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Needles Found in Food on Delta Flight; Romney to Announce V.P. Pick?; U.S. Hostages Released In Egypt; Severe Drought Hits U.S.; Women Accuses Zimmerman of Molestation; NBA Player Jeremy Lin to Houston Rockets; Florida Residents Protest Release of Genetically Modified Mosquito's; Woman Survives Flesh Eating Bacteria;

Aired July 17, 2012 - 05:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Danger at 30,000 feet. The FBI wants to know who put needles on the food on four different Delta flights.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: And who will it be and when? Anticipation mounts as Mitt Romney mulls over his choice for vice president.

BERMAN: Saved from a terrifying plunge. Take a look at this.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my goodness.

BERMAN: A bus driver breaks a young girl's fall -- here it cops -- from a third story window. Amazing.

SAMBOLIN: Wait until you see the video of this as it's unfolding. It's really incredible.

BERMAN: He says he's not a hero.

Good morning and welcome to EARLY START. I'm John Berman.

SAMBOLIN: How do you define hero then?

BERMAN: That guy, that guy right there.

SAMBOLIN: Thanks for joining us, everyone.

It is 5:00 a.m. here in the East. So let's get started.

The midnight deadline for Jeremy Lin, will the NBA sensation decide to stay in New York? We'll talk to "Sports Illustrated's" Maggie Gray about that.

That's just a tease for you. That's not our top story.

BERMAN: Also later, we're going to have Deepak Chopra here talking about exploring your relationship with humanity and the universe. If anyone can do it, it's him. Now, he's doing it using the internet.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, I was actually some of it. Very interesting, his kids' take on, we're going to have them as well.

But, first, we're going to start here with our top story.

The FBI and international authorities are working to find out how sewing needles wound up in four sandwiches on a Delta airlines flight. The needles were found on four separate flights, all traveling from Amsterdam to the United States.

Officials say one passenger was injured by a needle but declined medical treatment. Federal agents have launched a criminal investigation now.

CNN's Sandra Endo is live in Washington with the very latest. This is just outrageous. What have authorities uncovered so far?

SANDRA ENDO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Zoraida, a full blown investigation is under way. The FBI and local authorities in the Netherlands are trying to figure out how the needles got into those turkey sandwiches in the first place.

A Delta spokesperson says the needles were found in sandwiches on flights from Amsterdam to Minneapolis, Seattle, and two flights to Atlanta. Two of the needles were found by passengers and one was discovered by an air marshal.

When Delta found out about the needles in the food, the airline says it notified all 18 flights from Amsterdam to stop serving the sandwiches.

Here's what one passenger who actually bit into one of the contaminated sandwiches said when he spoke to affiliate KTSP.


DR. JACK DROGT, PASSENGER WHO FOUND NEEDLE IN SANDWICHES: I bit down on it so that I wasn't biting down on the sharp side, but the flat side. It could have been a bad injury orally, but had I taken a big swallow and swallowed that down, I'd have a needle inside. That would be very concerning to me.


ENDO: Now, Gate Gourmet provided the sandwiches to Delta. A spokesperson for that company says the sandwiches were prepared in Amsterdam. She says, "This is a terribly upsetting situation. First and foremost is the safety of the traveling public. There's nothing more important to us than all the safety of the passengers and crews."

Now, the Transportation Security Administration says it is closely monitoring the investigation into what happened as well as the security protocols being conducted by the air carrier and the airport authority -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Wow. So Gate Gourmet says it's fully cooperating with the FBI and local authorities. What we're wondering here, the company that makes these sandwiches says it also provides food to other airlines. Is there a concern now?

ENDO: Well, yes, that is the big question. But so far, according to Gate Gourmet, they say that they have received no other complaints or comments about their food, so they are providing food to other airlines, but so far, everything has been OK.

And again, they are fully cooperating with the investigation.

SAMBOLIN: All right, thank you very much.

BERMAN: There is fresh new buzz and anticipation this morning. Is Mitt Romney about to announce his pick for vice president? The top campaign advisor says it could happen as early as this week, which would be really early in the election cycle. Or it may not happen this week.

Some analysts are calling all this a calculated move to shift discussion away from the recent attacks on his Bain record and his personal finances.

Our man with his ear to the ground, Peter Hamby joins us live now from Washington, D.C.

Peter, as I just mentioned, this would be very early in the cycle. But what are the arguments for doing it now or soon?

PETER HAMBY, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Right. Well, a lot of people sort of agree on the arguments, if you get a running mate, you get a fundraiser, you get an attack dog who can command media attention who can travel around the country. They can double up, basically.

But the bigger issue for the Romney campaign right now is this salvo of attacks from the Obama campaign over his record at Bain Capital, over his tax returns, accusing him of outsourcing.

President Obama lit into Romney yesterday while campaigning in Cincinnati actually, John. Take a listen to what he said yesterday.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: By eliminating taxes on corporation's foreign income, Governor Romney's plan would actually encourage companies to shift more of their operations to foreign tax havens, creating 800,000 jobs in those other countries.


HAMBY: So the Romney campaign is having a hard time sort of changing the subject from these attacks. If they get a running mate out now this week before the Olympics start, which will distract from the political campaign season, it would give them a chance to change the subject. Because as we know, the minute you pick a vice president, the white heat of the national president comes down on that person.

So it could happen. The Romney campaign says no decision has been made, despite a report in "The New York Times" saying a decision actually has been made, but the Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom says, no, no, no, that's not the case, John.

BERMAN: And just for historical perspective, McCain and Obama four years ago, they waited literally just days before their conventions to make the picks. So now would be very, very early.

Mitt Romney traveling to Pennsylvania today, which we list as a swing state. But President Obama won the state by 10 points four years ago. What's Mitt Romney trying to do today with his Keystone State trip?

HAMBY: Right. Well, Republican officials at the Republican National Committee, the Romney campaign, they insist that Pennsylvania is in play this time, even though Obama beat McCain there by a significant margin. Romney's campaigning just outside of Pittsburgh, in a town called Irwin, it's in Westmoreland County outside of Pittsburgh. This is a county that went for McCain actually by a big margin, even though the state went for Obama. It's those white working class voters.

When I traveled with Sarah Palin in 2008, we went in this area. I saw some of the most rowdy fired up conservative crowds that we saw anywhere in the country. So, Romney sort of trying to shore up the base.

But both campaigns are spending money in Pennsylvania. So even though we have a recent poll showing Obama beating Romney there by six points, the fact that both campaigns are spending money there, that they have staff on the ground in this state suggests that they both see it as competitive.

BERMAN: All right. Peter Hamby, ands that message to white working class voters, key not just in Pennsylvania, but a bunch of other really important states. Peter Hamby, thanks very much.

HAMBY: Thanks.

SAMBOLIN: Seven minutes past the hour.

It has sparked deadly wildfires and fears of food shortage. Now worry that the nation's most severe drought in decades is spreading. More than half of the Continental United States is now in some stage of drought. And most of the rest of the country is close to it as well. That is according to a report from the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina.

It is the largest area of land affected by drought since the 1950s.

BERMAN: Their bikes have been found, but still no sign of the girls. A desperate search resuming this morning in Iowa. Authorities have now started draining a nearby lake for any sign of 8-year-old Elizabeth Collins and ten-year-old Lyric Cook.

The two are cousins. They were last seen by their grandmother before they went on a bicycle ride on Friday.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They smile a lot. They're pretty persistent in the things that they want. They're great. They're really great, you know I mean?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We really look forward to what they had to offer in their future and the life that God had for them.


BERMAN: Nearly 1,000 volunteers helped look for clues over the weekend.

Police have called off the volunteer effort for now. We're going to have a live report coming from Iowa on the search, and we will hear from the family next hour.

SAMBOLIN: It's like they just vanished. Terrible.

A deadly night on the east end of Toronto. Two young people killed, 19 others wounded when gunfire erupted at an outdoor barbecue. A 3-year-old child is among the injured. Toronto's police chief calls it the most serious crime of its kind ever to hit the city.


BILL BLAIR, TORONTO POLICE CHIEF: Tonight's event is unprecedented. Tonight's event is shocking to every Torontonian. It will be shocking to all of Canada because of the number of people injured, the level of violence is something we have never experienced.


SAMBOLIN: Police say they have a person of interest in custody, but they're looking for more suspects.

BERMAN: George Zimmerman's attorney and the Trayvon Martin family are now reacting to a new stunning twist in this trial. This came out of nowhere.

A female witness in the case only identified as witness number nine is accusing Zimmerman of molesting her when they were both children. The accusations released yesterday in an audiotape from the state's attorney's office.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It started when I was 6. He's -- he's about almost two years older than I am. He would reach under the blankets and try to do things, and I would try to push him off, but he was bigger and stronger and older.


BERMAN: She also said Zimmerman and his family flat-out said they didn't like black people unless they acted like white people. Stunning allegations on these tapes.

Zimmerman's attorney Mark O'Mara has identified the woman as Zimmerman's cousin, and last night he told Piers Morgan the allegations would not be admissible in court be will complicate things for the defense.


MARK O'MARA, GEORGE ZIMMERMAN'S ATTORNEY: These allegations, which George contends are untrue, now we need to spend our resources and time rebutting them, and actually, put in a difficult, if not delicate position of deciding how much we attack the source of this story or just leave it be and move on to what really counts.


BERMAN: An attorney for the Martin family issued a statement saying the woman's testimony should be included in the evidence. Benjamin Crump saying witness# 9 would be a rebuttal witness very similar to that in the Sandusky trial showing that George Zimmerman has a history of violence and manipulation. Zimmerman's mentality is very relevant in the trial, he says.

SAMBOLIN: And also new overnight, word of yet another possible missed opportunity to stop child predator Jerry Sandusky apparently years ago. This time, it isn't Penn State, but state authorities.

CNN contributor Sara Ganim is reporting that back in 1998, the Pennsylvania Department of Child Welfare never reported allegations to the Second Mile. That's the charity Sandusky founded for at-risk kids, which is a violation of state law. Seven of the 10 boys Sandusky is conducted of abusing were abused after 1998.

BERMAN: All right. A much, much happier news this morning. We've been talking about it all morning. A New York City bus driver says he's not a hero, but we're going yes, he is a hero. His actions probably saved a little girl's life.

SAMBOLIN: No kidding. Watch this.

BERMAN: Cell phone video taken by a neighbor. Check this out. She was dancing on the air conditioner up there and then she fell off this third floor window. That's when 52-year-old Steven St. Bernard raced underneath the window. He managed to break the fall. There you see it again there, into the bushes below. She survived without a scratch on her.

The "New York Daily News" is reporting the little girl is autistic. Police don't plan to charge the parents with anything, I guess that would be negligence or something else. And again, we think this bus driver is definitely a hero. And, by the way, a great outfielder, too.

SAMBOLIN: Unbelievable. You know what? I was watching this. I thought there's no way that child is OK because you don't see that part of it in the video. But perfectly fine without a scratch.

BERMAN: Not a scratch. An amazing piece of video.

SAMBOLIN: Love sharing that with you this morning.

BERMAN: It is 13 minutes past the hour. The question is: will he stay or will he go? The clock counting down for NBA sensation Jeremy Lin to make a decision, New York or Houston? Coming up, catch what could be a multi-million-dollar difference.


BERMAN: All right. The countdown is on this morning. A decision will happen before midnight that could mean the end of Lin- sanity for the New York Knicks. The team's owners are weighing whether to match an offer from the Houston Rockets, which will total $25 million over three years.

SAMBOLIN: But there is one catch, an obscure NBA role which imposes a luxury tax for teams which hit certain salary limits for their players.

"Sports Illustrated" video anchor Maggie Gray is here with us.

This is all the talk. We were talking about the vice presidential pick, right? No. So will they let him walk?

MAGGIE GRAY, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: Well, it looks like right now -- let me put this caveat. Who know what is the Knicks could do, because they have made some questionable decisions in the past. If you look at the evidence of what they've done in the last few days, which was signing Raymond Felton, a former point guard for the Knicks, who's now back with the team. They signed the backup Jason Kidd, the long-term all-star, it looks like they're pretty set at the point guard position.

Apparently Lin-sanity is not cheap. It will be very expensive for them in the third year if the Knicks decide the fiscal responsibility is important to them, which sometimes it is, sometimes it's not. Then that will ultimately determine what they're going to do about Jeremy Lin.

BERMAN: How much beyond basketball is factoring into this decision here? You know, with Lin-sanity last year, he was an international sensation, marketing, shirt sales. Do the Knicks have to be thinking about that too?

GRAY: I think Jeremy Lin is actually a global phenomenon at this point. I don't know if he needs New York like some other stars would need the large market. He is everywhere. And he will continue to be because his reach is just so far.

As far as merchandise, jersey sales, things like that in the collective bargaining agreement of the NBA, the players, the teams, they all share that. So it doesn't matter if you're Kobe Bryant or Jeremy Lin, everyone's going to get a cut of that.

As far as ticket sales go, Jeremy Lin moves the needle. You could see when the Knicks would go play on the road, the arenas would be filled with Lin-sanity signs, when they went to Toronto, went all over the place.

So, he definitely puts fans in the seats. But he could do that anywhere.

BERMAN: So, gone to your head, does he stay or does he go?

GRAY: It looks like right now that he's probably going to walk. But like I said, they have never had a problem paying the luxury tax before in their history. The only problem is by the time it gets to that $15 million that he would get in the third year, there's actually more of a punitive penalty for exceeding the salary cap for teams. So it's going to be even more money. That's never been a problem for the Knicks before, but if they're going to really hit them with a big, big ticket, then -- I don't know.

BERMAN: The Knicks not known for making great decisions always.

Maggie, thanks very much for being here.

GRAY: A little bit of a checkered past.

BERMAN: Yes, absolutely, to say the least. Maggie, we'll talk to you tomorrow, maybe.

GRAY: OK. Thanks a lot.

SAMBOLIN: Thanks for coming in this morning.

BERMAN: All right. The Knicks minding their business -- we're minding your business this morning.

Checking in on the markets right now. U.S. stock futures trading higher on the opening bell, and European markets are up, too.

SAMBOLIN: Investors worldwide are hoping for signs of more stimulus during Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke's testimony on Capitol Hill, that is today. Just that speculation alone is pushing markets higher this morning.

BERMAN: Google's Marissa Mayer is heading over to the competition. This exploded Twitter yesterday. Melissa Mayer taking over as CEO of Yahoo! She is one of most powerful women in search and she's one of the first two dozen employees ever at Google. She'll also become Yahoo!'s fifth CEO in just five years.

That search engine struggles to keep market share. They've been having a lot of problems in search and advertising.

According to "The Wall Street Journal," she's just the 20th female CEO in a Fortune 500 company. That's a record number. And by the way, she and her husband are expecting their first child.

SAMBOLIN: Oh, my goodness. That's a lot of pressure.

BERMAN: Big news in tech and big news in business.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. All right. And talk about an odd couple. Coming up, President Obama's unlikely meeting with a well-known talk show host. And we are not talking about Oprah.


SAMBOLIN: Welcome back. It is 24 minutes past the hour. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman.

We're getting a look at the "Early Read" in your local news that will certainly catch your attention.

This caught your attention and your ire I would say.

In the Florida Keys, residents are protesting plans to release thousands of genetically modified male mosquitoes into the environment. That just sounds like a sci-fi movie, maybe even a scary, ill-fated sci-fi movie.

SAMBOLIN: Why are they doing this?

BERMAN: They're doing this because what they're to do is reduce the life span of all the mosquitoes in the environment there. There was an outbreak of dengue fever a few years ago and they figure they release these genetically modified, robotic, mutant mosquitoes, it could reduce the life span of all of them. Residents there, though, saying this is crazy. We don't want to be your guinea pigs.

SAMBOLIN: No. Right. It was a mom that started this effort online and she's gotten a lot more names on the petition signed than she originally expected. She says, why are you using my kids as guinea pigs?

BERMAN: Like 100,000 names in that petition.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, she says I have no idea what's going to happen here, and what if our kids get sick? What if some of them die?

So, they're totally opposed to that. The numbers are growing. I suspect they will continue to grow.

Anyway, have you ever heard of a green lawn in a can?

BERMAN: I haven't, but I'd like to try it.

SAMBOLIN: All right. So, here is -- I don't know. I don't know if I would. The newspaper here is from "Indy Star". So, we're headed to Indianapolis.

You know, they're having a problem with the drought. Take a look at the lawn on the right versus the lawn on the left.

BERMAN: One is green, one isn't.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. What this guy did was, he decided to paint his lawn. And that was the outcome. A nice, green lawn. But it used to look like dead grass on the opposite side. So he says you know what's happening now? Folks are calling me and asked me to come and do it for them.

This is turf paint that he's using. My concern here is that this is bad for the environment.

BERMAN: My concern is getting on your sneakers when you put it on.

SAMBOLIN: It dries in one hour. This is what they use. This is turf field. So it dries in one hour.

But again, you know, not enough testing done on this. And it's something that your kids are going to inhale. Your dogs are going to be playing. I don't know.

BERMAN: Not a good mix with genetically modified mosquitoes either, I'm told.

SAMBOLIN: Exactly.

BERMAN: In Ohio, talking about strange bedfellows. President Obama taking time to meet with a talk show host. This time, Jerry Springer.

Now, this may sound odd to you. Jerry Springer with the chairs being thrown on his show -- Jerry Springer, many people forget, was actually mayor of Cincinnati.

SAMBOLIN: And a really nice guy.

BERMAN: Nice guy. He ran for governor there. Other people don't know this. Also, Jerry Springer's political career derailed in 1980 when word came out that he paid a prostitute with a check. He actually had to admit it ultimately in a campaign, a very famous episode in politics.

For an expanded look at all our top stories, including that --

SAMBOLIN: That thing, that thing.

BERMAN: -- head to our blog,

Now, if Harry Reid had his way, we'd burn them. So what to do about -- what do the Chinese think over the uproar of U.S. Olympic uniforms made in China? Find out coming up.

SAMBOLIN: And if you're leaving the house right now, you can watch us any time on your desk top, perhaps even your cell phone. Just don't do it as you're walking. Go to



SAMBOLIN (voice-over): Reunited with their families. Two Americans kidnapped and then released from Egypt.

BERMAN (voice-over): Saved at sea. The crew of a battered sailboat plucked from the ocean by a passing cruise ship.

SAMBOLIN: Swimming with sharks. Our own Soledad O'Brien joins Sir Richard Branson on a deep sea quest. This is all for a cause.

BERMAN: Big sharks! Really big sharks!

SAMBOLIN: You have some personal experience with these, don't you?

BERMAN: Big, scary sharks, yes.



SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to EARLY START. We're happy you're with us. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BERMAN (on-camera): And I'm John Berman. It is 31 minutes past the hour.

Also coming up, the drought of 2012. This is big. Already historic, and it is spreading this morning. We're going to talk to Rob Marciano a little bit to get all the information on that.

SAMBOLIN: And our top story, the two Americans abducted in Egypt are now in Israel this morning waiting to return home to the Boston area. Reverends Michel Louis and Lisa Alphonse tell CNN they are happy and they are relieved. Meantime, Egyptian police say they negotiated with their captors but did not give into their demands.

The kidnappers are members of the Bedouin Tribe and Sinai who were demanding the release of a jailed relative. CNN's Ian Lee is now live with the very latest. And Ian, how are the victims? We heard a lot about the pastor who's a diabetic. Do you know anything about his condition?

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right now, he's doing all right. He didn't have his medication, actually, during this ordeal, Zoraida. So, he was really lucky. But, the security officials -- he said that he's doing well. He had a small diabetic episode, but that his health is doing better and that they're in good spirits.

They're now in Northern Israel with their church members. So, they're continuing their tour of the holy land before going back to the United States -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: Do you know when they're expected to arrive in the United States?

LEE: Well, they're going to finish their tour and go on as planned before they do actually head back to the Boston area. They said they were keen on finishing that and doing that and seeing the rest of their trip out before actually heading back.

SAMBOLIN: That's pretty brave, don't you think? So, what do we know about the negotiations? What about the kidnappers? Are they still free?

LEE: This is actually the really interesting thing. We've been watching the Sinai very closely, and there's been a rise, a spike in kidnappings since the revolution last year. And Bedouins act with impunity -- Bedouins are armed to the teeth really, and the security forces are hesitant to really impose their will in the area.

So, what needs to happen is that there needs to be some sort of comprehensive deal between the tribal leaders and security forces in Cairo, a political deal, a security deal. If that doesn't happen, it's likely the kidnappings will continue because the Bedouins that they've been marginalized by the central government in Cairo, and that the only way they can get their grievances heard is by kidnapping foreigners.

SAMBOLIN: Well, let's hope that that does not continue to happen. CNN's Ian Lee, thank you very much for that.

BERMAN: Also this morning, Hillary Clinton is wrapping up her visit to the Middle East with a warning about the desert border between Egypt and Israel, that dangerous area where that kidnapping happened. The secretary of state says the Sinai Peninsula could become an operational base for jihadists and terrorists.

And while that danger was discussed with Egypt and Israel over the past few days, Mrs. Clinton insist it's not just those two nations who need to be wary.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We have Americans as part of the multi-national force that observes the continuation of the Camp David Accords. We have Americans in the cyanide. So, it's in everyone's interests that we work together to make sure that security is in place in Sinai.


BERMAN: Secretary Clinton went on to say the U.S. and Israel are on the same page and willing to do whatever it takes to prevent the Iranians from building a nuclear weapon.

SAMBOLIN: The air force sex scandal rocking one of the nation's busiest military training centers. The first instructor at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio stands trial in a sex scandal implicating a dozen people. Staff Sergeant Lewis Walker (ph) is charged with 28 counts, including rape, aggravated sexual contact, and multiple counts of aggravated sexual assault.

If convicted, he could get up to life in prison and a dishonorable discharge.

BERMAN: Another salvo on the Olympic uniform controversy. China is accusing the U.S. of hypocrisy and violating the Olympic spirit for making a fuss over those uniforms which were made in China. A commentary from China's official state news agency ripped American lawmakers for playing politics with the controversy.

The uniforms Team USA will wear during the opening ceremonies in London were made in China, but designed by American, Ralph Lauren. Many lawmakers on both sides flipped out when they found out about this. Senate leader, Harry Reid, even said burn them.

SAMBOLIN: All right. A new mother of twins who was infected with flesh-eating bacteria, she could be leaving the hospital as early as today.

BERMAN: Good for her.

SAMBOLIN: Can you believe it? Lana Kuykendall has been hospitalized in Greenville, South Carolina just over two months now. She was diagnosed with necrotizing fasciitis four days after giving birth. Doctors say she has made a great recovery. Lana talked to CNN about the ups and the downs.


LANA KUYKENDALL, VICTIM OF FLESH-EATING BACTERIA: Sometimes, I cry over, you know, the fact that I'm sick. Sometimes, I cry over missing the babies. Sometimes, I've cried over knowing that life will never be, like, I guess, I had always thought it would be. But it will still be a good life.


SAMBOLIN: That's a great attitude. The new mom has had more than 20 surgical procedures, including skin graphs and reconstruction. But here's the good news. If you can find some good news here, no amputations.

BERMAN: As a mother of twins, she's in for some great days ahead of her.

SAMBOLIN: That's right. You have twins. You have twins.

BERMAN: Good luck.

A banged up yacht is back home in Connecticut this morning after its crew was saved by a cruise ship in a daring rescue that was posted on YouTube. The Norwegian cruise ship that made the rescue veered off course on its way back from Bermuda after getting a distress call from the coast guard in the remnants of tropical storm, Debbie, a few weeks ago. This is our first look at the video. The cruise ship pulled three men and three women to safety after the sailing yacht's rutter snapped. That can be really scary, leaving the boat drifting in the rough seas.

SAMBOLIN: So just the word "shark" is enough to get people running from the water, right?

BERMAN: Me, for sure.


SAMBOLIN: But coming up, Soledad O'Brien talks about her up close encounter under water with whale sharks. Thanks to that guy, Sir Richard Branson.


SAMBOLIN: Good morning, Atlanta. It is 41 minutes past the hour. That fine city is now 75 degrees. A little bit later, though, it's going to be hot, 91 degrees. Muggy probably as well, because you're going to be experiencing some thunderstorms, but you should be really happy about that because of the drought.

BERMAN: The drought in Georgia and all over the country, the nation's most severe drought in decades. It's spreading. More than half of the continental U.S. is now in some tage of drought conditions. In most of the rest of the country, it is close to it. That's according to a new report from the National Climatic Data Center. It's the largest area of land affected by drought since the 1950s.


BERMAN: Rob Marciano joins us live now from Atlanta. Rob, what's going on with this?

ROB MARCIANO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Fifty-five percent, John and Zoraida of the country under some sort of drought, and it was -- I think it was back in 1956, we had 58 percent. So, very close to that. And this is the aerial extent of what we're talking about. The northeast and Florida finally out of it as well as the northwest, but everybody else seeing at least some dry conditions.

Here's what we expect as far as improvement. Anywhere you see green here, improvement. So, just the southwest, a little sliver there and maybe parts of Southern Georgia, but that is about it. We're in the hot, and of course, in some cases, very dry season. So any pop-up thunderstorm you get, you'll take. Will we be a dust bowl again?

Well, the thinking is hopefully not, because you know, the modern agriculture, we've got different ways we mitigate things, erosion control, and certainly the new crops that we have out will hopefully aleve -- make that not happen. But the heat certainly is not helping matters, even in the non-agricultural areas like Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Philadelphia.

You're under an extreme heat advisory or watch today for a lot of places. The heat and humidity pumping up across parts of the south. All the cool stuff remains in Canada where it typically stays this time of year. Ninety-eight degrees expected in Chicago, 90 degrees in New Orleans, 95 degrees in New York City, and 101 degrees in D.C.

So, we are in the thick of it, the middle of July. Things don't tend to get very cool there. If you want a cool spot, 57, as Mark Twain would say, the worst winter I had was a summer in San Francisco. John, welcome aboard, man. I've been a fan for a long time.

BERMAN: You, too, Rob. They're telling me I should dress like you. We had a meeting yesterday, and they said look at how Rob Marciano dresses. You should look like him. I'm like if I could look like Rob, I'd have no problems.



MARCIANO: I appreciate it.

SAMBOLIN: We're trying to get him to get rid of the tie. I don't know if it's going to happen. But we like the look, Rob. Thank you.

MARCIANO: See you guys.

SAMBOLIN: The FBI this morning launching a criminal investigation after sewing needles were covered in sandwiches on four separate Delta flights. This was from Amsterdam to the United States. The turkey sandwiches were all prepared at the same facility in Amsterdam. Delta says one passenger was injured, but declined medical treatment.

BERMAN: Three Chicago teenagers are being held without bond after a fatal beating that was recorded and posted on Facebook. Prosecutors say the victim, 62-year-old Delfina Mora (ph), was targeted by gang members in a game of something called point and punch. They say a 16-year-old delivered the fatal blows while two others taped it on his cell phone, and then they posted it on a Facebook page.

SAMBOLIN: Wow! Well, critics of the TSA are trying to force the agency to hold public hearings on the use of airport body scanners. You know, they've been pretty controversial. A year ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals ordered the TSA to schedule hearings promptly in order to adopt rules and regulation for using those scanners.

That's because the TSA breeched federal law by adopting them in 2009 without first holding a 90-day public comment period. The TSA still hasn't scheduled the hearings, but says it is a top priority.

BERMAN: Sarah Palin snubbed? The former Alaska governor says she's still waiting for an invitation from Mitt Romney to speak at next month's Republican convention. If it doesn't come, she tells "Newsweek" she thinks it's because of her willingness to criticize members of her own party.

Another possible reason no invitation has come, she hasn't yet formally endorsed Mitt Romney. May be something you want to do before you get that invitation.

SAMBOLIN: All right. So, he's known for his 3D chalk art pieces around the world. And fans are making their way to Kurt Winter's (ph) interactive art drawing at the Grand Canyon. It spreads over the courtyard floor and up one wall. So, visitors can see themselves in a picture perched high above the canyon floor.

They can take pictures. It is free of charge. It will be on display through October.

BERMAN: All right. We have something really special for you this morning. Virgin billionaire boss, Richard Branson, wants you to join him in saying "no to shark fin soup." CNN Soledad O'Brien spoke exclusively with the billionaire businessman about his latest venture, saving sharks.

SAMBOLIN: She didn't just speak with him. She joined him for a swim with a massive whale shark. And she's joining us for a little preview.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. It was so incredible. And of course, Richard Branson is a huge conservationist and really wanted to bring attention to the whale shark and really get people to stop having shark fin soup. This is all part of the agenda. But really, what we got to do is jump into the water with these whale sharks about 12 miles off the coast of Isla Mujeres in Mexico.

Absolutely amazing. Look at some of these pictures. These animals grow about 49 feet. He told me why he thinks it's so important to raise awareness about ecotourism in general.


O'BRIEN: Why do you think sharks get such a bad rep?

RICHARD BRANSON, BILLIONAIRE: Because of the film "Jaws", people have this dreadful image of sharks. And, you know, it's very sad that that film ever got made. I mean, they're -- you know, sharks will only bite people by mistake, and that only happens maybe a handful of times a year throughout the whole world.

And I've swum with great whites. I've swum with tiger sharks. I've swum with whale sharks. All kinds of sharks.


O'BRIEN: Now, whale sharks don't eat people. You know, they have these massive mouths, but you're really not in danger of being eaten, unlike tiger sharks occasionally do eat people and bite people.

BERMAN: You're good at that.

O'BRIEN: I got better. The strategy is swim right for the eyes so that the shark sees you, and then you kind of tuck in behind the gills, because you can see those massive gills there. It drags you along and you actually move quite speedily with your snorkel through the water. And you're right. Like, as close as I am to you, next to these massive whale sharks.

BERMAN: I did it last year. But even though they don't eat humans, when they're that big and they're right next to you, you still get plenty scared.

O'BRIEN: You know, I asked Richard Branson, you know, kind of afraid when they come at you like with a mouth that's giant. And he said oh, yes, you know, but then they just spit you out.


O'BRIEN: I'm like, I'm not really feeling better about that. He does believe, though, that international tourists can keep these animals alive, because if you can get the fishermen to stop fishing for the sharks and instead make more money and create more jobs by the hotels and the rent a car operations and the restaurants that are all needed to support tourism because now people can come out and dive with those sharks or swim with the sharks.

When I was there, there were somewhere between 300 and 400. In that small area where I was, 400 of these animals --

SAMBOLIN: So, no danger to the animal in having so much human contact.

O'BRIEN: No, you don't really touch them. And they have censors all up and down their bodies, so they kind of just flick their tails around you. Like, when you accidentally bump into one, they just sort of move out of the way. And their tale kind of come --

BERMAN: It's like accidentally bumping into a railroad or like a truck. They're big.

O'BRIEN: They're gentle. I mean, they're massive. They're just very gentle, but it is kind of crazy to swim up to something the size of a bus and try to keep up with it --

BERMAN: When can we see this?

O'BRIEN: We're going to air the entire interview with Sir Richard Branson this morning on "Starting Point" in our seven o'clock hour.

SAMBOLIN: That's really great.

BERMAN: Awesome.

SAMBOLIN: Thank you. All right. It's the kind of photograph of a milestone moment that you would treasure forever. Just a little bit of a problem. The people in the picture may not know that this snapshot right here exists.

BERMAN: Let's find them.

SAMBOLIN: We're attempting to. It's a really special moment that we're going to share with you, although some people don't like the fact that that picture exists. We'll explain that.

If you're leaving the house right now, you can watch us any time on your desktop or your mobile phone, just go to


SAMBOLIN: Welcome back. It is 53 minutes past the hour. Time to take a look at what is trending on the web. And a touching marriage proposal caught on camera except the engaged couple doesn't know that the photos exist. You know, this is one of those stories that I absolutely love, but a lot of people are really mad about this.

This woman was snapping this very, very special moment. She's a photographer, also a teacher. She was about a football field away, and she said she saw this moment happen, and she captured it on film. And she's trying to find the couple. She's tried everything she possibly can, so she decided that she was going to post the picture to see if somebody could identify the couple.

A lot of people are mad at her, because they say that she, you know, messed with a really personal moment. How do you feel about that?

BERMAN: I think it's a really beautiful photo. If that were me -- if that was me there --

SAMBOLIN: Wouldn't you want it?

BERMAN: I would want it. I would definitely want it.

SAMBOLIN: This is what she says, quote, "He kissed her and her entire body went limp. It was a moment of pure beauty and I could feel the love through my camera lens."

BERMAN: I'm getting that.

SAMBOLIN: Yes. This is the national war memorial in Washington, D.C. And, so, she wants to find the happy couple. And she's tried. She said, you know, she's contacted several agencies and hasn't been able to do it. So, here you go.

BERMAN: I have some equally touching and romantic news, a self- chilling beer can.


BERMAN: And what's romantic about that? We have some awesome scientists --


BERMAN: -- who invented a way for a beer can to get itself cold. It's got a button on the bottom. You pressed it, it filled with carbon dioxide, and this beer can gets ice cold. But here's the catch that I don't really like. It takes two minutes to cool off. Two minutes. I mean, when you take the beer out of the fridge, it's already cold.

SAMBOLIN: All right.

BERMAN: Just saying.

SAMBOLIN: You know, I guess we're going to stick to the theme of beer. So, more beer news that's apparently good for the environment. It is time to head to Australia. I think this is your favorite story of the morning.

BERMAN: I come from the land down under.

SAMBOLIN: It's an awesome recycling product -- or project that is. It's called the beer can regata. And why don't you tell me about this, because you really love this story.

BERMAN: I know. It's hard to explain except that it's boats made out of beer cans. In Australia, they have a lot of cans, apparently, leftover soda cans in boats. Darwin, Australia, they've been doing this since 1974. They make these boats that you're looking at right now out of cans.

And apparently, they float. So, good for them down in Australia. What will they think of next down there?

SAMBOLIN: Apparently, this rebuilding -- they were rebuilding the town after a cyclone, so they drank so much beer to stay cool that the cans literally flooded the streets.


BERMAN: I'm sure that was the reason. They drink so much for --


SAMBOLIN: That's the story.

BERMAN: I'm going to use that next time.

SAMBOLIN: That's kind of cool, actually. Look at that.

BERMAN: It is totally cool. All right.

SAMBOLIN: Beer cans with a purpose.

BERMAN: It is 55 minutes past the hour right now. Coming up after the break, we have some serious news. Our top stories, including a disturbing twist in the Trayvon Martin case. New accusations against George Zimmerman that have nothing to do with the night of the shooting. You're watching EARLY START.