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Mine Rescue Efforts in West Virginia; Scorched Prairie in Oklahoma; Abramoff Plea Deal; Red Cross Aid Miners Families

Aired January 3, 2006 - 10:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, here's my theory on the cat, Daryn. Here's the theory on the cat. Are you ready?

MILES O'BRIEN: The cat thought it was dialing take-out for food. Because that's what cats like, right? I mean they just want a little, you know.

KAGAN: The cat dialed 911, saved the owner's life. Stay tuned.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: OK. We'll stay tuned.

KAGAN: It happened. It happened.

MILES O'BRIEN: We'll do that. Good to see you.

KAGAN: OK. Good to see you guys. Have a great day in New York City.

It's true, we have a story coming up about a cat that dialed 911. And we will get to that.

But meanwhile, much more serious news ahead. Holding out hope in West Virginia. We'll get the very latest on efforts to rescue those 13 trapped coal miners. We're expecting an update from the scene in about 30 minutes and we, of course, will carry that news conference live.

First, though, let's take a look at what's happening "Now in the News."

A source close to negotiations tells CNN that former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff is pleading guilty to fraud, corruption and tax evasion later today. It's a deal reached with federal prosecutors. It is one of the biggest corruption scandals in Washington in years. Our Congressional Correspondent Ed Henry will be live with the details and the potential fallout for some members of Congress and others connected with Abramoff in just a few minutes.

In Southern Germany, rescue efforts at an ice rink have been stopped because of fears that roofs could collapse even further. Searchers have been trying to find survivors who have been trapped for nearly a day after the roof collapsed under heavy snow yesterday. Right now German television reports the death toll is at 11, including seven children. Up to nine people are still missing. Also in the news, Iraqi provincial officials say that a U.S. air strike north of Baghdad has killed six members of one family and wounded three others. But a statement from the U.S. military doesn't mention casualties. It only says the aircraft targeted the house after three men suspected of planting a roadside bomb were seen entering the building last night.

Low humidity and high winds are likely to make the battle against massive wild fires extremely challenging in Texas and Oklahoma again today. Forecasters say there's no rain expected any time soon. The fires are blamed for the deaths of four people and the destruction of hundreds of buildings and thousands of acres since they began in the drought-stricken region.

And parts of the Midwest and South are cleaning up today after getting their share of wicked weather. The quick warmup in temperatures produced storms that spawned tornadoes in Georgia and Kentucky. At least two tornadoes were reported in Kentucky. Authorities say that at least four homes were destroyed in Lincoln County but there were no injuries. And tornadoes damaged or destroyed several homes in suburban Atlanta and severe storms in Indiana killed a utility worker.

Good morning. I'm Daryn Kagan at CNN Center in Atlanta.

The clock is ticking overhead and the silence grows deafening underground. Relatives are painfully aware that just a few hours ago mining officials conceded that this morning's drilling has left them, "very discouraged." Electronic monitors lowered into the mine have found lethal levels of carbon monoxide in the immediate area. The hope now though is that the 13 minors are safely barricade in another part of the shaft.

In a story we first reported this time yesterday, the miners were trapped by an explosion. A camera was lowered into the mine. It shows a small amount of damage. Next, rescue crews will lower a robot to see if there are any signs of life.

Let's take a look at the layout of the mine. It's called the Sago Mine. The miners are almost two miles into the angled shaft and some 260 feet below the surface.

As crews are working, family members are waiting. Many gathered at the scene. CNN's Kimberly Osias is there and she joins us now from the town of Tallmansville.

Kimberly, hello.


Well, I'll tell you, it is really a race against the clock. Time is truly of the essence. These miners, these 13 trapped miners, have been down there about 28 hours. And really, you can imagine, they were going down for one shift. They have very limited food.

Very, very discouraging news earlier from Ben Hatfield. He is the president of the International Coal Group. That is the corporation that now owns these mines. He said, very disheartened. They were very discouraged. The reason being the excessive amount of carbon monoxide gas to the tune of three times, actually more than three times the acceptable level for human survival. They are hoping still that those miners, they used that experience to their best advantage and sort of barricade themselves into a safe area.

But, Daryn, you mentioned sort of that drilling down, the robotic cameras that went down. They have about a 20-foot radius in front of them which they can see. Now they also drilled a hole about six and a half inches wide and they were hoping to get some fresh ventilation down there. They were also hoping to get a communication flow. But again, very discouraging news. Let's listen to what Ben Hatfield had to say.


BEN HATFIELD, PRESIDENT & CEO, INTL. COAL GROUP, INC.: Then listened for a response. They repeated this process several times over a 10-minute period, but the drill crew heard no response.


OSIAS: Now they really were talking about not hearing any kind of sophisticated tapping, any kind of communication at all. Remember, these miners all have been trained in how to alert folks to their whereabouts.

Now one thing that is important, Daryn, to remember is, this was their best guess as to where these miners are located. And if you want a visual of this mine, remember, they're about 10,000 feet down in this mine. And if you think about an F. You think about an inverted F or you think about the letter I and loop off the top I, what happens is there is a first left. That is how far the rescuers were able to make it. Those two-man teams that went down there. Then they have to come out because of the noxious fumes. Then those robotic cameras went down.

And I want to talk to you a little bit about these families. It is truly a band of brothers. I have covered mining accidents in Alabama before. These folks really band together. They are down the way about a half a mile all huddled -- many are huddled at a church, at the Sago Baptist Church, praying and keeping vigil. And it's almost you could tell the expression has changed and the tenor has changed. But let's take a listen right now to what they had to say.


MICHELLE MAUSER, RELATIVE OF TRAPPED MINER: Well, I'd just like for everybody to keep praying for everybody's family and my family and just keep their spirits up and just pray that there's one last miracle out there that these guys all come out alive.


OSIAS: They are all praying for a miracle, praying for what happened in Pennsylvania. Of course, those miners rescued very safely after 77 hours. Praying for something similar to happen here, Daryn. But they also know, too, the inevitable. Miss Mauser, that you just head says, she knows that. She is prepared to deal with that, but they hope that that's not the case.


KAGAN: All right, Kimberly, thank you. Kimberly Osias live in West Virginia.

Let's go to that church now where family members have assembled and our Brian Todd is outside that church.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Daryn, the mood here has changed considerably over the last couple of hours, since the last briefing that was given by authorities here. We're going to give you a shot of the church. This is Sago Baptist Church here where the family members are gathering. I just spoke to a very close friend of one of the miners, the fire boss Terry Helms (ph), who's trapped in there now. His friend tells us that the mood there has become very, very dispirited over the last couple of hours because of the news of those carbon monoxide level.

But here's what they're clinging to right now, Daryn. They're clinging to the hope that these miners may very well have moved their location. Now when they drilled into that mine and found those very dangerous levels of carbon, they also did not find the miners there. And these people here are clinging to that as a positive sign. That maybe the miners themselves realized that the carbon was at a very dangerous level. They moved themselves and possibly barricaded themselves into another location.

So the families here very dispirited at this hour. They are clinging to that hope and they say that at least their family members and the people who are trapped in there are very experienced miners. Terry Helm, the fire boss, is 50 years old and he's been doing this for more than 30 years now. So they're very positive about his experience and the fact that he can probably get those miners to a safe place if that's possible.

KAGAN: Brian Todd, live from West Virginia, as well.

Now the mine where the men are trapped has faced mounting safety concerns this past year. CNN has found that just since last April, the Sago Mine has been slapped with about 168 citations for alleged safety violations. Ninety-one of the citations were considered significant and substantial. And in the previous year, 2004, Sago Mine's injury's rate was three times that of similar sized underground mines.

Of course, coal mining is not the safest profession in the U.S. Modern standards of practices, though, have dramatically improved the safety record at America's coal mine. Here now are the facts.


KAGAN, (voice over): There were 22 coal mining-related fatalities in 2005. That's the lowest number for any year on record. Ten years before, in 1995, there were 47 fatalities at America's coal mines.

But if you look back a little further, there were three massive coal mine disasters in the early 20th century that each left hundreds dead. The worst of these was an explosion at the Monongah coal mine in West Virginia in 1907. Three hundred and sixty two people were killed. While the mining industry in the U.S. has made great strides at improving safety, the number of fatalities in China's mines is staggering. More than 6,000 workers died in mining accidents in China in 2004. At least 4,000 were killed in the first nine months of 2005.


KAGAN: The company that owns the Sago Mine is planning another news conference in about 20 minutes. We will have that for you live. Stay with CNN for continuing coverage of the mine rescue efforts. Our crews are on the scene. They will continually monitor the latest developments as we bring you updates throughout the hour.

And at the bottom of the hour, we'll revisit the successful mine rescue in Somerset, Pennsylvania. That ordeal in 2002 may provide some valuable lessons for today.

So much more on the mine explosion and the attempted rescue in West Virginia.

Also business and weather conditions across the country. We're back after this.


KAGAN: To the southwest now where thousands of acres in Texas and Oklahoma are little more than scorched prairie today with wildfires spreading across both states. In Oklahoma, 30 separate fires are burning. As we take a look at this graph, you can get an idea of just how spread out these fires are. More than 360,000 acres have burned since the wildfires started at the beginning of November. Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry has asked President Bush for a federal emergency declaration.

Fires are burning in New Mexico as well. And then, of course, there's Texas where more than 80,000 acres of grassland have been charred. Some 275 homes have burned down. The small town of Ringgold was essentially destroyed by a fire on new year's day.

CNN's Jonathan Freed is monitoring the wildfires in Oklahoma City. That's where he joins us live with the latest.

Jonathan, hello.

JONATHAN FREED, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Daryn. I'm approximately 10 miles northeast of downtown Oklahoma City, which is over that way. And I'm standing in the middle of a one- square mile area that started burning on Sunday afternoon. About 20 homes in this general area were damaged and four in the immediate area where I am were completely burned to the ground.

This one behind me here, we've been here for the last day or, so it is still smoldering, Daryn. It is more than 24 hours after firefighters said that this fire was out and left. And you can still feel the heat coming off of what's left of this home. I mean, there is nothing left. You can barely make out what kind of a car that is.

We were, a little while ago, speaking to the owner who came by. He didn't really want to talk to us on camera, understandably. He said that there were two people, himself and one other person, in the home on Sunday when the fire started. He said it came over from that direction over there. I asked him, how much time did you have? How much warning did you have? He said maybe 10 minutes and that was it.

And that's the kind of story that we're hearing from a lot of people. They basically saw the smoke and the flames. They grabbed what they could and they got out of here.


KAGAN: Thank you, Jonathan Freed from just Oklahoma City. Thank you.

And we go from bone dry to thoroughly drenched. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency for seven counties which are suffering from the worst flooding they've seen in seven decades. The encouraging news, as you're about to see, the water levels are receding and the rains are expected to let up today in Northern California where it's still a messy cleanup.

To help with the effort in Napa, emergency crews are using pumps to drain excess water. It's caused an estimated $50 million of damage to the heart of California's wine country. The governor toured the flood damaged parts of the Napa region yesterday and pledged to get federal help for the cleanup efforts. About 1,200 homes and 250 businesses were damaged.

What about the weather picture today? Let's check in with Bonnie Schneider. She's in the weather center.

Hi, Bonnie.


KAGAN: We want to get now to another breaking story out of Washington. A source close to the investigation telling CNN that former lobbyist Jack Abramoff will plead guilty this afternoon to fraud, corruption and tax evasion charges. Abramoff was connected to dozens of members of Congress and his plea deal with prosecutors could mean more individuals could be implicated.

Our Congressional Correspondent Ed Henry johns us from Washington with more perspective on the story.

Ed, good morning.


This plea deal is, obviously, going to cause major fireworks here in Washington. As you mentioned, Jack Abramoff was a Republican super lobbyist at the top of his game, apex of his power. But this fall has been so dramatic. And while he was a Republican lobbyist, he also had high-profile connections with some top Democrats who could be implicated in this as well.

Bottom line here, he could face up to 10 years in prison. Abramoff in federal court right now as we speak with his lawyer, Abbe Lowell, here in Washington. We understand the paperwork will be filed officially early this afternoon around 12:15, 12:30 Eastern Time.

Abramoff had been under heavy pressure because he had already been indicted down in Florida in basically a bank fraud case in connection with the purchase of a casino, a casino boat essentially. And also, secondly, facing a possible indictment here in Washington by a second grand jury. That's really what everyone is focusing on because that second grand jury was looking at influenced peddling here in Washington at the White House, also on Capitol Hill. There's already been a White House staffer who has basically had to be removed because he was hit in this case. We also had Michael Scanlon, Jack Abramoff's former business partner, had copped a plea earlier late last year and he was implicating Abramoff, as well as potentially several members of Congress.

The bottom line here is that Abramoff was somebody who allegedly defrauded tens of millions of dollars out of his lobbying clients but then was using this money to shower all kinds of gifts on members of Congress. Again, in both parities. Trips overseas. Golfing trips to Scotland. Meals at his restaurant here in Washington. All kinds of gifts across the board.

Tom DeLay is somebody, the former house majority leader, who is very close to Jack Abramoff. He's somebody who could be under the microscope. A powerful Republican congressman, Bob May of Ohio. He's already been subpoenaed by the grand jury in Washington. He's under investigation. You can see him right there.

Also, though, Democrats like Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. He's one of many Democrats and Republicans who have been pouring back the campaign money they got from Jack Abramoff, returning the money because they've been implicated, at least generally in this investigation, a possibility they can be drawn in. Sources telling CNN that at least a half dozen members of Congress are being investigate right now. Also many top congressional staffers. This story is already pretty wide, but is widening by the moment.


KAGAN: And that would be the reason that people outside the beltway -- I realize people inside the beltway all a twitter about this story. But people across America will care because potentially their Congress person could be implicated.

HENRY: That's right. Across the board there were many people. And looking ahead as well, I think the national implications are the fact that we're heading in now in this new year to a mid-term election where the Republicans, their majority in the House and Senate will be up for grabs. The Democrats have been leveling allegations that there's a "Republican culture of corruption and cronyism." This Abramoff case is at the center of the charge. As this unfolds, this could be very damaging of the Republican hopes of holding on to the Congress.

But there's a big caveat there that I mentioned before and I want to underline again, there are Democrats implicated in this as well. So their argument about a culture of corruption may not resonate with people across the country. We still have to see. But this is a big deal, Daryn.

KAGAN: Ed Henry in Washington, D.C., thank you

HENRY: Thank you.

KAGAN: A reminder for our viewers, we are expecting a news conference in just about 10 minutes from West Virginia. Rescue crews are frantically trying to reach 13 miners trapped underground in a coal mine. We'll get the latest on their progress. You'll see the news conference live right here on CNN.

But first, an exciting new feature. A way you can watch live news feeds just like we do from your desktop. We'll take a ride on the pipeline when CNN LIVE TODAY returns.


KAGAN: The markets have been open almost an hour and not that great of a start to the new year. The Dow is down 13 points. The Nasdaq also in negative territory. It is down more than seven point.

A reminder for you at home. Once again, we're standing by, waiting for a news conference out of West Virginia. It has been nearly 28 hours since an explosion trapped 13 West Virginia coal miners underground. For the relatives, it's been an agonizing wait further tormented by increasingly disheartening news.

Our next guest is a Red Cross volunteer who lends her mental health expertise during such times of disaster. Kathy Johnson now joins us from the site of the ordeal.

Kathy, thank you for taking some time to talk with us.


KAGAN: How are the family members doing given that the latest news that has come out has not been very encouraging?

JOHNSON: Well, things are very difficult. It's been pretty solemn in there this morning. But they're still holding out hope and we're waiting for more information.

KAGAN: What do you offer as a mental health expert in this kind of disaster time?

JOHNSON: Right now we're just walking around, trying to be there for the families, talking with them, comforting them, making sure all their needs are met. Whatever they need, physically, emotionally. We have blankets, pillows, food and then, you know, just listening, talking with them and just being there for them as a support.

KAGAN: What they really want right now I guess is information and positive information. And it's been very slow in coming.

JOHNSON: That's correct. That's true. It's been very difficult on the families. You know, it's been a long couple of days and the uncertainty is very difficult on them. They're just anxiously await any news. They've been really good about updating them as often as they can, but it's still a long wait for the families.

KAGAN: I know you have a background in this, in helping other people at other disasters. What does previous experience help you with in this situation?

JOHNSON: Yes, I have a -- well, I have a lot of experience in working with crisis situations and that comes into play certainly in a disaster situation. So just utilizing that past experience and trying to help in whatever way we can.

KAGAN: And, as I understand it, this is a first run for you with the Red Cross? You just felt a need and you showed up and you said use me.

JOHNSON: Yes, this is my first time. That's correct, this is my first time as a Red Cross volunteer.

KAGAN: Well, thank you for the work that you're doing. I know it's a very difficult time for the families and the work that you're doing and the help you're providing must be of some comfort.

Kathy, thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you, Daryn.

KAGAN: And, once again, that news conference is expected to begin in the next couple of minutes. You'll see it live right here on CNN. We will provide you with that. And it should have the latest on those efforts to rescue the 13 miners that are trapped underground. They've been there for over 24 hours now. The situation does not look good. Live coverage just ahead.

We're also back on the story, very similar to the one that gripped the nation just a few years ago. Remember the nine miners trapped for three days in Pennsylvania? Their story had a good ending. We'll relive that just ahead.


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