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Mystery of Flight 370; Holding Out Hope

Aired March 20, 2014 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: search in jeopardy.

A plane is scheduled to take off right now from Western Australia, resuming the hunt for the possible Flight 370 debris spotted by a satellite over the Indian Ocean. Will severe weather put this latest critical effort on hold?

Time running out. The plane's voice and data recorders are sending out location signals, but not for much longer. Will searchers be able to find them in time? And holding out hope. A distraught father talks to CNN about the agony he and hundreds of families are enduring right now. Why does he think his son and all the passengers are still alive?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: And let's get right to the breaking news about the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

It's daybreak right now in western Australia, where the first of two Royal Australian Air Force planes are scheduled to take off just about now, heading for a spot in the Indian Ocean where a satellite has spotted possible, repeat, possible debris from the missing airliner.

But horrible weather conditions are now threatening the mission. We will go there live in just a moment. Overnight, a Norwegian cargo ship scoured the area with crew members looking with lights and binoculars to look for floating wreckage. A source tells CNN FBI experts are confident they will be able to retrieve at least some files deleted from the hard drive of a flight simulator owned by the Flight 370 captain.

CNN is dedicating its global resources to this story. Our correspondents and analysts, they're working all angles.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, first. She begins our coverage.

Barbara, a week ago, you first reported suspicion that the plane had gone down in the southern part of the Indian Ocean. Now the entire world is focused in on that area. What's the latest you're learning tonight about the search? BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, as you said, Wolf, at this hour, the sun is coming up over western Australia, four military aircraft, six merchant ships going out to have a look and more on the way, and perhaps most critically satellites overhead silently gathering more information.


STARR (voice-over): Out of the public eye, the U.S. is using some of its most highly sensitive technologies and top-secret government and industry analysts to help find Flight 370.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, U.S. NAVY: I wouldn't get into the specifics of each and every one of those tools, because, you know, some of those tools we don't talk about.

STARR: The U.S. believes Australia's search area off its west coast is the logical place to find the wreckage. Sources first told CNN on Friday that, based on a classified analysis, U.S. officials thought the overwhelming likelihood was the plane went down in the Indian Ocean. The most recent clue? These satellite images which may or may not show the plane debris about 1,500 miles off the coast.

JOHN YOUNG, AUSTRALIA MARITIME SAFETY AUTHORITY: It's probably the best lead we have right now, but we need to get there, find them, see them, assess them to know whether it's really meaningful or not.

STARR: Australian analysts went over the images, but it's who took them that is the most telling. They were taken by DigitalGlobe, a Denver-based satellite company that has a $3 billion contract with the U.S. intelligence community and military.

The company positioned its satellites in recent days over the search area after talking to U.S. intelligence agencies and the Australians, according to an industry official, this as American intelligence, military and aviation officials continue to analyze and refine bits of data to knit together the likely path of the plane.

The likely scenario took them into the Indian Ocean, several officials tell CNN. That initial classified analysis concluded it was likely the plane crashed into this specific area of the southern Indian Ocean. Then the analysis was updated as the days passed. The search moved south to here along Australia's west coast, and hints of another big secret from Malaysia.

DATUK SERI HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, MALAYSIAN TRANSPORT MINISTER: I can confirm that we have received some radar data, but we are not at liberty to release information from other countries.


STARR: Information from other countries, Wolf.

I have to tell you there are a lot of people who think it is possible that there is additional classified data from an Australian and U.S. radar and satellite installation in the Australian outback, a highly classified facility and wondering if everything about what that facility may know is being shared -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's an intriguing thought. Barbara, thank you.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, you have some new information about Chinese involvement in this search.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is a sign of how seriously this international coalition is taking the search area that Barbara talked about. It's about down here.

China has already sent five ships down here in the previous days. We learned today that they are adding another four. That is nine Chinese ships, of course, a big portion of the search because the bulk of the passengers on the plane were Chinese.

But this is an unprecedented overseas deployment of Chinese forces. The biggest one we have seen before this was participation here in the anti-piracy efforts that were international off the coast of Somalia, nine ships there now.

And what's interesting as well, Barbara referred to this a bit, you have an incredible mix now in very close quarters of some of the most advanced military technology of both China and the U.S. You have the U.S.' most advanced surveillance airplane up in the air. You have some of China's most advanced warships, amphibious landing ships, rescue ships, armed destroyers all mixing in this area on the same job with the same goal, but some tension in the background as well.

BLITZER: You know, Jim, as Barbara just reported, the search clearly focused on the southern arc in the Indian Ocean. Does that effectively mean they have given up on the northern arc?

SCIUTTO: Well, what the Malaysians said today is they made clear that the northern arc is still active. In fact, they said that these countries here, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Kazakstan all the way up here, China, which has a massive radar display as well as satellite coverage here, that they are all allocating resources to look and still continue to make sure that nothing is up here.

But when you look at the overall allocation, you really get a sense of how this has increasingly become the focus, because of the 29 aircraft now involved in the search from a number of countries, four of them up in the north, 25 of them down here in the south.

BLITZER: Yes, that says a lot. All right, Jim, thanks very much.

Severe weather clearly threatening the air search right now. A Royal Australian Air Force plane was supposed to take off at this hour.

CNN's Kyung Lah is joining us from Perth, Australia, right now. So, what's the latest? When we spoke an hour or so ago, the weather was horrendous. We didn't know if those flights would take off. What does it look like now, Kyung, as daybreak starts?

KYUNG LAH, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That horrendous weather appears to have passed, at least temporarily.

We are seeing some very strong wind gusts here. Some rain, but it's the wind, I think, that's the biggest concern. I have reached out to the folks here at the air base to see if they are going to be able to take off or if they have already taken off. At 6:00 a.m. local time, that was about five minutes ago, is the scheduled first liftoff of that first ship -- the first plane, that is, the P-3 Orion.

And then, two hours later, at 8:00 local time, 8:00 p.m. Eastern time is the scheduled departure of the second one. So, right now, we haven't heard if they have had a delay or if it has indeed taken off. Still waiting to hear on that. But when we spoke to the air base before that horrendous weather, the spokesman was telling us that they are looking at a very tough day, that the people who are going to be boarding have been here for several hours. They were briefed.

They were going to board. Then it was going to be a four-and-a- half- to five-hour trip out to that area. And they have a short amount of time there, only two hours to circle, to look, and then they have to make the trip back. So, what he kept stressing to us is that this is not easy, that this is going to take some work, and it's going to not move as quickly as everyone who is watching this around the world would like it to.

BLITZER: Yes, these are critical hours right now. They have got to find this debris and see if it is the wreckage from the plane.

Kyung, we will check back with you, Kyung Lah in Perth, Australia. Remember, it's a 1,500-mile flight out to where that debris supposedly is.

Let's bring in our panel of experts.

Joining Mark Weiss, a retired 777 pilot here in Washington, also Michael Schmidt of "The New York Times" and our CNN law enforcement analyst, the former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes.

Michael, first to you. What are you hearing in general about this investigation?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Someone who was briefed on the investigation that I talked to today said that investigators were still working very closely with Boeing to try and figure out how far this plane could have gone.

They were looking at -- directly at wind speeds. And they were also looking at what altitudes it could have been at, because what this person said was that if the plane ended up where they think -- where they're looking for the debris, it would have been pretty far, not that it couldn't have gotten there, but it would have been pretty far.

But, as we know, the water has been moving and it's been two weeks, so what does it mean about -- what does that location mean from where it could have landed?

BLITZER: And it's four days since those images were actually taken.

And, Mark, as you know, the currents could move that stuff around pretty dramatically, hundreds of miles possibly.


And we were talking before about really what's the range of that aircraft? When you take out the destination, and the alternate fuel that it had, and take into account the altitude, that's a possibility. We still don't know if that could be a debris field. We don't know if that was the impact area.

BLITZER: I want to go back to Perth. Geoffrey Thomas is joining us. He's editor in chief,managing director of

You're there in Perth, Geoffrey. You're an expert. Do you think this debris that these satellite images discovered, that the Australian prime minister says is a great lead, a great new lead, you think this is wreckage from the plane?

GEOFFREY THOMAS, AIRLINERATINGS.COM: Look, I think it's very credible that it is wreckage.

The place we're talking about here is about 60-feet long. This is not small wreckage that you find in the sea all the time, small debris. This is a very large piece, consistent with maybe being the horizontal stabilizer of the airplane, like we saw with Air France 447.

And there's another piece which is about 30-foot long. So -- and it's also in precisely the area that the United States, Australia and New Zealand have been searching. It's just to the east, which reflects the drift of the ocean. So this kind of all comes together. It looks highly likely.

BLITZER: And if you think about it -- you're Australian, Geoffrey -- the prime minister of Australia, he goes before Parliament and he raises this possibility, saying it's a strong possibility this could be wreckage from the plane.

My gut tells me he wouldn't have done that unless they scrubbed that information very, very thoroughly. But you understand Australian politics, the Australian leadership a lot better than I do. What's your assessment?

THOMAS: Look, that's a very good assessment.

I don't think the prime minister, Mr. Tony Abbott, would have gone up in Parliament unless they were really certain that they were on to something very significant. And don't forget, we have also got the assistance of the United States Navy, the defense force, also the New Zealand Navy.

All of these elements are coming together, and it's been a very targeted area they have been looking at, very specific. I mean, it's a big area, but in the context of the entire search area, up to China, this is very targeted, and all of a sudden we're finding some debris. I think this is -- I think this is very strong.

BLITZER: All right, hold on for a moment, Geoffrey.

I want to go back to Michael Schmidt of "The New York Times."

Michael, these satellite images, we have seen the pictures, four days old. What are you hearing about these satellite images?

SCHMIDT: I heard what they're doing is they're overlaying them and trying to see what -- and getting down to see every little thing that they can. It's not necessarily that they're looking at new images. It's that they're taking the images that they have and getting as granular as possible to try and find things like this.

The thing I wonder is whether they have satellites that could actually track these things as they move. Do we know where this is now compared to where it was four days ago? Are they going back to that spot or are they going to where they think it went to based on the tides? I don't know.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask Geoffrey.

Geoffrey, do you know the answer to those questions?

THOMAS: Well, look, I think that's a very interesting point that's being raised.

And I wonder in fact if we are being told the whole story and whether they actually have even better intelligence that's verifying that this is debris. And that gives rise to the prime minister to get up and say we think we have found something.

I think he's getting more intelligence than maybe they're letting on.

BLITZER: All right, let me bring Tom Fuentes into this as well.

Tom, there was a very, very important, intriguing article in "The Washington Post" today. You probably saw it about what's called this Swift upgrade, in which the plane, if they would have had it, Malaysia Airlines, would have given investigators direction, speed, altitude, even after all communications were cost. And it would have cost, get this, $10 per flight if they would have had it. They didn't install it.

Here's what Malaysia Airlines said in a statement: "The Swift upgrade is technically the capability of bandwidth that the SATCOM system can operate upon. The need for Swift has never been mandated and all our aircraft has what's called the Aero H SATCOM communication system. The statement that this $10 per flight upgrade will provide direction, speed and altitude in the event that the communications were deliberately shutoff from the aircraft is untrue."

I know you have been looking into this and you have worked with other countries in these kinds of investigations. What do you say?

TOM FUENTES, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think, Wolf, that you see this in governments all over the world, including ours, that budget decisions get made that are not the smartest decision.

And you look at something say it's so logical and it's so inexpensive, we really need to do this, and yet when the axe falls, you may not get it. We're finding a number of systems with these aircraft that could have been upgraded in terms of the technology of transmission of data, the type of data being transmitted. And you wonder why it wasn't in place. So I think there will be some valuable lessons learned here down the road.

BLITZER: You're a pilot, Mark. It doesn't make any sense. For $10, a huge company like Malaysia Airlines, they wouldn't invest in this?

WEISS: Well, I'm not sure you can always put logic behind some of reasons that things happen. And hopefully, with next-gen coming for aviation and navigation, this will be a thing of the past.

BLITZER: It doesn't make any sense.

Geoffrey Thomas back Australia, you're in Perth. Tell us what is going on no, because we heard from Kyung Lah. She's there as well, the weather easing a little bit. These Australian, these U.S., these other planes will be able to take off and fly over this area about 1,500 miles away. Is that what you're hearing and seeing?

THOMAS: Look, absolutely.

This is just a localized thunderstorm that's just passing by. We expect both aircraft to be launched very shortly, about probably 6:15, 6:30 local time and about 8:00. That should go ahead without any problems at all. However, the weather out 2,500 kilometers out to the southwest is something else again, and reported to be rain, poor visibility. And they have only got about two hours when they get out there to search before they have to return because of the fuel range of the aircraft.

BLITZER: Michael Schmidt, what are you hearing about cooperation now? Obviously, the United States and Australia, they cooperate tremendously, but with other countries right now, what are you hearing?

SCHMIDT: Well, a lot was made in the initial week that there wasn't a lot of cooperation, but, as we sort of look back on it, what seems to have happened was just the fog of this thing, the initialness, that the Malaysians were caught flat-footed. And they really weren't sure what to do. And now we see cooperation with the United States, that the U.S. is pretty happy about, but it took two weeks. And the question is, what was lost in that period of time up until now? Are there clues that they could have found about the pilot there, or is it stuff related to the search that could have been different?

And I still think that...

BLITZER: What's the final point?


SCHMIDT: This is so baffling at times.


SCHMIDT: There's such a level of interest in it. And everyone wants know and everyone has a theory, but at the end of the day, there's only so many facts, and that just sort of leaves us...

BLITZER: I do think these next few hours though could be critical, if those surveillance planes, whether the Poseidon or the Orion, the P-3, the P-8, if they get over this area and some ships get closer, maybe we will see -- they will be able to touch and feel effectively what this wreckage is, what the debris is, and we will know, is it part of the plane or is it a container falling off some cargo ship?

I suspect the next few hours will be critical.

All right, guys, Don't go too far away.

Still ahead, they may help solve the mystery of Flight 370, but flight, voice and data recorders will soon fall silent and stop sending location signals. Can searchers beat the clock?

Plus, a father holding out hope. He explains in an emotional interview with CNN why he says he believes his son is still alive.


DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Do you still believe your son is alive?

WEN WANCHENG, FATHER (through translator): I firmly believe that my son, together with everyone on board, will all survive.



BLITZER: To our North American viewers, "CROSSFIRE" won't be seen tonight, so we can bring you more of our special report on the mystery of Flight 370. Adding to the urgency of the search for the Malaysia flight, the plane's voice and data recorders will soon stop sending their locating signals. And without those recorders, solving the mystery of Flight 370 may be impossible.

CNN's Rene Marsh is here. She's working this part of the story for us.

So, what do we know about these flight recorders, the flight and data -- the voice and data recorders?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Right, so Wolf, as you see, they're bright orange and they're bright orange because they want these search-and-rescue teams to easily be able to spot them at a crash site.

But finding them in this case is a mounting challenge. The battery is dying. The section of ocean is thousands of feet deep. And that means the signal is much, much harder to hear.


MARSH (voice-over): These two objects in the Indian Ocean may be the best hint yet at what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. But even if they are from the missing plane, the real key to understanding what happened could still be miles away at the bottom of the ocean, and it's calling, but time is running out.

JASON SUMMERS, APPLIED RESEARCH IN ACOUSTICS: So the minute this is no longer broadcasting, things become much more difficult.

MARSH: The cockpit voice recorder stores at least two hours of audio, and the data recorder contains at least 36 hours of instrument data, both crucial to understanding what happened.

Transmitters on the recorders send out a locating tone. But that only lasts for 30 days. Malaysian officials say, without the pings, they don't have the technology to find them on their own.

DATUK SERI HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, MALAYSIAN TRANSPORT MINISTER: Looking about submarine technology, and then before that becomes an issue, let me tell you that the Malaysian submarines don't have that technology.

MARSH: If the plane is in the water, the recorders may have sunk far from where any debris on the surface drifted. The water in the southern Indian Ocean can be 13,000-feet deep, more than 10 times height of the Empire State Building.

SUMMERS: It becomes a situation of trying to hear a very tiny signal in a really complex background noise. And that's a hard problem no matter what, made only worse by this being very deep, which makes the signal lower.

MARSH: These tones can be heard from two miles away, but only by using special underwater listening devices. Planes even drop buoys like these to help listen.

One bit of good news, the data on the boxes is preserved long after the pingers go silent. It took two years before investigators found the recorders belonging to Air France Flight 447 on the bottom of the Atlantic. The data was still there. But even if they do find them in this case, since the cockpit voice recorder is only two hours' long, there's no guarantee it will answer every question as to what happened to Flight 370.


MARSH: Well, one major manufacturer of pingers tells CNN that since the crash of Air France Flight 447, there's been a push to require pingers to be attached to the body of the plane, not just the black boxes, and those pingers would have a range, and it would be required to have a range of about six to 10 nautical miles, much further than the two nautical miles, and a minimum battery life would be extended to 90 days, instead of the 30 days.

Of course, they would make those proposed rules only for newly manufactured planes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Learn lessons from this and incorporate those lessons down the road. Rene, thanks very much.

With the news that debris may have been found in the Indian Ocean, families of Flight 370, they are coming to terms right now with the potential grim reality, one that some refuse to accept.

CNN's David McKenzie is joining us once again from Beijing.

David, you have been meeting with family members. Our heart, obviously, our hearts go out to them. But what's the latest? What are they saying to you?

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the latest, Wolf, is that they believe that this isn't the plane. They're convinced, the ones I have spoken to, that they will still potentially find their loved ones alive.

You know, all of these family members, their loved ones aren't numbers. They're real people. Wen Wansheng was a 34-year-old businessman on that plane. I spoke to his father. And he's still holding out on to hope.


WEN (through translator): I can't sleep each night because all I think about is my son. Up until now, what else can we do? This is about his flight. There is nothing you can do to help. We can only wait for further updates.

MCKENZIE: Is this the hardest thing you have ever had to go through?

WEN (through translator): This is the first time in my life to experience something like this. In the past, I just watched other people's stories on the news. I watched explosions, ships sink and plane accidents. Those were other people's stories.

This time, it is my turn for bad luck. It is my turn to actually experience this. This is not watching news. It is living it.

MCKENZIE: Do you still believe your son is alive?

WEN (through translator): I firmly believe that my son, together with everyone on board, will all survive.

MCKENZIE: What message do you have for your son?

WEN (through translator): Come back quickly. You have made everyone in the family very nervous. Everyone in the family is waiting for you to return. He has to come back, everyone on board. He can't come back by himself.


MCKENZIE: Well, Wolf, it's interesting that Mr. Wen was determined, not tragic -- he had tears in his eyes, but I asked him, how on earth can you keep it together during this, such a difficult time?

He said, well, the rest of his family members are there in the hotel waiting as well. And he said, as the head of the family, as he put it, he has to keep it together and be strong for them and for the rest of the families in that hotel -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Let's not forget 239 people were aboard that plane, two-thirds of them Chinese. So how are the authorities there in Beijing, where you are, preparing for the news, if and when it comes?

MCKENZIE: Well, I have spoken to several psychologists who are voluntary counselors on the scene, Wolf. And they say they're very concerned with the news that is coming and then going away, and the leads that we are following that are then extinguished.

They believe that, when the news does come, it could be overwhelming for those family members. It was interesting to see several ambulances on the scene at the hotel, as well as a dozen paramedics, extra security as well. So they're preparing for the worst.

One very troubling piece of news I got was that a psychologist telling me that several of the family members having open suicidal thoughts. China has a one-child policy. Many of these parents have just one child that is on that plane. So the stakes for them just couldn't be higher, of course -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a heartbreaking story indeed.

All right, David McKenzie in Beijing, thank you. A sighting of possible debris from Malaysia's Flight 370 has mobilized a massive operation on the sea and in the air, and about 1,500 miles southwest of Perth, Australia, it's unfolding.

Our senior Washington correspondent, Joe Johns, is here with a closer look at the ships and the planes, the satellites involved.

This is a massive undertaking.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: It's amazing, Wolf. Staggering assets are being used in the search for the plane, at least 43 ships, along with 58 or more aircraft.

One expert we talked to says it's likely a dozen satellites have been utilized. And now as the focus has turned to the remote southern Indian Ocean, equipment with military intelligence technology is playing a key role.


JOHNS (voice-over): A massive sea search that requires an equally massive amount of resources on land, air and sea. It starts in space. Satellite images transferred to the Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organization. The pictures of possible plane debris captured March 16, but it took them four days to sort through the volume of the imagery. China also held satellite images before releasing them to the public.

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, FORMER AIR FORCE COLONEL: Part of it is not telling the other guy what you got. And the reason for that is there's some capabilities that a lot of countries want to keep hidden. The -- one of those capabilities is how fast can you take a satellite image and actually analyze it and use it in an operational sense? Many countries see that as a very closely-guarded operational secret.

JOHNS: The search from the air, equally complicated. Three Orion military intelligence planes -- two from the Royal Australia Air Force and one from New Zealand -- have been dispatched with large area search sensors and radar. Planes capable of low-level flight and able to stay airborne for up to ten hours. The U.S. Navy has sent a P-8 Poseidon with a unique capability.

LEIGHTON: This aircraft can, in essence, be the controller of a fleet of drones. It can go up above 20,000 feet or even depending on what they're doing, and then it can control a fleet of drones as they look at very specific areas of the ocean.

JOHNS: It's also a war-fighting plane, but in this mission it's the plane's underwater detection capabilities that are especially important, including dropping sonar buoys to try to locate debris.

The Australian Air Force is providing a C-130 transport plane, but Leighton says it probably won't be used for transport.

LEIGHTON: What they can do with these aircraft is they can use them to determine the types of things that they might see in the electromagnetic environment. So for example, if there's a black box out there.

JOHNS: Merchant ships have also been dispatched. The Norwegian car carrier Hoegh (ph) St. Petersburg was the first to arrive at the place where the two objects were spotted by satellite.

And with all the search vessels, support is needed. Australia has deployed the HMS Success, the largest ship ever built in that country for its Navy, officially called an oil replenishment vehicle, capable of getting food and fuel to other ships in the region.


JOHNS: In the event wreckage of the plane is found in the southern Indian Ocean, underwater search and recovery will be challenging, too. Robotic submersibles would likely be required to attack underwater terrain that can go as many as thousands of feet deep.

BLITZER: Joe Johns, good report. Thanks very, very much.

We're following the breaking news on the search for Flight 370. Much more coming up. A chilling new theory as well including this. Could something have incapacitated the passengers and the crew members, creating what some are calling a zombie plane?


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news, the massive international search taking place right now for possible debris from Malaysia Flight 370, spotted by a satellite over the Indian Ocean.

Let's dig deeper right now with former Navy operation research analyst Colleen Keller. She helped with the search for Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic back in 2009.

Also joining us CNN's Richard Quest. He's in New York, as is Colleen.

Colleen, Joe Johns just reported about this international effort to find the wreckage of the plane. So how do countries on a practical basis actually coordinate this rather complex investigation? And as we speak right now, it's daylight in Perth, Australia, and surveillance aircraft are getting ready to take off to fly to that area 1,500 miles at sea.

COLLEEN KELLER, AIDED WITH SEARCH FOR AIR FRANCE FLIGHT 447: Well, Wolf, they should be using something equivalent to the incident command system, which puts people in charge and has a whole staff underneath that person, where all the data can come in and just be consolidated in a single place, logistics can be applied to the problem, and then new assets requested if necessary. And I'm sure the Australians are using this process.

BLITZER: Richard, how worried are authorities in Australia right now and elsewhere, U.S., Australians, others who are looking at horrible weather could hinder this search? RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is a concern. Moderate to poor weather. You saw earlier the rain in Perth, where even before it was daylight it was just driving down, and Kyung Lah could barely report.

So it is a concern, because not only do the planes have to take off from Perth, fly four hours or three or four hours, and they only have a relatively short period of time over the search area, maybe two hours at most before they have to head back again.

It's very difficult in poor conditions to extend the search time. Either through aerial refueling in certain cases and not least of which the sheer difficulty of spotting that which is on the water. So they'll continue doing it until they absolutely can't, but it makes the job much more challenging.

BLITZER: Tell us, Colleen, how significant those so-called sonar buoys are that the planes will carry, some of them at least. They'll drop these sonar buoys in the water; and they'll be listening, hoping to find some sort of ping from those flight data and voice recorders.

KELLER: Well, in the Air France search, Wolf, we didn't use buoys. We used towed pinger locators, which are towed from ships that were provided by the U.S. Navy. I'm not sure that there's actually a buoy that's capable of listening to this, but that would be ideal to get a large field out there, which could direction find to the direction where the pings would be coming from, if they have that capability.

BLITZER: If they have that capability. We're told they do. But go ahead, Richard.

QUEST: Wolf, let me just amplify a little bit on what you were just saying there. The reason they are deploying these buoys, these transmitters, is not really to hear the pings because, as your other guest says, it just would be impossible for that.

The reason they're doing this is to monitor the current and the tide and the water temperature, because bearing in mind, Wolf, those -- the satellite telemetry, the satellite images that we saw are three days old. Now they need to know roughly where would the current have carried them three days ago. They're not going back to where they were three days ago. They're now extrapolating where they will be now.

And the only way they can do that, Wolf, is to know exactly, not just model it. You can model it to your heart's content. You have to put assets down into the water to see what the real current is, the real temperature, the real movement, and then they can model that. That's what it's doing. Therefore, three days ago it was here; therefore, it should be there.

BLITZER: Colleen, you helped with the search for Air France Flight 447 back in 2009. Knowing what you know now, these satellite images of what may be debris from this Malaysian airliner, what's your sense? Are they on to something or is this another false lead? KELLER: Oh, gosh, Wolf. I hope this is it, because we really needed a break like this. It's an awfully large piece for an aircraft to have hit the water and generated something that large. I'm a little skeptical.

But then again, what we need to do is identify something that's tagged to that plane, and then the real search begins.

If we can reverse drift these pieces back 12 days to when the impact occurred, then our work's cut out for us. We're going to have an area probably even bigger than the Air France area, and we're going to have to employ a lot of assets to look at the bottom at that point.

Colleen Keller, Richard Quest, guys, thanks very much. Just ahead, we'll continue the breaking news coverage on the search for Flight 370 including a frightening new theory that's picking up steam among some experts and analysts. Could deadly fumes or a lack of oxygen have created a so-called zombie plane? We'll explain.


BLITZER: A chilling new theory is emerging as investigators search the southern Indian Ocean right now. Could deadly battery fumes or an oxygen shortage have actually turned Flight 370 into what some are calling a zombie plane?

Our national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is here in THE SITUATION ROOM, looking into this.

What are you finding out?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, it sounds very ominous here. But this is a theory that could explain why and how this plane went down. It is called the zombie plane scenario. And it has happened before.


MALVEAUX (voice-over): October 25th, 1999. A chartered Learjet carrying Payne Stewart and five others plunged nose-first into a South Dakota field. It had streaked across the sky for almost four hours, flying on its own. The plane had lost cabin pressure, and all on board were dead.

Jet fighters shadowing the plane could do nothing to save it as it eventually ran out of fuel.

Could Malaysia Flight 370 have also turned into a so-called zombie plane?

CLIVE IRVING, CONTRIBUTOR, THE DAILY BEAST: They were at some point overtaken by whatever it was, smoke, fire or other -- some kind of problem, and the plane was then left to fly itself. That's what we call the zombie option.

MALVEAUX: It happened with Helios Flight 522, which flew on auto pilot for nearly two hours before crashing outside Athens in 2005. Pilots forgot to turn a pressurization switch from manual to auto. At 34,000 feet, all 121 onboard passed out and froze in their seats.

So far, we know the Malaysian flight was flying for at least seven hours based on pings or signals emitted from the plane.

Clive Irving believes whatever took out the plane's transponder and communications systems, ACARS, was mechanical and could have also damaged the plane's electronic nerve center which among other things monitors the cabin's climate.

IRVING: In the case of oxygen shortage, where you have a decompression. It happens pretty quickly. It happened in a minute or so. In the case of smoke, it could also be quite quick. The pilots have a greater oxygen supply than the passengers do, so they could have remained active for longer. But all of this could have taken no more than, say, 10 minutes at the most.

MALVEAUX: Skeptics say the zombie scenario is highly unlikely for the Malaysian flight because of the behavior of the plane and the crew.

MARK WEISS, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: You are changing altitudes because you're coming down to land safely and you're changing direction and you're changing heading. And professionally and by training, you would let somebody know, air traffic control, so an emergency signal would have been broadcast.

IRVING: It may be that they did try to send a signal and for some technical reason, the signal was never sent. Or maybe the signal was sent and no one was listening. This was like 1:20 in the morning over the Pacific.

MALVEAUX: In the case of Payne Stewart's crash, investigators found no distress call was made either, just a sounding of alarms including one for a loss of cabin pressure.


MALVEAUX: So, what is behind the credibility of the zombie plane theory is whether or not you believe this is an investigation into mechanical failure of the Malaysian flight, or an investigation into a criminal act, whether the crews switched off these aircraft systems or they just failed, giving everyone onboard little time to respond, Wolf, or even survive.

BLITZER: Yes. That's a theory out there.

All right. Thanks, Suzanne Malveaux, reporting.

We've got some breaking news. We're getting some video right now courtesy of "Reuters". This is a search operation is ongoing right now over in the southern part of the Indian Ocean and you see the pilots and the crew members. They are looking out there. They've got these satellite images of what the Australians believe maybe debris from the wreckage of the Malaysian airliner. Richard Quest is watching all of this with us.

Richard, this is new video just coming into THE SITUATION ROOM courtesy of "Reuters".

You multiply this by several and you'll see this enormous search that is about to take place now that the sun has come up over the ocean over there.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: I know. I would just add, too, just look out the window as they are watching. And put yourself in their shoes, Wolf. You're looking for -- yes, it's five meters or 24 meters, but you're looking for a speck out of there and you're not even sure that it is there because of the drift of the current and you're not even sure you're completely in the right place.

But you are absolutely -- just look at that. Imagine looking out and look at the condition of the weather. It's moderate, but it's overcast and it is difficult to see and you're trying to find anything on that water. There aren't many white caps there, which suggests there isn't a huge amount of wind, but even so, it gives you an idea of the enormous nature of what is being undertaken. And you just --

BLITZER: Those aircrafts can fly relatively low, too, can't they, Richard?

QUEST: They can, indeed. They have to. This is what the Orion, the P3s, and the P8s are very good at. This is exactly.

And also, of course, it's a bit different from you and me looking out there. These are men and women who are trained and they know how to do it and they know how to -- they're not looking at the vast expanse out to the horizon like we would. They're looking at very defined blocks of area.

And then, of course, here what you you've got, the release of the transmitter buoys that will gauge the drift of the tide so that they'll be able to work out where these things may or may not have moved to. Look at -- look at the height that they're at, 10,000 feet, very low.

BLITZER: Richard Quest reporting for us, thanks. That was the new images and new video just coming in courtesy of "Reuters".

Just ahead an in-depth look at those satellite images. What is it that is giving Australian authorities some serious hope?

More of CNN's breaking news coverage, the mystery of Flight 370. That's coming up.


BLITZER: We'll get back to the mystery of Flight 370 in moment.

But, first, this urgent story -- President Obama is sending a stern warning to the Russian President Vladimir Putin, announcing sanctions against top officials and business leaders in Russia. And the Russians were quick to strike back with sanctions of their own. And now, a U.S. official with access to the latest intelligence information says an estimated 20,000 Russian forces have assembled in motorized units near the Ukrainian border, so close that the U.S. would have no time to even predict what they might do. These are serious developments.

Our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta is joining us now with more.

Some dramatic developments today.

Jim, the president upping the ante, if you will, going after the Russians.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf. President Obama is warning, he's hitting Vladimir Putin where it hurts in the wallets of Russia's elite.

The president announced new sanctions today, not only on top leaders in Moscow but more importantly on the cronies as the administration calls them around Vladimir Putin. The Russians hit by the latest round of sanctions including 16 senior government officials, as well as four members of what the White House dubs Putin's inner circle such as banker and Bank Rossiya where those Putin insiders are invested.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're taking these steps as part of our response to what Russia has already done in Crimea. At the same time, the world is watching with grave concern as Russia has positioned its military in a way that could lead to further incursions into southern and eastern Ukraine. For this reason, we've been working closely with our European partners to develop more severe actions that could be taken if Russia continues to escalate the situation.


ACOSTA: Now, as you mentioned, Wolf, Moscow retaliated with its own sanctions against the U.S., banning a top American official from traveling to the Russian federation, including many top White House advisors at the White House, as well as House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Harry Reid and Senator John McCain.

McCain responded by joking on Twitter, that's why his spring break is off in Siberia.

The administration is warning more could be on the way, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta watching that story for us, thanks very much.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.