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Noah Sneider Talks MH17 Crash; Preserving Ukraine Crash Site for Investigation; Top AIDS Researchers on Doomed MH17.

Aired July 18, 2014 - 13:30   ET


NOAH SNEIDER, JOURNALIST: But to say there's been extensive looting, at least during the morning period while I was there, is pretty difficult. You know, the perimeter there is being controlled. There's one rebel commander there who told me essentially by three groups. One is a set of fighters from nearby. The Cossacks appear to be the wild card as always in this situation. So it's a little more difficult to say what's happening on their side of things.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Did -- yesterday, you had talked that in some cases they were moving bodies, sort of trying to get all the victims together. Does that continue today? Did you see that?

SNEIDER: No, they haven't actually been touching the bodies at all from what I've seen. They -- as far as we know -- have been asked through back channels. The prime minister of the Donetsk Peoples Republic has been asked not to touch the bodies by Malaysian and Dutch authorities, suggesting people are still hoping there will be a chance for folks, international observers and investigators to enter the area. The concern of course is you have hundreds of bodies decaying in a field before anyone has a chance to get to them. It's summer here. It was raining actually earlier in the day. To put it simply, it's not ideal conditions.

COOPER: Did it seem to you that most -- I mean, obviously, investigators are going to be looking at what kind of wreckage -- pieces of the wreckage and also even people themselves. Are most of the people -- I'm not sure how to ask this, are most of the people intact?

SNEIDER: I think it's about 50/50. I did a walk-through this morning and sort of in-the-daylight and counted roughly 50, 50 bodies, and I'd say at least half of them are so mangled you simply couldn't identify them, some just kind of twisted corpses that look almost Picasso- esque. But at the same time, there are others that, if handled properly, could be clearly identified.

COOPER: Are there still -- we've seen images of large pieces of wreckage. Are most of the pieces very identifiable? Most of the pieces of the debris? Are there large chunks of the aircraft still intact?

SNEIDER: It seeps the debris split into sort of two clusters as it fell from the sky, the tail fin sort of further up the road and some other debris scattered in that vicinity. And then the main crash site, which is closer to the village at the lower end of the field, seems to be where the fuselage, the engines, landed. A lot of that has been burnt out. The flight hadn't taken off too long before it went down, so there was a lot of fuel still in the tank. You can really see that when you walk through the crash site. Some of the alloy from the plane has sort of melted, re-solidified, is silver on the ground.

COOPER: In terms of -- do you have any information about black boxes or flight data recorders? There have been conflicting reports --


SNEIDER: I don't have anything that I could confirm. I've heard the same conflicting reports that everyone has all day. And folks are continuing from both sides to report, at one moment, that they have them and they're taking them to the Russians, and the next moment, that they don't have them. So I think it's, again, a moment where it's worth waiting, not rushing to conclusions, and letting the situation play out a little bit in order to find out what's actually going on.

COOPER: Ukrainian officials said they have been trying to get access to the site. In some cases, there work has been hampered. Do you see any evidence officials from Ukraine or accident investigators either doing work or trying to get access to a site?

SNEIDER: In the morning, there was nobody from Ukraine or international groups there. I heard a group of observers visited the site. Apparently, there was an incident where some of the Cossack guards either didn't understand exactly who the OSCE was or didn't appreciate their presence and caused some problems in terms of entry to the site. Though rebel leaders have assured me that they will continue to and intend to allow international observers and journalists to work, they said their command is not to let locals on to the site. But beyond that, they don't plan to impose any restrictions.

COOPER: I know you have also been talking to a number of pro-Russian rebel leaders and spokespeople. What are they telling you, in terms of claims of responsibility, in terms of what they want to see happen?

SNEIDER: You know, it's an interesting question. It points to a larger problem in terms of the long-term standing of eastern Ukraine. Most of the rebels here, I would say frankly across the board, deny responsibility for this. They claim it's a provocation conjured up by the Ukrainian authorities in Kiev. Many of them claim they don't have the equipment or that they don't have enough of the components of this missile system, BUK, to actually hit this plane.

When it comes to the fighters themselves, I think it's a moment where perception proves to be more powerful than reality. For these folks, even if evidence is presented by the Western -- by Western governments or by Kiev, it's politicized in the eyes of the rebel fighters. These are men who have been fighting now for three months, if not a little bit more, and they've given up their regular lives. There doesn't seem to be anyone saying that they're ready to rethink their position or to rethink their cause as a result of the Malaysian Airlines disaster.

COOPER: So the video posted by Ukraine's interior ministry on its Facebook page showing a BUK system, according to the Ukraine officials, heading towards Russia, with one missile missing, things like that, that's all discounted by anybody in the rebels who you talked to?

SNEIDER: Absolutely. To put it mildly, they don't trust a word that Kiev says. I think anything that's released by the current authorities in Kiev is seen in rebel eyes as fabricated, as intended to -- essentially to draw NATO into Ukraine. That's the understanding. The rebels think Ukrainians want to establish more precedent to involve NATO forces in Ukraine in order to escalate Western involvement and Western attachment to the new government in Kiev.

COOPER: Noah, is there anything else you want people to know about the crash site, about what is happening there right now?

SNEIDER: You know, I think one, for me, the important thing to note is there's still a lot of work to be done in order to secure the bodies. There's a lot of people talking about -- talking about the parts of the plane, talk to me about establishing evidence chains in order to have a proper investigation. And all of that is -- it's certainly important, but I think, especially for the -- for anyone who's walked through that scene, the bodies, the effects of the people on board, would receive as much attention as the more politicized debris --


COOPER: Are there capabilities there to properly handle the victims of this crash? Are there morgue facilities? Are there refrigeration, you know, mobile refrigeration trucks? Can -- at this point, do they need all that to help?

SNEIDER: No. I think they do need all of that. I don't think they have it. The rebel, quote/unquote, "Prime Minister" Alexander Boridi mentioned today they don't have the proper equipment to store and secure and maintain the bodies, so that's perhaps an area where the international community, observers could play a role. And it seems to be a point on which the separatist leadership is ready to cooperate.

COOPER: How easy is it to get to this site? I mean, is it -- because it's -- you know, as we've seen in past instances, it's very possible you may have family members wanting to come to the crash site as soon as possible. Is -- how remote is it? How possible is it to actually get there?

SNEIDER: It's about 90 minutes from the regional capital, Donetsk, where I'm actually sitting right now. It's off in a classic Ukrainian countryside village, down sort of pothole-riddled roads. But the main issue I think for anyone traveling in this region right now is effectively the roads are controlled by the separatist groups. You have to pass through a series of checkpoints in order to move along the roads. I don't imagine they would be particularly happy or particularly kind to visiting foreigners. All journalists here have to receive accreditation through the separatist authorities. Without that press card, you end up -- you end up held -- held back from moving, moving around. So it's not a -- and at the same time, there's still -- there's still fighting going on, there's still skirmishes. The city is near to the crash site. So it's not an especially safe place to be traveling. Although, again, imagine on the issue of the bodies themselves and the folks impacted by the crash, the rebels seem a bit more willing to meet in the middle.

COOPER: Noah Sneider, again, I know, it's been an exhausting day for you and night. I appreciate your sensitivity in reporting all of this. Thank you very much for being with us, Noah.

I'll continue to check in with Noah in the coming days.

Up next, I'll talk to my panel about preserving what is a crime scene, multiple crime scenes, in fact, over a wide area, and the investigation of the crash of this flight.


COOPER: Joining us now is Mary Schiavo, the former inspector general of the NTSB; Rick Francona, our military analyst; and in Washington, Peter Goelz, a specialist in aviation and international crisis management; also joining us is David Soucie, a CNN aviation analyst.

Appreciate all of you being with us.

David, we were just hearing from Noah Sneider about the crash scene. From what he said, in terms of trying to, trying to investigate this, what challenges lay ahead? This really isn't just one crime scene, this is multiple crime scenes spread out over a great distance.

DAVIS SOUCIE, CNN SAFETY & AVIATION ANALYST: Yes, it is. Documenting it is a challenge just when it's a singular accident, but now you've got several different things that have to be treated as accident sites. If bodies are falling separately, those have to be documented as well, as to what trajectory, where the object that hit the ground went, that will give clues what type of explosion it was, what type of speed. There's a lot of conclusions to be had. If those are moved, it can lead you down the wrong path.

COOPER: Even the conditions of the victims are important in all of this to determine what happened.

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: That's absolutely right and of course the method of bringing down the plane, the residue. At this point, the air crash investigators can tell you it was a -- you know, a missile brought down a plane and how the plane came down. But at this point, I would be inclined to say this is not an Article 13 IKO accident investigation and treat it as an international crime scene --


COOPER: Explain the difference. How do you mean? SCHIAVO: At that point, like we did in 9/11, the United States, after

the four planes on 9/11, the NTSB was not in charge, the FBI was in charge, because it was an international criminal investigation. You have many more powers. You have the power literally to seize evidence. You can go in and get what you want and what you need. They need that right now. Just looking at the crime scene and what that wonderful fellow just told us in the report, great reporting, but it's out of control.

COOPER: Rick, how do you see it?

RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, you know, they need to get the evidence and as David said I think it's important we find out how that weapon impacted that aircraft, to find out what it did and -- that might give us a better clue as to the condition of the weapon. We're hearing different reports about where that came from. Was it a front-line Russian piece of equipment? Was it something taken from a Ukrainian base? Was it modified? This would be important.

COOPER: Peter Goelz, just as -- you know, as Noah was talking about, the priority is obviously dealing with the victims of this crash, dealing with them in a sensitive way, dealing with them in a humane way, in a dignified way. And right now, they don't have the capabilities on the ground really to do that.

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: No, they don't. What has to happen is there has to be international action to form a recovery team that goes in immediately. That is promised protection by both the Ukrainians, the separatists, and the Russians. And if that kind of protection's not promised and not delivered, then there's got to be sanctions immediately placed.

I mean, the evidence is going to be there. After TWA flight 800, we tested the explosive residue and the explosive evidence of a missile detonating near aircraft skin. The investigation will know what the marker is on that case, in this accident. They will see the evidence.

But the most important thing is to get a team in immediately to begin recovering the victims and treating them with some dignity and that really is in the hands of the Russians, the Ukrainians and the

COOPER: And in terms of the black boxes, the flight data recorders, they are important, but even -- David Soucie, even if they have been removed -- and again, we have not been able to confirm it, and Noah has not been able to confirm it either, the status of them -- there is still the wreckage themselves, from the victims themselves.

SOUCIE: I think in this case, Anderson, there is even more to be learned than what the boxes would tell us. And at the very most, with the black boxes, we might get information on whether there was a warning or not, whether they had been tried to be contacted, taken evasive action to say, oh, my gosh, we're off track, there is someone who doesn't want us to here, do they start to turn the other way. That would be the black box information. But as far as we have talked about earlier with the impact of what type of effect the ballistic missile that hit the aircraft or exploded outside the aircraft, that is important information to know so you can decide whether it came from.

COOPER: Mary, have you ever seen a crash/crime scene like this?

SCHIAVO: Yes, I have.

COOPER: In terms of the different actors in play.

SCHIAVO: Yes, Pan Am 103, the four planes on September 11, KLO-007. And investigators can only go so far, at the crash scene, with the black boxes, with the residue on the bodies and the plane, but now you're in an international criminal man hunt. They're looking for the criminals that did this.

COOPER: And in the midst of conflict.

SCHIAVO: In the midst of conflict. And how they're going to secure even -- and the workers to come in and retrieve the bodies, they need to have security. They don't want to be harmed in that process. It's very difficult.

COOPER: Mary Schiavo, David Soucie, Rick Francona, we appreciate you being with us.

President Obama saying there were HIV/AIDS advocates on board that Malaysia Airlines plan, people committed to finding a cure.

Chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, looks at the global impact of their loss now.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The health community around the world in utter shock. The International AIDS Society says a number of its members were on board Malaysia Airlines flight 17. They were heading to the AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne, Australia, scheduled to start this Sunday, typically, attended by thousands from all over the world, and among them, leading HIV experts. Their loss, likely to have an impact on research regarding diagnosing, treating and curing the disease.

President Bill Clinton is one of the keynote speakers at the conference. He says it's awful, sickening, what has happened to so many people.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They were doing so much good. We do this on a regular basis, have these international AIDS conferences. And I try to go to all of them, because I'm always so inspired by what other people are doing and what we can learn from them. And so since I left office, it's been a -- kind of a regular part of my life, thinking about those people being knocked out of the sky. It's pretty tough.

GUPTA: One of the victims, prominent Dutch scientist, Jep Lang. I first met him in 2004 when he presided over the International AIDS conference in Bangkok. Those who knew him say he was a hard-core scientist with the heart of an activist, who worked tirelessly to get affordable AIDS drugs for HIV-positive patients living in poor countries. One small example of his work, he was the one that argued if Coca-Cola could get refrigerated beverages to places all over Africa, then we should be able to do the same with refrigerated HIV medications.

DR. MARIA EKSTRAND, AIDS RESEARCHER: It's going to be a huge impact, both on people who worked closely with him, people in his lab, and on the society as a whole. It's an incredible loss. We are all just bracing ourselves to arrive and find out who else may have been on that flight. It's just unbelievable. It's really real yet.

GUPTA: The World Health Organization tells CNN their spokesman, Glenn Thomas (ph), was on board that flight. He worked with us here at CNN during our coverage of the Ebola outbreak. His friends say he was a wonderful man doing great work in the world. He was also planning his 50th birthday celebration. His life and so many others cut tragically short.


COOPER: And Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins me live from the CNN Center in Atlanta.

What more can you tell us about the victims and the work that they were doing?

GUPTA: This International AIDS Conference has been around for some time, nearly 30 years now. And this is the one sort of conference where researchers from all over the world were working sometimes in large labs and small labs, funded in different ways, came together to try and share the research, to really accelerate what was happening in the world of HIV/AIDS.

Jep Lang, one of the first people to look at maternal-to-child transmission of HIV, do some of the early research in that area, and trying to figure out how to prevent it.

Anderson -- and we've covered these types of stories -- it's impossible to try -- you could not overestimate the impact of the sort of work that many of these people did who were lost on that flight. I think more people will come in to fill those ranks, but it's going to really cast a pallor over the society's meeting.

COOPER: This is a brain trust of people who have dedicated their lives to it and spent years on it. And knowledge like that. Obviously, beyond the human tragedy for their families, for their friends, for all who knew them. For this has an impact on globally on efforts fighting HIV/AIDS.

GUPTA: We're talking about the last 30 years, when we have really started to research and focus on HIV/AIDS since the early '80s. And there are people who have spent their entire lives, inter-professional lives doing nothing but this. As you say, they're wealth of experience, knowledge, brain trust, that's -- that was their whole life. And so those people, again -- it's not to say there aren't other people who can fill those ranks, but some real leaders. Jep Lang, I interviewed him in 2004 in Bangkok, talked to him about some of the work they were doing at that time. And he was the president of the whole organization. So, gives an idea of the stature of this man, as well.

COOPER: A huge loss globally.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, appreciate it. Thanks very much.

GUPTA: You've got it.

COOPER: Our extensive coverage of the Malaysian flight 17 and conflict in the Middle East continues with Brooke Baldwin after a quick break. And I'll be on tonight.