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Satellite Spots 122 Objects in Ocean; Search Continues in Washington Landslide

Aired March 26, 2014 - 12:00   ET


BILL WEIR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: How do you get people out of these areas?


WEIR: They love this place, for obvious reasons. But this is the price they see of such a beautiful spot.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: And they're sticking together right now all through this, and they really do need each other right now. Our thanks to Bill Weir out in Washington.

PEREIRA: That's it for this hour of AT THIS HOUR. I'm Michaela Pereira. Thanks so much for joining us.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. "Legal View" with Ashleigh Banfield starts right now with more on the search for Malaysia Flight 370.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Ashleigh Banfield. It is Wednesday, March the 26th. And welcome to LEGAL VIEW.

And we're beginning here with breaking news on Flight 370. Possibly the best lead so far and certainly the biggest in the search for the missing airliner. Satellites have spotted a debris field with 122 objects scattered in an area about the size of Denver, smack in the middle of the south Indian Ocean. No one has been able to confirm all of this just yet, like what it is, what's floating. But, still, this is a very encouraging development.

The search efforts intensified today. Crews actually spotted by eye three other objects they thought might be from this flight. One of them was likely a rope. Another was something that was blue in color. The sad part is, none of them visible when the aircraft came back around making additional passes to get a second spot. And that's just illustrating how tough this can be to find anything in these vast, vast waters.

In the meantime, this flight recorder locator system, it's one of the best in the world, a Cadillac of all the designs, it's specializing in picking up the pings from the black boxes and it's finally arrived in Perth, Australia, direct from JFK in New York. The problem is, is this an exercise in futility because it may not even make the actual search area before the flight data recorder runs out of batteries and the pings effectively stop.

So let's zero in for a moment on this potential massive debris field. We've got an image from a French satellite that was taken again on Sunday. And that's several days ago. But it does show possible debris in the south Indian Ocean. And a lot of it, too. One hundred and twenty-two objects spread over 150 square miles. You think about that math. It's about an area the size of the city of Denver.

But here's why it's promising. Some of those pieces that they saw are roughly 75 feet long, and that's big enough to be a wing or maybe part of a fuselage. And some of the objects also appear to be bright in color. And that, to the experts, could indicate that they are actually solid materials.

Let's talk about the area for a moment. It's 1,500 miles off of Perth, Australia. And since we were talking about Denver, it's actually like flying from New York to Denver, but it's all water. And all of what they're seeing is right in the middle of a search area. It's important to reiterate that none of this debris has been tied to the missing Flight 370 as of now. And all we have to go on right now are the satellite images because there's been no human eye sightings by the search planes or all of the search ships that are out there right now.

And joining me to talk about the significance of this potential debris field, former commercial airline pilot Kit Darby, who's here with me in Atlanta in the CNN Center, also CNN's safety analyst David Soucie, and ocean explorer and expedition leader Christine Dennison is in New York.

First to you, David Soucie. It can't be stressed enough that this is very, very encouraging, but, why?

DAVID SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: Well, it is for me for two reasons. One is that, as was mentioned before, 75 feet objects. That is a common theme. We've seen that two or three times before with debris that we found. And I'm -- I'm thinking that that fits the profile of what would be a wing because the length of it is still about - probably about right for what would be a flotated -- floating area within that wing.

In addition to that, there's talk that this debris field is just material that's kind of gathered together and that that might be a bad thing because it might just be debris from the ocean. What -- that's still good because if there is debris from the aircraft in any area, even if it's concentrated with other materials, we'll be able to find -- the searchers will be able to find that and identify it, if it is part of that aircraft.

BANFIELD: And let's hope they can because up until now anything that's been spotted by satellite we typically get notified three to four days later. And when eyes go on the location, they just can't spot it. But there's 122 pieces to work with.

Christine Dennison, 122 pieces. I keep thinking that's miraculous and then I realize it's been more than three days, the weather has been horrifying, almost cyclonic at this point, the waves have been upwards of, I think, if I remember correctly, 20 to 30 feet.


BANFIELD: And we're also 19 days after the crash. And all of that, while it seems to buoy our spirits in finding something, they seem to be dashed very quickly with those statistics.

DENNISON: Right. Again, 122 pieces, I agree. I think we're all very excited by the discovery, by what they're seeing on satellite. I think one of the issues that they're having is, it is four days old at this point.

What can happen out there with a debris field is, what they're seeing from four or five days ago, dependent on the winds, the winds can either -- in the course of this time frame, clump it together, so that we've got one giant -- or parts of this debris field together at this point, or it can spread it farther apart, which will then make it more difficult for them when they are on-site looking for 122 pieces, they've have to be looking for patches, or they'll be looking over a larger area before they can go ahead and really do anything more. They still have to identify these pieces, physically locate them.

BANFIELD: And I'm sure that, you know, Captain Darby, this is not something you've ever had to imagine for yourself, in your, what, I think 24,000 flying hours over a 30-year career flying these big birds. But all I can wonder is, what happens when an aircraft like a 777 hits water, whether it hits by accident or whether a pilot tries to bring it down like Sully Sullenberger did on the Hudson? What happens and how big could those pieces be?

KIT DARBY, RETIRED COMMERCIAL AIRLINE PILOT: Well, notwithstanding Mr. Sullenberger's - Captain Sullenberger's great success, landing on water is quite difficult. So in almost every case, the airplane does not maintain control, does not make that totally one piece landing like he did. So it comes apart whether you're trying to land it successfully or not. So we're going to have pieces in most cases.

The pieces that we see now are large enough. I've done a fair amount of over-water surveillance, actually, in the military. Very difficult to tell what you have from up high where you're flying at altitude. But down low, you've got some good indications. The color's right. Emergency equipment, emergency ramps, those types of things would be bright yellow, bright orange. The trouble is, they would also be that way in maritime for emergencies there, too.

So we can't be sure what we have. I'm sort of a show-me kind of guy. I'm hoping that they get a piece that they can directly relate to this airplane.

BANFIELD: You're not the only show-me person in this story. I mean, honestly, there are people all around the world who are desperate for some indication, whether it's to assuage these just, you know, traumatized families, or just to assuage the rest of us who fly. How can this happen? Nineteen days out. Not to suggest you're as savvy as Christine Dennison is in oceanography, but pieces of a plane 19 days out, does this sound plausible to you? This many pieces?

DARBY: Well, this airplane has unique construction. You know, we've gone to composite construction. We've improved construction techniques. I can't speak for the manufacturer, but this airplane has a greater chance of floating than any one I'm familiar with. It's lighter. It has many airtight compartments. We're likely to find a large piece.

BANFIELD: But I keep wondering, with the weather and all those other factors, would they stay together.

But we're going to dig a lot deep into that. Stand by. Thank you, Captain Darby. Also, David Soucie and Christine Dennison, thank you to you as well.

In just a few minutes, Tom Foreman is going to weigh in on this. He's going to take us on an actual virtual tour of this area, of the Indian Ocean, where the search is focused. And we will learn a lot more about those currents, what might actually be happening with 122 pieces three days later.

We also have another developing story that we're following for you. A huge and deadly mudslide in Washington state. Images for you now that are just heart-rendering. It shows you just how big and devastating this mudslide has been. We're going to update you on that.

And we also have new information this hour on that four-year-old boy that rescuers were able to get to. The video of his actual rescue, look at that, it is just harrowing but awesome. We're going to show it to you in full in a moment.


BANFIELD: Welcome back.

Right now crews in Washington state are going through the grueling task of looking for more bodies that are buried in that mud from Saturday's landslide. At least 24 people died in this disaster, and eight of those bodies have not yet been recovered. They've been located, they just can't get to them.

And this is one picture that speaks 1,000 words. An American flag standing in the ruins of a home. It was put up by the volunteers who were going through a physically and emotionally demanding process.

And just to give you a sense of this devastation, take a look at the before and after picture of the landslide. This is from NASA's earth observatory. It's dated January 18th. The after picture is quite incredible. It's dated Sunday, March 23rd. And it really does tell the story.

These small communities are so shaken by what's happened. They are digging with their bare hands to try to find their loved ones.


DON YOUNG, DARRINGTON RESIDENT: It's a close community. Everyone is doing what they can.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I know we're going to find her, honey. We're going to find her and bring her home.

RAE SMITH, SEARCHING FOR DAUGHTER: It's horrible because I know she's down there under the mud in the dark. My family has been down there digging for her since Saturday afternoon.

NICHOLE WEBB RIVERA, FAMILY AMONG THE MISSING: If you've seen the maps and you've seen the extent of the devastation, and the consistency of the mud, I can tell you with great soundness that they're not going to find my parents or my daughter or her fiancee. I really feel that they're gone.

DEBBIE SATTERLEE, FAMILY AMONG THE MISSING: What do I do now? What if they don't recover my brother's body? What do I do? It would be great to (INAUDIBLE) his body, but I understand, if we can't - that if we can't, they're in the right spot. They actually had plans to have the family funeral plot on their place. My brother and sister love that place. So if they had to go and stay, that may (ph) be.


BANFIELD: And there are hundreds of people just like that woman who are waiting to find out where they're loved ones are. Our Bill Weir is live in Darrington, Washington, right now. He's been looking into not only the devastation, but the logistics of how to move forward in this story.

Bill, get me updated. Where are we right now?

WEIR: Well, Ashleigh, 24 confirmed dead now. That list of 170-plus unaccounted for hasn't gone down. And that's mystifying. And they thought there was a lot of sort of duplications on there but they have detectives who are schooled in missing persons cases to try to cull that list. But just - it speaks to the enormity of the recovery when you realize that they've confirmed another eight fatalities yesterday, pushing that number to 24. But they can't get them out because the mud -- it goes -- when the sun comes out like this, a rare moment like this, it hardens into like a thick clay.

But yesterday, it rained all day and it turned it into this soup. And so just the challenge of recovering someone they know is there is huge. It's something we can't even imagine. So as you said, they're using shovels and bare hands.

We do want to cling to just the shreds of positivity that come out of this story, and that comes to us in the form of new video just released of a rescue of a boy and his father. This is on Saturday. Amazing pictures, as you see. How frightened this little guy must have been to have witnessed that mountain come down on top of his neighborhood and then to get hoisted into the arms of rescuers in that helicopter. His father, you can see the panic in his eyes, as well. But unfortunately, that was -- those were sort of the last signs of life when it comes to rescue and recovery. And now, as we said, it's turned to shovels. And what's interesting is we're getting more insight into warnings. Of course, the management official for this county said we didn't see this coming. This was a safe area.

But there are reports from 2010 that really contradict this. After many geologists and engineers studied this area, that town of Oso was listed on a state and county report that said this is a real danger. Mudslides are a real danger. Landslides could cost $2 billion in property damage and loss of life.

But it's just like anything else. We have covered this story, Ashleigh, in hurricane zones. People live here for a specific reason. They love the fresh air, the bald eagles, the salmon in the rivers, the vistas, and so how do you get them out of a dangerous area like that?

In fact, when they floated this report, some people got so angry they seceded from the county. They formed their own "freedom county," hired their own sheriff, because they didn't want any part of land management. And ironically, sadly, one of those leaders is among the missing.

BANFIELD: You know, Bill, you can secede all you want. You can't hire accurate science.

I mean, there has been enough science that's coming out now to show that this was not a total surprise.

Bill, keep us updated, please. Let us know when they find more of the bodies, and, God, let's hope they find someone alive, Bill Weir, live in Washington.

Both of towns, Darrington and Oso, seem so completely caught off guard by this, as mentioned by John Pennington, head of Snohomish Department of Emergency Management.

I want to play for you exactly what he said in a news conference on Monday.


JOHN PENNINGTON, SNOHOMISH COUNTY EMA DIRECTOR: No, this was a completely unseen slide.

It happened in 2006. We briefed on this before. 2006 was -- excuse me. 2006 was a pretty devastating flood for this little area, or, I'm sorry, landslide, and this came out of nowhere. No warning, they had very little.


BANFIELD: So, completely unforeseen is the message there. And yet here is what we know about the hill that collapsed, according to "The Seattle Times."

Some residents referred to it as "Slide Hill." "Slide Hill," there is a reason. Slides happened back in '49. They happened in '51. They happened again in '67. They happened in 1999.

In fact, let me be on top of it. In 1999, something even bigger happened. A report came out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, warning of, quote, "the potential for a large, catastrophic failure," end quote.

And then there is the devastating slide in 2006 that John Pennington just mentioned. And yet people kept building new homes in that vicinity. So how did officials sign off on the development projects after all of these warnings and after all of this history?

I want to bring in Dan Deocampo who is a former geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He's also the chair of the Department of Geosciences at Georgia State University.

Can you answer that question?

DAN DEOCAMPO, GEOSCIENCES DEPARTMENT CHAIR, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY: I think you've hit it right on the head, Ashleigh. There really is -- and it's not just with landslides.

In a lot of cases, we -- when we have natural disasters, we have the science. We know why these things happen, and in this case, where they might happen.

But there is a disconnect between the science and policymakers.

BANFIELD: Well, and look, one of these officials, and I'm not going to call him a policymaker, head of emergency management, good at reactions to emergencies, perhaps not part of the process of offsetting emergencies. He said, we were caught completely off guard. And it's -- look, I'm not one of those families right now looking for my buried loved one. But if I were, I would be livid.

DEOCAMPO: I have a tremendous amount of empathy and respect for the people who are on the ground dealing with this right now. But I think as the days go forward, we need to find out where did something break down. Because clearly, we have these reports on file. But there was a disconnect, and we have to understand why that happened.

It's especially surprising in Washington state, because Washington is one of the strictest in the nation about professional licensure of geologists and ensuring that people doing geology for the public are properly licensed and supervised.

BANFIELD: And then it probably extends to those who want development and getting the permits to do so.

Let me ask you this, just essentially about this location and this valley. Is this slide -- could it move again? Is it done with its damage?

DEOCAMPO: It is not done. The processes at work here have been going on for thousands of years, and they will continue to go on. As we have just learned, this -- these sorts of slides have happened many times, just in recent decades. So we need to monitor the situation and there are geologists on the ground right now from the U.S. Geological Survey, from Washington, from Washington institutions, that are working hard to understand these risks.

BANFIELD: Working hard, I get it. But at the same time, it was only a few days ago they could hear people knocking and begging for help. And how do you temper that with this pile may keep going? What do you do?

DEOCAMPO: Absolutely. We need to move quickly to understand where the breakdown occurred and look up and down this valley and not just in Washington state. A lot of areas around the country are at risk to land slides.

BANFIELD: I hate to even ask this question, but there are a lot of people who are desperate -- well, look, they're desperate to recover their loved ones, hopefully alive. But I think there is a reality setting in for many of them that we have interviewed who said they just want to recover their loved ones at this time.

Is there any chance with 30, 40 feet of debris at this point -- the thickness is that deep, right?


BANFIELD: Any chance they could end up entombed there forever?

DEOCAMPO: I don't have experience with these kinds of responses. This is why we see heavy machinery moving out quickly, and why the emergency responders need to move quickly.

And they understand, this is very hard, tough material to work with. And that's why they're digging very hard.

So this is big. What's happened is huge. Is this going to have an impact on communities all through this area that might be now going back to their blueprints and going back to their studies and going back to their geological history to realize, you know what, I think we might need to move some people?

BANFIELD: Well, it's a reminder Mother Nature throws us curve balls all of the time, and we have to make sure there are policies in place that connect the science to the policymakers.

Dan Deocampo, thank you for your insight. It's distressing to know you saw this here in Georgia and those people continue to build, and for all intents and purposes, we can only assume they had plenty of permission to do so.

Thank you. Appreciate it.

We want to take you back to our other stop story as well we're following. The search for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, more objects spotted in the ocean by satellites and a lot of objects. But getting to them with a ship -- take a look at your screen and maybe you'll get a sense of how dangerous and difficult a spotter's mission is.

We're going to take you on a virtual tour of that part of the Indian Ocean from above and below.


BANFIELD: All right. We are back to the search for Flight 370, 122 objects spotted in the Indian Ocean.

Here's the problem. This has become very routine, because every time something shows up on a fuzzy satellite picture, three to four days later, we get very excited and think this could be it. This could be the final clue we need to help those families figure out what happened to their loved ones.

So, search crews, they look and they look, and they find nothing. Perhaps the debris is gone. Perhaps it wasn't the debris we thought it was. Today might be different, though, because we've got some new images and it's got our analysts talking. more than 120 pieces, not two, not three, 120 pieces of something.

And some of these pieces are very big. And they're spread out over a huge area, too. And if the predictions about ocean currents and wind are correct, that's also good news, because these pieces are roughly in the right spot to be the plane's wreckage.

Our Tom Foreman has been watching this very closely, mapping it not only geographically, but also with the currents.

I hate saying this. I feel so repetitive when I say roughly, the approximate location, and even if we knew the exact spot where the plane went down, this is not an easy search site or a search pattern or an ocean reality. Give me the lowdown on this spot and what the ocean is doing to it.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it all has to be roughly at this point, if you think about it, Ashleigh, because we're so far removed from the event. All of the calculations go further and further into approximation at this point.

But this is why people are excited. Because, yes, it is roughly in the right space. It sort of corresponds with other images that have been captured in the area.

And when you go into this debris, you mentioned the big pieces, the big pieces are important, but in some ways the smaller pieces and the fact they're in an area that's about 12.5 miles by 12.5 miles, a cube like that, that's one of the more encouraging signs here.

Because think about this. When a big plane goes down like TWA went down off the coast of New York, yes, in that case they had a fuel tank exploding, according to investigators, but many, many of the things on the surface where these smaller pieces.

You see it reconstructed here as they try to figure out this accident. Many of them were smaller pieces, so that debris field on top of the water, for want of a better term, simply looks like an airplane crash in the water. That's what they look like. That's why they're excited.

But you are absolutely correct. The challenges that remain now are immense. Let me bring in the search area here and talk about why it's so immense.

Even if they're correct about all the calculations about where the plane went, what they have to do is create this grid on the water of all this search area, and then they have to assign to that grid value. They have to say which part they think is more likely to contain the plane.

If we made that the red area in the center there, you could shift that around and say maybe the plane went in quite early in the search area and then you have it move up here to the north.

Or you can look at things like this data that we have now, this idea that -- not data, but actually evidence, if it proves to be right, and that would say maybe the plane went in much further down. Maybe it was gliding for a considerable period of time, or the fuel lasted longer than we expected, Ashleigh.

The important thing about this field, and, again, it's all very tenuous is, if it plays out, it helps get them closer to figuring out where the bulk of the plane might be, Ashleigh.

BANFIELD: And that's the question I have for you. If they've got the field, and I hope they can establish that something there is actually belonging to 370, through those grids and through those squares, can they actually establish where the impact zone would have been?