CNN CNN


 

Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Funerals Begin for Nightclub Victims; Survivors Relive Rhode Island Club Fire; Senate to Vote on Over $50 Billion Sandy Aid

Aired January 28, 2013 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Max Foster, thank you.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, arrests are made after a horrific nightclub fire killing more than 200 people in Brazil. We're going to hear from survivors now reliving the nightmare of a similar fire in Rhode Island.

The Boy Scouts of America reconsidering a controversial ban on gay Scouts and leaders.

And a teenage athlete helps persuade the maker of Gatorade to drop a chemical additive.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

One after another, the funeral processions began today in the southern Brazilian city of Santa Maria. The entire nation is mourning a day after a catastrophe nightclub fire that killed 231 people. The blaze erupted after a band used fireworks in a show and survivors describe a panicked scramble for the exits.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATHEUS VARGAS, SURVIVOR (through translator): I was at the door of the club as soon as the fire started. I saw people shouting, "Fire! Fire!" they were terrified.

When I realized that there was fire, I rushed out of there. When I was trying to get out, the staff stopped me, and I yelled, "Fire! Fire!" But the security guards were not realizing what was going on. I think many of them thought they were just riots or the people were trying to get out without paying.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The exact cause of the fire is still unclear. What is clear is that the tragedy will haunt survivors for years to come.

Let's go live to CNN's Shasta Darlington.

She's in Santa Maria right now -- Shasta, four more arrests today.

So where does this investigation stand?

SHASTA DARLINGTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, basically, as you mentioned, there were -- the big news today are those four arrests. Two of the people we're talking about were owners of the club where this huge inferno took place. And two were members of the band that was playing when the fire started.

Now there was a pyrotechnics show. And part of the investigation is really going after that -- was it the pyrotechnics show that started this blaze?

Did any of the -- the sort of hand devices that these band members used, could they have been involved?

So that's what people were focused on today.

You'll also notice around me, I'm surrounded by quite a big crowd. And that's because we're just up the street from the nightclub, Kiss, as it's called. And it's the end of Monday. This is -- this whole town now knows about this tragedy. And they've all come here to just see what's going on. We've got hundreds of people around us. There's also going to be a walk through town in solidarity, in support for peace, a little later. And there's a lot of just curious people, also, wanting to see what this club looks like after such -- so much destruction and so much loss of life -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I had heard earlier, Shasta, that there were hundreds more people crowded into that nightclub than -- than had been allowed for, if you will. It was really overcrowded. And some of the exits were simply blocked because they were afraid people would try to leave without paying their bills.

What are you hearing about that?

DARLINGTON: Well, Wolf, actually, the situation is pretty shocking. We got a close-up look at the club. There is only one exit, one very small door. It's a building that's got two buildings on either side. There are no lateral exits. There's no rear exit. There's just that one exit. So even if they had an evacuation plan, you've got to wonder, how could you get 1,000 -- 2,000 people out of a club at midnight in the case of an emergency?

I can't imagine any evacuation plan would be sufficient. But beyond that, there are other questions, as you mentioned. Some of the survivors had said when the fire first started and they tried to escape, they were blocked. And the -- they suspect that the security guards thought they were trying to get out without paying, because in Brazil, you basically keep a tally of your drinks and when you're ready to leave the club, you pay. Of course, there are plenty of attempts to sneak out. That didn't last for long, apparently. And then there's also just the question of whether or not this club was even up to -- current with its license.

So those are some issues that are being looked into -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I suppose a lot of people in Brazil are also worried about the reputation of the country. This is a country that's supposed to host the World Cup, host the Olympic Games. This must be an enormous, enormous embarrassment, as it should be.

DARLINGTON: Well, right now, Wolf, to be fair, I think people are more focused on the victims, on the survivors. President Dilma Rousseff cut short a big summit in Chile, where Latin American leaders were meeting with European leaders. She flew back right here to Santa Maria, the very southernmost tip of Brazil, to be with the families, to be with the survivors during this very difficult time. And the focus was really on just getting through this difficult moment, trying to bring the country together. And it wasn't a political moment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It wasn't now, but I suspect it will be. Obviously, they're going to try to learn some lessons from this down the road.

Shasta, thanks very much.

We'll touch base with you later, as well.

The tragedy in Brazil is eerily similar to a nightclub fire that killed 100 people right here in the United States in Rhode Island about a decade or so ago. And it's bringing fresh pain to survivors of that blaze.

Mary Snow is joining us now from the scene from Rhode Island.

What's going on there?

This must be so shocking to folks where you are -- Mary.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It really is, Wolf. You know, one survivor calls the parallels between the two fires frightening. There were vows made here back in 2003 that what happened here would never be forgotten and there would be lessons learned. And you can sense people's disbelief and frustration, with one woman ask -- asking us, is anyone listening?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): The images are haunting from Santa Maria, Brazil, where more than 230 young people were killed, trapped inside a burning nightclub after a pyrotechnics disaster. It has Anna Gruttadauria asking, how could this happen again?

Her daughter, Pamela, was among 100 people killed in 2003 when a crowded Rhode Island nightclub became an inferno. There, too, pyrotechnics were used. ANNA GRUTTADAURIA, DAUGHTER DIED IN R.I. NIGHTCLUB FIRE: How it was overcrowded, the same thing in Rhode Island. How the security men wouldn't let anybody out. The same thing over here. Bodies piled up in front of the exit doors. The same thing here.

SNOW: Foam used on doors to mute the club's noise was highly flammable.

GINA RUSSO, SURVIVOR OF R.I. NIGHTCLUB FIRE: I made it to the middle of the club, to where the front door was.

DARLINGTON: Survivor Gina Russo spoke to us at the site where the club called The Station burned to the ground. Crosses now stand, marking the victims who died here. Among them, Gina's fiance, Fred Crisostomi. She last saw him as they ran to the club's front entrance.

RUSSO: All of a sudden, Fred's hand was on the middle of my back and he pushed me and screamed, "Go!" And when I turned around to try and find him, all I saw were people's heads on fire and the ceiling melting, what I call black rain, what I've called black rain over the last 10 years. And he was gone that fast, that fast. And it's been a long road.

SNOW: That road, says Gina, includes 54 surgeries after suffering burns over 40 percent of her body, including her head. She now wears a wig.

She's worked with groups around the country to push for tougher fire codes. Rhode Island did strengthen its laws. Two brothers who owned the club pleaded no contest to 100 counts each of involuntary manslaughter. One of them spent time in prison.

But Russo worries that complacency sets in quickly.

RUSSO: How does this happen 10 years later?

It's tragic. Those families and those lives are just beginning. They don't even -- they have no idea what their next few years are going to be like. But we need them to know they're not alone.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

SNOW: Now, February 20th marks the tenth anniversary of this horrific fire. And a permanent memorial is slated to be built. The hope is that the lessons learned from this tragedy won't be ignored -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I hope so. We hope it won't be ignored. We've got to learn from all these tragedies so they don't happen again.

Mary, thank you.

Nightclubs have been the setting for numerous catastrophes around the world. One hundred and fifty-six people died in Perm, Russia back in 2009. A fire in Buenos Aires, Argentina claimed 194 lives in 2004. And 309 people died in Luoyang, China in 2000.

Here in the United States, 165 people were killed at The Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, back in 1977. There were no fire detectors or sprinklers. They weren't required at the time.

The deadliest nightclub blaze in U.S. history killed 492 people at Boston's Coconut Grove Nightclub back in 1942. The cause remains unknown. And 209 people died at the Rhythm Nightclub in Natchez, Mississippi, back in 1940.

After months of protests, the Boy Scouts of America now weighing a change to a policy against allowing openly gay members.

And if you thought the decade or so since 9/11 was bad, wait until you see the next 10 years. We got a very grim warning from the British foreign secretary, William Haig.

He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM. My interview with him coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: After a wave of protests, a huge change in policy toward gays and lesbians may -- may be looming over at the Boy Scouts of America.

But will it pass muster with churches and other local sponsors of Scout troops?

CNN's Chris Lawrence has been working the story for us, getting new information.

What's going on here -- Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it looks like the -- the Boy Scouts are going to take this huge decision on whether to allow gay troops into scouting and push it from the national level down to the local level. Now that's got the, you know, the potential to possibly free up thousands of groups to make the decision that's best for their individual troops.

It's also got the potential to blow up in everyone's face and end up with nobody happy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE (voice-over): The Boy Scouts of America is actively considering a change that could affect millions of families -- removing its national ban on gays and lesbians. The national director says the policy change under discussion would allow the religious, civic or educational organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting to determine how to address this issue. The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members or parents."

But the change means those charter groups could make their own policy. About 70 percent of Scout troops are affiliated with a church or a religious group. Catholic and Mormon groups alone account for well over 600,000 Scouts across the country.

FRED SAINZ, HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN: We would much rather that the Boy Scouts have adopted a national nondiscrimination policy. But this is definitely a step in that right direction.

LAWRENCE: The Boy Scouts won a narrow Supreme Court decision in 2000 which allowed the organization to ban gays. Ohio mom Jennifer Tyrrell was ousted as a den mother because she's a lesbian. The Boy Scouts have been under attack from gay rights activists ever since.

A local Maryland scout group had an open policy, welcoming gays as members or adult leaders, but the group says it was pressured to change that policy because it didn't fit the national position. If the national restriction is removed, local groups could set their own policy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE (on-camera): And that could be key, because, you know, back in 2000 when this came up before the Supreme Court, attorneys for the Mormon Church basically said if they were forced to accept gay members, they'd probably pull their support. And that's what the Boy Scouts have always feared, that if these church groups pull out, it would decimate their support.

You know, you've got to have a sponsor to be, you know, a boy scout. So, there are some non-religious sponsors like the American legion, but not nearly as many as the churches provide. The Boy Scout's position up to this point has always been any issue dealing with sexual orientation is best discussed at the family level, not dealt with in scouting.

But this really has the potential to really get down to the local level and let these groups make their own decisions on what's best for their particular scouts.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Could be a major, major change for the Boy Scouts. Thanks very much, Chris Lawrence.

Another victory in the battle to free Mali from Islamist militants. Lisa Sylvester is monitoring that and some of the other top stories in the situation room right now. What's the latest?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, a French defense ministry spokesman confirms French and Mali forces now control the critical city of Timbuktu. According to Reuters, rebel fighters towards several historic buildings, including a manuscript library. The United States has stepped up its role, conducting refueling missions as well as providing airlift and intelligence support.

And the family of a New York woman who went missing in Turkey is now pleading for help and clinging to hope tat she is still alive. The mother of two traveled alone to Istanbul in the beginning of the month after the friend that was supposed to go with her canceled. She hasn't been heard of from since last week.

Her husband was set to arrive in Istanbul today, and he says it was actually her first trip outside of the United States.

Iranian State television is reporting the country has successfully launched a monkey, yes, a monkey into space. The vessel carrying the live animal reportedly reached the desired altitude and speed, performed all of the scientific tests that have been assigned to do, then returned to earth, bringing the money back with it.

And watch what happens when this snowmobile rider loses his seat during a stunt. Look. Oh, my gosh, look at that, wow. All right. He is OK. But as you can imagine, it was a very scary moment. You see it there, when the rider of snowmobile plowed right into a crowd of spectators at the X Games in Aspen, Colorado, last night.

"USA Today" reports the only injury, though, was a boy who hit his knee on a parked truck when his father yanked him out of the way. There goes that snowmobile, oh my gosh, into the crowd. You can see people running like crazy

BLITZER: Could have been a disaster. Thank God nobody was really seriously hurt.

SYLVESTER: Yes. Just that one minor injury, and the rider is OK, but golly!

BLITZER: He is so lucky.

SYLVESTER: It looks like it could have almost hit him. He's lucky to be alive, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Lucky, indeed. Thank you.

The Senate could approve tens of billions of dollars in the Sandy aid just minutes from now. Will it be enough to do anything anytime soon?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NICOLE CHATI, HOMEOWNER: Hell, it's basically been hell. We've been living hell for three months.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're looking live picture of U.S. Senate floor where just minutes from now, members are expected to vote on a more than $50 million aid package for the thousands devastated by the superstorm Sandy. The vote comes weeks after delaying the House that sparked widespread bipartisan outrage. It's expected to have final passage signed into law the president. Months after the storm, New York Staten Island is still struggling to recover.

CNN national correspondent, Jason Carroll, is joining us now with more. Still pretty awful, isn't it, Jason?

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's terrible, Wolf. And I know a lot of people out here in this neighborhood of Staten Island are going to be watching very closely to see what happens within the next few minutes on the Senate floor. If you take a look, you can see, there's still piles of debris here this neighborhood from the homes that have been destroyed or demolished.

And you know, I was out here, Wolf, in November, out here in December, and the thing that's so depressing is much of this neighborhood still looks the same. The one change that I've seen is finally this house here on the corner has been deemed unsafe. It will possibly be demolished.

I know a woman who lives down street, her son painted this mural on the front of this house to try to bring some life into the neighborhood, but really what they need in this neighborhood, Wolf, is money. I spoke to a woman earlier this afternoon, Nicole Chati, who talked about the frustration that she has been dealing with in order to try to get her life back on track.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARROLL: And so basically, you know, a lot of the homes into this area, I mean, you've been sitting, you've been waiting. What has the wait been like in terms of trying to find out if you will receive the financial aid and if that aid will reach you?

CHATI: Hell. It's basically been hell. We've been living hell for three months. Not knowing. The unknown is the worst. That's the worst part of it, not knowing where the next step needs to be taken. We pay our taxes. We pay our flood insurance. We do everything that we need to do. My husband can tell you, whenever there's a tragedy some place else, I'm the first one to write a check.

Now, I feel like I never gave enough, because I see what we're going through. So, you know, it's just a matter of a simple red sticker. That's all it is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CARROLL: Chati told me when the president came to the neighborhood, she actually had a chance to speak to him very briefly. She said that he put his arms around her and told her that the aid was coming. And she said she feels as though he's done a good job. She feels as though the aid is still not here for her.

And not only her, Wolf, but there are some 2,100 families just in the New York City area alone who are still waiting for that aid. This is the 11th hour for many of them. So, once again, as I said, a little earlier, they'll be watching very closely to see what happens on the Senate floor in just a few minutes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, because senate will pass it. The House has. The president will sign it. That money, tell those folks out there, will soon be on the way. Jason, thanks very much. Dozens are dead as violence sweeps across Egypt right now two years after the revolution. Does this signal the so-called end of the Arab spring? I'll speak about that and more. The British foreign secretary, William Hague, he's here in Washington. He's here in the SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Clashes broke out for a fourth day in Egypt after a state of emergency was declared by President Mohamed Morsi. One person was shot dead in Cairo. Protesters defied curfews and other cities as anti-Morsi demonstrators fought with his supporters and with police. Dozens have been killed. Hundreds injured since Friday. CNN's Reza Sayah is in Cairo.

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, more pockets of intense clashes in Cairo throughout the day, also clashes in the city of Suez, and an emotional day in Port Said. That's where thousands turned out in funeral processions to mourn several protesters who were killed over the weekend.

It is an incredibly tumultuous time here in Egypt. And now, the president has raised the stakes by declaring emergency law and curfews in three cities along the Suez Canal. The president making the announcement last night in a televised addressed, wagging his finger.

He first delivered a stern warning to the people of Egypt, warning them not to protest anymore, and then, he announced the emergency rules in the city of Suez, Port Said, and Ismailia. The announcement coming after a weekend of deadly violence. The president saying he had no choice but to get tough.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRES. MOHAMED MORSI, EGYPT (through translator): Those who attack the civilians and like to disturb the security of this nation, we will deal with them severely. They will know, repeat, everyone will know that this nation is capable to protect this nation's peoples and institutions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAYAH: The emergency law and the curfews will last for 30 days, according to the president. Police will have extended powers. People will not be as free to protest, if at all. Remember, Egypt lived under emergency law for more than 40 years nationwide. The question now, how will Egyptians, many of whom have lost their fear to protest, react?

Will they heed the president's call or will this declaration fuel their outrage? We should also point out that the president has called for dialogue with the opposition factions. But today, those opposition groups rejected his call, saying it's a waste of time. They're demanding the president to take responsibility for the deaths of protesters, amend the constitution, change the government. No sign of the president heeding those demands and no sign of these two sides talking -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And joining us now, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Foreign Secretary, thanks very much for joining us.

WILLIAM HAGUE, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: It's a pleasure.

BLITZER: Let's talk about the Arab spring. I'm looking at Egypt, I'm looking at Libya, Tunisia, all of North Africa, throughout the Middle East. It looks like potentially it's turning out to be a nightmare. Is it?

HAGUE: Well, I think it's never been the work of just a couple of years. It's -- clearly it's the work of a generation, change in the Arab world. Countries that don't have a particular model to follow, you know, there is no -- it's not like the end of communism in Europe where Eastern European countries knew they wanted to be like Western European countries. These countries have to find their own model of democracy.

BLITZER: Looking back, was it a mistake to dump Mubarak?

HAGUE: Well, the Egyptian people dumped Mubarak? It wasn't --

BLITZER: But the U.K., the U.S., France, a lot of the European countries, they basically said it was time for him to go.

HAGUE: Well, in the face of revolution in Egypt. And none of these countries, can we decide who is in charge. This is about people taking charge of their own destiny. That is the whole point of the Arab spring.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I've heard from so many other Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates or the Saudis, others in the region, the Kuwaitis, they were pretty upset that the West moved as quickly in dumping Mubarak as it did.

HAGUE: Well, there is no way -- West, the United States, the United Kingdom, whoever it can be, can impose on these countries' leaders who they don't want anymore, who they're fed with. What we've seen actually is that in so many of these countries autocratic government doesn't work. It doesn't for Egypt, or Libya or Tunisia. They wanted to throw that off.

Now we've got to keep faith with millions of people who want what we want for our countries. They want economic freedom. They want political choice. They want dignity for their countries. And we mustn't lose faith in them just because there are a lot of difficulties and crises along the way.

BLITZER: Is it more difficult than you imagined it would be?

HAGUE: It's -- I think I've always said that this would be a process, taking a long time. And yes, it's the spin-offs in terms of additional crises, security challenges, have certainly mounted over recent months. But we have to be ready for a turbulent time in world affairs. We are seeing this demand for economic progress at the same time as the spread of information in the world has gone as never before. This ignite these demands for change including in the Arab world.

BLITZER: Here's what you said, you're quoted in "The Times" of London, as saying, the world will be a more dangerous place over the next decade or two than the last decade or two. That includes 9/11.

HAGUE: I think that's right. I think the challenges we face are enormous.

BLITZER: We should expect more 9/11s?

HAGUE: No, no, I'm not saying we should expect more -- we must always be on our guard against terrorism. And never be complacent about terrorism. But if you look just this year at the crises we face over the Iranian nuclear program, the situation in Syria, in which 60,000 people have already died, the Middle East peace process is at a crucial moment.

(CROSSTALK)

HAGUE: This is just 2013. And that's without mentioning what's happening in the Sahel region of Africa. The world has become a less stable place. That's nobody's fault. It's something we have to deal with and we have to face up to. And in facing up to that, the alliance between the United Kingdom and the United States and our other allies will remain a fundamental importance.

BLITZER: Because that's a somber pessimistic assessment, that the next 10 or 20 years, will be even worse internationally than the last 10 or 20 years. We've -- we saw in Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11, horrendous situations unfolding. And you say brace for even a worst situation.

HAGUE: I think international affairs will be more difficult over the next 20 years. And we face a huge challenge of terrorism. Particularly after 9/11. But it was in the last 20 years we also saw the end of the Cold War. We saw the end of all of that tension in world affairs. And now, as power becomes more diffused, as there are more centers of decision-making in the world, it becomes more difficult to police the world.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Who's to blame -- who's to blame for this?

HAGUE: That is, nobody is to blame for that. This is what is happening in world affairs --

BLITZER: Somebody -- somebody must be to blame.

HAGUE: No, no, no. BLITZER: There must be bad guys out there, somebody has to be to blame.

HAGUE: There are all plenty of bad guys. But this is the way the world has changed. There are more centers of decision-making. It's harder for any one country to impose its will. Sometimes even the United Nations Security Council as we're seeing with Russia over Syria is not willing to unite in the way that it ought to, to shoulder its responsibilities.

And when that happens, then you get a conflict out of control. And that's what we're facing in Syria now.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Syria for a moment because President Obama in an interview in "The New Republic" says, "In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation. Would a military intervention have an impact."

Now, in the interview, he doesn't answer those questions. Do you have an answer to those questions?

HAGUE: I don't think we should rule anything out. But clearly, the way we've all answered that question so far is that we haven't got the -- first of all, the legal authority for a military intervention or anything approaching a military intervention.

BLITZER: Because the Security Council has --

HAGUE: Because the Security Council --

BLITZER: But your waiting for the -- the U.N. Security Council to act to save lives in Syria?

HAGUE: Well, no, we're not waiting for that because the United States and United Kingdom are the two biggest donors of humanitarian aid. We are saving thousands of lives with that aid. We're giving practical but not lethal support. We're doing a lot in Syria. But what we can't bring about is the resolution of the conflict. The -- the diplomat unity that would say to them all in Syria, you have to do this or else.

BLITZER: Is that because Russia will use its veto?

HAGUE: That is the Russia have to use its veto.

BLITZER: So you're blaming Russia right now for failure to intervene to save lives?

HAGUE: I'm blaming -- I've often blamed Russia and China for their failure to reach agreement on the Security Council on a political solution. And the absence of that political solution is leading to this continued conflict. And that we have to think about it in that way. There is no military-only solution to the situation in Syria. We still have to work for a transitional government in Syria, for a political settlement in Syria. BLITZER: So basically for the time being, we should just throw up our hands and whatever happens between Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, there can be another million refugees, tens of thousands will be --

(CROSSTALK)

HAGUE: We must never -- we have to give -- continue giving even more of all the help that I've talked about and continuing to say to Russia, in particular, look, the longer this goes on, the more all the things you're most worried about are going to come to pass. Extremists taking a foothold. Foreign fighters going to Syria. Greater instability in the whole region.

At some point, you have to see that and unite with us on diplomatic solution. If we can't do that, I don't think our policy can remain static. We mustn't rule out any option. Any option at all. Given we don't know how massive the dimensions of this crisis could become.

BLITZER: Foreign Secretary, you've got a full agenda. And I'm very worried. You make me even more pessimistic. And I've been pretty pessimistic. If the next 10 or 20 years are going to be worst than the last 10 or 20 that's not a very optimistic assessment.

(CROSSTALK)

HAGUE: But the good news is there are solutions. The challenges and dangers are greater but it is possible to find our way through them.

BLITZER: Thanks so much for coming in.

HAGUE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Good luck.

HAGUE: Thank you.

BLITZER: From ice and freezing temperatures to a balmy 60 degrees, all in the span of just a few days. So up next, what's behind the bizarre weather much of the United States is experiencing right now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Shaping up to be a bizarre wild week of weather here in the United States. CNN meteorologist Alexandria Steele is joining us now to explain what's going on.

Go ahead, Alexandria, and explain.

ALEXANDRIA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: All right, Wolf. Well, you know, extreme is the name of the game. And we have seen it and have it in spades. Want to show you the big picture. No what's going to happen, we've got such extreme elements and they're coming off and will come together and coalesce tomorrow to create a severe weather outbreak. Here are the ingredients. This cold Arctic air, check, coming down from Canada. And of course the Arctic. Also, we've got incredibly warm southerly air and very humid for January.

In recent history, this is the most humid January air we've seen come up from the south. So where these two air masses are meeting, that's where the explosion of severe weather will be. Also, though, we've got a lot of wind energy with this storm. Now the jet stream, which is this, this is about 30,000 feet above us, this river of air, usually these winds are about 100 miles per hour.

We're going to have jet stream winds Tuesday into Wednesday and even into Thursday farther east at about 150 miles per hour. Also, we've got 100-mile-per-hour surface winds. So winds are huge with this thing and which energy will be so. So tomorrow, who's under the gun with what will be very fast-moving storms? That's one of the scariest aspects of this especially tomorrow overnight.

Storms themselves moving between 50 and 75 miles per hour. So tomorrow afternoon, you can see where the bull's eye will be through the afternoon. You can see this line kind of coalescing. Around Springfield, from St. Louis all the way down to Waco, Texas. And then through the afternoon into tonight, tomorrow night, Tuesday at 10:00, Memphis, Little Rock, Shreveport, Alexandria, Virginia, Alexandria, Louisiana, it pulls all the way eastward.

And then by Wednesday at 4:00, Atlanta under the gun, Birmingham, Charlotte, Raleigh, and then, Wolf, it moves all the way to the coast. By Thursday, the storm pushes out and the severe threat is done. We'll see it off the coast. But a very strong two days of severe weather.

BLITZER: Severe weather indeed. Alexandria, good explanation, thank you.

So what happened to the billions of dollars that the Obama administration said would bring the country some high-speed rail.

Our own Drew Griffin has been investigating how some of that money went to a low-speed project.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDREW MENKE, PASSENGER: It's probably 5 1/2 to drive and seven on the bus and nine on the train.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS UNIT CORRESPONDENT: So the train is not your fastest route.

MENKE: Not at all. No.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama called it a great project to rebuild America. A $13 billion plan for high-speed rail. But some of that money went to the state of Vermont, where there are no big cities, little congestion. And as Drew Griffin of CNN's Special Investigations Unit found out, very few rail passengers.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GRIFFIN (voice-over): It was a $50 million federal grant, tax dollars bringing high-speed rail to Vermont. Sleek, fast trains taking D.C.ers and New Yorkers up to the tranquil countryside of quaint towns of the Green Mountain State. Now all the work is done. Listen and watch as those trains and your tax dollars whiz by.

(On camera): It's not that Vermont has done anything wrong with the money. In fact, they did a pretty good job. They came in on time, on budget. They even got the local freight company to kick in another $18 million to improve the rails here.

The real problem is hardly anybody is riding the rails in Vermont. I could stand here almost all day long and not ever worry about getting hit by a train.

(Voice-over): You can jog on the tracks. Go to lunch without looking.

(On camera): Ever worry about getting hit by a train?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No.

GRIFFIN: It's now 3:00. Still no train. 4:00.

(Voice-over): The sun would set before we would see our first train.

(On camera): 8:44 and here it is. The first train that we've seen all day. And at the busiest station in all of Vermont, 11 people got off. No one got on.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm coming here to visit friends and to go snowboarding and stuff.

GRIFFIN: How many did you have?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On board today?

GRIFFIN: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: About 95.

GRIFFIN: Ninety-five?

(Voice-over): On average, the train from one end of Vermont to the other carries less than 250 people a day. The next morning, the same train traveling south saw 13 people get on board, including Andrew Menke, who's making the trip to New York.

(On camera): How long will it take you?

MENKE: Nine hours.

GRIFFIN: It's kind of a long time.

MENKE: It's probably 5 1/2 to drive and seven on the bus and nine on the train.

GRIFFIN: So the train is not your fastest route.

MENKE: Not at all. No. But you have the most room so I think it's the most comfortable.

GRIFFIN: Yes. You wish it was much more high speed?

MENKE: I wish it was faster. Definitely. High-speed rail.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): That's the other part of the story. The high speed part. So what do you get for your $52 million share of the $70 million project? Just 28 minutes. That's right. The new train is less than a half hour faster than the old train. In some areas, the train gets up to 79 miles an hour, but that's top speed and just for a portion of the trip.

(On camera): It's not necessarily high-speed rail.

TRINI BRASSARD, VERMONT AGENCY OF TRANSPORTATION: No.

GRIFFIN: It's in the traditional sense that we're talking about.

BRASSARD: Correct.

GRIFFIN: It's a little higher speed.

BRASSARD: Yes. We define it up here as higher speed rail.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Trini Brassard is an assistant director with Vermont's Department of Transportation.

(On camera): So the intent was never to get these Japanese style, European style bullet trains whizzing through Vermont?

BRASSARD: No. Our train stops are too close together, first off, for us to get up to the speeds and then to decelerate by the time we get to the next station.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): If Vermont will never have high-speed rail, why did it get federal high-speed rail money? Randal O'Toole studies urban transportation for the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute.

RANDAL O'TOOLE, CATO INSTITUTE: Well, the federal government had one criteria when it was passing out high-speed rail funds. And that was, had states done an environmental impact statement so that the projects would be shovel-ready?

GRIFFIN: Vermont had a shovel-ready rail project and the White House was ready to shovel out money.

O'TOOLE: It didn't matter whether the project was worthwhile. All that mattered is whether they had -- they were shovel-ready.

GRIFFIN: As for the low ridership, actually ridership in Vermont is up. Trini Brassard suggested we just hit a bad day and if we waited until the late train Friday night on Martin Luther King holiday weekend, we'd see a big crowd getting off at this station.

BRASSARD: We had 28 reservations coming into the Essex station tomorrow night. So.

GRIFFIN (on camera): Twenty-eight?

BRASSARD: Correct.

GRIFFIN: All those people could fit on one bus. Right?

BRASSARD: They could, but that's not their choice. Their choice is rail.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): And guess what else is coming to Vermont. Even more money from U.S. taxpayers for high-speed rail. That in reality is making slow speed rail just a little faster.

Drew Griffin, CNN, Essex Junction, Vermont.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: That's business. Business here in Washington.

Gatorade about to make a change in some of its flavors after a teenager uncovered an ingredient that's also used to prevent fires. We have details. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Gatorade is about to make a change in some of its popular sports drink flavors and that's making one teenage girl who took on the company very happy.

Lisa Sylvester is here. She's got details about what's going on.

What's going on, Lisa?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, there, Wolf. Well, they are searching Gatorade flavors like this one that will soon have a small change in the ingredients. This is bowing to public pressure online. And now a 15-year-old girl is taking a victory lap.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER (voice-over): Sarah Kavanagh is a volleyball player and a self-described Gatorade lover. But after reading up on the ingredients, she dumped out the rest of the bottle she was in the middle of drinking, then she launched an online petition asking the company to drop one of the additives.

SARAH KAVANAGH, STARTED PETITION TO GATORADE: The Gatorade company in the U.K. doesn't use it. They don't think it's necessary so obviously we can make the same product without these ingredients.

SYLVESTER: The substance is called BVO brominated vegetable oil. It keeps the ingredients from separating. Food safety activists point out it's banned in Japan and Europe. And it's also been patented by chemical companies as a flame retardant according to Scientific American.

MICHAEL JACOBSON, CENTER FOR SCIENCE IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST: A couple of studies have been done and one of them, done in Animals, found that it caused behavioral problems where the animals just behave differently in these laboratory tests.

SYLVESTER: Those animal tests were at higher doses. The Food and Drug Administration today reiterated at the levels used, BVO and presents no health risks based on several long-term animal studies.

Gatorade said in a statement, quote, "While our products are safe, we are making this change because we know that some consumers have a negative perception of BVO in Gatorade despite being permitted for use in North American and Latin American countries."

(On camera): Gatorade says over the next several months, it will switch to an alternative ingredient. But these products also contain BVO. The makers say that the products are safe, clearly labeled and approved by the FDA.

(Voice-over): It's just the latest battleground for food safety activists. The use of BPA in plastic bottles and Starbucks stopped using ground-up bug powder for coloring Starbucks smoothies. Social media has given consumer advocates another pressure point to get companies to change products instead of relying on government scientists.

JACOBSON: You have the ability to reach out to all different bloggers and social networks to carry the message.

SYLVESTER: Gatorade says while consumer concern prompted its change, it had already completed extensive taste tests for a switch before the petition. Either way Kavanagh is looking forward to soon having her favorite sports drink again.

KAVANAGH: I didn't expect all the attention to be brought to it, but I'm definitely grateful for it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER: Now Kavanagh had reached 200,000 signatures by the time Gatorade made its announcement on Friday and tomorrow, by the way, it is her birthday and she will turn 16. So how about that for a sweet 16 birthday, Wolf.

BLITZER: She should be very, very proud indeed. Lisa, thanks very much.

Happening now, a bipartisan breakthrough. Senators unveil a new framework for immigration reform. But will Congress pass it?

Reading the tea leaves. What President Obama's joint interview with Hillary Clinton says about the 2016 race for the White House.

A medical shocker involving Israel's former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, after seven years in a coma. Our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta is standing by.

And a surprise in the gun debate. The president reveals his own experience shooting firearms.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Senators behind the new bipartisan compromise say the 2012 election turned immigration politics upside down. They now believe the timing is right for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. But opponents already are blasting the blueprint they unveiled today as a form of amnesty.

Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is standing by.

Dana, this is obviously an important step. It's just, though, a first step.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And Senators today admitted that they still have a long way to go before actually writing this bill in March and their goal of passing this by the summer, but just the fact that they agreed on principals, especially on the thorny issue of citizenship is a big deal.