners. They are built for that. Hopefully, they are in play. The smaller ROVs, the remote subs, we have to get closer before we put them in the water to know what to look for.

BLITZER: Mark, here's a question for you. 1500 miles from Perth. All the way out to the area where the debris is, can refueling planes help keep search planes on target longer? They are going to have to refuel if they can or P-8s. They can refuel P-8s.

WEISS: I'm not sure they really can.


WEISS: That's basically a 737 platform. The P-3 is --


BLITZER: I think the P-8s they can.


BLITZER: It's the P-3s, I don't think they can.

WEISS: That would certainly help that. But brings up why the drones would be a good option.

BLITZER: We will do this every day. A lot of questions out there. And you guys have good answers.

Thanks very much. If you have questions about flight 370, post them to Twitter. Use the #370Qs. Later tonight, 10:00 p.m. eastern, Don Lemon will host a CNN special report on flight 370. He and an expert panel will answer many more questions.

Coming up, we will have more on the mystery surrounding flight 370.

But first, the latest from Ukraine. A new vote in Russia angers world leaders who are stepping up pressure on Russia and its economy.


BLITZER: We'll get back to the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 in a moment.

But first, an update on new developments in Ukraine. Last night, President Obama said there would be no U.S. military intervention in Ukraine. Just a little while ago, the president announced new sanctions on Russian and Crimean officials and on one bank. He spoke about what could come next.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- great concern as Russia has positioned its military in a way that could lead to further incursions into southern and eastern Ukraine. For this reason, we have been working closely with the European partners to develop more severe actions that could be taken if Russia continues to escalate the situation. As part of that process, I signed a new executive order today that gives us the authority to impose sanctions not just on individuals, but on key sectors of the Russian economy.

This is not the preferred out come. These sanctions would not only have a significant impact on the Russian economy, but could be disruptive to the global economy. However, Russia must know that further escalation will only isolate it further from the international community.


BLITZER: Russia immediately retaliated with their own sanctions against nine officials, among them John Boehner; and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid; as well as Senators John McCain; Robert Menendez; and Mary Landrieu. All are banned from traveling to Russia. Boehner's spokesman said the speaker is proud, proud to be on that list.

Markets are feeling the ripple effect of the new Fed chief, Janet Yellen. Taking a look at the big board right now, stocks are up about 117 points right now.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching. I will be back at 5:00 p.m. eastern for a special two-hour edition of "The Situation Room."

NEWSROOM starts with Brooke Baldwin right now.