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Obama Scores First Major Victory; NTSB Holds News Conference on Hudson River Crash

Aired January 16, 2009 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: We're about to hear clues about what brought down an airplane in the Hudson River. In only minutes, minutes from now, aviation officials reveal what they know right now.
The people who survived the crash, brutal cold, and icy waters possibly would not be alive if not for the fast-moving first- responders. How did they do it? They tell us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And even before becoming president of the United States, Barack Obama scores his first major victory. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM to talk about that in his last scheduled interview before taking office. It's a CNN exclusive.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The nightmare is over. Now the search for what happened begins. We're only moments away from hearing revealing details about the crash heard around the world, the National Transportation Safety Board expected to hold a news conference in a few moments about that U.S. Airways plane forced to use the Hudson River as a crash landing strip, seemingly after birds slammed into the plane's two engines.

Investigators want to study the plane's so-called black box and interview people on board.

CNN reporters are covering every angle of this dramatic story. Mary Snow spoke with some of those first-responders among those who got to the plane first.

Let's begin, though, with CNN's Deborah Feyerick for the latest on what we know.

Set the scene for us, Deb. What is going on?

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, here's what we can tell you.

Right now, NTSB investigators are really focused on interviewing the pilot, the co-pilot, as well as the crew. It's important to sort of keep them sequestered, to keep them away from the media, because they want as pure an account at possible.

So, the pilot, of course, limited as to what he can say publicly until NTSB investigators have spoken with him. Now, as soon as the plane gets out of the water, what is going happen is that the NTSB is going to check the engines. Now, the one that was on fire, the left engine, that fell off the plane earlier today. So, that is going to have to be retrieved.

The plane, as you see, still there in the water. NTSB focusing on the black boxes, the voice recorder, but also the flight data recorder. That's really going to paint a clear picture of exactly what happened.

And what is really interesting is, we were speaking to some air traffic controllers, and it was clear.

Why don't we got to the press conference. And I will tell you what is clear afterwards.


KITTY HIGGINS, BOARD MEMBER, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: ... Pilots Association, the Association of Flight Attendants, the Machinists Unions, the Federal Aviation Administration, BEA, which is the French safety agency, and they will be working with Airbus as their partner -- CFM, which is the engine manufacture, NATCA, the controllers union.

And we will also be assisted -- assisted interests investigation by the New York City Police Department, the New York City Fire Department, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Coast Guard, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

We have also identified the working groups that will, again, conduct the specific parts of the investigation. Structures -- the structures group will look at the aircraft (INAUDIBLE) power plants, will look at engines, systems, and we will cover hydraulics, electronics, breaking mechanical systems, airports, survival factors, emergency response, air traffic control, weather.

We will also set up a recording group once we have recovered the flight data recorders and the cockpit voice recorders. And we will also establish an airplane performance group that will put all the pieces of the airplane's activity together.

So, let me just update you in terms of what's happened today. We talked this morning when I met with many of you about your goals, which was to interview crew members and the controllers, to begin the process of recovering the aircraft itself, and also to try and retrieve the data recorders.

As far as aircraft goes, we have got plans under way to remove the aircraft tomorrow morning. They're out there now rigging the plane. The effort -- we had hoped to be able to do more today, but, as you know, the weather conditions are not the most favorable.

The effort has been affected by the strong current, which has really limited the amount of dive time that we have had. The divers can only be in the water for a certain amount of time. So, they're working tonight, really, I think until midnight, to rig that aircraft, so it can be hauled out tomorrow morning.

We hope to begin that lift by about 10:00 tomorrow morning. The plan is to lift that plane, to put it on a barge and to secure it on that barge, and then we will remove the recorders. We had made an effort to try and see if we could remove the recorders while the plane was still in the water.

And that has not been possible, for some of the reasons that I mentioned. Once the recorders are removed, we will document the damage to the plane. There's obviously some damage that we can see already.

And -- but there's a lot of damage that's -- that's not visible at this point. And we will -- we will want to do that while the plane is -- is on the barge and once it's been secured. And then we will move the aircraft to a secure location for further investigation. That's one of our primary goals for tomorrow.

Once we have the recorders, they will be flown to Washington. And the process of reading those recorders out will begin. And, as I mentioned, we will form a recorders group to do that work.

Engines, which obviously are a big part of this investigation, the -- both engines are no longer attached to the plane. And we could see that the left engine was not attached as the plane was pulled in to the -- into its current location. But under -- the divers were able to tell us that the right engine is also no longer there.

So, we have got the New York Police Department, working with the Corps of Engineers, and using side-scan sonar. And they are out there now trying to locate the engines. We believe that they started at the point where the plane came down and are moving down the river.

And once we have those (INAUDIBLE) taken to the appropriate facility for tear-down investigation. As I mentioned, they're CFM engines. And we will work with the manufacturers in that process.

Interviews with the cabin crew are being conducted as we speak, this afternoon. We had hoped to talk to the pilots today, but those interviews are now scheduled for tomorrow morning. Drug testing was completed. And those results are -- have been sent to the lab.

Air traffic controllers are -- are being interviewed this afternoon and also tomorrow morning. And we are -- I know there have been a lot of questions about what video evidence there might be. We're working both with the FBI and the city and others to retrieve all video evidence that might have been captured in various kinds of -- of cameras and recorders up and down the river.

So, that is the sum and substance of my report. And I will be happy to take your questions.

Yes, Lisa (ph)?

QUESTION: Kitty, do you know if those engines in fact went out, I mean, just based on what you heard from controllers (OFF-MIKE) Do you know if in fact they lost power to both engines?

HIGGINS: Again, that's what we're going to be working at. We don't have that data. We haven't conducted the interviews. We certainly heard those reports. And that's what we will hopefully find out as soon as we can conduct the interviews with the pilots and the controllers and get the FDR read out.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up? Were the engines designed to shear off in something like this (OFF-MIKE)

HIGGINS: You know, again, I don't know about the engine design.

My -- I believe I was told that it's not unusual for this kind of impact for that to happen. But, until we can actually do -- look at the physical evidence, find the engines, do a much closer examination, I don't want to speculate on what might have happened.


QUESTION: All of the reports up to this point have been about birds striking the engines. Can you confirm any of that (OFF-MIKE) saying, including air traffic controllers?


Again, as you know from my report, we have not interviewed -- not been able to interview at this point any of those people. Those interviews are going on now. We have heard the same reports. We have read your accounts of it.

I haven't -- I don't know. And we -- one of the reasons we want to get the engines, obviously, is because there will -- there will be physical evidence that would be retained in the evidence in the engines if there was a bird strike. We will have the reports from the pilots as to what they saw. We want to look at radar data, because, apparently, sometimes, they can be seen on radar data.

That's the all the work that is under way now. And we will share it with you as soon as we can have information that we can feel comfortable sharing.

Matt (ph)?

QUESTION: What's the physical and mental condition of the crew and the pilots? I understand we have a flight attendant with a broken leg. And (OFF-MIKE) able to talk (OFF-MIKE)

HIGGINS: We haven't talked to them. And I certainly can't characterize their condition.

And we do have a -- one of the flight attendants was injured. Again, we had hoped to talk to people today. But, as you know, these things sometimes take longer than planned. And my understanding is we have interviews with the pilots tomorrow morning.

So, you will have to be just a little bit patient. QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) is aware of and made (INAUDIBLE) Do we have (OFF-MIKE) the engine (OFF-MIKE) tested prior...


HIGGINS: Well, my understanding on bird strikes is that the FAA has done a lot of work working with airports about how to mitigate the impact of birds and other kind of wildlife.

That's something we will be looking at. My understanding is that, every airport, in order to be certified, has to have a plan to mitigate those kind of thing.

We have had other accidents where there have -- that have been the result of bird strikes. So, it's something -- and we have made recommendations in the past on that. I don't want to characterize anything at this point about this particular accident, because we are just at the beginning stages of trying to gather all that information.

QUESTION: Is it possible that engines are not -- not safe enough or not able to withstand...


HIGGINS: Well, I think -- I think it is fair to say that this is the first accident that we have investigated in a very long time where this has been a factor. So, I think we know it's a problem. It's a problem that a lot of people are working on.

That's why we have the Department of Agriculture involved. They have some expertise in this area. But it's -- I think it is fair to say is uncommon, not something we see with any frequency.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Is it presumed at this point that the engines survived the entire flight, that they came off after impact?

HIGGINS: My understanding is that they -- as the plane came down, the engines were attached. But, again, we -- one of the reasons we're so interested, as you are, in this video data that we understand is out there, is that we will have those pictures.

And, again, talking to the pilots, we will get a lot more information.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: How critical is it that you actually have the engines? Will the recorders able to tell you what happened to them?

HIGGINS: The recorders, again, it is all the pieces of the puzzle. And the recorders, I think, will confirm what was happening at the time, as we read out the parameters of that data.

It's obviously important to look physically at the engines, to take them to someplace where we can tear them down and do the investigative work to look at what damage there might be. If in fact there was any kind of damage as a result of birds being ingested, my understanding is that will show up. The forensics will help tell us that.

So, it's a very important piece of the puzzle.


QUESTION: Kitty, Kitty, Kitty, there's some question about buoyancy. Did the flight have a (OFF-MIKE) Did the -- gasoline is lighter than water. Did that contribute to this? And there also is talk about the baggage compartment being half-full. What enabled this plane to float for so long?

HIGGINS: Again, those are all good questions. I have seen many accounts and theories of what happened here.

One of the things we are going to be looking at, one of the good- news stories here is how survivable this accident was. And we obviously want to look at the structure of the plane. We have got a whole group of people with technical expertise, including the manufacturer, who will help us do that.

But those are all the things we're going to be looking at, as well as the emergency evacuation. The plane was able to stay afloat. We want to look at everything that went in to making what happened yesterday so survivable.


QUESTION: Was it an unusual period of time that it was afloat?

HIGGINS: Again, I can't speculate on that. We will look at it.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Has any determination been made as to the fuel supply? Was it dumped before impact..


HIGGINS: I don't know. Good question. We will find out.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the power and cockpit, and I'm wondering if you're reviewed those and also (OFF-MIKE)

HIGGINS: My understanding is that we have a preliminary timeline, and that timeline is being reviewed as I'm talking to you, and will be confirmed.

There will be a transcript, as I guess there always is, between air traffic control and the cockpit. I have not had a chance to look at that. I'm hoping we can do that either later today or first thing tomorrow. And I think we will have more information on that when we talk to you tomorrow...


QUESTION: How complicated will it be to haul the plane out of the position that it is in right now? What are the difficulties there in terms the plane being wedged underneath...


HIGGINS: We have -- it's always difficult. And the question is, the hope is to be able to lift it up and lift it out in one piece, if that's possible. It may not be possible. It depends on what's involved in rigging the aircraft.

I mentioned we have got a lot of good help who have got a lot of expertise in this. And there -- we will be working late into tonight to get that set to be able to do -- hopefully by 10:00 tomorrow morning.

And we have got -- as one of our investigators said, then we adapt. If we can't do it the way we would like to, then we will just take it as it comes and make adjustments as we go along. So...


HIGGINS: You know, we -- there are a couple of contractors that we're working with. I don't have any of that specific information.

They have expertise in doing this kind of thing. We have worked with them before. And they have got -- it is a mechanical and a physical process of securing -- the term that was used is rigging the plane, I think, however they do that, and then being able to hoist it up. I think there are two big cranes that are being employed.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Has the investigation shed any more light on why the pilot chose the Hudson, as opposed to Teterboro or going back to...


HIGGINS: Again, heard the same accounts. We will want to talk to the pilot, talk to air traffic control about the choices that they were making as they were faced with this potential accident.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) talk to the pilots until tomorrow? Why is that?

HIGGINS: That's just when we could schedule it. So...

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) pilot in command...

(CROSSTALK) HIGGINS: You know, I asked that question. And I think, until we talk to them, we don't know for sure. I don't have the answer. Let me just say that.

QUESTION: Can you please be specific about the recorders, and exactly what they do and where you think they are in on the plane right now?

HIGGINS: Well, they're in the -- they're in the tail, the back end of the plane.

QUESTION: And what are they both called?

HIGGINS: One is the flight data recorder, which records all of the data, so-called data parameters of the plane, the engines and the electronics and all the mechanical systems kinds of thing that are recorded.

And then there's the cockpit voice recorder, which records conversations between crew members, records any conversations that were taking place. And, in this case, you know, we should have everything from the point of which time the voice recorder was turned on, until when the accident occurred. It will also record conversations between the cabin crew, the pilots, and air traffic control.

QUESTION: Do they send out pings, right? You're pretty sure they're still in the plane, right? (OFF-MIKE)

HIGGINS: Well, we -- again, I'm not the expert here. But the pings are useful when they're in -- actually, physically in the water.

I mean, on many crashes or someplace not even necessarily in the water, but when they're separated from the plane itself. My understanding is that they're still enclosed in the tail of the plane.

The issue was not so much -- we know where they are. Some -- many times, we don't know where they are, and that is when the pinging is very helpful. In this case, we know where they are. We just can't get to them because of where -- of the problems of the water and the current and the temperatures and the limited dive time we have. And so that's why we want to get the plane out of the water and remove the recorders.


QUESTION: How confident are you that you will find the engines?

HIGGINS: I think we are pretty confident. We have got the Corps of Engineers involved and the side-scan sonar. My understanding is that that's the state-of-the-art technology. And teamwork and that's -- that will get us there.

How quickly it happens, I don't know. We will know later tonight how that work is going. They are -- it's -- as I mentioned, it is already under way. So, we should have some feedback from those -- from the police department as to how that's -- how much progress they're making and what they have found.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Do you know what the altitude of the plane was when it (INAUDIBLE) fell, when (INAUDIBLE)


HIGGINS: When it went down in the water.

QUESTION: I was going to say when the ducks or the geese hit it?

HIGGINS: I don't.

I mean, and one of things, again, part of documenting this information is so we can answer that question very precisely. I don't know how much we will have by tomorrow, but that's a good question. And I will see if we can get you an answer as quickly as possible.

Yes, sir?


HIGGINS: Could you say it again?


HIGGINS: To an undisclosed, secure location.



HIGGINS: And the engines will be taken to a site that the manufacturer chooses, where they're equipped to do the tear-down of the engines. And we will be -- our team members will be part of that tear-down and investigative process.

Yes, ma'am?


HIGGINS: Yes, yes.


HIGGINS: I asked that same question before I came over here.

We want to interview passengers and eyewitnesses. As you know, many passenger had left -- continued on with their plans. And, so, we -- you know, we will -- I think U.S. Airways is working to identify passengers. And we're happy to want to talk to anybody who has information.

And other -- I believe there are other eyewitness accounts. And we're interested in talking to anybody who -- in terms of getting their (INAUDIBLE) what they saw, because it's -- we -- it's very helpful to have those firsthand accounts, in addition to all the data and all the technical information to put together what -- exactly what happened here and what they saw.

QUESTION: Were there any animals on (OFF-MIKE)

HIGGINS: That, I haven't heard. I haven't.

Lisa (ph)?


HIGGINS: You know,, I heard that there was an infant. But I don't know whether it was a lap child or not. And when -- infant -- I think there was a child. But let me ask and we will find out.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) speaking specifically (OFF-MIKE) are there guidelines for (OFF-MIKE) plane in the water, instead of making an attempt to land it on (OFF-MIKE)

HIGGINS: That's a good question.

My understanding is -- I mean, ditching is -- having a successful ditching of an airplane is a very rare event. It's not the first time it's happened. I think I was told we investigated one several years ago.

As you know, pilots train for this routinely through the use of simulators. So, it's something that they plan for. But it's not something that is -- is executed with any kind of regularity at all, fortunately.

But the question of decision-making -- and I think, again, the pilot is the ultimate decision-maker in this kind of situation. And what led into his decision, and why he made the choices he did is what we want to learn by talking to him directly.

QUESTION: Kitty, can you tell us -- I'm sorry. Can you tell us the size of the area that the NYPD is searching for the engines? Can you give us an estimate (OFF-MIKE)

HIGGINS: Let me -- I don't know specifically.

It's -- I was told they will start at the point -- or starting -- have started at the point of where the plane came down. And because of the way that the currents are flowing, they would move from that northern point down the river.

But how wide an area they're searching, I don't know. The Corps of Engineers is helping them map that, I think, based on all the technical information that they can put together. So, we will -- look, that's a good question. Let me see if we can get you a better answer.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) do you have any doubts (OFF-MIKE)

HIGGINS: My understanding is that it's -- the evidence stays for quite a while. You know, again, I -- this is the first bird strike accident I have done.

And like so many of these things, we learn a great deal. But the people who have been involved in this before for us -- this is not the first one for the NTSB -- said that it is amazing how -- how much of the DNA is retained. And we apparently have worked in the past with the Smithsonian to help us identify down to the -- exactly the precise bird -- type of bird that has been involved in some of these kinds of accidents.

There's a question at the back.

QUESTION: Yes. I just wanted to clarify. You had said that there are two recorders. And I wanted to clarify that they're both in the tail. And, at this point, is the tail -- do you believe that the tail is intact? Is the plane still in one piece at this point?

When I saw the plane last night -- and I haven't seen it today -- I'm pretty sure it's fair to say that the tail is intact. Again, I also said we don't -- we can't -- there's only so much of the plane we can see. We can't evaluate all the evidence.

We have had divers down there. They were not able to get access to the location of the recorders for -- again, because of the conditions that they encountered. But I think it has to do more with the conditions of the water and the current and the temperature than with the physical problems with the plane.

This way. Yes, sir? Hi, Allen (ph).


Do you have any idea -- I realize it's very early, but do you have any idea at this point what the weight of each engine is?

HIGGINS: I don't. But -- let me -- we can probably get an answer. The engine people are here.

Yes, sir?


HIGGINS: You know, we have a lot of good help. And we have had the offer of help from many, many different communities and sources.

And I think what -- our practice is to try and identify up front the issues that we want to look at and organize teams to look at them. But if we find something along the way that we haven't thought of and that needs another set of eyes and ears to help us with it, then we pull in additional people.

So, we are not limited in the course of this investigation by the teams that we have outlined today. Yes?

QUESTION: Without speculating on things, if you have seen a lot of what's been reported, it's all very similar. Is there anything about what you have seen that is glaringly wrong at this point, that no way this happened? Does it look relatively reasonable, what you have seen so far?

HIGGINS: Without speculating.



HIGGINS: It -- I mean, I think the honest answer is, we don't know because we have just begun our conversations. And I have read the same accounts -- not all of the accounts, but I have read many of the accounts.

And I think it's -- we have shared those with our investigators. Obviously, it is very helpful information to know the kinds of issues that you're identifying. And it's useful to us to get all that information. But I can't tell you right now with any -- with any accuracy whether it's -- whether those reports are on target or not.

We just -- we're just so early into this. As I always describe it, it's a process of taking things off the table. Everything is on until we can start removing things. And until we can get the plane out of the water, get the recorders, conduct the interviews, do the systematic approach, we just -- we're not going to agree or disagree with anything that's been said.

Way back.

QUESTION: Are those wings still attached, as far as you know?

HIGGINS: I believe so. One was -- we could see coming out of the water, the left wing. And my understanding is that the -- the right wing is wedged against the wall as to where the plane is currently located. As far as I know, they're both still attached.

Yes, sir, Allen (ph)?

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) From the pictures it appears that I guess it would be the right wing's flaps -- flaps are extended. Is that correct, if you were to go (OFF-MIKE)

HIGGINS: I mean, pictures that you have seen -- what pictures?

QUESTION: Of one of the wings that's actually out of the water.

HIGGINS: Well, that's -- the left wing is coming out of the water. And I must -- I haven't -- I don't know whether the -- I can't comment on the slats -- slats or flaps.

So, Joe, do you want to comment on -- they're there. And let me just introduce Joe Sedor, who is one of our very best aviation investigators. And he is working very closely with -- with the investigator in charge. He is really the -- the other team leader here.

So, Matt (ph)?

QUESTION: Will you brief after the progress meeting tonight?

HIGGINS: I think what we will do -- we were talking about that earlier. I think that we are going to have more information if we wait until tomorrow morning, because some of the important interviews are going to be conducted tomorrow morning.

So, we haven't made an absolute decision yet, but I'm thinking we will probably schedule something tomorrow afternoon, with the hope that we will have -- for example, the pilots will be interviewed tomorrow. The crew interviews will be finished, the cabin crew. And we hope to have all the controller interviews finished.

And those are pretty important to this -- to this conversation. So, my instinct is that we're not going to be able to tell you much more later tonight than we can tell you now.

QUESTION: We're ready when you are...


HIGGINS: I know. I know. And we appreciate that.


QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) analyze water depth of where the plane landed and where it ultimately came to rest (OFF-MIKE)

HIGGINS: I haven't. And that's something we will look at. I mean, I have seen various reports, but I will see if we can give you anything on that.


QUESTION: How deep is the water (INAUDIBLE) where the plane is?

HIGGINS: Again, let me -- I don't have that...

Where the water is now? It's about 30 feet where it is now, I'm told.


QUESTION: And how fast are the currents going?

HIGGINS: Do you know? I mean, they're -- they're -- currents, as I understand it, right now, the best work is being done at slack current, which means it's between high and low tide. And this is something I learned today, a new term. And that's when -- because the -- the -- obviously, high tide is problematic. And slack current is when it's the most -- the quietest. So that's when...


QUESTION: What is the deepest point those engines could be, Joe? I know (OFF-MIKE) Hudson? (OFF-MIKE)

HIGGINS: I don't know.


HIGGINS: We don't know. I mean, again, it depends on where they -- where they landed.

QUESTION: Are there any concerns about the fuel? And have you guys changed contractors (OFF-MIKE) what the insurer wanted?

HIGGINS: My -- we have been talking to two different contractors. And, in the end, it is the decision of the insurer and the airline as to which contractor they pick.


HIGGINS: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: There's fuel in there right now?

HIGGINS: And there's fuel in there.

My understanding -- this is something that came up at the briefing -- that we -- the Coast Guard is working to insure that all the environmental precautions are taken, and to mitigate any -- any problems that that might present.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: As you have been contacting the passengers and the crew members, is anyone still hospitalized (OFF-MIKE) flight attendant (OFF-MIKE)

HIGGINS: She had the most serious injury, as I understand it. And I don't know whether she's still hospitalized. Last...

QUESTION: Was that (OFF-MIKE) We know there was a laceration to the leg. Was there a broken leg? There was some talk of that.

HIGGINS: I heard that...


HIGGINS: Again, let me check. I don't want to speculate. Let me just see. We will get that answer for you. I don't know. And I don't want to characterize it.

Over here.

QUESTION: Roughly how many interviews or how many people in total would you have yet to review -- interview? Do you know?

HIGGINS: Well, we just started, so I think it's fair to say we have got a lot left to interview.


HIGGINS: Yes, I think so.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two more. Two more questions.

QUESTION: Is there anything about the Airbus A-320 that would make it more buoyant or more ideal for conditions to land...


HIGGINS: You know, one of the things, as I said earlier today, that we want to do is really not only just celebrate what worked here, but also learn what worked.

So many times, we are only focused on what went wrong. And everything -- a lot of things, not everything -- a lot of things went right yesterday, including the way this -- not only the crew functioned, but that the plane functioned. And how that happened, what the physics of that are, the mechanics of it are, that's why we have got all these experts who are looking at it, who can tell us...

QUESTION: But, in your best opinion, is there anything unique about that plane...


HIGGINS: I don't know. You know, I'm -- I don't know.


QUESTION: And, obviously (OFF-MIKE) the miracle on the Hudson. How much does it help that (INAUDIBLE) pilots, crew, all the passengers...


HIGGINS: Very, very important.

QUESTION: Will it enable you to (OFF-MIKE)

HIGGINS: Again, I mean, being able to talk to the crew who flew the plane, the passengers who survived, the cabin crew members who evacuated everybody, the air traffic controllers who were providing information, the eyewitnesses who saw what happened, that is all firsthand information.

And we don't have to rely just on data, which, in some cases, is -- is what we are -- are left with. So, it's enormously helpful and -- and really part of the success story of this accident.

OK, one more.

QUESTION: How much is the problem with (INAUDIBLE) in contractors going down, removing the plane and is that really a problem and not (INAUDIBLE).

HIGGINS: I don't think so. I mean if you saw, they were out there working today, it was a barge there when I got there last night with people working -- a platform with people working.

And we're -- if we can get the plane out of the water tomorrow, I think that's a pretty -- fast occurrence and you know, we have -- there's a will the of talented people who helped in this kind of thing in many ways and working with the salvage groups they know what they're doing and we'll -- get it done as quickly as possible.


HIGGINS: I don't have the name of the company. We can get that for you. OK. Thank you. We'll let you know of the next briefing.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. That's Kitty Higgins from the National Transportation Safety Board. That's a pretty significant briefing of what happened yesterday at the Hudson River when that U.S. Airways flight that was forced to ditch, to land in the Hudson River.

There you're seeing pictures. She says both engines are missing from the U.S. Airways' jetliner. They're looking, they're using sonar at the bottom of the Hudson River to look for those engines. They're hoping to find those engines because that will confirm what they suspect that birds result -- birds were the cause of this forced landing, those engines going down.

She hopes, she says, to have that plane lifted out of the Hudson River tomorrow, Saturday, and they can begin removing the flight data recorder in the cockpit -- voice recorder as well.

Significant information released from Kitty Higgins of the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board.

The Airbus A-30 plane weighed about 162,000 pounds. It was a full flight with 12 first class and 138 coach seats. The plane has eight emergency exits, four on each side. The first is at the front between first class and cockpit. The middle two exits are over each wing.

That's where passengers exited. Many stood on top of that wings submerged in water. One passenger sitting in the back says rushing water made it hard to open the back exit, but experts say opening that door under those conditions pose significant risk because the water would have rushed into the plane, obviously.

This accident could have ended in an all-out tragedy as well know. Panicked passengers stood on the edge of danger, but first responders in New York helped everyone on this plane get off safely. 155 people are alive. Many of them the result of what these first responders did.

Mary Snow is joining us now. She spoke with several of them.

Mary, it's amazing, some of these stories.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It really is, Wolf. But you know just about every one you talk to, those first responders say they were just doing their job.

There were so many agencies involved, but it also included civilians who were operating ferries, who came to the rescue. The Coast Guard, of course, played a part. And today, we went out with a Coast Guard crew and one of the first responders who rushed to the scene.


SNOW (voice over): Back on the Hudson River, members of the Coast Guard, who rushed to save the passengers aboard Flight 1549, say the reality of what happened still hasn't fully sunk in.

Petty Officer Von Rankin got to the scene within minutes of the call.

(On camera): How close to that plane did you get your boat?

VON RANKIN, U.S. COAST GUARD: I actually put my boat on the plane?

SNOW: You put your boat on that plane?

RANKIN: Yes, like alongside of it. Like I have to get everybody out of the water as fast and safe as possible.

SNOW (voice over): Rankin says he and his crew plucked seven people waiting in a raft to safety. While the Coast Guard was out in full force, officers credit commuter ferries for saving so many lives. Among the rescuers, Mike Starr, a ferry operations manager.

MIKE STARR, NY WATERWAY PORT CAPTAIN: There was a couple of people in the water. They did have life vests on. They were inflated. But we tried to get them out first and on the boat first, they were the coldest.

SNOW: Starr show how crews used what's called adjacent cradle to pull people up one at a time. Starr was helping people in the water, but he quickly turned his attention to a mother in a raft, holding her infant. He says the mother did almost all the work.

STARR: She climbs almost all the way up on the boat with that just last little bit. She just didn't have the strength. So we -- we just muscled her on and the baby was right back in her arms and she was inside real quick.

SNOW: On a different ferry, Captain Carl Lucas took aboard the pilot of the plane. CARL LUCAS, NY WATERWAY FERRY CAPTAIN: He was very calm. He was a little bit stunned, but you know, we got business done. You know we got up there, got on the radio and we started counting people.

SNOW: Back on the Hudson, looking at the wreckage one day later, Petty Officer Rankin calls it overwhelming.

RANKIN: It's -- it's amazing that everyone was -- got off safely. And I'm happy to be a part of that.


SNOW: And what you're looking at right now is one of the wings from the plane. The plane is now moored to a seawall and as, Wolf, you just mentioned a moment ago, the NTSB now is aiming to lift that plane tomorrow.

You know talking to so many of these rescuers, though, they say they really felt that they were helped because of the timing yesterday. Late in the afternoon, they say there were so many commuter ferries gearing up for the rush hour. They believe because they were so many water -- many boats on the water, that is, that really helped save so many lives so quickly. Wolf?

BLITZER: And certainly we can thank those first responders for doing a terrific job.

Mary, thank you.

Mary Snow is on the scene in New York.

The heroic efforts of those first responders, by the way, are matched by the heroic acts of the plane's pilot. Chesley B. Sullenberger is earning praise from virtually everyone.

The New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, will award him a key to the city. And President Bush spoke to the pilot on the phone, praised him for safely bringing down the plane.

Meanwhile, the pilot's wife speaks to CNN. Our Dan Simon is in Danville, California.

Dan, you spoke to her just a little while ago.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We did, Wolf. And this is the pilot's house behind me in Danville, California. But I want to show you what it looks like outside of her house.

This is what it looks like when Mrs. Sullenberger looks outside her window. You can see the satellite trucks right here. Obviously, a lot of interest on what she has to say, and Wolf, this is one case where you don't mind knocking on someone's door.


LORRIE SULLENBERGER, PILOT'S WIFE: We were very grateful that everyone got off the airplane safely. That was the first thing that Sully wanted me to convey actually that just very grateful for everyone's safety. And that we were all, obviously, very proud of dad and -- and that I was very surprised.

SIMON (voice over): Lorrie Sulleberger says that when she got the call from her husband, he was so calm that she didn't realize the seriousness of the crash.

SULLENBERGER: I know flying is very safe and when he called and said there had been an incident, you know, I thought he had, you know, run into something in the parking lot of the airport.

Never in my wildest dream, so that -- that was really all I said this morning.

SIMON: She says the attention has been overwhelming and gratifying, though her husband is largely been unaware of the news coverage.

SULLENBERGER: He has been sequestered and hasn't turned on the television, and so he only knew what I told him last night, he turned on a little bit, but he has -- he is going to be shocked. He has no idea.

SIMON: The Sullenbergers live in Danville, California, 45 minutes outside of San Francisco. Their neighborhood now flooded with media crews.

DEBBIE MERRITT, NEIGHBOR: I was looking out here in my neighborhood and going, what are all these trucks doing here, but I didn't make the connection. I thought it was a publishers' clearinghouse. I thought he (INAUDIBLE) a million dollars, and I said oh my gosh, this is great.

SIMON (on camera): How are you daughters handling this, seeing the exposure on television, seeing all these cameras out here?

SULLENBERGER: I heard them talking back as we were walking by, talking back and forth going, boy, this is so bizarre, isn't it?

SIMON: And here's an obvious question. How proud of him are you?

SULLENBERGER: Oh, I just -- but you know, this is the Sully I know. This is -- I always knew this is how he would react. So to me, this is not something unusual, it's the man I know to be the consummate professional. And -- so it's not a surprise.


SIMON: At this point, Lorrie Sullenberger unclear about what she's going to do over the next couple of days, if she's going to stay here or meet up with her husband in New York.

And Wolf, one more thing we should tell you that, in addition to his stellar credentials when it comes to flying airplanes, Captain Sullenberger also runs his own consulting business that focuses on high security and risk management in the workplace. Something tells me he might just get a few more clients.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I suspect he will.

BLITZER: I suspect he'll get a lot of praise also as he deserves.

All right, thanks very much for that, Dan.

We're -- we should also mention that co-pilot deserved a lot of praise as well. More on that coming up.

Barack Obama warns Americans things will likely get worse before they get better.


BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENT-ELECT: I don't think that any economist disputes that we're in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.


BLITZER: The president-elect lays out his plans to steer America out of this economic ditch. He's here in his last scheduled interview in the SITUATION ROOM before taking office.

This is a CNN exclusive.

Plus, bird strikes and what the commercial airlines could learn from the military. We're live from the Pentagon.

And the inside story of what President Bush went through on 9/11. My exclusive interview with the president's pilot aboard Air Force One. You're going to want to see and hear what happened.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: President-elect Barack Obama was in a factory in Ohio today trying to shore up support for his economic stimulus package. He warned Americans that the economy could, in his words, get worse before it gets better, and says the time to act is right now.


OBAMA: Economists from across the political spectrum tell us that if nothing is done, and we continue on our current path, this recession could linger four years and America could lose the competitive edge that has served as the foundation for our strength and our standing in the world.

Now it's not too late to change course, but only if we take dramatic action as soon as possible. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And a short time after he made those comments, the president-elect sat down with our chief national correspondent, the anchor of CNN's new shows, "STATE OF THE UNION," John King, for an exclusive interview.


JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The state is struggling, this country is struggling. This factory we're in today is a success story. This is one of the reasons you're here, but if you go around this neighborhood, many of the factories are bleeding jobs.

OBAMA: Right.

KING: And they're losing a lot from the auto industry. We had breakfast this morning with some local people and if I could boil their economic concerns into one question, it would be, to their new president, they want to know when will the bleeding stop.

OBAMA: Well, we're going to have a tough year, 2009. I don't think that any economist disputes that we're in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The good news is that we're getting a consensus around what needs to be done. We've got to have a bold, aggressive, reinvestment recovery package. It's working its way through Congress. That's going to help create or save three million to four million new jobs.

What we also need is to make sure that those jobs are in industries that can lay the foundation for long-term economic growth and that's why this factory's so special because we're seeing here are traditional manufacturing converted to focus on the wind turbines and wind power of the future.

And so what we want to do is to try to duplicate the success here. These folks use American steel. They've got American workers and their goods are being imported to create American energy. And what we want to see if we can do is to duplicate this, train workers.

We're still going to have to focus on stabilizing our financial system and so I was glad that Congress gave us the authority to use much more wisely the money that's been allocated to stabilize the financial system, deal with home foreclosures in a serious way, and we've got to have tough financial regulations so that we don't have Wall Street getting the country into the kind of crisis that we're in right now any more.


BLITZER: And coming up in the next hour, Barack Obama's priorities. What he thinks is important enough to do by executive order and what he thinks he needs to do with congressional approval. Much more of the interview in the next hour and the entire interview with John King coming up in our 6:00 p.m. Eastern hour. I think you're going to want to see and hear this.

It's your money. How do you think taxpayer dollars should be spent to get the economy out of the ditch? In a brand-new CNN Opinion Research Corporation poll, 38 percent of you think the government should spend the remaining $350 billion allocated for the financial bailout. 61 percent are against that.

Apparently that overwhelming opposition was no match for lawmaker determination. Yesterday, the Senate voted to give Barack Obama access to the remaining $350 billion.

Our senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash watched it all unfold on Capitol Hill.

Dana, it was a pretty impressive performance by the president- elect.

DANA BASH, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. It -- was a very tough vote, as you just pointed out, with those poll numbers for the senators and it is why the president-elect had to lobby so hard to get that money.


BASH (voice over): Even Barack Obama's most ardent Senate supporters tell CNN voting to give him $350 billion more for a bailout their constituents despise was wrenching.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D), MINNESOTA: It was easy to vote against this. You know that when you go home if you vote to help Obama to get this money, there's not going to be a parade waiting for you.

BASH: But Amy Clubachar is one of many senators the president- elect called to make a personal appeal and promised that this time taxpayer money will be better spent.

KLOBUCHAR: He is talking to a lot of us about how important it is for him to have the tools that he needs to tackle this financial crisis. He's also acknowledged the horrible mistakes that were made by the past administration.

BASH: Senators demanded written assurances that Obama would address those mistakes and got letters promising more transparency and accountability on how he will use the funds.

Democratic senators say it was Team Obama's full-court press that scored a crucial victory on such a controversial issue. Debbie Stabenow opposed the original bailout and told CNN earlier this week she was torn about spending billions more.

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW (D), MICHIGAN: Well, it's not enough just to have someone that you trust. But she got an Obama call, too, and changed her mind. STABENOW: Now people understand that I'm willing to trust the new administration with a different set of values and priorities that are going to focus on getting people back to work and helping people stay in their homes.

BASH: But the Obama power of persuasion did not work with all Democrats.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nobody can tell us where the money is, where it's gone, what it's done.

BASH: Blanch Lincoln voted against releasing any more taxpayer dollars for the bailout despite a lobbying call from Mr. Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'd be happy to pass that along to her.

BASH: She was more influenced by the flood of calls from outraged constituents, demanding she oppose using more taxpayer dollars to bail out Wall Street.


BASH: Republicans, most of those senators who actually supported this bailout in the fall opposed giving more money for it, even John McCain who you remember in his presidential campaign really pressed for this idea of a bailout, they, Wolf, are still smarting from their losses in the fall.

As for Democrats, they're hoping that this is going to be a distant memory two years from now in the next election.

BLITZER: Dana, thanks very much. We'll watch what happens on Capitol Hill. It's going to be critical.

Meanwhile, prospects on the (INAUDIBLE) improving for Barack Obama's choice to serve as the next attorney general. Just a short time ago, Florida Republican senator, Mel Martinez, put out a statement saying he will vote to confirm Eric Holder.

He's the second Republican senator to back Holder publicly. If all the Senate Democrats follow suit, there are now enough votes to avoid a filibuster.

Earlier at a judiciary committee hearing, questions were raised about Holder's role in those controversial pardons at the end of the Clinton administration.


LOUIS FREEH, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: Holder made some terrible mistakes which he told you about yesterday in allowing himself to be used and co-opted with respect to the facilitation of that pardon. But he did not understand -- he did not authorize, he certainly did not execute this pardon. And he's learned a lot from that. I think as Senator John Warner told us, we can be sure from that experience that he will never allow himself again to be put in that position. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Also testifying today was the former Homeland Security adviser under President Bush, Frances Townsend. She's also a CNN national security contributor.

Fran is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

You testified in favor of confirmation of Eric Holder.


BLITZER: Hold on. Hold on one second. I don't think we're hearing you. Your microphone -- so you know what we're going to do? All right, now, we're hearing you. Again go ahead. Start again from the beginning.

I was telling our viewers you endorsed Holder's confirmation.

TOWNSEND: I did and I think that was something of a surprise to the senators. I told them no, I was there as a career lawyer at the Justice Department serving under Eric Holder. I knew him to be a man of integrity, I knew him to be a man who would listen to different views, and take seriously the views of career lawyers. And so I had real confidence that he would be -- he would make a fine attorney general.

BLITZER: What does he need to do to -- get an overwhelming endorsement on the part of the Senate?

TOWNSEND: Well, you know, I'll tell you, Senator Jeff Sessions was there as well when I was testifying -- it was interesting because even he at the end, while he had concerns, he and Senator Specter, Senator Sessions said he would vote -- Eric Holder would make a fine attorney general.

BLITZER: So the bottom line, what I hear you saying is you think he's going to be confirmed and you think he'll do a good job despite the controversies over the pardon.

TOWNSEND: That's right. I mean look, the pardons were outrageous. The Marc Rich pardon, the FALN bombers...


BLITZER: Those are the -- the Puerto Rican nationals.

TOWNSEND: That's right. And I was sitting next to one of the sons of a man who was killed and it was really heart-wrenching testimony.

I think if Eric Holder was confirmed as attorney general he wants to make that right. The thing to do is to invite the victim's families in and to have a conversation. I think Eric has learned the lesson of that mistake. But one of the ways to correct it and I think it gives confidence to the senators to meet with those families.

BLITZER: Fran, thanks very much for coming in. Probably a good advice for Eric Holder from Fran.

He's one of the most contested nominees that Barack Obama have, but even some Republicans are praising him. One former Bush administration official standing by.

Stand by for more on that.

Plus, flying a president into a war zone. The dangerous -- very dangerous close call President Bush had. The pilot of Air Force One talks about and much more in my exclusive interview aboard Air Force One.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We accelerated and came on in, and was basically one descending turn, completely blacked out in the darkness.



BLITZER: President-elect Obama today issued another warning to America. An economic turnaround won't be coming quickly, you just heard that in the interview with John King.

But how long before people expect to see a change?

Let's discuss this and more in our "Strategy Session" with our CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist, Paul Begala, along with our CNN political contributor, the Republican strategist, Bay Buchanan.

He went campaigning, in effect, in Ohio today on behalf of his economic stimulus package. Not the first time a president has done that.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: No, but maybe the most important. You know, he took a huge risk, as you reported earlier, working the phones, so did Joe Biden, so did Rahm Emanuel, passing this -- new set of funding for the financial crisis.

But I think -- he's got, I think, the right people, he's got the right tools, I think he's got the right ideas. The question will be, can he raise our horizons in terms of time and expectations?

You know this is not the 1930s where it took -- Roosevelt took over a decade to -- to finally beat the Depression.

BLITZER: (INAUDIBLE) took it to World WAR II ...

BAY BUCHANAN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: They did, indeed. BLITZER: ... to really beat the depression.

BEGALA: Ultimately, but I do think the new deal was absolutely -- but it took a long time. This is a country today where we think a long time is the 10 weeks it takes for "American Idol" to crown their new winner.

So can he -- or rather, maybe it's not an Obama question, maybe it's an American question, will we, the people, lift our sights to match his vision?

BLITZER: How much time do you think he has?

BUCHANAN: He doesn't have 10 years, I guarantee you that. He -- I think this is the key is that there's progress. You know you talk about FDR, and a lot of people say it took the war, but before the wars, there was progress. Things were moving in the right direction so people started to think, OK, you know, we just hang in here, everything's well.

It can't remain flat like this. It can't remain as dire as it is now. I think at the end of this next year, there's got to be some signs that somewhere things are turning around and so people can start to expect life is going to get better here more.

BLITZER: You know -- he obviously wants to Senate and House of Representatives to back him up on some of the most crucial decisions he has to make. He's going to have at least 58, maybe 59, seats in the Senate.

BEGALA: Right.

BLITZER: Rush Limbaugh today said, you know, he already has 60 because he just assumes John McCain is going to vote with Obama on everything.

What do you think about John McCain's role in this new Senate? There's a big dinner in his honor, as you know, on Monday night that the president-elect is going to be hosting.

BEGALA: Right. My guess is that John McCain probably not losing a lot of sleep worrying about what Rush Limbaugh thinks about him. The truth is, I think 60 is, in many ways, an overstated, overanalyzed number.

The Democrats said 59, Al Franken has been certified. Norm Coleman is hurting his state by dragging this out. But he will be the United States senator from Minnesota. So my party has 59. Well, the truth is, we have 59 in terms of party, but on issues, things divide very differently.

Economic issues, a lot of Republicans have come along. Other, on social issues, they come on, foreign policy, so it's a much more diverse thing which is why the president-elect is doing a very smart thing in reaching out to Republicans, reaching out -- even had a dinner, I'm told, with a bunch of conservatives, conservative (INAUDIBLE), so I think it's very wise. It is not -- even if he had 60, even if he had 70, he's going to need bipartisanship.

BLITZER: Yes. And there will be some Democrats who won't vote...

BUCHANAN: Absolute...

BLITZER: ... on the stimulus package, although I suspect, on several key issues like immigration reform, John McCain will be there to work with them.

BUCHANAN: Of course he will, with Lindsay Graham. I think the only way that John McCain is going to be 60 is if he beats Lindsey Graham to the Senate, well, to vote. I mean this is -- so there's plenty of Republicans you can pick from that are moderate and tend to go with different issues.

But I'll tell you what was amazing to me is that Barack Obama is already having trouble with his own party up on the Hill. He is very smart to go out there in Ohio and it will be smart to continue to go out there, to let these people in the Senate know, the Democrats, who the boss is back here, who is the truly representing the people, who is voted for to do something here.

Otherwise, you now, you give them a little room, they're going to try to tell him that they're the ones that he can't mess with.

BLITZER: It's sort of taking something from the Bill Clinton playbook.

BEGALA: Bill Clinton -- but there's nothing new in this. Ronald Reagan did it.


BUCHANAN: Absolutely, Reagan did it.



BUCHANAN: Yes, that's what I'm learning by.

BEGALA: Yes. It does. But here's what's particularly risky about it. Why I like it. This is, this is a gamble. My guess is CNN will save that tape of Barack sitting in that factory being interviewed by John King.

God help Barack politically if that factory closes in a year or two or three or four.


BEGALA: Right? And so he has -- it's like we say in Texas. When you come to a wall you're not sure if you can carry it, throw your hat over, then you have to climb it. Right? So he's going to have to climb over that wall because he's committed himself to it. BLITZER: We got to leave it right there, guys. Next time, Bay.

Thanks very much, Paul and Bay.

And to our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, new details on that crash landing in the Hudson River and the heroic effort which saved the lives of all 155 people on board.

And a new mystery. Where are the plane's engines? There are two of them and they're missing.