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ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT

U.S.: Plane Shot Down By Surface-To-Air Missile; Malaysia Airlines Jet Shot Down in Ukraine; Israel Launches Ground Offensive in Gaza

Aired July 17, 2014 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: Next, two major breaking news stories we are following tonight. Another Malaysia airlines plane goes down. This one shot down with nearly 300 on board. Who is behind the attack?

And Israel launches a major ground offensive into the Gaza strip. We are live there tonight. Let's go OUTFRONT.

Good evening, everyone. I'm Erin Burnett. OUTFRONT tonight breaking news, shot down. A Malaysian airline Boeing 777 with 295 people on board downed by a surface-to-air missile. There are no survivors. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was at cruising altitude near 33,000 fleet in mid-flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The plane departed Amsterdam at 12:15 in the afternoon, Amsterdam time, scheduled to arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 12 hours later. Air traffic controllers lost contact with the plane as you see there two hours after takeoff, about 31 miles from the Russia/Ukraine border.

It is a stunning twist of fate that this was another Malaysia Airlines flight. The pictures are terrifying and tragic. Human beings intact, passports, even a guide book for a vacation unharmed. Yet every single human being on that plane lost their lives. This ominous picture of MH-17 before takeoff was purportedly taken by a passenger on the plane during boarding.

He posted this picture to his Facebook page referencing the missing plane Malaysia Airlines plane with the caption reading, "In case it disappears, this is what it looks like." We do not know how many Americans were on the plane, but the evidence of lives lost suddenly is everywhere on the ground. They are some passports, 154 Dutch passports, many of them found on board, seen on the ground untouched by fire or ruins.

Some of them looked unused, new. The wreckage you can see here in a field near the Donetsk region of Ukraine, which is controlled by pro- Russian forces. This picture purports to show an anti-aircraft weapon in Donetsk. The question is was this the weapon used to shoot down this plane, and if so, who fired it? Did they intend to shoot a commercial airplane out of mid-air?

We begin our coverage tonight with Jim Sciutto in Washington. Jim, what is the latest you know about this terror in the sky? JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY OFFICIAL: Well, I'll tell you U.S. officials now confirming what Ukrainian officials have been telling me all day long and that is that there was evidence that this plane was taken down by a surface-to-air missile. The two pieces of evidence that U.S. officials cite are, one, tracking by U.S. assets in the region showing that a missile system radar locked on to this jet before it was shot down and signs of a heat signature missile rising from the ground towards that jet.

So two very strong clues that this was a missile attack. Ukrainian officials going on to say that it was a missile like that one that you just showed a picture of there, a Russian-made missile, which Ukrainian officials say was taken by pro-Russian separatists a couple of weeks ago, then leading to this tragedy today.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): The Malaysian jet fell from the sky over Eastern Ukraine in a fireball in a black cloud, pieces of burning debris visible, trailing gray smoke. On the ground wreckage littered the landscape, spread over a large area. Evidence, Ukrainian officials tell CNN, that the Boeing 777 came apart at high altitude.

Ukrainian officials quickly blamed a missile strike by pro-Russian separatists. The foreign minister telling CNN, quote, "It's as clear as day. They've been hunting our planes for weeks. Ukraine's newly elected pro-western president, Petro Poroshenko, called it an act of terrorism.

PRESIDENT PETRO POROSHENKO, UKRAINE (through translator): We do not call it an incident or a catastrophe but a terrorist action.

SCIUTTO: The U.S. has now concluded the plane was shot down, a senior U.S. official tells CNN. But the U.S. does not know who is responsible. Russian President Vladimir Putin is already laying his own blame saying the state over whose territory it happened, naming Ukraine, is responsible for this terrible tragedy.

This morning Putin delivered the news of the crash to President Obama during a phone call to discuss new U.S. sanctions against Russia. Sanctions sparked by Russian support for Ukrainian militants including supplying weapons and fighters.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: It looks like it may be a terrible tragedy. The United States will offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why.

SCIUTTO: President Obama has since spoken to Ukraine's president and Malaysia's prime minister pledging U.S. support to determine exactly what happened.

NAJIB RAZAK, MALAYSIAN PRIME MINISTER: If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down, we insist that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SCIUTTO: U.S. officials say they've not determined who shot the plane down, but Ukrainian officials are not pulling punches. They blame not just pro-Russian separatists, they blame Russia and one piece of evidence they use is an intercepted phone communication at the time this plane was shot down between, they say, a pro-Russian separatist and a Russian intelligence agent describing that they shot this plane down and then even as they're realizing it was a passenger plane, as it hit the ground, pretty alarming evidence coming out of the Ukrainian government tonight.

BURNETT: All right, Jim Sciutto, thank you very much. The latest on the investigation as it is beginning. Nic Robertson is on the ground in Kiev for us tonight. What do you know, Nic?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, rescue and investigation officials have only been allowed through to the crash site in the last seven hours or so. The Ukrainian government doesn't control the area there. We're told that five teams were allowed through to that area about seven hours ago. They say they are being hampered because the debris is strewn over a large area.

They're being hampered by armed groups in the area that are getting in the way of the rescue and investigation. We've seen on pictures already a contamination of the crime scene, if you will, there's been pictures of people standing on parts of the wrecked aircraft. Those intercepted phone conversations we've heard the Ukrainian security chief and the Ukrainian president talking about this evening that are intercepted.

They say between separatists and what we're told here are the Russian handlers saying that some parts of the aircraft have already been looted and taken away and put in people's yard. So you have questions right now about the contamination of the crime scene, the jurisdiction of the crime scene here, which clearly is not firmly in the hands of the Ukrainian authorities.

The Ukrainian president says that he welcomes international involvement, wants the Dutch and Malaysian officials to be involved in an international investigation, it's difficult to see at this point how that can proceed easily and quickly in these current circumstances -- Erin.

BURNETT: Nic Robertson, thank you very much. I mean, that is hard to imagine people taking pieces of this airplane to put them in their yards. Joining me now Phil Mudd, former CIA counterterrorism official, Mary Schiavo, former inspector general for the Department of Transportation, and Retired General Spider Marks, a CNN military analyst.

Phil, let me start with you. We don't know who is responsible. You heard Jim and Nic reporting though in terms of the allegations of the intercepted phone call that purportedly is between pro-Russian separatists and their Russian handlers. This is a war zone. It's a shocking act. Who could have done it?

It sounds like he's obviously not hearing me. So let me put that question to you, General Marks, in terms of just pure capability, who could have done this?

GENERAL JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: The Ukrainians have the surface-to-air capabilities that the Russians have, they've been allied for a period of time. The Russians have it, the Ukrainians have it. It can reach up to 72,000 feet so it would put it in the range of the capability. Clearly this rests with -- the initial finding will be Russia's got some explaining to do.

And I think we'll find that out here very, very shortly. Look, there's going to be signals intelligence, there's going to be an IR signature, infrared, and we'll be able to do some additional analysis on all of that here very, very quickly.

BURNETT: So intent is going to be so crucial. I know we have Phil here with us now. So Phil, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was not on its usual route, which I think is important to emphasize, there was weather. It was flying north of its regular course, near an area the FAA had warned airlines to avoid back in April because of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

My question to you though is someone who has the operational ability to fire a surface-to-air missile and successfully take a jet out at 33,000 feet, is it possible this person wouldn't have known this was a commercial jet?

PHIL MUDD, FORMER CIA COUNTERTERRORISM OFFICIAL: I think that's possible. What we'll find is if these missiles were transferred to somebody who knew how the fire the missile, but was not plugged into air defense systems, they might have mistaken the aircraft for something that they wanted to hit, for example, a Ukrainian military aircraft.

One thing Spider said that I wanted to pick up on, the focus over the past hours has been on a sliver of intelligence. A heat signature or radar signature. There's a huge piece of intelligence we don't know, but I'm sure will be on the president's desk tomorrow morning at 7:00 a.m. and that is, are people talking on the radio.

Do we have human sources in the Ukrainian opposition who were talking about this? There's a whole pattern of intelligence activity you'd see that might give you other signals beyond, for example, radar or a heat signature.

BURNETT: Mary, I want to show you the video of the plane when it hit the ground. The video we have. Huge pieces of plane debris with the flames and then huge pieces of plane debris are on the ground. What do you see that shows surface-to-air missile or what might have happened when you see the debris?

MARY SCHIAVO, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: When I see the debris, it looks like you had a mid-air explosion, either a surface-to-air missile or even a bomb on board. I'm not suggesting that here. I'm looking at that and seeing the sight like Pan Am 103 or situations like that and the wide dispersion of the debris. You find pieces that are completely intact. I worked mid-air explosions where you have like somebody's purse or handbag comes down perfectly or a passport comes down perfectly and yet other things are completely destroyed. So the randomness of it certainly suggests an inflight breakup.

BURNETT: On to that point, you mentioned the passports. We've seen piles of luggage completely intact on the ground. We've chosen not to show this because it's disturbing, but there are bodies that are completely intact. Looks like someone had just crumpled on to the ground. There's the luggage that shows what I'm talking about. How does a plane come down 33,000 feet and you see luggage intact. You see humans intact.

SCHIAVO: Well, those pieces were likely ejected from the plane. We even saw this in 2001, two of the ones in the World Trade Center. We found things that were intact, luggage, passports, and then other folk who were never found at all. This random hit or miss that suggests an inflight breakup. Some pieces were far away from the explosion and literally they just fell to the earth unburned and undestroyed.

BURNETT: Phil, if this was a surface-to-air missile as U.S. sources are saying that it was, would there have been any warning to the pilot, the crew, the passengers?

MUDD: Boy, I don't think there'd be much. I assume we'll get some of that off the flight recorder. That's one reason that taking care of the crime scene is so critical. You are going to want to make sure it doesn't get in the hands of people who either destroy it, make it disappear or alter it. But given how fast the surface-to-air missile is going and how slow that aircraft is going, that there would be much warning to that pilot.

BURNETT: And General Marks, the person who fired this, I mean, this has been a fear that we've heard about in commercial aviation for a long time, that terror groups or groups of militants could use surface-to-air missiles to take down commercial jets. What does the fact that this was successful say to the flying public?

MARKS: Well, commercial aircraft are normally not equipped at all with what's called IFF, to identify friend or foe. You can transpond whether you're civilian or you're military. So the flying civilian populous shouldn't worry about this. However, when you're in a commercial aircraft and you're in a hot spot or in an area that's in extremism for some reason certainly this capability can be on the ground.

But generally, Erin, what you see is that these transporter launchers, this type of capability is part of an enterprise. Messages and radar signals are sent and transponded and transferred around so that a single rocket or missile can be launched, but the direction comes from someplace else.

To have this in an individual's hand or a single kind of an entity to engage indicates that they are disconnected, that the capability still exists and certainly can migrate around. I think this is extremely rare. Clearly what the United States needs to do is put a full-court press in terms of the intel community as Phil has suggested, around this so the United States can respond immediately and very strongly in terms of stating what their belief is.

BURNETT: All right, well, thanks to all of you. Again, we need to emphasize we don't yet know how many Americans were on board this plane. That's just one example. We'll be talking about the missile that brought down Flight 17. What we know about what it might have been capable of doing and the flight path, and how many other planes, there were American planes, in this area. We have those pictures to show you on radar. How many planes were around when this happened, a pretty shocking picture?

Our other breaking story tonight, Israel launching a major ground offensive into Gaza. We are going to be live in Gaza City tonight.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: Breaking news on the Malaysia Airlines flight that was shot down in Ukraine killing all 295 people on board. An American official says the plane was flying in an altitude of about 33,000 feet when it was hit by a surface-to-air missile. You can see the debris in this video falling from the sky.

Ukraine's foreign minister pins the blame on pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country saying that they used a Russian- made missile system to shoot the 777 out of the sky. So far no one has claimed responsibility. The spokesman for Vladimir Putin said talk of Russian involvement is quote/unquote "stupidity."

Tom Foreman is OUTFRONT. Tom, what kind of missile shot this plane down. What missile can take down a passenger jet flying at 33,000 feet in mid-flight at 500-plus miles an hour?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There are several candidates, but the one we're looking at most closely is a single type out there that seems to be attracting the most attention. Let's look at the lay of the land because this is what investigators will have to do. The plane took off from Amsterdam. It was headed toward Kuala Lumpur, taking off around noon and over the night.

This is roughly where we're talking about it in terms of its position, 33,000 feet in the air and at the same time about 30 miles away on ground from the Russian border down here. That's the relative position. So what could reach that high and do it? You can't do it with one of those shoulder-held missiles. You need something much more like this.

This is the BUK anti-missile defense system. We're showing it here pretty much life sized. This is a state of the art system. It's manned by four people, highly mobile, can set up and fire in about 5 minutes. It can acquire a target and release a missile in about 22 seconds and just as quickly pack up and move on.

So let's talk about this or something like it as a candidate for doing something like this because you're going to have to have a very robust system to reach that high. What do we know about the missiles it fires? We know they're powerful and very good. Each one of these missiles is about 16 feet long.

We're showing is it a little bit short here, not its full size. It would weigh about 1500 pounds, has a war head of 154 pounds of high explosives. Terribly, terribly powerful. And it has guidance all the way into its target. Doesn't actually have to hit the target. Just has to get near it and blow up with all of that force.

Look at this last number because this really matters. The speed, 2,684 miles per hour. More than three times the speed of sound. By comparison, a plane like this, yes, it's traveling 500, 600 miles per hour. No match at all for something like this. You could fire this from 30 miles away and within 40 seconds it would be on target. The people in this plane including the crew, if this is the type of missile fired at them, they wouldn't even see it coming before it was on them -- Erin.

BURNETT: All right, Tom Foreman, thank you very much.

Let me bring now back Retired Major General Spider Marks along with CNN senior international correspondent, Nick Paton Walsh who has reported extensively on the rebels in the region.

So Nick, let me start with you because you've seen the types of military equipment that the groups have, and you just heard Tom reporting on all the details of what this BUK missile would be able to do, how difficult to operate. Could the people that you've met with there, these groups, have pulled something like this off?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hard to really say. I think it's clear something of that technology like the BUK, you would have to have well trained people to operate it. The people we've met, the militia, they're rag tag, a lot have old military experience and that's ground street-to-street fighting rather than technological stuff to run something like that.

The weapons they've had, things have changed enormously. A lot of heavy weapons have flooded in. But the video you've seen of lighter artillery even ground rocket launchers are nothing of the scale of the BUK. Videos show one that separatists claim they've got hold of in the past week. We can't clarify that. That's social media.

This was given to them by the Russians that some Ukrainian officials have been hinting, you have to ask yourself why. Their relations are very bad. Decrying the lack of Russian help. Would you chance giving them something like the BUK that can take down a civilian airliner, a very confusing situation -- Erin.

BURNETT: Interesting that you raise that question that, pro-Russian separatists, Russian government, that link would make sense. So I think it's important you raise that caution there. General, let me ask you this question. We have animation that actually shows how the BUK missile would work. This is not from today. This is something the Russian government put out to show the power of this particular missile.

You're not watching what happened today, but you're watching it take down an aircraft. It strikes the jet, shortly thereafter you have an impact and that fighter jet in this case explodes. If separatists could pull off this kind of an attack with a missile this sophisticated, how concerned should we be? Is this a whole new world, especially when you think about something like this could have been, you know, not where it was supposed to be?

MARKS: Erin it really is not a new world. This technology has been around for a while. What we're really looking at is the lack of governed space, the ability of interests to cross over what you and I might define as very distinct borders, and in truth they aren't. In eastern Ukraine that's what we would define as uncontrolled, ungoverned.

Russian separatists not totally aligned with what Moscow would try to achieve. So not beyond the realm of possibility. I would rank it way up there as the primary area I'd go to do my forensics and intelligence analysis and put this all together. Clearly, it is Russian equipment, Russian developed, former soviet developed.

It exists in that part of the world. Russian units have it, current in their inventory. It could easily be a part of Ukraine military that could have been taken over by the separatists.

BURNETT: But here's the question, would separatists that want, you know, independence in Eastern Ukraine that are pro-Russian in terms of their definition, would they do this if Moscow hadn't said it was OK or would they go rogue?

WALSH: I can't foresee any situation where anyone did this deliberately. It makes their situation ten times more violent, ten times more deadly. This isn't bringing the attention they want on their cause at the moment, no help from Moscow, no help from Kiev. Whatever caused this to happen, it was most likely a very tragic mistake. We've seen planes shot down seemingly by separatists in the last couple of weeks. You have to point the finger in that direction but whether this was purposefully done, I'm very skeptical indeed.

BURNETT: General Marks, let me follow on that because I know you mentioned this a moment ago, but I want to make this point very clear. You're talking about a very sophisticated missile as Tom Foreman was reporting, and someone that would be operationally astute and train to operate it.

I want to ask you this question to you again, would it be possible that someone did not know they were shooting down a commercial jet or Boeing 777? Would they have been able to see that from where they were?

MARKS: Yes, they would have. That has either the chance to transpond I'm civilian or I'm military. Once you get into the military signal, you have to interrogate it to find out if it's friend or foe. They couldn't do that because commercial aircraft couldn't have that further resolution. If that was transponding as a military aircraft, i.e., a big mistake, then this operator could have shot that down and thought he was going after military aircraft.

BURNETT: Wouldn't the block box show that whether that mistake has been made --

MARKS: Sure.

BURNETT: It would? OK. Thank you so much to both of you, adding another layer to this whether it was a mistake and whether there was also a mistake in that cockpit. We don't know.

Still OUTFRONT, U.S. airlines have avoided Ukrainian airspace in this particular area since April. Why didn't Malaysia Airlines do the same? And this is not the first time a passenger jet has been shot down. How those attacks could help uncover what happened to Flight 17? We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: Welcome back to our breaking news coverage tonight. Just hours ago, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a Boeing 777, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was shot down in midflight. A plane with 294 people on board shot out of the sky. There are no survivors.

Amateur video shows a plume of smoke, debris falling from the sky. And here is what we know at this hour. A senior U.S. official tells CNN, the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. U.S. officials have not determined who, though, was responsible.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says any talk of Russian involvement in the crash is, quote-unquote, "stupidity".

Chief meteorologist Chad Myers is in Atlanta with more information about the plane's flight path.

And, Chad, there are so many crucial pieces of information on these map and these blips of plane that you're about to show us. I mean, this plane did deviate a bit from its normal route, right?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: That's right.

In the morning when the plane was taking off there were a series of thunderstorms in the usual path. This isn't unusual. I mean, sometimes you fly from Atlanta to Nashville, you have to go around Charlotte one way or maybe you're going all the way over toward Chattanooga. Just depends on what's up there, how the wind is, the direction of the wind, are there storms in the way.

I know it looks willy-nilly when I show you that flight explorer and there's 5,000 planes, it looks like they're all going and there's no organization. But there is an organization, there's interstates in the sky. Those interstates will take you from one point to the next.

That's how you get the 12-hour flight all the way to Kuala Lumpur. It looks like you're going in a straight line, but many times, you're not going in a straight line, you're going from one spot to the next spot. So, in a normal flight that we've watched these over and over, many, many flights I've backed up, most of the time the flight went down here on the green interstate, we'll call it 190, then sometimes yesterday the plane went on 991. Well, today, because the storms were here, it was on the flight path here, 980.

And I know this doesn't look like much, but that's a 200-mile distance. This plane was 200 miles farther north than the normal route. This is the plane on Wednesday, a little bit farther to the north, Tuesday, Monday, and Sunday and Saturday all down here. The plane couldn't go there this morning because of big storms right there at the time the plane was about to take off. And so, it traveled farther to the north, adding to the likelihood that this was mistaken identity because the plane usually doesn't fly there.

BURNETT: And, Chad, just as a follow question, this -- it was near but not exactly in an area that the FAA for one had warned airlines to stay away from earlier this year. So, near but not in that area.

Were planes flying in this area? Were there a lot of other planes around?

MYERS: Well, look at this. This is about 150 miles across, 100 miles high. Twenty-one planes in the sky at the exact same time that Malaysia Air 17 was right there. A plane right there, two planes up there. There were many planes.

Now, I'm going to fast forward you two hours. There were six planes in the same area. They all said we're not going to fly there today.

BURNETT: And one of them was another Malaysia airlines plane, correct?

MYERS: That's correct. You bet. It actually went much father south, down way south of Ukraine and then down across -- I would say at least 300 miles out of the way but certainly safer.

BURNETT: All right. Thank you very much, Chad Myers.

And, you know, this is the second time this year that Malaysia Airlines has faced an incident involving a downed plane. Of course, as you're all aware on March 8th, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared with 239 on board, extensive search efforts so far unsuccessful.

OUTFRONT now, our aviation correspondent Richard Quest and our analyst and veteran private pilot Miles O'Brien.

Great to have you both with us.

Richard, it is horrible reality that we're talking about two downed planes operated by Malaysia Airlines. Given the warnings about flight paths over this particular region in general, was this something that could have been avoided today?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: With hindsight, clearly yes, obviously, but the very fact that the event has happened and we're talking about it, yes, it could have been avoided. But the warnings both the FAA and the European EASA and the euro control warnings were for farther south for Crimea and the Black Sea. They were not for this particular area. It's quite clear, IATA has said tonight that --

BURNETT: International Air Transportation Association.

QUEST: Right -- has said that the plane was not flying in restricted air space. Tonight, however, of course, euro control has closed down all air space in Eastern Ukraine. British Airways, Air France, KLM, these are all airlines that did fly through Eastern Ukraine which have now decided not to, including (INAUDIBLE).

BURNETT: So, Miles, do you agree with Richard's assessment or is this something that could perhaps also go to this airline, a crew that was perhaps not prepared or doing what they should be doing.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, let's hearken back to what we saw with Chad Myers. This airplane typically flew a southerly route, which happened to go through the prohibited zone by the FAA.

So, what does that tell you about Malaysia airlines, their dispatchers and their thinking about safety in this region? I think when airlines tell you safety first, really what it is, is fuel savings first. And I think what's happened here is this airline was a little bit lackadaisical about flying through what amounts to a war zone.

Now, technically they were legal where they were by flying north at that altitude because the ceiling of the no-fly zone was 25,000 feet. But there had been two aircraft shot down earlier this week. So, that's something that should get the attention of the airplane dispatchers and the flight crew.

BURNETT: So, Richard, what about that point, that there was -- to Miles' point, at least lackadaisical by this airline, an airline which should be the most anal terrified airline in the world of something going wrong.

QUEST: Barely six hours, seven hours since this has happened --

BURNETT: We don't know enough, you're saying.

QUEST: Not only do we not know enough but you've jumped into blaming the airline and the crew for wanting to have done what they've done.

Now, I -- this may be right this thunderstorm theory, that Chad is discussing tonight, and the plane may be further north than it normally was, but it wasn't in restricted air space.

BURNETT: But Miles' point was its normal route would have --

QUEST: Other people are flying through that air space as well. If you look at all the aviation that's going that way over Crimea, the FAA regulation or the restriction and the EASA and all of them.

BURNETT: You're saying lots of airlines.

QUEST: Absolutely, absolutely. Lots of airlines are flying over Ukraine, not tonight anymore they are. The wish and the rush before we even know what, why and where borders on indecent.

BURNETT: So, Miles, let me ask you what we'll learn from flight data recorder here? Will we get answers to some of these questions?

O'BRIEN: Well, flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder, two important things. Probably in this case, the voice recorder might be very telling for us. One thing, what we know if the crew saw, some sort of contrail missile coming in their direction, might shed some light on things.

Also, in the past investigators in the case of the TWA 800 -- this is the anniversary of that particular event.

BURNETT: Yes, tonight.

O'BRIEN: The actual noise of that explosion, they were able to triangulate the noise by all the microphones in the cockpit and learned a little something about that. So, that will be helpful.

Of course, the flight data recorder in this case will have a wealth of information about what systems failed, when they failed, that sort of thing. How sudden it was.

And these boxes are on the ground. We've had reports that they've been recovered. The big question's going to be into whose hands will they fall and will this be a really objective international investigation?

BURNETT: And that is a crucial question because, again, the area where this plane has gone down, you heard our reporting and if you didn't early in the program, that perhaps there had been looting, people taking pieces of this plane into their yards. It's very unclear what the situation may be.

Well, OUTFRONT next, new questions about Malaysia airlines, how does it find itself at the center of another tragedy.

And more breaking news, high alert in the Middle East as Israel launches a ground scale operation into Gaza.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: Breaking news -- this photo just coming into CNN, a picture of the self-proclaimed prime minister of the pro-Russian separatists arriving at the site of the downed Malaysian airliner in the volatile area of eastern Ukraine. The plane was carrying 298 people. I want to update that number, 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, when American officials say the plane was shot down over Ukraine. They say it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. It is still unclear who fired that weapon.

Ukraine's foreign minister says that these pro-Russian separatists -- and we just showed you their picture there -- are to blame. The Ukrainian government claims that those pro-Russian separatists used a Russian-made missile system to shoot the 777 out of the sky. The spokesman for Vladimir Putin has said talk of Russian involvement, though, is stupidity.

But, truly, eerie coincidence of this is that this was a Malaysia Airlines plane, just four months after another Malaysian Airlines jet, Flight 370 went missing. One hundred thirty-three days later, there's still no sign of that plane or any indication of why it vanished. As families around Malaysia and around the world learn the fate of their loved ones tonight, Malaysia's prime minister addressed this latest catastrophe.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NAJIB RAZAK, MALAYSIAN PRIME MINISTER: This is a tragic day in what has already been a tragic year for Malaysia.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: OUTFRONT tonight, Sarah Bajc, her partner Philip Wood was a passenger on Malaysian Flight 370.

Sarah, this had to have been a shocking day for you and made you relive the early days when you were going through the first moments of horror. What was your reaction when you heard about this today?

SARAH BAJC, PARTNER OF AMERICAN ON FLIGHT 370: At first, I thought it might just be a joke, you know, something going through Twitter because that's how I found out about it. I was in the car driving to get a cell phone. I just arrived in Atlanta last night. And my daughter called me on my mom's phone. She'd gotten the news on Twitter.

And you know, then pretty soon, the news started coming out. All the wounds just opened right back up again. I'm so sorry for all those families.

BURNETT: I'm so sorry, Sarah, that this does make you relive something that is I know ongoing for you, that you still don't have answers.

Do you think -- do you think you're going to start to get some of those answers?

BAJC: Well, I hope so. I mean, the world has to wake up that these kinds of things are happening. And we still don't know what happened to MH370. For all we know, it also was shot down and either covered up or just totally went to stray so they haven't been able to find it. And that's -- it's just not an acceptable that we haven't fixed that problem yet and now, we have a whole new one to deal with.

BURNETT: Sarah, a passenger that was allegedly boarding this plane -- I say allegedly, we haven't been able to confirm this. But he took a picture of this plane as he was boarding it in Amsterdam. He posted it to his Facebook page with the caption, quote, "In case, it disappears, this is what it looks like." Obviously, it was an attempt at a joke, light-hearted.

You know, I do know with all that you've been going through, you still have flown this airline. Do you have any hesitation?

BAJC: I just flew that -- I mean, I just flew Malaysian Airlines the day before yesterday, we left together with my three children out of KL to London then connected here for Chicago, then Atlanta. And I didn't question the safety because one of the things they say is statistically you know after an airline has experienced a crisis, they button down all the hatches.

So, you know, I didn't think that it was going to be a problem. Then this happened today and I got to tell you, that was -- it was almost the second thing that went through my head is, you know, first, it was oh, my God, it's happened again? And then oh, no, what did I do?

You know, that could have been our flight if Malaysian Airlines is being targeted in some way. That was, of course, my reaction before they've come without some of this new evidence that maybe it was actually a missile. But you know, we didn't know that several hours ago.

BURNETT: Well, Sarah, thank you for being with us and as all of our viewers know, Sarah is still trying to get answers and trying to get the Malaysian government to give more answers on MH370. Sarah, thank you.

BAJC: You're welcome.

BURNETT: And still to come, the breaking news out of the Middle East. We're going to go live to Gaza where Israel is launching a massive ground offensive.

And passenger jets have been shot down before and some of those cases are eerily similar to the one we saw today.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BURNETT: Our other breaking story tonight, a ground offense formally underway in Gaza after days of exchanges air strikes, Israeli tanks and troops are now launching a major ground offensive. They want to clear the area and rockets and tunnels that Hamas has been using.

A spokesperson for Hamas tells CNN, quote, "The beginning of the Israeli ground invasion is a dangerous step with unknown consequences. Israel will pay a heavy price for it."

Ben Wedeman is OUTFRONT live along the Gaza border.

And, Ben, you know, this is a very significant step to go ahead with the ground invasion. What are you seeing?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this opens a whole new phase of both for Gaza and the Israelis because it's one thing to strike from the sky, to fire rockets into Israel, but when troops are on the ground in Gaza and we know they are, then it can become very messy, given the large population, 1.7 million people here, many of them crammed into refugee camps and other areas. I'm just going to step aside. What you see behind me, that is a

flare, that's about the sixth set of flares and now there is just one, before they were firing two, that we seen fired over the area of the eastern border of Gaza. That's the Shaja'ia neighborhood has been hit repeatedly many, many times over the last ten days since this bombing campaign began.

Now, we understand that Israeli forces are concentrating efforts in the northern part of the Gaza Strip and also in the central part. It would appear that perhaps they are trying to repeat what they did in 2009, which is essentially cut the Gaza Strip in half -- Erin.

BURNETT: Ben Wedeman, thank you for much -- 2:52 a.m., you can still see those flares.

Next, more breaking news coverage of Flight 17. We're going to take a look at other flights that have been shot down to try to make sense of what happened today.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: Our breaking news coverage continues. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shot down, killing all 298 people on board. The plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile system near the Ukraine-Russia border.

This is not the first time a passenger plane has been shot down from the sky. Jason Carroll is OUTFRONT.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The list of down commercial flight spans decades, coinciding with conflicts from World War II, to the Cold War, to skirmishes in the Middle East. Always caught in the middle: innocent passengers and crew.

February 21st, 1973, Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114 bound for Cairo veers off course due to bad weather. It ends up in Israeli airspace intercepted by two Israeli fighter jets after refusing to land. It is shot down. Just five of 113 on board survive.

(on camera): Five years later, April 20th, 1978, Korean Air Flight 902 violates Soviet airspace and is shot down. Incredibly, 117 people on board survived after the plane land on a frozen lake.

(voice-over): The Cold War getting chillier after another incident involving Korean Air and Soviet fighters, September 1st, 1983. The flight from Anchorage to Seoul mistakenly veers off course. Despite initial Soviet denials, they finally admit their fighter jets intercepted and fired, killing all 269 passengers and crew, sparking international outrage.

RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT: It was an act of barbarism born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights and the value of human life. CARROLL: The United States military not immune from fault. July 3rd,

1988, toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War, a U.S. Navy ship fires on Iran Air Flight 655, after mistaking it for an Iranian fighter jet, killing all 290 on board.

October 4th, 2001, Ukraine's military mistakenly shoots down Siberia Airlines Flight 1812 during military exercises. At first, the government denies it and later apologizes. All 78 people on board are killed.

DONOVAN MYRIE, AVIATION EXPERT: It's a sucker punch. You're talking about a commercial airliner, not a military cargo transport or military jet. There are no defenses against this.

CARROLL: Whoever is at fault for the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, it is now apparently joined history's tragic list of other commercial airliners shot down due to conflicts on the ground.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CARROLL: So what history has shown is often times when this happened, there is deny, deny, deny when a country has been accused of shooting down a commercial flight. It only seems when they are faced with irrefutable evidence, does the country finally admits to fault.

BURNETT: All right. Jason Carroll, thank you very much.

CARROLL: You bet.

BURNETT: Of course, the United States not immune there, either.

All right. Our breaking news coverage continues right now with Anderson Cooper.