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Mystery of Flight 370; Obama Meeting with Pope Francis

Aired March 27, 2014 - 04:30   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news overnight: the air search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 called off. Thick clouds, heavy turbulence and ice making it impossible for investigators to see really anything. Ships remain desperately trying to find clues of that vanished jetliner that could be nearby. This as the family for the captain, one of the family members speaks out for the first time.

We are bringing you live team coverage of what is developing right this hour.

Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Christine Romans. It's 41 minutes -- 31 minutes past the hour.

Let's start with breaking news, new developments in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Now, officials in Thailand confirming they have satellite images showing 300 objects floating in the south Indian Ocean in that search zone, and they believe they may be linked to the missing jetliner.

Look, everyone's looking at this to see, is there a debris field, how far away is it, and can they get to it quickly. Meanwhile, the air search for Flight 370 has been cut short by bad weather this morning. Eleven planes evacuated from the search area in the south Indian Ocean just a few hours ago.

Now, look, they spent several hours looking for their best lead yet, 122 objects photographed Sunday by a French satellite, but no luck yet. All while investigators dig deeper into the background of Flight 370's pilot to find out if he could be the one who took this jetliner down.

A lot of developments this morning. Let's begin with the latest on the search off the coast of Australia.

Andrew Stevens live from Perth this morning.

Really a forbidding part of the world, a forbidding part of the ocean. Again, we see how Mother Nature not cooperating here after a few hours these planes had to go home. Tell us what's going on now.

ANDREW STEVENS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now, I'm on the Pearce Air Force Base. I don't know if you can see just over my right shoulder, where there's an impromptu little press briefing going on from the captain of an Australian air force plane, even though you're seeing a Canadian insignia there. A royal air force P-3 Orion just landed just a few minutes ago. Just what I could catch from the press conference, they were on the location for about three, two hours or so, so they were down there.

I'm not sure whether they have seen any debris. Usually in these cases, when the pilots do come out and talk to us, it's always been they haven't seen any debris. So, no -- we can't take any further forward on this new news from the Thai satellite seeing some 300 pieces of debris. That could be another very important sighting.

They continue to mount up, these sightings. Just yesterday, it was 122 pieces seen by a French private satellite. Now, aviation analysts are telling us that could indicate a debris field, 300 pieces of debris could indicate a debris field. They're all around about this same area. This is crucial.

But what is so frustrating is, as you were saying, the flights called off today because of weather, bad, bad weather. It was described to us by one of the U.S. Navy P-8 aircraft as being severe turbulence. Visibility virtually zero. And actually there was a threat of icing. Now, icing on the wings can be deadly to planes, so they got out of there.

The good news is that there are still ships on that target area, which is important, because they need as much eyes on as they can, but depending on what sort of conditions they're facing, they're going to lead a lot of those sailors to actually man the ship, just to sail the ship, and not so many to actually be looking out for any possible debris.

So, a frustrating day. Not expecting much back from the planes that did manage to get down there. And certainly, as the day draws to a close here, it's now -- we've probably got another two, three hours of daylight left here. Not expecting any news to take us forward.

So, very, very frustrating.

ROMANS: Yes, I'll say. I know they found some rope, maybe, yesterday, but they have not been able to find pieces of that plane, even though these satellites are now four or five different satellite imagery showing what looked to be potentially promising debris field.

Andrew Stevens -- thank you, Andrew. We'll let you get back to that presser, talk to that captain so you can find out just what they saw out there.

Now, experts say the search for Flight 370's flight data recorder could take years, and there's a good possibility it may never be found. Now, even if it is, as we've been reporting to you, the crucial communications investigators will be looking for could very well be erased. That's because the black box records cockpit conversations on a two-hour loop. We want to know what those pilots were saying, but it's a two-hour loop. It deletes all but the final two hours. The key to finding out what happened to the jetliner likely lies in the first two hours of that flight. So, that's an important wrinkle here, what we're looking for, those voice communications, Poppy.


ROMANS: But it could very well be literally dead air on that tape.

HARLOW: One hopes not. It took two years to find the so-called black box after that Air France Flight 447 went down.


HARLOW: And they did recover information, but we will see what happens.

More, though, now on that investigation into Flight 370. "USA Today" reporting that police in Malaysia believe Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah did something premeditated to bring the plane down. They're ruling out his more junior co-pilot as a possible suspect.

But this is important to qualify, because this comes from an unnamed source. Also, a senior U.S. government official tells us here at CNN that investigators are still looking at both the pilot and the co- pilot, and there is no motive that is really jumping out at them right now.

So, basically, so many questions.

Jim Clancy has been tracking this investigation since day one. He joins us from Kuala Lumpur.

One of the developments coming in just the last few hours, Jim, comes from the captain's youngest son, who is now speaking out for the first time.

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and as you can imagine, the media crush was on. Once this airliner went down, everybody wanted to talk to the pilot, the co-pilot's families. You know, the families were harassed, if you will. The media parked out in their front yards. We've seen scenes like that all over the United States.

And the senior captain, Shah, his family went more or less into seclusion after talking voluntarily, of course, with investigators. And his son came out to say this, because you know, they've read all the things that have been written.

This is from Seth Zaharie, his son, "Whatever I've read has not changed my heart. I have ignored these speculations, because as a son, I know who my father is compared to other people." And he said, "I may not have been very close to him because he was always on the job, always on duty, but we understood each other." That from the son. And, you know, I had a chance to talk to the former CEO of Malaysia Air, 81 years old, and he is still thinking about his family at Malaysia Air. He talked about a young cadet that he knew, Captain Shah. Listen.


CLANCY: You knew Captain Shah. Some people point a finger at him.

AZIZ ABDUL RAHMAN, FORMER MALAYSIA AIRLINES CEO: He is an excellent pilot, and I think also an excellent gentleman. I think going the wrong way if they are pointing finger at him.

CLANCY: You also knew the co-pilot. What can you say about him?

RAHMAN: His father learned the Koran by heart, so he also learned the Koran by heart. He's a good Muslim. And I know that captain is a good Muslim.


CLANCY: So, he knew both of the pilots, the pilot and the co-pilot. He fears for what they face. He says people taking shots at them are shooting at the wrong trees.

He says that he really hopes they find that flight data recorder, because without it, you don't have any solid evidence. Your reputation, your life, everything you lived for as a pilot in the aviation industry is gone. And he doesn't want to see that happen to Captain Shah and his co-pilot.

Back to you, Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes, and you know, we just have to remember, Jim, the families of both the captain and the co-pilot, just like the families of all of the victims on that flight, are grieving right now, and we simply do not know. There has been no confirmation of who may have taken this airliner down, still so many answers that we need.

Thank you for the reporting. Appreciate it.

ROMANS: All right. Frustration, anger mounting for the Flight 370 families. It's been three weeks since their loved ones vanished. Closure and answers are still very hard to come by.

I mean, I don't even think closure is a word you can use when you're talking about this particular situation and what these families are going through.

David McKenzie's been spending time with the Flight 370 families. He joins us live this morning from Beijing.

And look -- I mean, there is some small shred of hope among some of these families. We heard the son of somebody who was missing yesterday tell us, or tell Pauline Chiou, there was even some kind of hope that maybe the Malaysian government was still negotiating with hostage takers and that's why there was so much conflicting information. There are others who just want to see some shred of evidence. They will accept this when they see some shred of evidence.

Are the families getting any closer to being able to have the answers they need, David?

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Christine, no, they're not getting any closer, because as we've heard my colleagues reporting, there is no sign that any conclusive evidence that you can actually tangibly see and touch and kind of feel in your heart has been found, nothing directly linking MH370 with going down in the ocean, other than data and analysis. And that's, frankly, not enough for these families. They've been going through this agonizing wait, frustrating, sometimes it's boiling over into anger.

Yes, there is some level of hope from them. You know, on the public level, they still express hope, but for these family members, it's just a harrowing wait. Take a listen.


STEVE WANG: Well, it is a hard time. All of us are exhausted, both mental and physical, with just the wait. So, it is really a hard time. Well, my mom used to say that where there are people, there are family, but one is lost. So, I think it is disaster for my family.


MCKENZIE: Well, Steve Wang there has been talking to the media a bit in recent days and he's become somewhat of a leader of this family group. They now are trying to band together. They don't trust the Malaysian authorities, the Malaysian Airlines. They say they want credible evidence.

But you know, you also have to feel for the Malaysian Airlines side. They also lost people who many of them were close to in this Flight 370. So, you know, terrible situation, really, all around.

ROMANS: They've been offered $5,000 for their near-term expenses, you know, because they have to eat, some of them are not on their jobs, they're not in their home country, some cases, and there's just a lot of near-term expenses for them.

And some, David, have said oh, it's $5,000 to cover the loss of their loved ones. That's not what it is. It's pocket money while people are still in this holding pattern.

What are the families saying about how they've been treated, how this interim period has been going for them?

MCKENZIE: Well, they say they're being treated badly, frankly, and don't feel they've been getting the support or the information they need, you know?

But you have to also consider that there is potential litigation going to happen in this issue. Many of the family members have already been reached out to by lawyers here in China, and so there's, you know, it's just going to get messier from here out. If they do find the wreckage, of course, then, many of the family members will fly to Perth, if it's where they find the wreckage. And then there might be some kind of closure in this instance.

But you know, for culturally, Chinese want to kind of receive the body or the remains to move forward, and it's very unlikely that will be possible, even if they find this debris. So you know, this situation they're in is awful, and one counselor described it as terrible, in fact, that they're having to go through this, go through this daily update of information without any closure, as you say, Christine.

ROMANS: All right, David McKenzie -- thank you, David.

The president is just moments away from meeting the pope!


ROMANS: That's right. We're live in Rome, next.


HARLOW: President Obama is in Vatican City this morning. He's about to meet Pope Francis for the first time. That will happen in less than an hour.

We, of course, will bring the meeting to you, or the introduction to you live.

Of course, that meeting is private. The two men are not going to get much time together, but they are expected to discuss what both agree to be one of the most pressing challenges of our time -- the divide between rich and poor.

Let's bring in Ben Wedeman. He is live for us in Rome this morning.

Good morning, Ben. Any indication on what we expect the two to discuss?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, we understand, Poppy, that they're going to be discussing a wide range of issues, both international in terms of crises, for instance, in the Middle East, in Central African Republic, in Ukraine.

But as you mentioned, clearly, the White House would like to focus on one issue that they do seem to see, not quite eye to eye, but certainly, they agree in general principles, is this question of income inequality. Pope Francis has made it clear on a variety of occasions that he's no fan of what passes for the capitalist economy in the West. He's said he's opposed to trickle-down economics, that he is very much opposed to the broadening gap between the rich and the poor.

Now, the question is what can they do practically, these two men, other than simply agree that they think that that's a bad thing? It's important to note, however, that certainly, Pope Francis does seem to be focusing on substance since he's become pope. He's trying to address, for instance, the banking scandals that have racked the Vatican, the sex abuse scandals that have racked the Vatican. So, he is very much a man of substance, not just symbolism -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Of course, we do expect them to discuss those things that they are on the same page about, but it will be interesting to find out after, if we glean anything about the meeting, do they discuss things where they are not on the same page? Abortion, gay marriage, contraception mandates, those sorts of things. So, I think we'll be also listening to that and we'll come back to you later in the show.

Thank you, Ben. Appreciate it.

ROMANS: He's condemned king money and the Western idolatry of money. He's said that t a word where you have headlines about a 25-point move in the Dow -- paraphrasing -- 25-point move in the stocks but you don't focus on elderly people who are starving is a world that is not just. So, really interesting there.

All right. Crews racing around the clock to find missing Malaysia Flight 370, searching thousands of square miles in the southern Indian Ocean.

Next, we got an expert who explain exactly how investigators hope to find this wreckage. I mean, when you talk about the physics happening in that ocean right now, just a foreboding part of the world, forbidding part of the world, after the break.


ROMANS: Good morning. Welcome back to EARLY START. Fifty-two minutes past the hour.

The search for Flight 370 partially suspended because of bad weather. Eleven planes called back from the search zone in the southern Indian Ocean.

This happened about four hours ago. There are no planes in the air right now and still no sign of debris. Here to tell us more about the challenges of this search, and there are many, is physical oceanographer Erik van Sebille, joining us via Skype from Sydney, Australia.

And some of -- some of the physics of this ocean are simply amazing. I want you to tell me about these waters. These are the fastest waters in the world. There are these dangerous eddies. It is really a forbidding part of the ocean.

Tell me a little bit about if there is a debris field, what are the conditions around that field, sir?

ERIK VAN SEBILLE, PHYSICAL OCEANOGRAPHER: Well, this part of the ocean, the band around Antarctica is called the Southern Ocean, and it is home to the Antarctic current and that's the strongest in the world, going maybe three, four, five feet per second, which is -- you really don't find anywhere else.

And on top of this current, it's filled with what we call eddies, and those are essentially vortices, they're mini hurricanes. And they move everything around. They're not as intense as hurricanes, they don't go as fast, but they're very efficient at just moving things around and mixing it up.

And that's why if you start with a very confined debris field, like for instance, at the crash of the -- at the site where the plane crashed, within days, that just spreads out and out and out and out, and that continues for years and years. And it might be that some of the debris that came from this plane is actually in completely different oceans in a few months to a few years.

ROMANS: So, when we talking about these debris fields, and we know that the satellite imagery we've seen from Sunday, you know, some of this. By the time we're sending airplanes out to look for it, it's been three or four days. What happens to a fairly concentrated debris field in this southern Indian Ocean after four days? Can we expect it to be hundreds of miles away from where it began?

VAN SEBILLE: Oh, absolutely. At the speeds that this current works at, every day, it moves things, it moves water, it moves animals, it moves debris, it moves it 50, 60, maybe 70 miles. And on top of that, it mixed it.

It's a bit like a child's play room, I guess, right? You clean it up and you put everything in a nice stack in the middle, and as the children come in, they start messing it up and messing it up, and you really stretch the debris field further and further. That's what the ocean does, too, but then it also moves it through the ocean.

HARLOW: You know, just in the last hour or so, we got news of some more key, possibly key satellite images of 300-some possible objects just about 200 kilometers away from where they're searching now, about 2,700 kilometers away from Perth. This comes from Thai satellite images.

And I wonder, the way you describe it, these eddies, these mini hurricanes, would they have the strength to a break apart large pieces of debris, such as possibly a wing, and/or sink debris?

VAN SEBILLE: Yes. So, the eddies won't be able to do that. The eddies are too big and too slow for that, but what can certainly do that is the waves.

So, just as you have waves on every ocean, the waves you see from the beach. So, this ocean, the Southern Ocean has waves, and it has among the highest waves in the world.

This is where the influence of Antarctica, of the ice sheet of Antarctica starts to be felt. And this is really where the winds pick up in strength, and these very strong winds, they sweep up the water and make these giant waves that can really be easily 30 feet.

ROMANS: Erik Van Sebille, so interesting, and it's why rescuers and rescue teams are being so careful about sending people out there.


ROMANS: They don't want more loss of life in trying to find pieces.

HARLOW: Absolutely.

ROMANS: Erik Van Sebille, thank you so much.

You know, cargo ships sometimes seek out these channels because it's moving so quickly, they can save on their gas bill.

HARLOW: Really? Wow. And they turned eight planes back today because they don't want to risk anyone's lives in trying to find the debris. And those are tough planes. To turn them back takes really bad weather.

All right. We're going to have more news, of course, straight ahead.