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"Truly Historic" Blizzard Batters Southern Plains; Hot Air Balloon Horror; Rocket Explodes in Israel; Budget Cut Countdown; Scandals Sour Pope's Final Week; CPAC Snubs New Jersey Governor Christie

Aired February 26, 2013 - 05:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Happening right now, a brutal blizzard pounding towns and cities from the Southern Plains, north to Illinois.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: And developing overnight, a hot air balloon packed with tourists takes a deadly plunge overseas.

BERMAN: And snubbed by his own party. Chris Christie gets the cold shoulder, left off the list for a key Republican event.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm John Berman.

I feel like I haven't seen you like in days.

SAMBOLIN: You haven't.

BERMAN: That's why, by the way.

SAMBOLIN: Good morning to you.

BERMAN: Thank you.

SAMBOLIN: Good morning to you. Thanks for being with us.

It's Tuesday, February 26th. It is 5:00 a.m. in the East. So, let's get started here.

Happening right now -- it is a raging blizzard, blasting the Southern Plains. Leaving large parts of Texas and Oklahoma buried under more than a foot of snow. Roads are impassable, drivers are stranded. This picture was sent to us from a reporter Philip Prince. A trucker stuck on Interstate 40 --


SAMBOLIN: -- about 50 miles east of Amarillo.

Look at the conditions there. He says the highway has been shut down. And he has been stuck for about eight hours when he finally took that picture.

Two people have been killed, one on an icy road in Kansas, the other at a home in Oklahoma where the roof collapsed under the weight of all that snow. And at this hour, winter storm warnings are in effect as far north as Illinois. This massive system tracks north and east with Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Michigan next on its hit list.

So we have the storm covered for you this morning, minute by minute, state by state. Jennifer Delgado tracking the system from the CNN weather center in Atlanta. But, first, let's go to Erin McPike. She is live in Kansas City where they're getting hit by the second major snowstorm in a week. Terrible for those folks out there.

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is. (AUDIO GAP) certainly going to be worse than the storm we had last (AUAIDO CLIP) we didn't see (AUDIO GAP)

SAMBOLIN: Yes, that storm is powerful and is clearly affecting her microphone.

Let's work on that and then get back to her. In the meantime, let's go over to Jennifer Delgado. She's at the CNN weather center in Atlanta.

What can you tell us, Jennifer?

JENNIFER DELGADO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: I can tell you a lot, Zoraida and John.

We're still looking at snow coming down now, of course, for areas like Amarillo, they were pounded yesterday with 19 inches of snowfall. But looking at the radar right now, right along Interstate 7, you can see snow coming down. Rain moving through St. Louis.

What we're going to see is more of that snow working in as we go throughout the afternoon. Some of these locations are potentially going to pick up between six and 12 inches of snowfall. When you add that in with winds up to about 20, 25, of course, we're going to be talking about very limited visibility.

In fact, I want to point out to one bright side from yesterday. We had a lot more areas with the blizzard warnings. Now, notice we're just really looking at the northern part of Oklahoma and that is going to be in place until 6:00 a.m. Central Standard Time. But for Kansas City, as well as for areas up towards Chicago and into Detroit, we do have winter storm warnings and watches in place. And that means, of course, for more of that snow.

How much snow am I talking about? Quite a bit. Interstate 70, you're going to be the bulls eye. You can see for Omaha, a little less for you. For Kansas City, roughly about six to 12 inches. And for Chicago, we're going to go three to six inches of snowfall. I know you need that precipitation.

But let me show you when you add in too much wind what some of that snow coming out of Texas.

(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS) DELGADO: This is your video coming to you from our iReporters. And, again, what you're going to hear is that wind blowing around, but you're also looking at the drift, the snowdrift. And that is actually three feet right outside someone's door.

Don't you just hate it when the snow just blows you in and traps you in the house? I know you Chicago girl, Zoraida, so you understand that, snowdrift.

SAMBOLIN: I definitely understand it, and I don't miss it. Thank you.

BERMAN: She's hearty though. That's what she looks like.

Let's go back to Erin McPike who is in Kansas City, Missouri, right now. This storm, it is big and powerful and knocked your microphone a short time ago.

But tell what conditions are there like right now.

MCPIKE: It is very windy. And we expect gusts up to 30 miles an hour today. So the governors of Kansas and Missouri are urging people to stay off the roads and take precautions because they want to make sure people know that this storm will be more dangerous than the storm they had here just last week, John.

BERMAN: Erin, it does look -- it looks nasty out there. She's been here a week and we sent her to two blizzards out in the Plains States right now. Our thanks to Erin McPike out there on the snow.

SAMBOLIN: Who would have thought back to back for folks?

BERMAN: I know.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Four minutes past the hour.

We're following a developing story for you. It is horror in a hot air balloon. Twenty tourists are trying to get a bird's-eye view of Egyptian sights were killed when the hot air balloon they were in exploded and it plummeted 1,000 feet to the ground.

Reza Sayah is in Cairo this morning following all of the developments.

Reza, what do you know?

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Zoraida, this is just an awful incident that's not going to bode well for Egypt's already ailing tourism industry and the hot air balloon industry. But, first and foremost, you have to think about the families of the 20 victims -- 20 people killed according to this hot air balloon. The incident, according to a local government official, taking place in the city of Luxor in southern Egypt. This is the site of some of Egypt's most famous ancient ruins.

Among the 20 killed, according to this government official, nine Hong Kong nationals, three British citizens, four Japanese citizens, two French citizens, one Hungarian citizen, three people were injured, among them, the pilot.

State TV is reporting that this balloon crashed when the cylinder, the gas cylinder inside the balloon exploded. The balloon plummeting according to state TV 1,000 feet. The pilot depending on what conditions he's under, he's going to be expected to answer a lot of questions. A lot of pressure on this hot air balloon company, Sky Crews (ph), to answer some questions as well.

SAMBOLIN: What a horrific accident.

Reza Sayah, live ion Cairo, thank you.

BERMAN: Also developing right now in the Middle East, a shaky truce being tested this morning after a rocket fired from Gaza struck southern Israel overnight. Now, this is the first such attack since a truce in November ended a week of cross border fighting. It follows days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces over the death of a Palestinian man inside an Israeli prison. The rocket did cause some damage but so far, no casualties have been reported.

SAMBOLIN: Lots going on this morning. Markets around the world are reacting to the outcome of the Italian parliamentary elections on Monday. For the first time ever, that country elected a hung parliament, which will make it difficult if not impossible to pass further austerity measures, which arguably are needed to save the euro zone's third largest economy from further recession.

BERMAN: And it helped cause the biggest one day drop in the Dow so far this year.


BERMAN: So, will today be the day that there is any progress fending off those massive forced spending cuts that will kick in midnight on Friday?

Well, two top Republicans will be at the White House in just a few hours. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have been called over for meetings, presumably about immigration. The spending showdown will also likely come up. Graham is telling reporters it is time for both sides to grow up.

And on "THE SITUATION ROOM", the South Carolina senator says he is bringing a sort of offer to the president.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: This is a chance to do the big deal. I'm willing to raise revenue. I'm willing to raise $600 billion in new revenue if my Democratic friends will be willing to reform entitlements.


BERMAN: President Obama will be talking about the forced spending cuts later today in a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia. An estimated 40,000 civilian Defense Department jobs in the region could be furloughed if those cuts do come down.

SAMBOLIN: On Pope Benedict's final week as leader of the 1.2 billion member of the Catholic Church, a string of child sex abuse scandals continue to emerge. And some surrounding those who will help choose the successor. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles will be part of the conclave despite damming new revelations about his handling of pedophile priests.

Then there was yesterday's stunning resignation of a U.K. leading Catholic cleric, Archbishop Keith O'Brien, amid accusations of an appropriate behavior with boys studying to be priests, a claim he has denied despite stepping down.

Pope Benedict's last day is Thursday. He's the first pope to resign in some six centuries.

BERMAN: This year's CPAC is giving New Jersey governor and a potential 2016 presidential contender, Chris Christie, the cold shoulder. A source close to the Conservative Political Action Conference, this is an annual meeting where Republicans get together and talk about conservative issues, says organizers did not invite Christie to the event, which is set to happen next month near Washington, D.C. One likely reason, Christie's praise for President Obama's response to superstorm Sandy which some of the Republican Party say swung the November election in the president's favor.

There are people who, by the way --

SAMBOLIN: If true, that is unfortunate.

BERMAN: But it says, you know, Chris Christie is running for election in a blue state, in New Jersey. It doesn't hurt him to be snubbed by CPAC here. So --

SAMBOLIN: It may end up being a positive for him, but too bad if really that is the case.

All right. Today marks one year -- one year, can you believe it, since Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in a case that captured nationwide attention. We're going to hear from Martin's mother. That's coming up.

BERMAN: Plus, how "Argo's" Oscar win can mean money for some of the real life Americans held hostage in Iran.


BERMAN: Welcome back to EARLY START, everyone.

It was one year ago today that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Sanford, Florida. He got into a confrontation, of course, with George Zimmerman, who claims he was attacked and shot martin in self-defense. Martin's family claims the unarmed teen was racially profiled. Last night, his parents told CNN's Piers Morgan how they plan to mark today's anniversary.


SYBRINA FULTON, MOTHER OF TRAYVON MARTIN: We will attend a candlelight ceremony here in New York. We've already done something in Miami. We've done a peace walk to let teenagers know that they have a right to walk in peace.

We also did a benefit dinner to help our foundation so that we can try to do some of the things that we need to do so that we can make sure that no other parents have to go through what we have gone through in the last year.


BERMAN: There are so many unanswered questions in this case.

CNN's Martin Savidge joins us now from Sanford, Florida.

Good morning, Martin.


Yes, this case, the furor in that case has definitely died down in the past year. But there is still a way that it polarizes people when you talk to them. They're very surprised it has been one year. But when you speak to many, they say that they support George Zimmerman. They say it was self-defense.

But there are just as many that I say, no, Trayvon Martin was a victim of racial profiling and he was shot and killed for that reason. There is one point in which everyone agrees. The death of that 17-year-old was a tragedy.


SAVIDGE (voice-over): It starts with a phone call. February 26th, 2012 --


GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: We have a lot of break-ins in our neighborhood recently. I'm on the neighborhood watch.


SAVIDGE: It's a cold and dreary night in central Florida. Neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman has just spotted 17- year-old Trayvon Martin walking through his gated community in Sanford.


DISPATCHER: Are you following him?


DISPATCHER: OK, we don't need you to do that.


SAVIDGE: Moments later, Martin, who was black, and Zimmerman, who's Hispanic, struggle in the dark. Neighbors call 911.


DISPATCHER: So you think he's yelling help?



CALLER: There's gun shots.


CALLER: Just one.


SAVIDGE: Zimmerman shoots the teen claiming self-defense. Photos show Zimmerman bleeding from his nose and back of his head.

Sanford police decide not to bring charges, perhaps because of Florida "Stand Your Ground" law. That decision triggers a national outcry.


SAVIDGE: Three weeks later, the Justice Department announces its own investigation into Martin's death and Sanford police.

Meanwhile, tensions rise with release of 911 recordings. In them, some hear Zimmerman using a racial slur.


SAVIDGE: Analysis by CNN is inconclusive.

March 27th, Sanford's police chief, Bill Lee, steps down. That same day, Florida Governor Rick Scott appoints state attorney Angela Curry to lead a special investigation.

The next day, President Obama speaks publicly about the case for the first time.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.

SAVIDGE: March 24th, a group called New Black Panther Party offers a $10,000 reward for Zimmerman's, quote-unquote, "capture". Two days later, Trayvon Martin rallies are held across the country, demanding Zimmerman's arrest.

April 11th, Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder and turns himself in. Bond is eventually set at $150,000. And three days later, he walks out of jail in the middle of the night only to return six weeks later when a judge revokes his bond after prosecutors say Zimmerman and his wife lied about being poor at his bond hearing, failing to mention hundreds of thousands of donated dollars from supporters.

This time, Zimmerman's wife is also arrested, charged with perjury.

July 6th, Zimmerman's release now on $1 million bond and goes into hiding.

Zimmerman appears on FOX News.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Is there anything you might do differently in retrospect, now that time passed a little bit?


SAVIDGE: Meanwhile, his defense team successfully lobbies to have the judge in the case replaced.

February 9th, 2013, the Justice for Trayvon Martin Foundation host a day of remembrance in his hometown of Miami and takes place four days after the youth at the heart of a national debate would have turned 18.


SAVIDGE: As for what comes next, and there is a crucial step in the month of April, that's when the stand your ground hearing is going to take place. That's unique to the state of Florida. A judge will determine whether that law applies in this particular case.

If George Zimmerman is found that he did apply and use self-defense correctly under that law, he'd be immune from prosecution. In other words, there would be no trial. But the judge rules otherwise, the trial is expected to begin in June -- John.

BERMAN: That is the big development we're all waiting on. Our thanks to Martin Savidge in Sanford, Florida, this morning.

Trayvon Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, along with family attorney Benjamin Crump, will join Soledad this morning on "STARTING POINT." That's at 7:30 Eastern Time.

SAMBOLIN: It is 17 minutes after the hour. Let's get you up-to-date.

Here's Christine Romans with our top stories.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to both of you. Happening right now, massive winter storm slamming the Midwest at this hour. It's tracking North and East with Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan in its sights. Texas and Oklahoma already reeling this morning. Roads are shut down. Drivers stranded.

Amarillo, Texas, buried under a record 19 inches of snow this morning.

Good morning, Amarillo.

A former U.S. surgeon general, C. Everett Koop, has died at the age of 96. He served from 1982 to 1989 and he elevated the profile of the surgeon general's office. Koop was instrumental in getting the nation to focus on key health issues such as HIV and AIDS prevention and he convinced Americans to stop smoking.

He brought some groans and controversy but "Family Guy's" Seth MacFarlane also delivered ratings for the Oscars. More than 40 million viewers turned in to watch Sunday's Academy Awards. That's up 3 percent from last year. It's the second biggest audience in six years.

And the key younger 18 to 34 demo which is squarely in John Berman's age demographic, that group shot up by 20 percent.

Of course, "Argo" took home the best picture Sunday night. And now, former hostages held at the American embassy in Iran during the crisis are hoping that the film's high profile will boost their efforts to be paid reparations by Iran for what they went through.

The movie told of six people who escaped to the Canadian embassy during the siege. Fifty-two others were held for 444 days in the U.S. embassy. Their life on pause. Whole nation just waiting.

Remember the yellow ribbons? The "Argo" movie brought back those days, what it was like in America at the grocery store, you know, everybody's picket fence, the yellow ribbons to have them come back.

BERMAN: No, America held hostage. This brought back this whole new round of discussion. It was an unbelievable time on our history.


BERMAN: Nineteen minutes after the hour right now. Just change (INAUDIBLE).

Check your 401(k). If you don't like where it's headed, blame Washington. We will take a closer look, coming up.


BERMAN: We're minding your business this morning. It was an awful day on Wall Street yesterday. Major averages fell about 1.5 percent each.

SAMBOLIN: It was the worst day for the Dow and S&P 500 this year.

Christine Romans is tracking it all for us.

ROMANS: Good morning.

So many people have been waiting to hit a new high and in that waiting, we found there is some big concerns still and stocks have been having some trouble, a bad day yesterday -- a very bad day yesterday. This morning Dow futures are up 45 points. So, maybe a little bit of bounce there.

One of the big problems yesterday was late in the day, it became clear there was going to be a chaotic election result in Italy. Why does this matter to the United States and our stock markets? Because Europe is in turmoil, Italy has very big debt problems and austerity problems. And if there is not a very sincere and coherent and cohesive attempt to fix Italy's problems, it will hurt the rest of Europe and that will hurt the United States. So, that was a big problem.

Yesterday, the S&P 500 down 1.8 percent. That's a big move for one day. It's something you can feel in your 401(k).

When you look at, I guess, the dashboard for stock market action yesterday, I looked at the VIX, it's a fear gauge. It surged yesterday. Gold prices rose. Why? Because people were fleeing stocks, rushing into the safety or the perceived safety of gold prices.

And interest rates on the 10-year bond fell. Interest rates went even lower. Interest rates go lower because people are plowing money into bonds, again, safety. So, you saw some big concern there in the market's sentiment.

Another problem we have is Washington. Your elected officials are hurting the American economy or at least the perception of how the economy is going to fair this next year. We do not have a budget. We do not have a coherent -- again, I use this phrase, coherent, cohesive sane plan for getting out of our debt and deficits. And all of that is undermining confidence in the stock market overall.

When you look at the Dow over the past six months, we had a very good run. I was telling you we were knocking on the door of record highs. Look at that advance and now this pull back here at the end. A lot of folks wondering with Washington unresolved, with Europe unresolved, with American consumer without as much money in their pockets because of the payroll tax holiday and gas prices, will we have a pause here? Will we hit a pause button in attempting those highs?

The Dow, for the record, is 380 points away from its record high.

BERMAN: You can you feel that anxiety ratchet up yesterday afternoon.

ROMANS: You really could. You really could. And they blame it now on Italy. They're blaming it on the Italians.

I mean, if you like Italian politics, just look -- go to CNN Money this morning, it's very fascinating what's happening in Italy. But that matters to you.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Thanks, Christine.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

SAMBOLIN: It is 25 minutes past the hour. The boss at a high profile tech company lays down the law. No more working from home. Find out why, coming up.

BERMAN: Plus, a popular diet proved so healthy it surprised even the doctors who are studying it.


SAMBOLIN: Right now, a major blizzard is blasting the nation's midsection with Kansas caught right in the middle.

BERMAN: An intense manhunt underway for the ex-con, cops say shot up a Maserati causing last week's fireball crash on the Vegas Strip

SAMBOLIN: Counting down to Pope Benedict's final day. The Catholic leader's last week at the Vatican marred by more emerging scandals.

Welcome back to EARLY START. Thanks for being with us. I'm Zoraida Sambolin.

BERMAN: I'm John Berman. It is Tuesday morning, 30 minutes after the hour right now.