THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Back to that breaking news out of Florida, where a 20 mile stretch of the freeway is closed and a no fly zone imposed overhead as Florida officials try to figure out what is inside of these cars.
This all started very early this morning in Georgia when Georgia police were tipped off that a woman had overheard a conversation at a restaurant that some men were planning a potential terrorist attack against the City of Miami on Friday the 13th.
Let's go to our own John Zarrella, who is on the ground, who's been working the phones, talking with officials there to get a better sense of what is at play here -- John, what have you learned?
JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Boy, Paula, it is tough to get a real sense at this point. You're absolutely right, though, the air space remains closed. We're hearing about a 19 mile radius up to about 3,500 feet. And I can see from western Dade County on the way across Alligator Alley that, you know, the big planes are still coming in towards Fort Lauderdale Airport. So that, at least, portion of the air space appears to be clear.
It's still not clear whether the three men that they have in custody may still be at the scene. There was some talk that they were still questioning them at the scene. The reports we are getting is that perhaps one backpack that they found, authorities found in one of two cars that they have stopped on Alligator Alley -- and that's the western portion of Interstate 75 as it leaves Naples and comes across towards the east coast, towards Fort Lauderdale and Miami -- that they may have detonated that backpack, but at this point we're hearing that there was nothing in there, or at least there was no explosive that went off.
But it remains an extremely fluid situation out there. You can cross Alligator Alley up to a point and then there is a detour away from the actual area which is, of course, the scene of the activity on Alligator Alley.
So at this point, again, unclear as to exactly what these men were planning, what their motivations were. All of that is not being expressed by police to any of us -- Paula.
ZAHN: I know that Susan Candiotti is in town, another investigative correspondent, and she's been working the phones, as well. And she said the indication she's gotten just by talking with some of her sources and based on their reaction to this, that this may not be as ominous as it sounds, but, of course, no one really knows what is at play here. The fact that bomb squads are on the scene indicates, obviously, this is being taken very seriously, right?
ZARRELLA: No question about it, Paula. And as you said, you know, this all started, we believe, in like Calhoun, Georgia, where these men had pulled over early in the morning or late at night in darkness and apparently had gone in and made some references to Friday the 13th and Miami and someone overheard the conversation, placed a phone call.
And one police spokesperson that I heard talking this morning commenting said that, you know, before last September 11, a phone call from someone who overheard a conversation probably would not have sparked much reaction at all. But everything has obviously, as we all know, changed so dramatically since then that this overheard conversation ended up in the hands of the FBI and one thing led to another to where these men were stopped on Alligator Alley.
Apparently one of the two vehicles, at least, having attempted to or did run the toll plaza there on the western edge of Florida's Interstate 75.
ZAHN: Well, that's the one part of this story that makes no sense to me at all. I mean if, in fact, you believe these people, if you were to believe the allegation that they were going to be involved in some alleged threat, why they would run the risk of running a toll booth makes no sense to me. Does that make any sense to you?
ZARRELLA: No, none at all. It's a dollar. It's a one dollar toll. What would be the point? Exactly. And that's one of the things that makes no sense at all. You're going to try to remain very low profile, not do anything that's going to get the attention of law enforcement or be suspicious to anyone else out there. And then you run a $1 toll. It makes absolutely no sense.
So it gives more credence even to what Susan Candiotti has been saying, that perhaps, perhaps, and hopefully there is not as much to what we're hearing, at least now. That maybe this whole thing will ratchet down a degree or two before all is said and done -- Paula.
ZAHN: Nevertheless, John, we were no the phone just a little earlier with someone who had been at the scene and that was a spokesperson for the Collier County Sheriff's Department. And she basically said because of this state of alert that the United States is in, which is the orange color, which means the second highest state of alert, that whenever you hear something like this from state officials across the border, you investigate.
ZARRELLA: Oh, absolutely. And that's exactly, you know, what we were saying that, you know, in this new era, and particularly now in this heightened state of alert, anything that is going to raise someone's eyebrows is going to get the attention of local, state and federal authorities, from the FBI to the local police in Collier County to the Florida Highway Patrol in this case. And I would venture to say that to some degree it at least has to be comforting to the American public that the response has been so swift and, in this case, very effective in at least stopping the suspects. Now, whether it turns out there's anything to the story or not, we still have to see to what degree it plays out. But at least the way things work seems to have worked correctly here in at least getting to these people before they could do anything, if that was there intent.
ZAHN: John, if you would, stay with me, because I think we need to review some of the facts for the folks that could be just tuning in right now.
Just a quick reminder that a 20 mile stretch of Interstate 75 is now closed off in Florida after Georgia authorities tipped off Florida authorities that a woman in Georgia in a restaurant overheard a conversation that some men, apparently, might be involved in some kind of Friday the 13th attack against the City of Miami. And that was what led to, is what led to what you're looking at on the screen now.
A person from the sheriff's department on the ground there explaining to us this is a multi-phased process. Once the bomb squads got there, she described it as a three tiered process of searching these cars.
And, John, you just confirmed that you believe that a backpack found in one of these two vehicles may have been detonated.
ZARRELLA: That's what we're hearing from multiple, from monitoring the local radio stations, from monitoring the TV stations, as well, and from authorities that are saying that the bomb squad, at least what we're hearing from what may be taking place on the scene, that may have found a backpack in one of the vehicles, may have detonated that backpack and that apparently there was nothing in it.
That's what the early reports we're hearing are from out there. But that the bomb squad is still going over and through, or at least had been, another vehicle, a second vehicle, where a suitcase or a briefcase was found in the trunk of that vehicle and those are the reports we're getting. Don't -- and those were all from what happened when they brought in, of course, the bomb sniffing dogs and the dogs detected something, some residue, some scent. And that is when they went into action and clearing the whole area, cordoning everything off, the air space restrictions of, we believe, 19 miles up to 3,500 feet and blocking off Alligator Alley to through traffic over on the western edge.
So exactly where they stand and what they are going to do with the vehicles, with whatever they may or may not have found in those vehicles, is still very, very unclear, because it is a working scene out there. It is not by anonymous stretch of the imagination over.
And we're still not clear at this point where the three suspects are. There had been reports that earlier they were still at the scene, although by now they may well have been transported to another location, be it FBI headquarters on the West Coast or here in Miami or in Collier County. All of that is completely unclear at this point -- Paula. ZAHN: Although, John, when we spoke with a spokesperson, I guess it was maybe 45 minutes ago or so, she said that it was the plan to keep these suspects out around this perimeter area until they figured out what the heck was going on down here.
ZARRELLA: Correct. Correct. Exactly. That was the latest word that we had, that they were still out there, the suspects, that is, at the scene.
ZAHN: We should point out this must be making one heck of a mess for commuters there in Florida. You pointed out that Alligator Alley is that major cross state Florida highway that runs between Naples on the west coast and Fort Lauderdale on the east coast. But you now say people can get around that 20 mile piece of closed highway?
ZARRELLA: Correct. You can cross -- the whole distance is about 90 miles from one end to the other. And you can cross over from Miami. It's open to a degree across and then there are some ways that you can work your way around, going south and coming across from another southern end after you make the detour off of Alligator Alley. There are some crossroads that do connect over with the west coast and vice versa.
So there is a way to actually get around the detour to get across or either way you want to go, back and forth, across the Alley today, at least at this point.
ZAHN: John I think people recognize that we are dealing with slim facts here. But the fact that a no fly zone was imposed over this area is kind of interesting to folks watching. Why do you suppose that was done?
ZARRELLA: Well, I think the concern was, and our understanding was the no fly zone restriction was up to 3,500 feet, and that was because they could not, they were concerned that they might have to detonate something and if they had to detonate something whatever particles or debris that might go into the air.
But, again, air traffic appears to be, at least from what we can tell out here on our way across, is that, you know, the air traffic is about three nautical miles, is what we're hearing now. But that you, the major airplanes, the big planes that are flying into Miami, to Fort Lauderdale and Miami International, they're coming across. I can see them coming across.
So there does not appear to be any stoppage, at least of the major air traffic. But the no fly zone restriction, three nautical miles, in order to be safe in case there was any major explosive in that car that could detonate.
ZAHN: All right. We are seeing a little factoid up on the screen which says there was no evidence of a bomb found in the backpack. I have not seen that independently confirmed, so we'd love for you, John, to work on that.
But once again, for people who might be joining us a little bit late into the story, let's put this into perspective. The state is, or the country is in the second highest state of alert, orange. And I think what's happening here today is very much a reflection of this heightened state of concern we all have. When Georgia officials apparently tipped off Florida officials that a Georgia woman in a restaurant had overheard a conversation that three men might potentially be involved in plotting some kind of Friday the 13th attack against Miami and this is why you see on the screen what you're seeing right now.
You've got, as I think John just pointed out, the ATF involved. You've got bomb squads on the scene. You've got local sheriff's deputies on the scene all trying to figure out what could potentially be in these vans.
We shouldn't jump to any conclusions here, though, John, right? I mean there is always the possibility, as Susan Candiotti pointed out, that this could be nothing more than paranoia at play or maybe even just a bad tip?
ZARRELLA: Oh, absolutely. There's no question about it. And that's why, you know, we have to be very cautious, to continue to remind the viewers that all of this is just playing out in front of our eyes and where we are, in some regards, you know, still in the dark on a lot of what is transpiring, certainly on the scene and the ground, because nobody is anywhere near there, can't get anywhere near there. And that it may have been a bad tip, as you pointed out. But the good part about it, I believe, is that, again, as you and I were talking a few minutes ago, it does point out the fact that the response time to this seemed to have worked very well in this heightened state of alert that we're in, that the FBI got the tip from Georgia and Georgia, you know, Georgia authorities notifying Florida authorities.
To my understanding, from what I am hearing on this end, it is yesterday late in the afternoon a BOLO, be on the lookout for, went out to Florida authorities across the southern part of the state, maybe even the northern part of the state, to be on the lookout for these two suspect vehicles.
So, it was not by chance that they came across these two vehicles. They knew what they were looking for and they got them. They found them.
ZAHN: How are people reacting to this, particularly those folks that were trying to get across the state and found out they had a pretty big detour?
ZARRELLA: Well, you know, in the east-west route during the work day, the work week, is really traversed primarily by businessmen going back and forth, or by tourists coming back and forth. And September not a big tourist month. The Alley is actually fairly light, lightly traveled back and forth.
So on a Friday, you're probably going to see Friday afternoon traffic, if they can get this open, that would be where the biggest problem would be, commuter traffic back and forth across the Alley, vacationers going over for a weekend. But a Friday morning traffic on the Alley is not terribly, terribly heavy.
Certainly some inconvenience, but you're not seeing miles and miles of backups like you would if this had happened on Interstate 95 or Interstate 75 at a different location, if you were closer to the metropolitan area on either this side or on the other side. ZAHN: All right, John, if you will, please stand by. We need to break away to something that came to us from the president a little bit earlier today.
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