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High School Lost Its Sophomore Class; U.S. Troops Head to Eastern Europe; Girls Taken Hostage; Object of Interest in Missing Plane Search; Safety Corners Cut

Aired April 23, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, an object of interest washes ashore on the coast of Australia. Is it from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?

Also right now, the death toll rises and hope fades that there are survivors inside that sunken South Korean ferry. Divers have found no air pockets where passengers could be trapped.

Also right now, Russia's foreign minister ramping up the rhetoric, saying Americans are running the show in Ukraine. This as U.S. paratroopers begin training in the region.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. We're live this hour in five continents. We begin today with a possible new lead in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Australian officials say they've recovered an object of interest, in their words, on the western Australia coast, near the town of Augusta. That's about 186 miles south of Perth.

The object is being described as a piece of sheet metal with rivets. It's being sent to investigators in Perth to determine whether it's actually a piece of the plane. The object was found more than 1,000 miles from the site of the underwater search. A high-tech drone finished its 10th mission in that area today without locating any, repeat, any, jet debris. But more resources could be brought into the search zone soon.

Our own Erin McLaughlin, she's on the scene for us, once again joining us from Perth. Erin, first off, what are officials actually telling you about that new so-called object of interest?

ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, we understand it was found about 186 miles from here to the south of Perth. The head of the Australian Transports and Safety Bureau, Martin Dolan, telling CNN that the ATSB is currently analyzing photographs of this object. He described it as a metal sheet with rivets.

Now, we're also hearing from a source inside Australia's defense force describing it as having a kind of fiberglass-like coating. It was described as a kind of a rectangular object but torn and misshapen.

Now, Dolan adding a note of caution to all of this saying that the more authorities and the ATSB are looking at these images, the less excited they are getting about it. Now, we are aware of Australian media reports that multiple objects have been found. So far, CNN has been unable to confirm that. We're also trying to get more information about the size of the objects. Our sources -- some of our sources saying they've only seen one photograph of this object and, therefore, it was difficult to determine scale.

Now, there have been plenty of false leads in this search so far. Every lead, authorities say, they're taking seriously, as important either needing to rule it in or ruling out. It remains unclear, at the moment, if they're planning on ruling this out any time soon -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Erin, and Malaysian officials also said they may be bringing in more assets, their word, assets, to the search zone. What exactly are they considering?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, it's also something we're hearing from Australian officials. David Johnston, a defense minister, was quoted in the media today as saying they're considering more underwater submersibles that have more capabilities, capable of going into deeper waters. He said submersibles like the ones used in the HMAS Sydney wreckage find and also submersibles used to find the Titanic.

All things that they are considering, given the fact that this current underwater search area that they're looking in now, well, they've managed to rule about 80 percent of it out. So, Australian and Malaysian authorities now thinking very seriously about next steps, planning for the long term, possibly a search operation we're hearing through July -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Erin McLaughlin in Perth for us. Thank you. So, what's the significance of this new so-called object of interest? What could it mean for this search? Our panel of experts will join us in a few minutes. We will discuss.

Let's turn to that ferry tragedy in South Korea right now. A huge memorial fills part of the high school near Seoul where so many of the victims were students. Classes are set to resume tomorrow. But the school is without most of its sophomores who were on a class trip aboard the ferry. The flowers, they cover their desks.

One week later, hopes have all but vanished of finding any more survivors. Rescue divers say they've found no air pockets on the third and fourth decks of the sunken ship. The death toll now stands at 159. Another 153 are still -- excuse me. Another 143 are still missing.

It's possible not all of the victims will be found. Will Ripley, he's joining us now from Jindo, South Korea, that's the launching area for this search operation.

So, Will, will some bodies -- now, they may have drifted away from the accident site where the ferry first sank. What's being done to try to find them? WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know that that has happened, Wolf, some of the bodies drifted out of the ferry just a couple of days ago. A girl was found in a life jacket floating out to sea. So, what they have done is they've set up ships around the perimeter with these large nets that they are hopeful will catch any bodies that are drifting away from the actual ferry.

But, of course, Wolf, as you know, the intensive search does continue. There's divers in the ferry as we speak searching cabins on the fourth floor and also expanding their search now up to the fifth floor after that pretty big surprise yesterday when they finally reached the cafeteria, the area where a lot of people were having breakfast at the time of this accident. They thought they might find a lot of people in there. And as far as they know right now, they haven't found anyone in the cafeteria.

BLITZER: And I understand two more crew members have been arrested. What's the latest on that front, Will?

RIPLEY: Four new arrests overnight, Wolf, bringing the total now to 11 crew members facing charges, including the captain. And then, there's also a lot of scrutiny right now on the owner of the ferry company and also just the business model in general. There's accusations of tax evasion. The home of the owner, the office of the owner was searched. There are questions about how much cargo was in the ship.

And also new today, a South Korean lawmaker is actually saying that there was expansion done on the ship that increased the capacity by about 100 passengers, and he's questioning whether that expansion may have made the ship unsafe or unstable in some way. It's something that some of the crew months are also talking about.

BLITZER: Will Ripley, reporting for us from South Korea. We'll stay in close touch with you. By the way, we're going to have more on the ferry sinking later this hour. A maritime safety expert will join us to talk about the emergency procedures that should have been followed on that stricken ship.

It has stoked the worst east-west tensions since the cold war. U.S. troops now arriving in Poland, heading to three other nations along the Baltic Sea. In a move the U.S. says is in response to the crisis in Ukraine. For its part, Russia's also mobilizing its military with previously unplanned drills in the Caspian Sea.

Earlier today, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said that Russia would respond if its interests were attacked in Ukraine.


SERGEY LAVROV, FOREIGN MINISTER, RUSSIA: If we are attacked, we will certainly respond. If our interests, legitimate interests, the interests of Russians, had been attacked directly like they were in South Ossetia, for example, I don't see any other way but to respond in full accordance with international law. Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian federation. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our own Frederik Pleitgen. He's joining us from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. So, what kind of message, Fred, is the U.S. sending to Russia with these maneuvers?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're certainly sending the message that the U.S. is not going to back down. And it really is hard to overstate the significance that these troop deployments have. I mean, it does seem very lopsided where the U.S. is sending 600 troops into three eastern European countries that are all members of NATO. But it certainly is something that these countries have been asking for a very -- for a very long time. They also feel that any sort of boots on the ground that the U.S. has will act as a deterrent against any sort of possible Russian aggression.

Of course, you also had the visit of Vice President Biden here yesterday, Wolf, where he reassured the Europe -- the Ukrainian government that the U.S. will stand by them. He announced a pretty significant aid package, about $50 million to help the Democratic process here, especially geared towards those elections that are going to be held here on May 25th. The U.S. believes those are very important.

And the big issue here for the U.S. is helping Ukraine achieve energy independence from Russia because the U.S. believes that that's a big chip of blackmail that the Russians are using, at this point in time, simply because Ukraine is so dependent on Russian gas -- Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, Fred, the acting Ukrainian president has called for a renewal of what he describes as anti-terror measures, calling off that Easter holiday truce. What's the latest on that front?

PLEITGEN: Well, there were several very significant incidents. On the one hand, there was a politician in an Eastern town in Ukraine who was found dead and apparently had torture marks on his body. And the Ukrainians say that it was pro-Russian separatists who killed him. The Russians, for their part, are saying that it was a Ukrainian militia. It's still unclear.

And there was another incident where apparently a Ukrainian plane that was flying over one of these towns, that's held by Russian separatists, was fired on, sustained several bullet holes but was able to return to its space. And it was after that the Ukrainian said that the eastern troops is absolutely off. They're moving their military into the east of the country. They've also told us some of the details about how they plan to do all of this.

They say they're going to try and secure the perimeters around these towns. They're already erecting some checkpoints and then they're going to launch raids into these towns to try and oust these separatists. Now, the Ukrainians are saying this is only going to take a couple days. However, we have seen in the past that it's questionable whether the Ukrainian military is indeed capable of conducting such very sophisticated and delicate counterinsurgency operations -- Wolf. BLITZER: Ukrainian and U.S. officials, Fred, they say they think Russian Special Forces are pretty convinced Russian Special Forces are behind those efforts to seize government buildings in Ukraine. What is Moscow saying about that?

PLEITGEN: Well, Moscow is saying that it had no part whatsoever in this. I mean, there were these pictures that, of course, our own Elise Labott obtained, apparently showing Russian soldiers on the ground, showing Russians who apparently had been active, for instance, in the southern Ossetia campaign in Georgia in 2005 who were then seen in towns in Eastern Ukraine. The Russian separatists are saying that some of these people are ex-Russian military.

Some of them, indeed, are Russian citizens, however they are not currently active duty Russian military or Russian secret service. So, they're saying they have no part of this. They're saying this is a grassroots uprising. But they're also saying, as we've heard, that the Russians are going to protect these people. So, there a very real threat there of Russian intervention in the east of Ukraine. That's certainly on the table.

Meanwhile, the Russians continue to deny that they have any forces on the ground. Again, of course, the U.S. and Ukraine say it's absolutely not the case. That, at the very least, the events that are happening in the east of the country are seared by the Russian federation -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Fred, thank you. Fred Pleitgen in Kiev for us.

Later this hour, I'll speak live with the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Mike Rogers, to talk about the crisis in Ukraine as well as those U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. Was one of Al Qaeda's master bombers, was he killed in that strike? That's coming up shortly.

President Obama has arrived in Asia. First stop, Japan where he met with the prime minister. The president reassured Tokyo of its U.S. support in its dispute with China over islands in the South China Sea. It'll be a week of diplomacy and building economic ties. There are also planned stops in South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. The trip comes as the president tries to show Asian leaders the U.S. remains committed, deeply committed, to the region.

A school attack on more than 200 girls kidnapped. We're going live to Nigeria on the horror unfolding after militants went on a rampage.

And what about that so-called object of interest found on the Australian coast? Could it be linked to Flight 370? Our panel of experts standing by to weigh in.


BLITZER: On this, the 47th day of the search for Flight 370, a potential new lead. Officials now say they've recovered what they describe as an object of interest on the coast of western Australia. It appears to be a piece of sheet metal with rivets and possible fiberglass coating on one side. Investigators are cautious. They say it's very possible this has nothing to do with the plane, but they also insist they're taking the discovery seriously and they will investigate it thoroughly.

Let's bring in our panel of experts, aviation consultant, retired Lieutenant Colonel Ken Christensen, CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes.

Ken, let me start with you. You hear the descriptions. They haven't released a photograph yet. We don't know much more, but they're taking it very seriously. How seriously does it sound to you?

LT. COL. KEN CHRISTENSEN (RET.), U.S. AIR FORCE SEARCH & RESCUE: I think they should look at the object, but if it's fiberglass and metal, that says boat. If it's composite, of carbon fiber and metal and aircraft rivets, flush rivets, that says airplane.

BLITZER: I mean it shouldn't take very long to determine whether it's from a plane or a boat.

CHRISTENSEN: No, but if the people who are - who picked it up and looked at it and they're not airplane people, then they're going to have some -- a problem with that. I would probably snap a picture and shoot that off and let somebody from Boeing look at that or anybody from the airlines to take a look at that -

BLITZER: Yes, Boeing's the maker of the 777.


BLITZER: Presumably they could determine relatively quickly whether or not that's the wreckage.


BLITZER: If it were, that would be the first piece, Tom, first piece of wreckage that would emerge. That would potentially be a very, very significant clue as to what's going on over there, if they had a piece of the plane.

TOM FUENTES: Oh, that would be huge. That would be huge. And it would also indicate that the earlier cyclones had blown debris much further toward Australia than they thought in the beginning. So that could change a lot of things if that turned out to be part of the airplane. And it would confirm completely that the plane went south and is in that part of the world.

BLITZER: If there were these - because there was bad weather, there were cyclones, there were, you know, horrible hurricane-like conditions. Is it possible a piece of metal wreckage could have come all the way from, you know, let's say nearly 1,000 miles or so off shore all the way to the shore over the past few weeks?

CHRISTENSEN: Absolutely. I mean we're over a month -- we're over 30 days into this. So that wreckage could have gone 1,000, 2,000 miles at this point. BLITZER: Could have gone that far?


BLITZER: And the other - and just, you know, officials say the more they look at it, the less excited apparently they're getting. So apparently some of the initial indications are maybe it's not, maybe it's something else. And there's a lot of junk that's out there in the Indian Ocean at all times anyhow.

FUENTES: Exactly. Right.

BLITZER: And a lot of it eventually winds up on the shore of Australia. So it could be anything. Let's not get, you know, all that excited yet that they actually found this because, as you know, Ken, there have been a lot of false leads over these past several weeks.

CHRISTENSEN: You've got to follow the debris field and verify. Verify the wreckage (ph).

BLITZER: And you still - are you still convinced that they're looking in the right place right now?


BLITZER: Are you?

CHRISTENSEN: I was, with the underwater locator transmitter, but -

BLITZER: With the pings from the -

CHRISTENSEN: With the pings.

BLITZER: From the so-called black boxes.

CHRISTENSEN: But did - you know, could that have been tossed in the water and it's giving the same acoustical - you know, they could take one of those and throw them in the water, or is it from the actual wreckage? Until you see wreckage, you cannot confirm that the airplane actually entered the water there. I agree with Tom on that.

BLITZER: So they may have to, at some point, start from scratch if this object of interest turns out to be another false lead?



BLITZER: They're going to have to -

CHRISTENSEN: There seem to been a lot of face savings and everything, so that's why -- that's a flag of concern for me.

BLITZER: And they're increasingly getting frustrated because there are all these questions, legitimate questions, that the family members, Tom, have that, for example, they want access to the flight log book, they want the recordings of the air traffic control, what was going on. These are legitimate questions. But Malaysian authorities are not making this stuff available.

FUENTES: Well, they're not making it available and they're not discussing it in a way that would give confidence to the family also.


FUENTES: They appear to be, whether they are or not, they appear to be hiding important information for whatever reason and all of the aviation information is not necessarily part of the criminal investigation. There's a lot they could reveal, the process that they went through, who are the experts that look at the radar information, the Inmarsat data. And so they're giving the appearance of hiding something, whether they are or not.

BLITZER: All right, guys, stand by, because we have more to discuss. Our viewers are sending in lots of good questions about this search for Flight 370 and this new so-called object of interest. we'll read some of the answers later this hour. We'll get answers from our panel of experts. Stand by for that.

An attack in Yemen called massive and unprecedented. U.S. and Yemeni forces killing 65 suspected terrorists. I'll speak live this hour with the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers. We'll get details on the operation.

Also coming up, did passenger safety fall by the wayside in the operation of the South Korean ferry that sank one week ago? A maritime safety expert will join us live.


BLITZER: The large loss of life in South Korea highlights how quickly a bad situation at sea can turn disastrous. Compounding the tragedy, new video showing the captain being treated after his rescue. Some survivors say he and his crew were among the first people saved. Just seeing the captain and other officers fleeing the ship could have created more panic among the passengers and led to even more deaths. That's the suspicion.

William Doherty is a maritime safety expert with Nexus Consulting. He's also a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, retired U.S. Navy captain.

Bill, did the ferry captain and the crew pay enough attention to safety based on all the evidence we now have a week later?


Based on the evidence that we have to date, it appears safety was not a high priority at any time in the operation of this ferry, from training, drilling, and most importantly, the attitude of safety. Safety starts from the top down. In, you know, in times of an emergency like this, the most important thing for the captain or the person in command would be to instill that confidence, not only in the crew, but also in the passengers, that, one, he knew the right thing to do and that his crew had been trained in doing it, and, two, that he was going to do the right thing. Neither one of those two qualities came through in this situation, clearly.

BLITZER: It certainly looks like that. There are now some reports, Bill, that the ship may have had some serious steering issues a couple of weeks ago before obviously the incident. That would be a red flag, right?

DOHERTY: Well, yes, in several areas. Ships operate today under a three-tier safety oversight. And the third tier would be international safety management. A report - and I looked today in the Korean news agency and they're saying that there was a report two weeks ago of a steering loss caused by a power failure. And it had been reported in writing to the management, the company operator, and there is absolutely no evidence at all of the office following up on that. That steering failure could have happened again during this tragedy and been the root cause of the problem. But, again, you know, failure to follow up on reported nonconformities is a serious violation of safety management.

BLITZER: Very quickly, Bill, if you're a passenger on a ship and it looks like no one is in charge and there's a serious problem, what should you do?

DOHERTY: Well, that vacuum is definitely a betrayal of trust with respect to the -- for the captain and the crew. At that particular time, that's when we look for the officers and the crew to give us the safety guidance and to tell us where to go. From a passenger, it's crowd management. One of the responsibilities of the crew would have been to organize the passengers. Let them know what was going on and where they should be positioning themselves for a rescue, not to be sent down below.

BLITZER: Well, they obviously didn't do that.

DOHERTY: My concern more than anything else would be the age of these passengers. These young kids --

BLITZER: They were mostly -- most of them were high school kids, sophomores in high school.

All right, we've got to run, Bill, thanks very much.

DOHERTY: Yes, and -

BLITZER: Hold your thought because we'll continue this conversation on another day.

DOHERTY: Very good (ph).

BLITZER: But it's a heartbreaking situation to be sure. William Doherty joining us.

The IRS is under fire once again. We'll take a closer look at why some IRS employees still got their bonuses even though they had their own tax problems.

And the crisis in Ukraine prompting the U.S. to send troops to Poland and the Baltics. We're going to talk to the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Mike Rogers. We're going to find out what all of this means.