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Rescue Effort for Trapped Miners Continues; Southwest Fires; Plea Deal Has Been Reached in Abramoff Case

Aired January 3, 2006 - 09:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. I'm Soledad O'Brien.
We're keeping a very close eye on those rescue efforts that are going on right now in West Virginia. Even after some discouraging news about those 13 miners, efforts still continue.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We remain determined to continue the search so long as there is hope.


S. O'BRIEN: Time might be running out, though. They're still trapped underground. We're live there with the very latest just ahead.


There's another rescue mission under way as we speak. This one is in Germany. As many as nine people trapped after the collapse of a snow-covered roof at an ice rink. We'll have details.

S. O'BRIEN: And dozens of wildfires dominate the landscape across the Southwest today. We're going to take you there live for a look at the disaster area.

And flooding still a threat in California. A closer look at that ahead as well on this AMERICAN MORNING.

M. O'BRIEN: Good morning. Top of the 9:00 hour on the East Coast. Glad you're with us for AMERICAN MORNING.

S. O'BRIEN: Lots of news to tell you about, and a lot of it bad.

As they gave us an update recently, the levels, when they were finally able to get a probe in, get that drill in and measure those levels, carbon monoxide level dangerously high in that shaft where those 13 miners in West Virginia are trapped. They're in a two-mile- long angled mine. They're about 260 feet beneath the surface.

Let's get an update from Adaora Udoji. She's live for us in Tallmansville in northeast West Virginia.

Adaora, good morning. What's the very latest on this?


The latest briefing just over an hour ago had to be the most difficult for the family members of those 13 miners who are still trapped, and that's because the CEO of the mining company came out and said that although the oxygen level seemed fine, although the methane -- they did not find any methane of any dangerous levels, they did, as you noted, find very dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, so high that they said that it usually does not sustain life for more than 15 minutes.

This is after they had spent all night drilling a hole so that they can send in an air monitor and also a camera. The CEO called it very discouraging, as was the fact that this camera, although it only had a very short range, did not see any signs of those miners. And they also tried to contact them, but they hit hard on the drill and there was absolutely no response back.

Still, CEO Ben Hatfield says they remain hopeful, and that's because they are also now sending in a robot that has a much longer view. It also has a camera and some more sensors so they can continue to test the air quality. So he says that they are determined to keep going to find those miners -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: In spite of all that bad news, they're going to remain determined and remain very hopeful.

Adaora, thanks for the update. Appreciate it. We'll check back in with you.

We're expecting an update, we might add, at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time. We're going to have a news conference. We'll get some more information -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: What a horrible ordeal for the family members of those miners. They're waiting it out, and many of them have gathered at a Baptist church not far from the mine entrance.

Brian Todd joining us on the videophone from there.

Brian, we've spoken to a few of the family members this morning. They're hanging on to hope, they're praying. But as one of them put it to us, it's really been quite a roller-coaster there.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, indeed, it has been a roller-coaster. We have just spoken to a couple of family members and a friend of the fire boss, Terry Helms (ph). They're telling us that from the last briefing that they had with company officials, which was just before the briefing that you all saw a little over an hour ago, the mood has changed considerably.

We're going to take a shot of the church where all the family members have gathered. This is Sago Baptist Church here in Sago, just down the hill from the mine. And all of the family members are gathering there.

They've asked us to keep our distance from there a little bit. We're not allowed to go within about 20 yards of the place, but we are able to talk to family and friends who are coming out. And yes, the mood has, you know, honestly has changed and, frankly, has dropped considerably.

People are very down right now. They are holding out, though.

Here's what one of the friends told me. He said -- this was a friend of Terry Helms (ph), the fire boss. Terry is one of the senior members of the trapped miners down there. And he must have 15 or 20 members of his family here and friends who are all gathered around this area.

One of his good friends just told me that the families are very down right now. They're holding out hope for this reason: when they drilled into that hole earlier this morning and found those very dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, he made the point that they didn't find the miners there, which meant that there's a pretty decent chance that they might have realized the danger themselves and gone to another part of the mine where they had some acceptable air to breathe and good oxygen. And he said that their friend and their family member, Terry Helms (ph), the fire boss, would have been the guy probably to lead them somewhere else.

He's a real leader of that team. He would have been calm, collected, gotten them out of an area where there was dangerous levels of air, gotten them to a safe area.

So, Miles, that is what these families are clinging to right now, the hope that they -- when they found that carbon monoxide that was so dangerous, they did not find the miners. That is a positive sign that these families are clinging to right now -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: But these -- as families of miners, they of course, hope against hope, also know the score, so to speak, Brian. And it's got to be very difficult to find a spot where you can barricade yourself. In other words, seal yourself off from poisonous carbon monoxide. That's got to be a real challenge.

TODD: It is. And they're under no allusions about the danger here, Miles. They know what they're up against.

They know the odds in the situation. And you can see it on their faces. They're down, but they also know their friend Terry is in there, and some of the other miners who are fairly experienced themselves.

If there's a way to find good air down there they'll find it. So that's what they're clinging to right now. Waiting for the next briefing. We'll see what happens.

M. O'BRIEN: Brian Todd, who is at the Baptist church where family members are gathering, trying to support each other during this ordeal as the rescue mission continues about 260 feet below where they stand.

The Sago Mine has a history of safety violations. According to The Associated Press, federal regulators cited 208 alleged violations last year alone. Three times as many as the violations the year before.

Similarly, the state found 144 alleged safety problems last year. That was nearly twice as many as 2004. Records show that all but the most recent violations corrected, however.

Officials say they don't know what caused the explosion. The man has been cited for allowing coal dust and other combustible materials to build up inside the mine. And this mine had been closed during the holiday period and was just being reopened.

Sago's accident record in 2004 was three times as high as similar mines all around the country.

S. O'BRIEN: We've got some bad news to tell you about in the Southwest. Winds expected to pick up again today. That's very bad news for firefighters there.

Dozens of wildfires are burning in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. Some of the very worst in Texas, where fires have destroyed more than 70 homes since Sunday, and during that same time more than 100,000 acres have been charred in Oklahoma.

CNN's Jonathan Freed is live for us in Oklahoma City this morning.


I am approximately 10 miles northeast of downtown Oklahoma City, which would be over that way, and we're standing in the middle of one -- of a one-square-mile area that started burning on Sunday afternoon. Now, about 20 homes in this area were affected, including four right around me here that were burned to the ground.

This one where we've been since yesterday is still smoldering. Now, firefighters left here a good 24 hours ago, I think even a little bit longer than that. But you can still see the smoke and you can still feel the heat coming off of what in this case used to be the garage of this home.

I mean, we've been trying to figure out what kind of a car this is. That's how bad the damage has been in this general area.

Concerns today -- concerns today about the fact that it's supposed to go up to around 74 degree, which, of course, is unseasonably warm for this part of the country at this time of the year. Very dry here.

Winds expected to be picking up as well. And as of last night, firefighters, even the governor, who I had a chance to talk to, was saying that they were very concerned that they were going to get a repeat today of the kind of scene that they had on Sunday, where they were fight anything number of fires -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Gosh, just what they don't need. Jonathan Freed with an update for us this morning.

Jonathan, thanks -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: In northern California, forecasters say the worst is over, but after days of heavy rain, many towns are still under water, rivers expected to stay above flood stage through today. The price tag on the damage is still being tallied, but it's already at $100 million.

Southern California saw several inches of rain as well. It was windy there as well. Some gusts as high as 96 miles an hour. That would put it in the hurricane realm.

Mudslides still a big concern. But downpours didn't keep diehard fans away from the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena. Scores of spectators endured the cold and wet conditions to see the famed floral floats.

In the Southeast, more like summer. Unseasonably warm weather triggering several tornadoes in Georgia and Kentucky. As you can see here, the twisters damaged homes, leveled a convenience store. Minor injuries reported.

And destruction overnight in Georgia as well. A similar story. Several homes damaged by a tornado south of the city of Atlanta, across the state. At least four twisters spotted in all. Minor injuries there.

Let's get back to the weather department, where Bonnie Schneider is earning her keep these days -- Bonnie.



M. O'BRIEN: All right. Thank you very much, Bonnie Schneider. Back with you in just a little bit.

Kelly Wallace in for Carol Costello, has been all week. Has a look at some headlines for us.

Good morning again, Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning again, Miles.

And we're beginning in Germany, where the search is under way this hour for any survivors. This after a roof collapsed over an ice skating rink.

Heavy equipment is now trying to clear a path for rescue crews. These are some new pictures from the scene there this morning in to us here at CNN. So far, nine people are now confirmed dead. Officials say a foot of snow fell in the area about 24 hours ahead of the roof collapse. The U.S. government is changing how it gives out money to communities as part of its war on terror. This morning, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is expected to announce which cities will get the most money. The department is facing cuts in its anti-terror funding and is now putting places at high risk for attacks ahead of the line.

Former Ohio State football star Maurice Clarett is set to appear in court shortly. He's accused of robbing two people with a gun New Year's Eve. Clarett turned himself in to police Monday night after two days on the run.

And Farris Hassan, you remember him, the teen who went off to Iraq all on his own, could speak out to reporters today. Hassan was expected back at school this morning after three weeks in Iraq, and we now know he did get some help from his father to get to Baghdad. And we could hear more details about his trip later today.

Some of those details probably about how he wanted to immerse himself into Iraq. Remember he said he was taking an immersion journalism class and said he wanted to fully experience it by going to Iraq.

M. O'BRIEN: Well, it will be interesting to see and hear his silver tongue, the silver tongue which got him to Baghdad, and see how he explains all of this.

S. O'BRIEN: And if he's going to get any credit from that journalism class, because the teacher is not quite so thrilled with that little stunt, along with his parents.

WALLACE: None too pleased.

S. O'BRIEN: And he probably won't get any of that credit for that immersion.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, I think his mother was saying about immersion in a tank of water at one point in another. All right.

S. O'BRIEN: A different kind of immersion for that young man.

M. O'BRIEN: Coming up, more on the mine rescue mission in West Virginia. Were the miners working under more dangerous conditions than usual? As we told you it was a start-up after a down period. That can be a difficult time. We'll talk to a mine safety expert about that a little later.

S. O'BRIEN: Also this morning, we're going to talk more about what the miners' families are going through right now. It must be absolutely brutal for them, all the waiting. We're going to talk to one of the Red Cross volunteers who is helping them today.

M. O'BRIEN: And later, important health news, especially for people with food allergies. We'll take a closer look at some new rules for food labels. You might be able to actually read these ahead on AMERICAN MORNING. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

M. O'BRIEN: The governor of West Virginia a little while ago described the entire state as an extended family. Certainly the mining community is. And as they gather to support each other, the family and friends of those 13 miners who remain stuck 260 feet below the surface, they support each other and they call upon the help of others.

Just to bring you up to date as we turn to more information about the families, the rescue operation continues in earnest. I don't think that this schematic is any good anymore. We probably should get rid of it, but -- because what this is, is more of a horizontal shaft into a mountain.

It's called a drift mine. It's about two miles in to the location where the miners were last reported. And the rescue team has gotten just shy of that and is using a robot hopefully to find some evidence of these 13 miners.

Bad indications about the air quality there. We will keep you posted all throughout the morning. We have many more guests ahead.

But first, a little bit of breaking news out of Washington -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, let's get right to that. Thanks, Miles.

It sounds as if there is a deal between prominent lobbyist Jack Abramoff and federal prosecutors. This, of course, could end up with much finger-pointing to certain members of Congress.

Let's get right to Suzanne Malveaux. She's at the White House for us with more on what this deal could mean?

Hey, Suzanne. Good morning.


A legal source very close to the negotiations involving Jack Abramoff just confirmed that they are filing those papers now in federal court. This is really the person who is at the heart of arguably one of Washington's biggest corruption scandals in some generations.

This is what we know so far from this source. This is happening as we speak. They are filing -- he's pleading guilty to fraud, corruption and tax evasion in federal court here in Washington. They are filing those papers.

We expect that Jack Abramoff is going to be at the courthouse later this afternoon in person, but his legal team is filing those papers. This agreement, we're told, was reached with the government late last night. He will also, we're told, enter a guilty plea in Florida in the coming days. We are told that these negotiations were very long, very involved, with many different offices of the Justice Department, both in Washington as well as in Florida. We are told in terms of the deal itself, a maximum sentence in the range of 10 years or so. We're also told it's a cooperation agreement, which essentially means that the final sentence will not be determined until he is finished cooperating.

And Soledad, I should also let you know, from this source, he says this is a very -- a little known fact. The fact is that Jack Abramoff, he says, has been cooperating with the Justice Department for more than a year now. He also goes on to say that he started doing this without having any agreement at all.

And the big question, of course, Soledad, is really just the ramifications, just how wide this is going to spread in Washington. There are a lot of very powerful figures, lobbyists, members of Congress, people who are connected to Jack Abramoff who certainly want to see, A, what does he have to say in all of this, what are the terms, and how are they involved in what all of this means -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes. Suzanne, he essentially becomes this absolute, ultimate insider for the prosecutors. I mean, he's kind of the top guy who could lay open what the dealings are between high-ranking members of Congress and lobbyists and how it's worked. The ramifications could be huge here, couldn't they?

MALVEAUX: Absolutely. And the other thing, of course, is if you look at the political context of all of this, this does not bode well for the Republicans, already somewhat involved in these corruption scandals, or at least these investigations with Tom DeLay, with Bill Frist, the Republican leadership. Many questions or at least accusations of wrongdoing on their part.

That is playing out. At the same time, Democrats certainly will be seizing on this, saying this is simply an addition to this culture of corruption of the Republican Party. They have been charging that the Republicans have been drunk with power.

We're going see how all of this is going to play out here in Washington. We'll see just how Jack Abramoff's guilty plea today will affect so many people on Congress, in the White House, on the Hill.

S. O'BRIEN: Absolutely. It's almost like a domino chain, and now with this -- with this plea deal we'll have to kind of stand back and watch what happens.

Suzanne Malveaux at the White House for us.

Suzanne, thanks a lot for that update.

Let's get right to the phone and Ed Henry. He's our congressional correspondent.

Ed, a big question, obviously, is Tom DeLay. He's been linked with Jack Abramoff. It could mean a big problem for Tom DeLay, couldn't it?

ED HENRY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Oh, absolutely. Tom DeLay was known as Jack Abramoff's biggest allies on Capitol Hill. This also could be a big problem for Republican Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio. He's already been subpoenaed in this case.

There are perhaps a dozen or more congressional aides that could be implicated, some very senior ones. But also, I want to point out, there could be some Democrats brought into this.

It's mostly been a Republican scandal, Tom DeLay has been the big name. But there have been some Democrats, like Senator Byron Dorgan, who have started giving back campaign money they got from either Jack Abramoff or from his clients. There have been other Republican senators beyond DeLay in the House. Senator Conrad Burns of Montana has been implicated in this.

So, as Suzanne was pointing out, this could be very widespread, this could be one of the biggest scandals we've seen in Washington, because don't forget, I've been talking to sources for months who say that Jack Abramoff had tens of thousands of e-mails where he laid out a lot of the influence peddling he was involved in.

Normally, prosecutors are just dealing with one word, somebody's word against somebody else's. In this case, there may be some documents. There may be e-mails that lay out in grand detail exactly what lawmakers were doing in exchange for some of the money that Jack Abramoff was putting into their campaign.

So that's something that has people on the Hill very, very nervous -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: And one has to imagine as part of this deal he is going to be giving up members of Congress. I guess we'll watch and wait and see.

Ed Henry joining us by phone as we get news of this deal between prominent lobbyist Jack Abramoff and federal prosecutors just really a few days before he was to head to trial.

A short break. We're back in just a moment.


S. O'BRIEN: The new year has brought some important changes to food labels. Companies must now specify the trans fat content in their products and disclose the presence of certain allergens.

Urvashi Rangan from "Consumer Reports" joins us. She's at Stew Leonard's in Yonkers, New York -- yum -- to talk about these changes.

Nice to see you, Urvashi. Thanks for being with us.


S. O'BRIEN: Let's talk about -- let's talk about the allergens first. I know that there are eight allergens that they say account for really 90 percent of all the allergies. Let's run through the list, if we may: tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish -- let me continue this list here -- crustacean shellfish, peanuts, soybeans and wheat.

So, under this new system -- and I know you've got a bunch of products around you and in front of you as well -- are people going to be able to see those allergens right on the label?

RANGAN: Absolutely, Soledad. The good news for consumers in 2006 from the Food and Drug Administration is that allergen labeling is going to have to be very simple.

So, instead of seeing ingredients like albumin, which is a particular protein derived from eggs, you will actually see on the nutrition label ingredients from eggs. Similarly, if you -- where people used to see ingredients like cacine (ph), you will actually see ingredients for milk.

So these steps are going to be enormously helpful to consumers in terms of deciphering whether a particular product contains one of these major food allergens.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes. It's about time that that was sort of spelled out nice and clearly for consumers.

Let me ask you about trans fats, because everybody, of course, is very worried about the amount of trans fats in the food. And as soon as it became popular to monitor trans fats, suddenly the companies started taking trans fats outside of their snacks, usually.

Do you expect to see the same thing now that everybody is going to be monitoring it more easily, they're going to start reducing those levels?

RANGAN: Well, I think so, Soledad. I think it's very interesting that when the Food and Drug Administration finally mandates -- and I'll say, it's after 12 years that the first petition was filed to the Food and Drug Administration to actually label for trans fats, many companies are seeing this now as a marketing opportunity to show consumers that they are not using trans fat or partially hydrogenated oils in their product, which is just frankly healthier for consumers.

It took a while for the market to catch on to that, but that's something that science has already come up with, the Food and Drug Administration agrees. Consumers need to now start learning that, and finally manufacturers are catching up with the curve.

S. O'BRIEN: There is kind of this loophole, though, right, about trans fats? I mean, zero trans fats doesn't necessarily mean zero trans fats.

RANGAN: That's exactly right. And so buyer beware.

While the labeling guidelines are very good in terms of mandating that trans fats have to be on the label, consumers do need to be aware that even when they see a zero in the trans fat actual label on the nutrition panel, that is only per serving. So if the portion size is generally more than one serving, or if the ingredient list includes hydrogenated oils or partially hydrogenated oils, you may still be exposed to trans fats in that product.

So it's very important to also check the ingredient list in addition to the trans fat label in order to make sure that you are truly not being exposed to trans fat from a particular product.

S. O'BRIEN: Still got to be able to decipher these labels.

Urvashi Rangan joining us this morning. She's from "Consumer Reports."

Nice to talk to you. Thanks.

RANGAN: You, too. Thanks, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Coming up, we'll have a live update on the breaking news in West Virginia. Thirteen miners trapped underground, 27 hours now. Officials say they are very discouraged by air quality tests, but they are still holding on to hope.

Can the miners hold on? The latest on AMERICAN MORNING up next.



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