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Window may be closing on possibility that Malaysian jetliner disappearance was aviation accident

March 14, 2014 at 6:08 PM EDT
It's been nearly a week since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared en route to Beijing. Ships and planes from a growing number of nations have helped expand the hunt. And news sources have quoted unnamed officials who say the jet changed course, possibly in an act of piracy. Hari Sreenivasan interviews Andy Pasztor of The Wall Street Journal and former NTSB chairman Jim Hall.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 remained officially missing today, with all 239 passengers and crew. A series of reports had investigators pursuing a variety of explanations.

Hari Sreenivasan begins with this report.

HARI SREENIVASAN: After nearly a week, the search and speculation continue to grow. Ships and planes from a growing number of nations have expanded the hunt to the west and the east. Various news accounts today quoted unnamed officials, both Malaysian and U.S., that it’s increasingly likely the Boeing 777 changed course, possibly in an act of piracy.

What’s now known is the plane left Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing, reached an altitude of 35,000 feet, and then stopped communicating with air traffic controllers around 1:30 in the morning last Saturday, somewhere over the South China Sea. One possibility, it made a hard left turn. The search areas now encompass thousands of miles, stretching further into the South China Sea and also pushing Westward into the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean.

That’s in keeping with reports the plane traveled several hours after disappearing, although Malaysia won’t confirm or deny it.

DATUK SERI HISHAMMUDDIN HUSSEIN, Transport Minister, Malaysia: There has been a lot of media speculation today after comments from unnamed U.S. officials suggested the plane may have traveled for some time after losing contact. As is standard procedure, the investigation team will not publicly release information until it has properly been verified and corroborated with the relevant authorities.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the last 24 hours, The Wall Street Journal and other major news organizations reported the missing jet did convey some basic information via series of intermittent satellite pings for hours after its transponder stopped working.

And the satellite communications company Inmarsat confirmed today it recorded those pings. Malaysian authorities are distilling that data with American help.

GEN. AZHARUDDIN ABDUL RAHMAN, Civil Aviation Director, Malaysia: We are now working very closely with our team from U.S. to get whatever information of satellite to the U.S., and we are working that to determine the whereabouts of the aircraft. We cannot reveal the information right now because it’s still under investigation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Separately, CNN reported investigators are examining whether lithium batteries in the plane’s cargo played any role.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney counseled caution and urged patience.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: This is a difficult and unusual situation, and we’re working hard in close collaboration with the Malaysian government to investigate a number of possible scenarios for what happened to the flight. Our hearts, of course, go out to the families of the passengers who are in this agonizing situation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Meanwhile, many Chinese families waited anxiously for a sixth day for any nugget of news about their loved ones.

MAN (through interpreter): We are racing against time. Our relatives are losing their chance.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And at a mosque near Kuala Lumpur’s airport, worshipers prayed for the missing and for resolution to the weeklong mystery.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To help us understand what’s known and what’s still a mystery, I am joined by Jim Hall, who served as chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001 and oversaw a number of airline disaster investigations, and Andy Pasztor. He’s a longtime aviation reporter who has been covering this story for The Wall Street Journal.

Welcome to you both.

Andy Pasztor, bring us up to date on what is known at this hour of the evening, this Friday.

ANDY PASZTOR, The Wall Street Journal: So, this case seems increasingly headed toward a criminal or terrorist track.

Even the most extreme conspiracy theorists are having trouble coming up with any other kind of explanation, an explanation that doesn’t involve deliberate acts on this aircraft. Over a span of six hours, three different signaling systems were turned off, some requiring specific acts by whoever or whatever group did it that had to be intentional, and the plane changed course and altitude a number of times.

And I think it’s only, I would say, the most extreme theorists who would still say that this is not some kind of a criminal act. The big problem, of course, is we don’t know where the plane is, we don’t know what the intentions of the person or the group who did this are, and the biggest conundrum is, there’s no debris.

And if there’s any fact that’s clear in an aviation case like this, if a plane of this size goes into the water, there has got to be debris. Something will float from inside, and we’re just not looking in the right place, if it landed — if it landed — if it crashed into the water.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Hall, when you put together what is coming out, the signal being — systems turned off, the apparent, we’re learning tonight, changes — abrupt changes in altitude, the changes in direction, you put all this together, what does it tell you?

JIM HALL, Former Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board: Well, our investigators are going to have to still pursue the dual course that we did in TWA 800 to look to see whether this is a criminal act or an aviation accident.

However, I would agree with Andy. The window seems to be closing on the possibility of the actions on this aircraft happening as a result of an accident. There are certain — I think, in this situation, almost everyone’s an expert and no one’s an expert, because the way the information has been handled by the investigative authorities in Malaysia borders on irresponsible.

And, hopefully, we will see in coming days better cooperation and more information coming in a timely fashion, so that the vast resources that are being used around the world to look for this aircraft can be better directed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy Pasztor, much of this new information, some of it is coming from Malaysian — the Malaysian military, but it’s also coming, as we mentioned in that report, from satellite — companies that own satellites and are telling us — are telling reporters what they see. How much of what is coming out is now, in your mind, confirmed?

ANDY PASZTOR: So it’s very important to be precise in any kind of investigation like this.

What we know for certain is that this aircraft continued to send signals out to satellites for up to five hours after its — it turned off the transponder — after the transponder stopped communicating with air traffic control. And that is — that is absolute fact.

And, secondly, we know that the plane stayed intact because the signals continued. So, during that period, it had not crashed and the engines were working and it was flying. I mean, that is fact. The difficulty, I think, is going to become clear.

If this turns into some kind of criminal investigation, and the Malaysians are in charge, unfortunately, as Jim just indicated, they have been less than stellar, which is a nice way to put it, in terms of how they have conducted this — their investigation so far.

And I think that could be a problem for the U.S. once the FBI gets involved. We’re looking ahead, but I think it’s coming. We’re going to have to keep really close track of what the Malaysians are doing. Even today, after all the information about the aircraft flying for many hours, as you heard, the officials in that country are still suggesting that that may not be true.

That’s not a very helpful sign for a thorough and really careful investigation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Hall, if you were involved in this investigation, what kinds of questions would you be seeking answers to right now?

JIM HALL: Well, I would be looking to the professional people at the NTSB that are experts in this aircraft and in radar, in cooperation with Boeing, in cooperation with the military, and all of the agencies that can support an investigation.

But, again, we don’t have an independent investigation in Malaysia similar to what we have seen in — with the NTSB or other independent accident investigation authorities around the world.

So — and, Judy, the thing that really tears at you is the families. They’re the last ones, it appears, to be getting any accurate information, and they should be the first ones. And so this whole thing from the beginning to end has been an exercise of — you know, a lesson in what not to do in a major aviation accident investigation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim Hall, let me — just staying with you, in terms of how many days have now passed, it’s been almost a — it will be a week tomorrow night since that happened.

What does that mean in terms of, if there was a crash into the water, wherever it was, is there likely to be evidence still out there, or what?

JIM HALL: Well, as Andy said, there should be evidence, if it’s in the water, of items from the aircraft floating.

My concern is, if the transponder was turned off or, in fact, this was some form of new cyber-warfare we haven’t seen, it’s also possible to pull the circuit breakers on the flight data and cockpit voice recorders. So even finding wreckage to the aircraft may still leave unanswered what happened in those vital moments in the cockpit.

As you know, we didn’t have that information in 9/11. And that’s why I have been such an advocate for deployable recorders, and I think we need to question exactly whether the flight crew — you know, whether a transponder should be able to be turned off on a commercial aircraft in this day and age.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, finally, Andy Pasztor, the scope of the search at this point is what?

ANDY PASZTOR: At this point, you would say it includes tens of thousands of square miles, but, more importantly, various parts of the region, so they’re not even concentrating in one part.

And just today, the U.S. Navy’s starting to really press in the Indian Ocean, which is the area where the investigators believe the last contact with the satellite occurred. But the aircraft still had perhaps an hour’s worth of fuel, maybe more. So just because that was the last contact, it’s — certainly, the suspicions are that whoever did this managed to turn off that last signaling system at that point, and the plane could have flown many, many hundreds of miles after that in a direction that, of course, we have no idea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy Pasztor, Jim Hall, we thank you.