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What We've Learned about Flight 370

Aired May 1, 2014 - 22:30   ET


DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Chris, thank you very much.

This is CNN's SPECIAL REPORT. I am Don Lemon.

We are learning of breaking news tonight, a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on the hunt for Flight 370. We will bring it to you live just as soon as it begins. Meanwhile, what may be the most inexplicable thing about the mystery?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Malaysian 370 contact Ho Chi Minh 120 decimal 9, good.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good night. Malaysian 3-7-0.


LEMON: After those last words from the cockpit, it was four hours before anybody made the slightest attempt to rescue the 239 people on board. Four hours that may have sealed their fate.

You have been tweeting us by the thousands, and my experts are standing by to answer your questions, like, this: "Why don't we find out what the authorities were doing for four hours while Flight 370 went missing?"

Let's begin with what we learned today about what happened in the hours after Flight 3-7-0 disappeared. The newly-released report offers the most comprehensive account so far of the fate of the plane and its passengers.

CNN's Jean Casarez has that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Malaysian 3-7-0, contact Ho Chi Minh 120 decimal 9.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good night. Malaysian 3-7-0.

JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): According to the report, it takes 17 minutes after Flight 370 disappears from the radar screen before authorities realize it is missing.

Ho Chi Minh air traffic control in Vietnam contacts their Malaysian counterparts. They contact Malaysian Airlines, Singapore, Hong Kong and Phnom Pen air control centers to see if anyone is tracking the plane. No one sees anything.

But amazingly, it is not until four hours later that the government scrambled to find the missing plane. Four hours that the plane is in the air flying. And yet no one knows where it is.

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: That is really embarrassing for the government of Malaysia. It has been a major problem for the investigation from day one.

CASAREZ: It is not until 5:30 a.m. that Malaysia launches rescue operations at the point of last radar contact in the South China Sea. It is where officials expect they will find the plane.

But when military radar shows the aircraft could have turned west, the search area extends to the Strait of Malacca.

GOELZ: That really was a tremendous mistake. Because you know, open- water searches like this are very difficult. In this case, we wasted over a week searching in areas that had nothing to do with the aircraft's location. And by the time we got set up to search in the correct location, we were well behind the curve in terms of the lifespan of the cockpit voice recorder and data recorder.

CASAREZ: Initial errors are compounded when investigators learn satellite communication systems sent seven messages from the plane showing the aircraft on either a northern or southern arc. With days now turning to weeks, the search area moves yet again.

Inmarsat satellite data finally shows MH-370 flew the southern corridor and ended the flight in the southern part of the Indian Ocean. The time line ends with the last satellite indication, which shows the plane could actually have actually still been in the air at 8:19 a.m., nearly three hours after rescue operations began, many miles away.

Jean Casarez, CNN.


LEMON: Jean, thank you very much.

Of course, joining me now is Jeff Wise, author of "Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind and Danger"; aviation attorney Steven Marks; Geoffrey Thomas, the editor in chief of; and CNN aviation correspondent Mr. Richard Quest.

Good to see you. Good to have you back here. I'm going to start with you, because you pressed to have this report released. Well, anything in there help to solve this mystery?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: In terms of what cause the incident, absolutely not. But in terms of how the reaction moved forward, who did what, we are much better informed. We may not like what we know, but we are much better informed about those crucial hours after the events took place.

LEMON: Before we get to the timing of this, so would you like to see a report released on a timely basis from now on out?

QUEST: I think there will have to be. There will have to be an interim report -- as is required by ICAO -- that goes into considerably more detail. Not just yet; we've got quite enough to keep us going along.

LEMON: All right. But for the time, in the future. OK, let's get to it.

Seventeen minutes to realize the plane was off radar. Four hours before they really started looking. I mean, how -- how big a difference do the gaps make, you think?

QUEST: I think they are sizeable gaps. Not so much the 17 minutes. That is just about, just about within the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of sort of confusion of the moment.

This four hours, backwards and forwarding, talking to one air traffic controller. The miscues being offered up by Malaysia Airlines in terms of where the plane was, in Cambodia. This is rather disturbing. A little bit distressing. Because it's not a mistake. It's not an error. It's a miscue and a confusion.

LEMON: Richard, we have learned about some reassuring, quote, "reassuring" messages that Malaysia Airlines sent that may have further complicated early search efforts. What happened? What are we talking about here?

QUEST: On several occasions, when they were asked, "Do you know where the plane is?" Malaysia Airlines said, "Yes, it's in Cambodia airspace," according to the flight plan. And next time they did it: "Yes, we're getting signals from the plane at this particular point," which is off Vietnam.

Finally, an hour later they come back and say, "Oh, sorry, that information is from the projected flight plan. It's not from the reality."

What that did was just muddy the waters. Cloud the issue. So that while people may have actually said, "Hang on, do they really know where it is?" They just gave a little bit of confidence. It was misinformation.

LEMON: You want to see more of it. This will hold you and other reporters and those questions for now. OK, Richard.

Stand by everyone. Stick with me, everybody. We have learned about the cargo on the plane. I want to talk about that with my expert panel. We'll answer your questions, as well. Make sure you tweet us using the hashtag "370Q-S," "370Qs." And we are waiting for that live news conference in Kuala Lumpur. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) LEMON: So while we await a news conference from Malaysian officials, we are talking about what we've learned about the last hours of Flight 370 from the preliminary report released by Malaysia's transportation ministry.

Back with me now, my team of experts. OK, welcome back, everyone.

Geoffrey Thomas, hello to you. The report lays out the relative lack of a military role in the initial response. Does that surprise you?

GEOFFREY THOMAS, EDITOR IN CHIEF, AIRLINERATINGS.COM: Look, Don, indeed. Post 9/11, you know, we all know he what happens there, the lack of response, is extraordinary. Because you know, if they scrambled a fighter, or any sort of airplane at all, to track this airplane, to intercept it, find out what was going on, we wouldn't be searching any more. We would have followed it and -- and reached a conclusion.

This is what happened in Australia a number of years ago. We had a similar ghost flight incident. And air traffic control vectored aircraft to follow to the plane and see what was going on. And we followed it all the way until it crashed. So, you know, this would have saved valuable time. And we would have a lot of answers we don't have today.

LEMON: Yes. Jeff Wise, remember in the initial days -- Richard, I'm sure you remember -- we all talked about lithium batteries? That was like some of the first scenarios that were spoken about.

This report included the cargo manifest. And we have confirmed there were 5,400 pounds of lithium ion batteries on board. And Richard has the report in his hand right now. On board. Does that give any perspective for us on how flammable that would be and the possibility of lithium batteries being responsible for this?

JEFF WISE, CNN SAFETY ANALYST: It sure sounds like a lot of lithium ion batteries. We do know, of course, that these kinds of batteries have been linked to fires in the past; spontaneous combustion, as it were.

But remember, I think the concern that we had about lithium ion batteries in the past, was before, as I recall, we realized that the plane had flown for eight hours. And it's really hard to imagine a scenario in which a plane is engulfed in flames and yet still can manage to fly for eight hours.

LEMON: And still not being able to find something. Richard, what does this -- we're back to square one with these batteries, it appears.

QUEST: Well, we are. Except we have been told that they were packed. They were packed properly. You pay your money, you take your choice, if you believe all of these things.

I mean, one reason why I think the lithium batteries might not be as relevant is if they had caused a fire, even a very debilitating fire, a devastating fire, and the fire extinguisher deployed, they -- we'd have had ACARS messages. We would have known about it. Because the likelihood of the fire from the lithium batteries...

LEMON: Right.

QUEST: ... destroying the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) bay at exactly the moment -- it goes...

LEMON: And an explosion after that, and there would be debris somewhere.

See, this is what the families will want to know. Is it conceivable that plane's disappearance had been detected earlier, if the rescue efforts had been launched earlier, they may have found the plane during the hours, the time that it was flying? It supposedly continued flying, before 7 or 8 hours and then it continued flying over the southern Indian Ocean.

STEVEN MARKS, AVIATION ATTORNEY: I believe with that completely. In fact, most of the people will recall that Payne Stewart had a similar incident where the passengers and flight crew was overwhelmed. There was a rapid decompression. The aircraft flew over U.S. land for an extended period of time.

Jets were scrambled. They intercepted. There were photographs, in fact, where you could see the crew slumped over. They followed that jet until it crashed in a remote area.

So certainly, it would have been a chance or at left a possibility of tracking the aircraft, knowing exactly where it was, and it's inconceivable that they didn't.

Getting back to the point about the batteries. I agree, if there was -- if there was a fire, it would have occurred very quickly. In ValuJet, for example, the packaging and the documentation on the aircraft indicated that they were packed properly, the oxygen canisters. But in fact, the safety caps were not put on. We only learned that later after there was discovery, and people were examined; and ultimately there was a criminal prosecution.

LEMON: We're expecting a news conference from Malaysia at midnight. What do you expect, Geoffrey Thomas?

THOMAS: Look, I don't believe we'll get a lot from that. Because I feel that, if there's going to be any press conference with something significant, it would be announced by the Malaysian prime minister or the Australian prime minister. And we're talking about significant discovery on the sea bed. I think that's the province of the Malaysian prime minister or the Australian prime minister. So I'm not expecting it will be any significant.

LEMON: All right. Everyone stick around. Again, we're awaiting a news conference to happen in Malaysia. We will bring that to you live just as soon as it begins. We're answering your questions tonight. Again, at midnight, we're waiting for that news conference in Kuala Lumpur for the hunt for Flight 370. Don't go anywhere. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: Today we heard the clearest version yet of the last words from the cockpit of Flight 370. I want to know what my experts think now. So welcome back.

Richard, listen to -- take a listen to that cockpit audio. Here it is.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Malaysian 3-7-0 maintaining level 3-5-0.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Malaysian 3-7-0. Malaysian 3-7-0, contact Ho Chi Minh, 1-2-0 decimal 9. Good night.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good night. Malaysian 3-7-0.


LEMON: Well, we had a transcript and now we hear the voices. What do you think?

QUEST: There's no sign of distress. I'm not sure adding the voices and hearing the voices, there's a huge amount of difference.

LEMON: This is more for the families.

QUEST: It is for the families. And I can certainly see why you would do that. But does it take us much further on? I'm sitting here listening. Is that younger voice of Fariq Hamid or is it the older voice of...

LEMON: Do you know? You met the younger...

QUEST: I couldn't say. I could not listen and say, honestly. But you've got to listen to them all. Because you hear Zaharie clearly doing something earlier, an older voice coming in earlier, during taxiing and you hear a later voice. So you've got to listen to it all.

LEMON: And that's what the audio expert said. When have you over the radio, it's kind of tough to distinguish voices.


LEMON: OK, Jeff Wise, let's move on. "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting that next week, aviation experts, investigators are planning to meet in Canberra to examine the military radar data. Could this change all the current estimates, you think?

WISE: Well, wow, I'd love to know what they mean by military radar. If they mean Malaysian military radar, well, you know, they might get something out of it. If they're talking about Indonesian radar, Australian radar, or Indian radar, who knows? I mean, one can always dream.

Listen, I mean, very interesting thing. Actually, earlier we had up on the screen the map that was released as part of this report. And that itself was very interesting. Remember, we had a report a couple weeks ago that the flight diverted around the northwestern tip of Sumatra. There it is. That map shows them cutting across the northwestern tip of Sumatra. That's -- that's different from what we heard and very significant. I believe there's a radar installation right about exactly there.

LEMON: Yes. Steven, it was sad to see some of the reaction today. I want you to listen to the reaction today from the family members who were told by Malaysian Airlines that they will be closing the family assistance center in Beijing. Here it is.




LEMON: So, in a news release, Malaysian Airlines stated this, and I want it read it. They said, "Instead of staying in hotels, families of MH-370 are advised to receive information update on the progress of the search and investigation and other support by Malaysia Airlines in the comfort of their own homes with the support and care of their families and loved ones."

Do you think that they have closed this as part of the operation? What do you make of them closing this part of the operation down?

MARKS: Well, it reminds me of the tweet that went out and notified the families that their loved ones were lost in the South Indian Ocean, only to hear days later that there still was no point -- days later that they were in the wrong area. I think it was a misstep. Again, I think they should have planned ahead...

LEMON: You don't think they should have closed it?

MARKS: No, no, no. Eventually, you have to close it. It can't go on forever. But there's a way to do it and be sensitive to the families and talk to them individually. There should be a liaison -- liaison person, meeting with each of the families, letting them know that "at some point in their near future, we are going to have to close. We want you to have counseling, want to provide services to you. We'll still set up a network of communications. The families can still get together. We'll make arrangements for you to travel back." Like most crashes that occur, TM (ph) and Air France, we had families gathering on a regular basis, and the airlines would provide for hotels and for travel. And they know that's coming if you set that up and you warn the families in advance and that you're going to keep the communications open.

But there's so much distrust. And this is very different than most crashes. We don't have any -- any evidence of what's happened, even, or where the airplane is. LEMON: Steven, it's been eight weeks. And I mean, after -- it's sad to say, at some point, as you said, they're going to have to do something. And it's not a money issue, I'm sure.

QUEST: No, it's absolutely not a money issue. I mean, a jet costs $200 million. You're not worried about the cost of a hotel bill for a few months.

LEMON: Geoffrey Thomas, the families had a list of 26 questions they wanted answered. How many of those were answered in this report, do you think?

THOMAS: I would venture to suggest, Don, that probably none. That the questions they wanted were far more probing and deep than these -- than the report is. And so I think they've come up short. And they'll probably be very disappointed.

QUEST: But Geoffrey, as you know, last week the -- there was a release, particularly in Beijing at that technical briefing, when most of those questions were answered, including the detailed ones on frequencies, ELTs, transmission data, and all those. So that information has been given out in some shape or form. Most of it.

LEMON: All right. Everyone, hold your thoughts. Geoffrey Thomas, if you could hold your thoughts. I've got to get to a break. Stay with me. We're going to answer that question. Geoffrey will get to weigh in and more of your questions. Remember, tweet us using the hashtag "370Qs," "370Qs." And at midnight, we're going to take you live to Kuala Lumpur for a news conference on the search for Flight 3-7-0.


LEMON: Back now with my panel. This first question is for Richard. And it's from Ken. It says, "What were the flight dispatchers doing? A big part of their job is to follow closely flights under their control."

QUEST: Once the flight is up and running, it's air traffic control that really is responsible, in conjunction with the airline's operations center. And they would be the ones that would have been looking after the flight.

LEMON: OK. Here is one from Joseph. It says, "Has anyone checked out the Malaysia radar operation? They may be part of a hijack gang." What do you -- what do you make of that, Geoffrey Thomas? Are there reports about anything about ongoing criminal investigations and what may have happened?

THOMAS: I don't think the Malaysian ATC are under any scrutiny from any criminal perspective. Maybe from a competence perspective, but not criminal.

LEMON: All right. Steven, we received a tweet from Chad. And Chad said, "Who would trust a plane company that made a billion dollars last year, didn't pay taxes, and now can't find one of its planes? I don't." MARKS: Well, you have to question that. And it's hard to imagine after Air France that they don't have equipment to track aircraft and make sure that the pings on the black boxes last longer.

But the problem with these foreign accident investigations, which occurs in all of them, is you have to rely on the manufacturers.

LEMON: Jeff Wise, are they being too hard on Boeing? I've got ten seconds here.

WISE: Yes, they're being too hard on Boeing. The plane was deliberately absconded with. You can't blame the aircraft manufacturer for that.

QUEST: Well, nothing like just throwing a circuitous fact on Jeffrey Wise, just as -- just as we get to the end of the program. Brilliant.

LEMON: Richard is back and causing all kinds of trouble. You'll get the last word next time, Jeffrey Wise and -- Jeff Wise and Geoff Thomas. Thank you. Appreciate all of you. Thanks, everybody.

We'll be back at midnight when they have the press conference in Malaysia.