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Firefighters Shot Dead at Blaze in N.Y.; No Talks to Avert Fiscal Cliff; Pope Prepares for Christmas Eve Mass; Bakery Bombings in Syria; Severe Weather for Parts of U.S.; Controversy over Hagel

Aired December 24, 2012 - 14:00   ET


HALA GORANI, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Suzanne.

I'm Hala Gorani here in Washington, D.C., in for Brooke Baldwin.

Grief today is shattering the Christmas Eve quiet on a sleepy town in New York. This is how it looked around 6:00 in the morning today. There was a massive house fire that ravaged homes overlooking Lake Ontario. The house fire spread as firefighters tried to dodge gunfire.

The firefighters apparently walked into a trap just as they were responding to this. At last word, two firefighters are dead, three other first responders are wounded, an alleged gunman is dead. Authorities can't say whether other bodies might be found in the eight homes destroyed or damaged by the fire in the town of Webster. Shocking, bizarre, tragic today. CNN's Poppy Harlow is in New York, trying to piece together this horrible chain of events here on Christmas Eve.

So what happened? Because authorities are saying potentially this was a trap laid out for the firefighters.

POPPY HARLOW, CNNMONEY.COM: Yes. So that's what the police chief, Gerald Pickering, said in the last press conference. We're awaiting right now another press conference that should start any minute. But he did say that it appears that possibly these four first responders were lured into what was a trap that started at 5:35 this morning, Hala, responding to a typical house fire call. Four firefighters came to this scene. All four were shot. As you said, two dead, two wounded.

I want you to take a listen to some sound from the police chief speaking in the past few hours about those that were killed.


CHIEF GERALD PICKERING, WEBSTER, N.Y. POLICE: Fireman Mike Chiapperini, who was also a lieutenant with the Webster Police Department was deceased at the scene. Theodore Scardino is currently in surgery. And he's a West Webster fire officer -- or fireman. And Joseph Hofsetter is also a volunteer firefighter and a full time firefighter with the Rochester Fire Department, was also injured and is being treated at the scene.

My lieutenant was a lifetime firefighter. I think he started out as an explorer. Almost a 20-year veteran of the police department. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sorry, and who is this, the lieutenant?

PICKERING: Lieutenant Mike Chiapperini. I know that Tomasz was a younger individual, worked for, again, public service in the forefront, worked for 911. Just, by all accounts, just a tremendous young man. You know, these people get up in the middle of the night to go put out fires. They don't expect to be shot and killed.


HARLOW: Absolutely not. They don't expect to be shot at when they're coming to help put out flames and save lives.

Hala, I want to show a picture to our viewers that we just got in of Lieutenant Mike Chiapperini. He is one of the two officers that was killed. We don't have that for you, but we'll get it for you next hour, that's for sure.

The two injured, Theodore Scardino, and Joseph Hofsetter, they are in the hospital in serious condition. Both awake, alert, not on a ventilator. We're told they can talk, which is good news, but a long recovery ahead for them.

You know, Hala, when this happened, so many flames went up and the firefighters had to retreat after they were shot at, so they couldn't put out the fires for hours. So they engulfed four homes. Thirty-three people were evacuated. And we still don't know if anyone was harmed in the fires.

GORANI: Right. That's going to be something that's going to, in a few hours, of course, become clearer and clearer. But what about this suspected shooter? Do we know anything about him?

HARLOW: Not a lot. We actually don't even know if it's a man or a woman. We're still trying to find that out. What we've been told is that the suspected shooter was found deceased, dead, outside of the home where that initial fire was. We don't know if that person is dead from a self-inflicted wound or from gunshots from the first responders or police. We don't know that either.

Authorities do tell us they've taken into custody some people they think have knowledge of the situation. So they're trying to figure out how this bizarre scenario could have unfolded, if this was indeed a trap.

One important thing to note. The police chief did say in that press conference that, of course, there will be questions about whether or not an assault rifle was used. He said at this point he does not know and he doesn't know if it was one gun or multiple guns. So this is still very much developing, but a tragedy on Christmas Eve.

GORANI: Absolutely. Thanks, Poppy Harlow, in New York.

Just as I said him, I realize we knew so little. We didn't know if it was a man or a woman.

HARLOW: Absolutely.

GORANI: So we'll continue to follow that.

And to Texas now, speaking of shootings, where two people have died after a car chase ended in a shootout. The pursuit started after a Bellaire, Texas, police officer tried to pull over a driver who refused to stop. The chase ended up in an auto parts business parking lot where police say the driver shot and killed the officer and also a bystander. The driver is listed in critical condition at the hospital.

Eight days and counting from federal tax rates rising, government spending shrinking, and defending on details of your own situation, various tax breaks slipping away. In other words, what we're calling the fiscal cliff. A plan to stop it all from happening still alludes Washington. So, Congress has broken camp for the holidays and the president's gone to Hawaii on vacation. Brianna Keilar is out there for us. She's in Honolulu.

Eight days away from that fiscal cliff. And are there any contacts occurring on this topic between the president and anyone in Congress, Brianna?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, obviously, there's an open line of communication, I would say, with Senate Democrats, Hala, but there's really no substantive conversations between the folks that you would need for there to be conversations between in order to strike a deal. The White House and congressional Republicans, and perhaps more alarmingly, Senate Democrats are not in conversations right now with Senate Republicans or with House Republicans. And this is problematic obviously because in order to avoid the fiscal cliff, you would need to find some sort of deal that would make it through the Senate and the House, and that would need Democratic and Republican support.

Right now, all eyes on the Senate because they will reconvene on the 27th, that is Thursday. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, it's up to him, really, to cobble together something that can get some of that support. Right now the White House is still supporting a threshold of $250,000 back to their initial starting point for tax rates going up for those making more than that. But you can imagine, Hala, that's going to be very hard for some Republicans, maybe even some Democrats, to sign on to.

GORANI: Right. And, you know, for just about a week ago, it was common to hear, oh, a deal will be hammered out. But over the last several days, we're hearing more and more that potentially this is a reality for Americans in eight days' time. Your sources in the administration, is there a real concern among some of the people you're speaking with that indeed this fiscal cliff will become a reality?

KEILAR: I think there is much more of a concern. I think a couple of weeks ago, when you talk to folks not only in the administration but on The Hill, there was a thought that this may be averted. Now I do think there is more pessimism. You're hearing that publicly, Hala. That's also what's going on behind the scenes, that there's that pessimism. There's a lot of public posturing, certainly about the blame and who's going to be to blame if we go over the fiscal cliff. But this pessimism about perhaps going over the cliff is very real.

GORANI: All right, Brianna Keilar's in Honolulu there, covering the president as he vacations with his family over the Christmas break there. Thanks very much, Brianna, and we'll catch up with you a little bit later.

Now, of course, today is Christmas Eve. In Vatican City right now, Catholics are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Thousands are gathering at St. Peter's Basilica. In just two hours, Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate Christmas Eve mass.

In Bethlehem, Christians are gathering at the church of the Nativity. The West Bank town is believed by Christians to be the birth place of Jesus Christ. Now, Palestinian authorities in the West Bank were concerned with regards to tourism because of the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas and the Gaza Strip that this could deter visitors to the site this year.

Pope Benedict XVI is preparing to deliver his Christmas Eve homily, marking one of the holiest days of the year for catholic. Joining me on the phone is Raymond Arroyo. He's the news director for the Eternal Word Television Network.

Thanks for being with us.

So, Pope Benedict XVI, of course, this is the Christmas Eve homily. We get one every year from the pontiff.


GORANI: What are you expecting this year in particular?

ARROYO: Well, you know, Hala, after reading the pope's new book, which is all about the infancy and the birth of Christ, one imagines he'll sound similar themes. There he really talked about the freedom that, you know, the Virgin Mary answering the call of the angels and submitting to the call. And that, again, human freedom is so central to the church's teachings, central to the nativity story and I think resonates with all of us, that we all have our own obligation to act with God's will, and in his will, and make good use and right use of that human freedom. I imagine we'll hear those themes today. And no doubt calling people to the wonder of the Prince of Peace who came and remains with us.

GORANI: I was going to ask you about a Christmas message Pope Benedict XVI delivered a couple of days ago.


GORANI: But first, I want you to -- I want to ask you about the personality, the charisma. I -- with no disrespect whatsoever, the Pope Benedict brand, compared to, say, John Paul II, one of the most charismatic pontiffs, what kind of pope has Pope Benedict turned out to be in terms of how much he can affect and reach Catholics around the world, do you think? ARROYO: Well, you know, Hala, I knew him when he was Cardinal Ratzinger at the holy office there in the Vatican. Of course he was the final watchdog at the time. But I think what you've seen in the man, his professorial side often emerges and, you know, he gives people, I think, a lot of credit in -- if you listen to the marrow of those messages, they are often chalk full of theology, philosophy and it takes a great deal on the part of the listener to receive and understand what he's saying.

But that said, I think there's been a gentility that's emerged from Benedict that a lot of people, I think, weren't expecting and a genuine humbleness. That, you know, John Paul was such a charismatic, as you said, a dramatic actor, you know, an activist. Benedict is more of a teacher and a professor. And his charisma is very different, but perhaps what's needed now. He's not -- you know, he's not the grand figure, you know, out making -- trying to make headlines or draw attention to himself. He's simply proclaiming the gospel that he's there to protect and to advance and I think that's (INAUDIBLE).

GORANI: I want -- and, yes, and we see that as well in sort of the way he communicates his messages and interprets as well some of the scripture. But one of the things he said in the Christmas message from a couple of days ago that I suppose raised eyebrows simply because of the timing, not because it was surprising in terms of the content, calling gay marriage a manipulation of nature. Why choose the Christmas season to make this type of statement, do you think, on his part?

ARROYO: Well, this was -- this is his annual sort of state of the church address. And this is to the staff of the Vatican. But let me -- we have to be very clear. The way this is reported, I thought, was redundant. It's a little bit like saying President Obama's speech in Newtown the other day was a call to scripture and prayer. Well, that's not really what he was talking about, but he referenced scripture and prayer.

In the case of Pope Benedict, the first words out of his mouth is, "the Lord is already near. Come, let us adore him." It was a spiritual message. But in the middle of that message, he did reflect on the traditional family, which we know the church supports and has long supported and defended. And he made glancing reference to our personal selfishness and he said that that's a threat to the family. People not wanting to make comments and therefore give of their time and their energy to have families in the first place. And then he made reference to this manipulation of nature. But he never mentioned gay marriage. He never mentioned gay people in there. So I think, you know, it was certainly one can interpret that that was the focus of what he was talking about in that particular paragraph.

But I think to characterize the whole message that way is reductive. He was calling all of us to task for various failings in our personal lives and I think the message is a dialog. We have to engage in an ongoing dialog even with those who disagree with us. And I would include gay people.

GORANI: All right, Raymond Arroyo, thanks for joining us with your take one what we expect to be the content of the homily a little bit later in that Christmas message as well. Raymond Arroyo is with the -- is the news director of the Eternal Word Television Network. Thanks for being with us.

We're going to take a short break here on CNN. 2012 turned out to be a year full of incredible stories. Some sparked international outrage. And as other developed, the details were almost too hard to believe. Still ahead, the top 10 crime stories of 2012.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're the Wolfstons (ph) at Incirlik Airbase, Turkey. I'm Joe --







UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'd like to wish happy holidays to our family, Bruce and Diane Jetson (ph) in Arimo, Idaho. Merry Christmas.

ALL: Merry Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And happy holidays.



GORANI: Another deadly bakery bombing in Syria. Nine people today are dead, including six children killed in an air raid while waiting for bread. It's the second attack on hungry civilians in as many days.

One of the most shocking single events of this conflict. Syrian warplanes dropping bombs on a bakery in Hama province. The aftermath here, more than 100 killed while waiting in line. This amid reports six rebel fighters died after inhaling white gas. We're not sure what it is. The opposition says canister bombs were thrown at dissidents in the embattled city of Homs.

Mohammed Jamjoom joins me now from Beirut. Also, U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with Syria's president. Before we get to that meeting, let's talk about these bakery bombings. The opposition is saying, essentially, once a town is, quote, "liberated" and taken over by rebels, the government's dropping bombs on lines of civilians waiting for bread on purpose in order to terrorize the population, Mohammed. MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Hala. Now, the Syrian government is saying that as -- that yesterday that what happened was the work of terrorists. That it was terrorists that went there, that carried out that massacre, and that then the Syrian military went in there and killed and captured many of them and restored order. That's very different than what we're hearing from the eyewitnesses and the residents there who say they were targeted on purpose.

But we must remember, we're hearing more and more the last few months about bakeries being targeted. Human Rights Watch, in August, said that at least 10 occasions in Aleppo province that bakeries were targeted. That scores of people were killed and injured as a result. A lot of the activists that we speak with say that more and more of these bakeries are targeted. That when there are people that are gathering outside in areas where there are food shortages, when bakeries are finally able to open in these towns and provinces, that the Syrian military, they believe, sees that as a threat, these gathers, and that then they deliberately target these places and that that's why so many civilians are killed as a result.


GORANI: Now, of course, on the diplomatic front, we have another visit to Damascus by the United Nations Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi. He met with officials in the Syrian capital. What came out of this meeting?

JAMJOOM: Well, not a lot of concrete details that we've heard so far. And this seems to be the pattern when it comes to officials going to Damascus. You don't hear a lot of the really nitty gritty details about what was discussed. Lakhdar Brahimi spoke to reporters today after his meeting with Bashar al Assad. He's already left Syria, in fact. He said that they were working to forge some sort of path towards peace. That he was going to be meeting with other international leaders and regional power players and taking messages back and forth and really trying to make sure that Syria comes out of its crisis. He says that it's a dire situation there and it's only getting worse every day.

But this was playing out today amidst the backdrop of bakery bombings yesterday, a bakery being attacked today, hundreds of people being killed in the last few days. And it just seems to be spiraling more and more and more out of control.


GORANI: Certainly not getting any better, that's for sure. Thanks. Mohammed Jamjoom is in Beirut.

As far as Americans are concerned, there's a new CNN poll out today and it shows that Americans are worried or concerned about the civil war in Syria. A total of 80 percent, if you add up the percentages, say they're either very concerned or somewhat concerned with what's going on in Syria. But according to that same poll, most Americans are against arming the rebels or any U.S. involvement in the fighting there.

We're going to take a break. The southeast is bracing for severe weather. How your travel and Christmas could be impacted.



CAPT. AMANDA PETKOWSKI, U.S. AIR FORCE: Hi. I'm Captain Amanda Petkowski at Incirlink Airbase, Turkey. And I wanted to take a second to say merry Christmas and happy new year to my family in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. My dad, Al, my mom Deborah (ph), my sister Liz (ph) and my dog Jackson (ph). I love you and I miss you.


GORANI: Always say -- always say hi to the dog when you can. I know I do.

And if you're traveling this holiday, be on the lookout for both snow and there's severe weather out there as well. Alexandra Steele joins me for that on who's going to get a white -- which is nice, unless it's severe -- or a wet Christmas.

What's the situation?

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: That's right. Good afternoon, Hala. Hi, everyone.

Well, all right, for tomorrow, who will be wet and who will be white? We will see rain in the southeast. Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta, and the West Coast as well. But it's not just rain. It's the potential for a severe weather outbreak in the southeast. And I'll show you that. Who will be white? Wichita, Oklahoma City, snow for you. Little Rock and Spokane.

So let me kind of delineate the day and show you what's going to happen tomorrow. This is really the biggest concern. Tomorrow morning, from Houston through New Orleans, the potential for some strong tornadoes, 60 to 80-mile-per-hour winds and some very strong hail and big hail as well. And then it moves east during the afternoon. So the panhandle of Florida gets into it. Atlanta, Birmingham, tomorrow afternoon or tomorrow night. And then it moves on Wednesday here to the eastern seaboard.

So the severe threat, very real and also very rare. Rare tornadoes in Florida and Georgia. Last time we had tornadoes on Christmas was 2006. And Oklahoma City, very rare for snow. And you are going to see, Oklahoma City, five to eight inches of snow tomorrow as this big storm gets going, Hala, and moves from the southeast with severe weather in through the mid-Atlantic and northeast.

GORANI: OK, Alexandra Steele, thanks very much.

From fiscal cliff to crime and punishment, we'll show you our top 10 stories of 2012, next. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SPECIALIST KARL PAGE: Hey, it's me, Specialist Page. You know me as Karl. Hey, mom. Stationed here in Oslo, Germany. Send a shout out to all of my family in Trenton, New Jersey. I miss you all. I love you all. And if you missed it, it's your fault. Sorry. I did my part. You should have watched it. Bye-bye.



GORANI: United States Senator Mike Crapo from Idaho says he's sorry about his weekend DUI. Here's the mug shot snapped after Crapo's arrest in a Washington, D.C., suburb early Sunday morning. Crapo is a Mormon and supposedly doesn't drink alcohol, but it turns out Crapo, in fact, does drink alcohol, given the arrest. Here's a part of his statement he released to the media. Quote, "I made a mistake for which I apologize to my family, my Idaho constituents, and any others who have put their trust in me. I accept total responsibility and will deal with whatever penalty comes my way in this matter," unquote. Police say Crapo was alone when he was arrested. His blood alcohol level was 0.11. When the new Congress convenes, Crapo is expected to be the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee.

He hasn't even been nominated as defense secretary yet, but former Senator Chuck Hagel is getting some heat. Hagel has apologized for comments he made years ago that even he admits were, quote, "insensitive." Let's bring in Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for more on this potential Chuck Hagel nomination.

I mean we don't know if he'll be nominated yet. Barbara, what are these attacks against Hagel?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Classic Washington trial balloon, Hala, isn't it? The nomination isn't out, the nomination hasn't been made, but the pins are sticking in that trial balloon.

First, Senator Hagel apologized for some comments he made back around 1997, 1998 when there was a man who was openly gay about to become an ambassador, Hagel opposed all of that, made some comments about gay people. Now he says all these years later he regrets it. It's not what he believes. And by all accounts, members of those who represent pro- gay rights movements in Washington have accepted Senator Hagel's apology on that.

Item number two, a lot of questions about whether Hagel is tough enough on Iran. Did he cast some votes in the Senate that did not support sanctions against Iran?

Number three, Israel. This may be the one that gets the most traction and already has, in fact. A lot of pro Israeli groups are saying that Senator Hagel simply isn't supportive enough of Israel. Before we get to that, I have to tell you, a lot of his supporters say he is. They point to his votes on both sides of this issue, his Senate track record. But there is a new commercial out here in Washington already, even before he's nominated. Have a listen.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): President Obama says all options are on the table for preventing a nuclear Iran. Hagel says military action is not a viable, feasible, responsible option. President Obama, for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel is not a responsible option.


STARR: That's from the Emergency Committee for Israel, a pro-Israeli group, of course.

I want you to listen also to what Senator Joe Lieberman, an Independent, and another very prominent Republican senator from Hagel's own party had to say about him over the weekend.


SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (I), CONNECTICUT: I would have some really serious questions to ask him. Not just about Israel, but to me the most significant foreign policy challenge for President Obama and our country and the world in the next year or two is Iran and its nuclear weapons program. Chuck Hagel has had some very outlying votes on that.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I don't think he's going to get many Republican votes. I like Chuck, but his positions, I didn't really quite frankly know all of them are really out of the mainstream and well to the left of the president.


STARR: Senator Lindsey Graham, a very prominent senator, already some of Hagel's own Republican Party coming up against him.

GORANI: We'll see, yes, whether this campaign against him is effective enough, I guess, Barbara, in order for this nomination not to happen at all. This is the big open question with regards to Chuck Hagel. Barbara, we'll keep in touch on this story throughout the coming hours. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.