Return to Transcripts main page


FEMA's Fake Press Conference Fall Out Continues; SoCal Fire Survivors Grateful To Be Alive; Dramatic Personals Stories Still Unfolding

Aired October 28, 2007 - 16:00:00   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR, CNN NEWSROOM: And a weekend at the beach turns deadly. A house full of college students goes up in flames. We'll get a live update. Also --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the synthetic deck that saved their life.


WHITFIELD: They are lucky. From the California wildfires, this couple hid under their deck and actually in the swimming pool while their house burned down all around them. Just an amazing story that you'll want to hear.

And blackmail at Buckingham Palace. A member of the royal family is targeted in a sex case scandal.

But first, let's get to the deadly East Coast fire. It happened at a house on Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina this morning. At least six people are confirmed dead. One other person is unaccounted for, and at least six people from the house were taken to a hospital. The people inside are believed to be students at the university of South Carolina. We'll have a live report from North Carolina in a few minutes, as well as we're monitoring a press conference that will be taking place out of the University of South Carolina.

Meantime, over the past week, the nation has been transfixed on the devastating fires out West. For the most part, coordinated response efforts have received a lot of praise. Well, now, Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff is among those furious about one thing the Federal Emergency Management Agency did, stage a fake news conference.

The disaster agency had its own staffers pose as reporters asking questions of an administrator last week. It was a so-called last- minute briefing on the California fires and this is what it was like.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Were you happy with FEMA's response so far?


WHITFIELD: You heard the softball questions and the responses. Secretary Chertoff promises, quote, "appropriate discipline here." CNN Homeland Security Correspondent Jeanne Meserve joins us with the very latest.

You're joining us from Orange, so you've got a kind of two-fold report here. First about FEMA and the outrage as a result.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, one of the individuals who asked a question at that press conference, and a person who was partially responsible for the holding of that staged press conference, is moving on to a new job, apparently, a more powerful and prestigious job, within the federal government.

His name is name is Pat Philbin; he was director of external affairs for FEMA, but as of Monday he will be starting as the director of public affairs for the director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell.

Officials tell CNN that this has been in the works for some time, that Philbin had given his notice to FEMA several weeks ago. Long before this staged press conference became an issue. And that Thursday was his last day at the agency.

You mentioned disciplinary action promised by Secretary Chertoff. We're told some reprimands have been given out. More reprimands or disciplinary action could be taken but officials will not tell us whether Philbin was a recipient of any of those. Although he said, publicly, that he should have stopped that press conference in public.

But, whatever, it doesn't appeared to have stopped his progress through the federal government. Once again, he is slated to start Monday as the director of National Intelligence Office as director of public affairs -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Is Philbin getting the blame that this was actually his idea too, to execute it?

MESERVE: Well, I think that hasn't all been sorted out yet. I talked to somebody within the Department of Homeland Security, today, who says they're still in the investigative phase. They're still trying to figure exactly who bore some responsibility. But Philbin was the top guy in the public affairs shop. He participated in this. It's hard to believe he wouldn't be tagged with some of the responsibility at least, Fredricka.

There you are in Orange, California, which was certainly a focal point for all of the fires. I understand a lot of folks got a chance to go back home maybe for the first time today? You got a chance to meet and talk to a lot of them?

MESERVE: Right. Well, the fire is good news out here. It's about 50 percent contained now. That's up from 30 percent yesterday. Officials say that they have a lot of resources here. They had great weather conditions yesterday. A little bit damp and humid. They were able to work around the clock and make significant progress.

So today, some of the people from Silverado Canyon, who have been under a mandatory evacuation order since last Sunday, were able to go back up to their homes. They were gathering some possessions, and in some cases getting medicines. In one instance, they were looking for a cat that had gone missing. And there were a couple emotional moments. Let's listen to one.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You'll be fine. You've made it through this many time.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Don't you go crying now. You know we're all right.

MYER: Well, I'm just so thankful to come back. And see all of our friends who have lost things.



MESERVE: That was Judy Myers. She's has lived in Silverado Canyon going on 40 years now, has never had to evacuate because of fire before. She certainly hopes she doesn't have to do so again.

But on the good news front, fire officials say they're sending out risk assessment teams today to go into that community and others to do evaluations of the safety conditions. They're trying to figure out when -- and if -- residents will be able to go back to their homes. So that's significant progress, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Let's hope soon for all those folks. Jeanne Meserve, thanks so much from Orange. Well, meantime, it's good to hear that cooler, humid weather has certainly helped the California firefighters make some progress. But those Santa Ana winds are predicted to make a comeback in the days ahead. Here now is the latest.

The Rice and Horno Fires in San Diego County are reported fully contained. In L.A. County, all blazes but the ranch fire has been contained. But even that's been knocked down significantly.

And authorities are tracking down hundreds of tips about a person of interest in an arson probe. Witnesses spotted a white Ford F-150 pickup truck near the point of origin of the Santiago Fire. And Qualcomm Stadium, which helped thousands of fire evacuees, has reverted back to being a football field. The Chargers are hosting the Houston Texans today and the team is collecting donations from fans as well for the Salvation Army and families of injured firefighters.

Well, among the staggering losses in the Witch Fire, which tore through the town of Rancho Bernardo, more than a 1,000 homes. Also nearly destroyed, the Rancho Bernardo Baptist Church. But the congregation is keeping the faith and keeping up with services. Our Kara Finnstrom is live with that more on that and more from a survivor of that fire -- Kara.

KARA FINNSTROM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fredricka, this is where the 250-plus members of this congregation usually worship. Just behind me here, you can see where the fire just completely consumed the stage. The sprinklers turned on overhead and that's what saved the rest of the sanctuary here.

If we move up on the stage here, the fire burned up right straight through the roof here and you can see crunching underneath my feet here, some of the tiles that were actually on this roof, and came all the way down here. If we pan up, you can just see patches of blue sky. Because, again, this fire went all the way through.

To give you an idea how intense it was as it moved through, inside of this piano, some of the strings have started to melt and you just can't play this piano any longer. One of the people who was here, as all of this unfolded, was the building facility manager and joins us live now, Bill Griffin.

He took some pictures, we want to show you some of those pictures at home, but as we're doing that, just explain to us a little bit of what you saw.

BILL GRIFFIN, CHURCH FACILITY MANAGER: At 4:30 Monday morning, I saw the fire approaching, the red glow, so we evacuated. Got the family out safely. Headed through the church parking lot, noticing embers over here. And it was really getting bad, a lot of embers flying.

I got my family out to safety. I returned about 10 minutes later to find that it had grown and spread. I wasn't able to attach the hose and get it put out, so I had to back off because it was getting very hot. So I just had to stand back and watch it. Until the fire department arrived and took care of the situation.

FINNSTROM: And, fortunately, no one hurt. Thank you so much for joining us, Bill.

Today that congregation did gathered to give thanks. We held services -- we have some pictures of that -- on another part of this campus. They're saying they will rebuild here and today was really a time of coming together, there were a lot of spontaneous hugs and holding of hands during that church service, a lot of tears. And talking about moving forward and healing not only this church but what they can do to help the rest of the community heal. Fredricka, back to you.

WHITFIELD: All right, Kara Finnstrom, thanks so much. And all the best on their recovery efforts and rebuilding as well.

Weather certainly plays a critical role in fighting the wildfires and the latest forecast suggests the work may get tougher over the next few days. Meteorologist Hillary Andrews is in the Severe Weather Center with more. And just as perhaps the firefighters were happy that conditions seemed to bode in their favor, now suddenly it's going to gain strength again against their favor, isn't it?

HILLARY ANDREWS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: We're already beginning to see gusty off-shore winds, but these winds are going to be more northerly. So when we're talking off shore, we're talking more the south facing beaches. So, as head towards Los Angeles and back into Ventura County and also on into Santa Barbara County. So, those huge fires, some of these hot spots that we're taking a looking at, what we're going to see is those diminishing.

Now, as we take a look at the winds bars (ph), Long Beach, we're seeing more of a westerly component. That is going to mean onshore as we take a look toward Orange County, where we're still seeing some really tragic fire damage out there. Not a lot of rain to talk about, but we do have some clouds making their way in.

As we look at the long-term, we'll continue to see these northerly winds making their way through. So Santa Barbara, getting that offshore wind, that should keep them warm, but as we look toward the overnights we will be seeing the marine layer making its way and that means more moisture.

See these gray clouds out here? These are very low-lying clouds. They'll make their way in and just kind of dampen things every single morning until next weekend. But we'll talk about that in just a moment. Back to you, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: We'll look for that. Thanks so much, Hillary.

Meantime, we're going to talk a lot more about that Southern California situation in a moment. But we also have some other news straight ahead. Right now, this is front page news in London. The headline says it all right there; an alleged sex tape scandal involved a member of the royal family. Everyone wants to know, so which royal is it? And that Georgia teen -- at the time -- sent to prison for consensual sex encounter with another teen, is now a free man and right there, in church today. This morning, he also spoke also with our Rick Sanchez about why he chose prison over a plea deal.


WHITFIELD: After two years in prison, Genarlow Wilson says he knew he'd be released. He just didn't know when. Wilson attended services today at Atlanta's famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, just two days after he was freed. He was serving time for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl, when he was 17.

Wilson's release came when Georgia supreme court ruled his 10- year imposed sentence was cruel and unusual punishment. Earlier, I talked with CNN's Rick Sanchez who has been following this case from the beginning, and he sat down with Wilson.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) WHITFIELD: You had an opportunity to meet Genarlow Wilson when he was in jail at the very early stages. Now you've had a chance to talk with him within the first 24 to 48 hours of freedom. How is he the same? How is he different? How would you describe his demeanor? What's he like?

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He's changed. He's a different young man. He's a young man who now understands the consequences of his actions. He's a principled young man. This guy has fought for what he believed was an injustice in his case.

You have to understand, Fred, he could have walked a long time ago. They offered him deals, but the deals stipulated for the rest of his life he would have to be branded as a sexual offender, essentially a child molester. He didn't want that.

WHITFIELD: Right. He didn't say we'll let you go and we'll expunge the charges, the sentence, et cetera. It comes with a price.

SANCHEZ: But lesser -- you know, lesser people would have taken the deal and said just get me out of here. Whatever you do, but he said he was willing to do the time until somebody heard his case and decided that what he did was wrong.

I asked him about that, by the way. We talked a lot about it. I said, Genarlow, you know, in many ways you could be my son. So I'll tell you this, as if I were your father, you know what you did was very stupid. You used horrible judgment. You were in the wrong place, at the wrong time, doing the wrong things with the wrong people.

And he looked at me and said, you're right. In fact, what I did, the word he used was idiotic. Here's a little bit of Genarlow, as a matter of fact, talking about that.


GENARLOW WILSON, FORMER INMATE: What happened that night, I don't think any of us made very wise decisions. You know, but I don't think that any of us can go back then and change what happened. You know, for the most part, I think all we can do is mature from it, and make sure it doesn't happen again. And someone get caught up in the same thing. But yes, I was young then. You know, I've done some idiotic things in my teen years, but you know, every average teen does.


WHITFIELD: How do you explain what happened to your nine-year- old sister?

SANCHEZ: Well, I'll go ahead and answer that question. Because that's an interesting point that you raise. There is a lot that we can talk about this.

She is what drove him to not take the deal, and here's his point. Yes, interesting right? I see you looking at me inquisitively. He said, Rick, if I had signed that deal, I would have been a sexual offender. I would not have been allowed to be around my sister. I would not have been able to show her the love as a big brother that I can give her and the guidance and everything else. I didn't want that.

I want to have children one day. Do you think I want to live my life? No, I would rather stay in prison and fight this thing than get out, and have to face life as a sexual offender, for the rest of my life, essentially a child molester, which I am not. And he said that was the principle that guided me to fight this thing.


WHITFIELD: And you can see all of Genarlow Wilson's first primetime interview with Rick Sanchez tomorrow night 8:00 Eastern on CNN's "Out in the Open."

Across the pond, have you heard about the royal sex and drug scandal shaking up Buckingham Palace? Check out the bold above the fold in Britain's "Sunday Times." Scotland Yard is holding two suspects now accused of trying to blackmail the royal family for $100,000. The two men claimed to have a videotape of a member of the royal family engaged in a sex act. But they're not saying who.


DICKIE ARBITER, FMR. ROYAL PRESS SECRETARY: If it is true, it is serious. But you have to ask yourself, royal? Where in the food chain is it? Because the royal family consists of nearly 40 members. You've got the queen at the top and the second and third cousins at the bottom. So where is this in the royal family chain?


WHITFIELD: The paper also reports the alleged blackmailers claim to have a royal aide on tape snorting cocaine that a royal family member actually supplied -- the alleged.

From scandal to harmony, check out this construction site. Some 240 miles from the closest home improvement store. You confused yet? Here's some clarification. Discovery astronauts spent six and a half hours today unhooking a huge girder from the backbone of the International Space Station. The giant solar tower is being moved to another spot on the outpost and it will be reattached during another space walk later on this week. The crew also added handrails and a handle to the new Harmony chamber to make it easier for the space station's robotic arm to reposition it later.

So would this be you? Fire takes your home and you still have a sense of humor.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Finally, no termites!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Finally, no termites!


WHITFIELD: Well, somehow this California couple has found a bright spot even though their home is in ruins. We'll share their story straight ahead in the CNN NEWSROOM.


WHITFIELD: Now more on our top story; that deadly East Coast fire. It happened at a house on Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina this morning. At least six people are confirmed dead, and one other person is unaccounted for. At least six people from that house were taken to a hospital. Reporter Conan Gasque of CNN affiliate News 14 Carolina is in Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina.

And so Conan, what started this horrible fire?

CONAN GASQUE, REPORTER, NEWS 14 CAROLINA: Well, they're not sure exactly what the cause of the fire is right now, but the Mayor Debbie Smith did meet with the media a couple hours ago right here outside the Ocean Isle Beach Fire Department.

She says a call came into the fire department 7 am this morning, of a structure fire. They found that 13 people were inside the house at the time of the fire. As you mentioned, six have been confirmed dead, six were taken to the hospital and released and one is still unaccounted for.

They believe that most of the students involved -- or most of the people involved were students from the University of South Carolina and Clemson University. Possibly visiting Ocean Isle Beach, on their fall break. They said that the residence that caught on fire was privately owned. And no other residences around that one, were damaged. In Ocean Isle Beach, I'm Conan Gasque.

WHITFIELD: And so, Conan, is there any way of knowing at this point whether this was the family home of one of those college students that was in that house?

GASQUE: They feel that it appears to be owned by the family, as you say, of one of the students that was staying in the house, yes.

WHITFIELD: All right. Any idea about how long they had been there? Do we know anything about these students, and what their plans were, what kind of activity may have been taking place at that house before this fire broke out, did you say, in the 7:00 a.m. hour Eastern Time?

GASQUE: They said that there certainly hadn't been any problems from that house at all since they had been staying in the house. You know, there was a call into the fire department around 7:00. They don't know what the plans were for these student whose were staying there. They just mentioned that it's possible that they could have been there on spring break. There were 13 of them. As far as they know, they are students from the University of South Carolina and Clemson University. But that's about all they could tell us about the people who were actually there. WHITFIELD: Oh, so, so sad. Conan Gasque, thanks so much. So again to reiterate, six reported dead from this beach house fire there in Ocean Isle, North Carolina. Six who were hospitalized and one still unaccounted for. Of course, the University of South Carolina, which these students are being associated with, is to have a press conference about an hour from now. We'll monitor the developments out of the University of South Carolina.

Meantime, let's talk about the fires on the West Coast. There have been a lot of harrowing stories. Rising from the ashes of those fires, but this one is tops. For one couple, their backyard pool saved their lives. The fire destroyed their home and it killed their neighbors. Our Carol Labeau (ph) of our San Diego affiliate KGTV has their incredible story.


ROGER BIELASZ, FIRE SURVIVOR: This is the synthetic deck that saved our life.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice over): Roger Bielasz, and his wife Dena, can't believe they're still alive. Their Highland Valley home was burned to the ground, not by the Witch Fire, but by a fire sparked by a downed power line.

R. BIELASZ: A transformer blew up and it started a fire over there. And it was going down the riverbed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A wall of flames quickly surrounded their home. They ran to the garage but the door wouldn't open.

R. BIELASZ: So we hid in the garage because that had the least amount of smoke, and we took some rags and covered them with drinking water.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They eventually escaped through a window. That's when they noticed their upgraded synthetic deck was not on fire.

DENA BIELASZ, FIRE SURVIVOR: So we were able to run down the stairs along the back side of the house.

R. BIELASZ: Into the pool.

D. BIELASZ: And underneath the other deck and then jump into the swimming pool.

CAROL: For the next three hours they stayed in their pool and watched the firestorm devour their home.


WHITFIELD: Wow, that's an incredible story and Carol Labeau (ph) is reporting form KGTV. And there is more to this story. We'll be talking live with Roger and Dena Bielasz, a little bit later on in the NEWSROOM about their amazing story of survival and the choices they had to make.

Hurricane season is winding down but the tropics, they're heating up. Right, Hillary?

ANDREWS: We're talking about Tropical Storm Noel. You've got it right. Tropical storm warnings up right now, for the Caribbean. Keep it right here and I'll let you know where it's headed and how strong it will get.

WHITFIELD: All right, thanks so much.

And Comedian Steven Colbert, well, he may be running a fake presidential campaign, but he received a very real honor in his home state today.


STEVEN COLBERT, TALK SHOW HOST: Thank you, South Carolina.




WHITFIELD: Throughout the past week, we've heard a lot of comparisons between the California wildfires and hurricane Katrina. Remember that? Well, are those comparisons fair? One top lawmaker says this is no time to take a "cheap shot" at the Gulf Coast. CNN's Josh Levs joins us now keeping them honest. What does he mean by that?

JOSH LEVS, DOT COM DESK: Yes we are going to show you. Because the idea here is that there are so many differences. Easy to gloss over them and to end up doing this is unfair to California and to the entire Gulf Coast region. What you'll see here is to some extent the White House is playing it both ways.


LEVS (voice over): The comparisons were inevitable. The California wildfires marked the biggest disaster since hurricane Katrina two years ago. This time authorities are getting praise and saying they learned lessons from Katrina.

(UNIDENTIFIED MALE): First of all, planning and preparation in advance for these kinds of challenges.

LEVS: But is this really a test of Katrina lessons learned? The head of the Homeland Security Committee Bennie Thompson was upset by this editorial in "The Washington Post" that said Californians have something Louisianans didn't have when they needed it most, leadership. Californians have other things that people in Louisianans and Mississippians did not have, running water, electricity, open stores, passable roadways and engaged federal partner.

He cautioned against using the disaster to "take a cheap shot at the Gulf Coast." The two regions are vastly different, the year before Katrina, the poverty rate in Orleans Parish was 27 percent. And San Diego County, 11 percent. San Diego had one of the highest average household incomes that year, while New Orleans had one of the highest reported murder rates. And the disasters don't compare.

One example in Katrina, about 350,000 homes were lost. In the wildfires, less than 2,000. Still, the White House seems to be playing it both ways.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Makes a significant difference when you have somebody in the statehouse willing to take the lead.

LEVS: That was seen as a slam against Louisa's outgoing Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco. But the White House also said this.

(UNIDENTIFED FEMALE): Katrina wiped out 90,000 square miles of the United States. And there was no electricity, there was no sewer system. And they knew for days that the storm was coming. This is a very different situation.


LEVS: And so is this because when I talk, my lips should actually match the words that you're hearing. Sorry about the lip sync issues but you'll see it again. But the wildfires are a legitimate opportunity to look at whether certain lessons have been learned at all levels of government but it has not put all of Katrina's lessons to the test and that's what we have to emphasize here.

WHITFIELD: And coverage even was different, too. But, again, entirely different circumstances. The common denominator here, natural disasters to an extent. There was some man made disasters too involved.

LEVS: And that is a huge part of it. If we're going to look at these situations, we need to understand that.

WHITFIELD: Josh, thank you very much. We'll keep that lip sync thing going. No, it wasn't your television set, there was a problem.

One thing everyone does agree on, too many people lost too much in southern California. And there's a lot of heartache. But some are finding humor that can help ease the pain. We met a couple in San Diego who lost everything in the fire, but Jim and Carol Wall have each other and they're finding humor in the chaos.


JIM WAHL: There are some layers over here. So watch that.

CAROL WAHL: Monday night we saw it on TV. We could see my car sitting in front of the house but no house behind it.

J. WAHL: When we saw it, we both cried because it was everything we just had is gone in smoke. There are so many neighbors around here and they lost a lot, too. So we wanted to lighten everybody up and turn everybody around if we could. It just caught my attention. I'm Jim Wahl.

C. WAHL: Carol Wahl.

(UNIDENTIFIED MALE): I was trying to figure out where they were coming from. Finally, no termites! I was expecting the sign to say keep out.

J. WAHL: we're trying to lighten the neighborhood up and inspire people, let them know this is not the end of the world.

(UNIDENTIFIED MALE): It just really shows some people have a sense of humor in this despair.

J. WAHL: The living room is on this side and the family room is on this side.

(UNIDENTIFIED MALE): At least it's a little humor in the face of something so bad like this.

J. WAHL: Battling termites for years, so finally all 132 million of them are gone. When we came in with the sign, we came in with the flags, people were applauding and running over and it just changed the attitude of most of the people here.

(UNIDENTIFIED MALE): At least someone can bring some smiles to someone.

J. WAHL: Carol and I have been married 25 years. We've had a lot of ups and downs in our life. We had a daughter pass away last year. We had a business that failed three years ago. So he -- we've been picking ourselves up for a while. The grill is still here and functional. I think we can clean this up and take this with us. And the hose didn't melt. So we have a hose and a grill. Before you can understand happiness, you have to feel sadness. Whatever happened yesterday is done and there's nothing we can go about it. So we're just moving forward. And they lived happily ever after.

C. WAHL: That's a pretty good one.

J. WAHL: And we will. We will.

C. WAHL: Yeah.


WHITFIELD: Wow. Their humor is contagious. CNN I-reporters have been on the fire's front lines giving us dramatic video and pictures. Not very humorous, pretty serious stuff. Sterling King gets an incredibly close-up look at a fire retardant drop at the Stevenson's Ranch in California. Shortly after he captured this authority's correned off the area. Sterling says he was astounded by the 50-mile- an-hour winds and calls the pilots of these tanker planes the real heroes in the wildfire battle. And we've received thousands of I-reports like what you just saw on the California wildfires. You can view them at You can also learn how to submit your own I-report when you see breaking news.

Hillary Andrews is in the Weather Center. And I guess folks were comforted for a second yesterday out west that it was cooler and much more humid and then boom, another about face just that quick on a dime.

HILLARY ANDREWS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: That's the way the weather is. The about face we're talking about is we go from fires to tropical weather. We're talking about tropical storm Noel right now in the central Caribbean, already spreading heavy rain showers to Hispaniola. We'll continue to so these showers making their way into Haiti and the Dominican Republic up to a foot of rain.

We'll see Noel continue with tropical storm strength over the next five days. Right now we're looking at models from the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center. Right now, definitely we will see Noel make its way through Cuba. Knocking its strength down a little bit where it's going to see the foot of rain, though. We'll continue to see Noel make its way northward, all models agree on that and the consensus actually pulls Noel back out into the Atlantic away from Florida. So it looks like Florida will escape this one, but they're seeing some rain showers right now.

In half hour, we'll give you the latest on Noel; we will have an update by then. Back to you, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. We will check back with you. Thanks so much.

Some international news coming up, targeting Iran with sanctions. Why now and will they even work? We'll take an in depth look, next IN THE NEWSROOM.



WHITFIELD (voice over): "Money" Magazine finds two places in Washington, D.C. for their search for best places to live after work.

(UNIDENTIFIED MALE): It's a fabulously interesting town, many museums and theaters.

WHITFIELD: Politicians and power brokers aren't the only ones flocking to our nation's capital. "Money" Magazine recommends Washington, D.C. to live life after work; there you'll find new condos, a variety of restaurants and plenty of art galleries within walking distances. If you think the hustling and bustling in pen quarter may be too overwhelming, "Money" suggests Woodley Park for a more quiet experience.


WHITFIELD: More now on our top story. A tragic big fire on Ocean Isle, North Carolina. We understand that six possibly college students may have died in this fire. Six others who had been hospitalized and one unaccounted for. All this taking place you can see there, the remnants of that burned out house there on Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina. The Mayor, Debbie Smith, is on the line with me now and Mayor Smith, what do you know about how this fire possibly happened?

MAYOR DEBBIE SMITH, OCEAN ISLE, N.C. (via telephone): We certainly do not know yet where the fire originated. It will take the ongoing investigation before we can determine that.

WHITFIELD: We understand from an earlier report that this home was owned possibly by the family of one of those college students. Do you know anything more about that, did you happen to know the owners of this home?

SMITH: I believe that one of the owners' children were in the home along with some of her friends.

WHITFIELD: What do you know about the house? How old this house is or if this house represents, you know, that of the others in this community, what can you tell me about this area?

SMITH: I believe the house was constructed in 1999. It is a typical construction for this area, for this island.

WHITFIELD: And I understand this fire happened at about the 7:00 Eastern hour. Any eyewitness account, anyone saying anything about something strange happening before it was engulfed in flames?

SMITH: I've heard no reports of anything before it was noticed it was engulfed in flames.

WHITFIELD: So this is perplexing to you as well as every body else who is hearing for the first time.

SMITH: Well, certainly. We do not know yet what may have caused the fire.

WHITFIELD: And it is just so heartbreaking and tragic to hear that this was a house filled with college students and that half of them died in this fire. What do you know about the ongoing search for this one person still unaccounted for?

SMITH: We have just received an update and that last person has been accounted for and they were a fatality in the fire as well.

WHITFIELD: So seven confirmed deaths in this fire, six injuries?

SMITH: Six that were transported to the hospital but have all been released.

WHITFIELD: Right. So seven deaths now? SMITH: Seven fatalities, yes, ma'am. Very unfortunate, something unusual for Ocean Isle Beach.

WHITFIELD: It is a horrible situation. So now what? What is the next step in this investigation? What do you want to learn most immediately?

SMITH: Well, they will continue to investigate the cause of the fire. We will do a proper and respectful transport of the fatalities.

WHITFIELD: So sad. Mayor Debbie Smith of Ocean Isle, North Carolina, thanks so much. Under just such horrible circumstances, now the numbers seven confirmed deaths according to the mayor here in this tragic fire, happening early this morning there in Ocean Isle, North Carolina. Six others who were injured and believed they were all college students from the University of South Carolina and we understand that the University of South Carolina will be holding a press conference now about 45 minutes from now. We'll monitor the developments from there as well.

Straight ahead, targeting Iran. Will sanctions really work? We'll take an in depth look next in THE NEWSROOM.


WHITFIELD: The Bush administration seeking to punish Iran for its nuclear program is now imposing new sanctions. But not everyone thinks this is a good idea. CNN's Zain Verjee has details.


ZAIN VERJEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The U.S. is taking aim at this Iranian military wing. The Bush administration says it's so entrenched in Iran's economy that it is involved in front companies that is suspected of helping build Iran's nuclear program.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: Many of the Iranian regimes destabilizing policies are carried out by two of its agencies. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or the IRGC and the Qods Force.

VERJEE: The U.S. blames the Qods Force for supporting terrorists in the Middle East and arming insurgents that kill U.S. troops in Iraq. The latest move freezes the U.S. assets of those military connected companies. It also freezes assets of three major Iranian banks and an office of the defense ministry.

RICE: No U.S. citizen or private organization will be allowed to engage in financial transactions with these persons.

VERJEE: The State Department is hoping the move will create a ripple effect, scare banks worldwide from doing business with Iran and hopefully drag Iran back to nuclear negotiations.

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN, (I) ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: If you're going to act like an outlaw country, we're going to treat you as an outlaw country in the international economic system. VERJEE: But already Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has supported sanctions against Iran in the past, now says new international sanctions are a dead end. Last week he warned against military action in Iran and threats like this.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE U.S: I told people that if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.

VERJEE: It is worth noting that Mohammed Delvaraday (ph) the head of the World Nuclear Watch Dog agency has criticized the U.S. for its rhetoric on Iran and says Iran is not diverting its nuclear materials to make weapons.

Zain Verjee, CNN, Washington.


WHITFIELD: So will the sanctions work or is this a more worrisome question perhaps, are they a prelude to war? Karim Sadjadpour is an expert on Iran with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, good to see you.


WHITFIELD: So when we hear about what these sanctions really mean, we are talking about freezing U.S. assets of certain banks and organizations, will this really do anything? Is this much of a deterrent for anyone to respect these U.S. sanctions?

SADJADPOUR: Probably not, Fredricka, because essentially there's been U.S. sanctions in place on Iran for a few decades. So there's very little financial interaction between the U.S. companies and Iranian companies. This is considered more of a message to European companies, Russian and Chinese companies to think twice about doing business with Iran.

WHITFIELD: So it's an indirect threat that the U.S. is making to places like a China or as you mentioned Russia, because they are the ones who do have some history, at least as of recent, to have some economic investment in Iran?

SADJADPOUR: That's absolutely right. You know, I think ultimately these sanctions are not going to be pain free for Iran. On the streets of Tehran and other cities in Iran, people will be feeling the effects in terms of inflation and unemployment but not enough to be painful enough to persuade Iran to continue forward. Ultimately, I don't think they'll have the intended effect of getting Iran to see some enrichment of uranium.

WHITFIELD: So these sanctions really mean nothing for Iran?

SADJADPOUR: I don't think they're going to have a big effect on changing Iranian behavior, no. WHITFIELD: How do you interpret what the U.S. is saying, is this a prelude to war, is the U.S. saying here's the drumbeat, if not this, then next militarily this?

SADJADPOUR: I don't think it's necessarily a prelude to war. The people behind the sanctions want to show there's still diplomatic means of pressuring Iran short of war. But I think at the same time, as I mentioned earlier the U.S. does want to send a message to the Europeans, and the Russians and the Chinese that if they don't get onboard with sanctions, then the U.S. may think about taking matters into their own hands and confronting Iran militarily.

WHITFIELD: That's the message, but do they care to listen? Karim Sadjadpour, of the Carnegie Endowment, thank you so much.

SADJADPOUR: Thank you.

WHITFIELD: It is indeed a marathon for some. Literally. But a run of honor for a group of naval academy graduates. Their inspiration for running 26.2 miles today next.


WHITFIELD: Some good news out of South Carolina. South Carolina is paying tribute to a favorite son this weekend. Columbia Mayor Bob Kobble gave comedian Steven Colbert the keys to the city today. Colbert is making what some call a tongue and cheek campaign swing through his home state and he made a special plea to his voters.


STEPHEN COLBERT, COMEDIAN: Mr. Mayor, thank you so much. I accept your proclamation naming me South Carolina's favorite son. This is a tremendous honor. You all must be thrilled to have me here. Citizens of Colombia, I grew up in South Carolina and I continue to spend a great deal of time here. In fact, if the IRS asks, we do this every weekend.


WHITFIELD: Colbert says he's running for president, but only in South Carolina. And to increase his appeal, Colbert plans to be on both the Republican and Democratic tickets. Appeals to everybody.

Well call them the few, the proud, the loyal, 135 graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy are running in the Marine Corps Marathon today. They're all members of the class of 1995. They reunited to honor six classmates who's answered a call for duty and never came home.

To the untrained eye, this looks like just another footrace. But for a large group of naval academy graduates, it was a rare opportunity to pay tribute to fallen classmates.


JEFF WEBB, "RUN TO HONOR:" We've been to the funerals and the memorial ceremonies. We want to come together in a more celebratory environment to come together as a class to heal, to reconcile them and to honor them.

WHITFIELD (voice over): The Naval Academy class of 1995 has experienced more combat losses than any other class since Vietnam. Six members of that class have died in the line of duty. Among them, Major Megan McClung, joined the marines after graduating from the naval academy. She was killed in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq last December. McClung was 34 years old.

Dr. MICHAL MCCLUNG, FATHER: She really loved the Marine Corps. Of all the things she loved, the Marine Corps was tops on the list.

WHITFIELD: All of those killed were accomplished in their own right. They were marines, navy s.e.a.l.s, and officers, to honor their classmates 135 alumni, class of '95, ran in the marathon. In their memory, a small way to show their tribute.

BRAD ARTERY, MARATHONER: They'll do anything for the country, so this is the smallest little thing I can do.

WHITFIELD: The Naval Academy, class of '95, goes by the motto, not for self but for country. Something they say their fallen comrades lived and died for.


WHITFIELD: And the next hour of THE CNN NEWSROOM begins right now.


(UNIDENTIFED FEMALE): We suffered a terrible tragedy here this morning.


WHITFIELD: Up next IN THE NEWSROOM, tragedy on the beach. Fire swifts through a North Carolina beach house believed to be filled with college students.


WHITFIELD: Plus, from prison to the front row of the church pew. Genarlow Wilson enjoys Sunday service as a free man, the first time that's happened in two years.

Hello, everyone, I'm Fredricka Whitfield and you are in THE NEWSROOM.

First up, that beach house fire. It happened this morning in Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina and left at least seven people dead. Half a dozen people from the house ended up in the hospital and authorities say university students were in that home.