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Obama Speaks at Interfaith Prayer Service; Texas Explosion; Anhydrous Ammonia Can Burn & Kill; Perry News Conference; Test Results Today in Ricin Case

Aired April 18, 2013 - 12:30   ET


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: But a lot of resonance in this speech that we have to choose to be better.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Whether you're a fan of this president or not, when it comes to his political ideology, his policies, I think you'd have to call that pitch perfect, a little bit of Boston history, as Jess noted, his personal history with the city.

Boston's important in the world. You mentioned compassion, specifically mentioning each of the families that lost somebody, the three fatalities, in this case a Chinese student, a young blue collar woman from just north of the city, an 8-year-old boy from the Dorchester neighborhood, reaching out to each of those families directly.

But, also, I think, Chris, it's important when you're struggling like this with the grief and anger, you don't almost know when it's OK to clap again, laugh again, celebrate again.

And the president helped these people, yes, mourn, yes, deal with their anger by promising do this in the right way, we will adhere to our values, but we will find who did this, you cannot hide.

And then letting them cheer. Letting them cheer and celebrate their city. And I think that's a wonderful part of the transition to healing and moving on.

CUOMO: Even with his experience in doing these types of addresses, you could see it was difficult when he was talking about that kid and his sign and peace. It's tough.

It's tough for people here. Everybody's got a kid like that in their family, somewhere.

Everywhere somebody knows somebody like Krystle, young and full of life. She would have just been 30. Her whole life in front of here.

And the exchange student, people come here for a better life. So it really connects. And you could feel that spirit in everybody's address there today.

KING: I think that was the strength after Newtown as well. Look, the president has two young daughters out and about at events, who are at school, things like that. And I think after Newtown, when you look at the children, when you look at the young people here, an 8-year-old boy, a 29-year-old woman, I believe 23-year-old graduate student, the senselessness of that, and Mayor Menno said to me, no violence is acceptable, but target an institution, target a politician.

You know, why are you targeting something where children will die? I think that's what does stir up (inaudible) and I think that is the president's greatest strength, speaking much more as a parent than a politician.

CUOMO: Yeah, he did that today.

Jake Tapper, you're with us now. What moved you when you heard this speech here?


I think what was most moving, perhaps, for people watching was the sense of resilience President Obama tried to convey, the metaphor that Jessica referred to, the idea that we will finish the race, and the message specifically to those in hospitals still recovering.

I suppose in many ways he was referring to those specifically who have suffered loss of limbs saying they will run again, obviously a metaphor in some ways, but more specifically for these individuals who have lost limbs because of this horrific terrorist attack, a specific message of resilience for them when he looked at the camera and addressed them specifically.

I thought that was probably one of the most effective moments in the speech, Chris.

CUOMO: What did you think about the other leaders who are up there, Jake? Did you see a lot of commonality among them?

Obviously, they were coming with similar dialogue and thought and philosophy about compassion in the faith, but there did seem to be certain themes they each wanted to hit.

TAPPER: Right. And, obviously, the faith leaders had different messages than the political leaders.

And obviously the fact that Mayor Menno himself is not, you know, successful health right now he's struggling a bit was moving. It was difficult for him to even stand.

One of the things that struck me obviously is that Boston is such a different city than it has been in decades passed.

We had obviously Mayor Menino, but we also had an African-American governor, an African-American president, one of the three victims a Chinese exchange student.

It really is an international town and a town that is changing so much just like the rest of this country.

CUOMO: All right. Jake, thank you very much.

We're going to take a break right now. We are monitoring another situation as we will watch the movements of the president today and the investigation about what happened the attacks here in Boston.

We're also keeping our eye on West, Texas, small Texas town in the middle of a very difficult situation after a huge fire and a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant there.

The governor, Governor Perry of Texas is going to hold a press conference in about 15 minutes.

So we're going to take a break and catch up on the situation on the ground there, what's going on here in Boston, and we'll get to that press conference as soon as possible.

Stay with us.


CUOMO: I'm Chris Cuomo live here in Boston. Welcome to our viewers in the U.S. and around the world.

We're watching people file out of the prayer service here, the interfaith service here, "Healing Our City." That's what they were calling it.

They're leaving now, people obviously moved. We're hearing their conversations as they go by.

And now it is time to heal here in Boston. At the same time, they will do their best to figure out who committed the crimes here and why.

We're monitoring a lot of news for you at this hour. We also have a developing situation in Texas. We're going to go to a press conference with the governor there as soon as we can get it.

And there is news elsewhere in the country. In Chicago, a sinkhole swallowed three cars this morning. We want you to take a look at it. It's very dramatic video. We actually see the car falling in.

One person was in his car when it fell into the hole, but fortunately, he was able to get out. No injury there to him.

You can see the big puddles all around that sinkhole. Chicago right now is under a flash flood warning. That's part of the precipitation here of what happened, literally and figuratively.

Three-to-five inches of rain has fallen in the last 24 hours. One-to- two more inches are expected.

So this is actually part of the same storm system that is causing bad weather around the Waco area there in West, Texas where they're dealing with that horrible fire. It's literally covering the U.S. from Texas into Canada right now.

So it's all starting to come together in terms of this weather pattern that has descended upon Texas. It actually moved through there, and that has been very helpful to the search and rescue operations.

There were winds there of 30-to-50 miles an hour. The fear was that it would rip the embers of the fire they had suppressed and actually reignite it. Luckily, we're being told that's not the case.

That is the other big story of the day that we're following today, this fertilizer plant fire, an explosion in this little town of West, Texas less than 3,000 people.

Take a listen to what's happened there.

We have new home video of that explosion taken by a young college kid. Police say the number of casualties can't be clear at this time. It is such a fluid situation.

They've been working in darkness. Fifty to sixty of the homes in this bedroom community have been damaged so severely that it's tough. They have to go house-to-house. It's painstaking.

They just started to get more help in from the national guard. Federal resources have been offered as well for urban search and rescue. Don't know if they're deployed yet.

They were offering numbers of between five and 15 people believed dead, but that's just an estimate. They haven't had time to deal with those types of calculations.

We do know that they're still searching for some volunteer firefighters. Men from the community had gone in there to try to save the homes of friends and to try and deal with the flames of this mass conflagration that was down there, and they are still missing.

One has been found with serious -- critical injuries, actually -- critical injuries and in the hospital.

Authorities say they don't know how many people may still be trapped. That's why they're doing the search and rescue.

Take a listen to what authorities had to say.


SERGEANT PATRICK SWANTON, WACO, TEXAS, POLICE: I was made aware that they are still in the search-and-rescue process.

His comment to me was that they are continuing to do that. It is a very slow methodical search at this point, and they are using every available resource that they have to do that correctly.


CUOMO: To give some sense of the magnitude and the impact on this small town, half of the town was evacuated because of this, four square blocks when this explosion happened after this fire at the fertilizer plant.

It was so powerful it actually registered as an earthquake in seismic activity, and it took out the buildings and house within a four-square block area.

A nursing home had to be evacuated. We hear that everyone is safe, although certain of the elderly did have to be treated at the hospital. We don't know that any had been admitted.

Now, depending on how the wind shifts, it's going to be fundamental to how they can deal going forward with the search and rescue.

We believe that the rain basically has moved out of the area. They are dealing with much lower temperatures. So things are going against the first responders down there as they go through these damaged homes.

Literally, walls were just blown out, windows destroyed. A nearby apartment complex, literally, you can't even recognize it anymore.

U.S. intelligence officials says there's no indication that this blast is related to terrorism. So I'm going to repeat that.

Right now, even though this is just a couple days after what happened here, authorities say there is no reason to believe that there is any link to terrorism.

Yes, the situation is being treated as a crime scene, but that is for purposes of completeness and to try to give them the best opportunity to figure out what happened when they look back after dealing with the immediacy of the situation.

So right now they're dealing with it as a crime scene, but there's no proof to suggest it's anything other than a horrible accident that they have to deal with down there.

Now, Fredricka Whitfield has been working on this, trying to gather all the sound of people there on the ground so we can re-live the experience and understand what they're going through there.

Let's take a look at that package now.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We saw an explosion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We need every unit we can get this way.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: At the time, all anyone knew was that a major fire had erupted in the night sky over the tiny town of West, Texas.

This young man was just yards away from the scene.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sitting in my truck, you know, and then boom.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We threw the kids on the ground. We were able to cover one and then I grabbed my little one and dove through the door.

It was like a bomb. It like picked you up. It just took your breath away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just fire everywhere and just bodies on the ground -- bloody bodies, people in panic. Firemen, fire trucks, police cars filled the town.

WHITFIELD: The blast so powerful, so catastrophic homes blocks away were heavily damaged or flattened altogether.

In the middle of the night, the town was simply overwhelmed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (inaudible) going to have to go on the left.

WHITFIELD: People flooded the streets. A nearby nursing home evacuated.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought, you know, what happened? I'm breathing, so I'm good. That's when survival kicked in and said, just get out.

WHITFIELD: The town's emergency services director, himself injured and bloodied, among the first responders.

DR. GEORGE SMITH, WEST, TEXAS, EMS DIRECTOR: Overwhelmed. I'm trying to do the best I can. Of course, they're trying to sit me down because I'm bleeding. I said, I've got a job to do. There's people hurt more than me.

WHITFIELD: Fredricka Whitfield, CNN, Atlanta.


CUOMO: His face really tells the story there. He was trying so hard to save his neighbors and friends before he even got himself treated. He wound up needing stitches in his face.

And there's so many people like him down there. We're hearing the stories of how this community, just like here in Boston dealt with a horrible situation have bound together to get themselves through it.

It's still going on down there. This began at about 7:30 last night. They had to battle darkness, and now weather, to get through what's going on. And hopefully the worst is behind them.

But let's get the latest. We have Martin Savidge on the ground there in West, Texas.

Martin, what is the latest?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Chris, the latest is that it appears that the situation is stabilizing, and what I mean by that is that the fires are down to just embers. They're able to keep control of that.

And they do not seem to notice that there is any leakage of any of that anhydrous ammonia coming from the second tank that did not detonate in the explosion. So both of those are good things.

They've also done the cursory look at all of the area that has been damaged initially in the blast. That is the quick go through. It took all night, but they've got it completed. Now they go back and do, as you've heard, the methodical door-to-door-to-door.

And here's what needs to be pointed out. They're being joined not just by local law enforcement, not by just local law -- fire departments, rather. They've got federal teams that have now come in. And also teams, federal search teams, coming from Ft. Hood. And they're bringing their expertise. But, most of all, they need the heavy equipment. You see, some of these buildings are so structurally damaged that before they can send anybody in to look, they have to basically shore that building up to make sure it won't come down on the rescuers as they work. So that is why it's going to take them a long time to search 50, 60, maybe more of those buildings that have been severely damaged. And that's part of the problems.

And then lastly, that number we've talked about, casualties, five to 15. Authorities are saying, look, we hope it is only as bad as 15. That is not a number that they really are confident in. They will say it's based upon a number of factors, people they know that are missing, bodies that have been recovered, people who were in the area but can't be found now, 15 is not necessarily as bad as it gets. Let's just hope that the number stays extremely low, Chris.

CUOMO: All right, Martin, thank you very much.

It is good to hear that they're not worried about a secondary explosion. Again, there's, you know, more fertilizer there, and that there's not more talk about that ammonia that is used in the fertilizer that can be very toxic, that that's getting out there more. So that's good news. And we'll go on hope for the rest. We'll check in with you again soon.

Right now, though, we want to bring in CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen.

Elizabeth, you know what we've been talking about all morning with this ammonia fertilizer chemical that can be very toxic is often explosive. Let's start with what can happen if you are in close contact with the chemical.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. If you're in close contact with the chemical, Chris, and you're breathing it in at high concentrations, it can kill you very quickly. It can get into the lungs and it can be extremely, extremely harmful.

However, if you're breathing in lower concentrations or if you're not breathing it in for that long a period of time, it isn't necessarily all that dangerous. It's going to irritate your nose and your throat and your eyes. But as long as they can get you to fresh air, get some water down you to wash that out, then it becomes a much easier situation to handle. There aren't necessarily any long lasting effects.

CUOMO: OK. Elizabeth, right now we got word that the governor's presser in Texas is starting. So let's go to that.


GOV. RICK PERRY (R), TEXAS: Birdwell is on - on a phone. They're out of power in West, and he is monitoring this press conference over the phone. So Senator Birdwell, thank you for being with us this morning and for -- in his district, a very tragic, difficult 16 hours for all of us. And all of our friends and loved ones and individuals who have friends and loved ones who watched this unfold from afar, I know they're very anxious for information.

I want to start by saying thank you to the emergency management folks here. Nim Kidd's going to speak here in a few minutes and Steve McCraw (ph) and there's a host of our other state agency heads that are here with us today. And -- but particularly to the people of the community of West, those local officials, their mayor, their -- the police, and just the citizens that have responded to this tragedy, neighbors who are working to take care of each other right now. Just a great deal of thanks for that spirit.

I've been in touch with the emergency officials throughout the night and this morning. Talked to the McLennan County mayor, Scott Felton (ph), earlier this morning to Congressman Flores. And President Obama called from Air Force One as he was en route to Boston. And we greatly appreciate his call and his gracious offer of support, of course, and a very quick turnaround of the emergency declaration that will be forthcoming and his offer of prayers. We greatly appreciate the president for his call.

Also spoken to the local officials to make sure they have all the support and the assistance that they need from the state. To that end, I am declaring McLennan County a disaster. We'll request an emergency declaration from the president.

I also want to commend the hard work put in again by Chief Kidd (ph) and his team at the Texas Division of Emergency Management. They quickly responded to this disaster. It is unfortunate for us that we face both natural and manmade disasters all too often in this state, but the bright side of that is that we've got the finest emergency management team in this country. And it is very important to stress that at this point much of the information that we have is still very preliminary. And more information is coming in all the time.

I want to take a few minutes to provide an overview for the state's response. Throughout the night, there were state agencies were on the ground to assist. They will remain there as long as they are requested and need. Texas Department of Public Safety is securing the area for law enforcement personnel to conduct the business and to maintain public safety. Texas Task Force One and Two, as well as the Texas National Guard, are assisting with an active search and rescue operation. Texas Department of Transportation is handling traffic flow for the affected areas. And we have officials from the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality who are monitoring air quality.

Pipelines in the area are being monitored closely. The gas distribution system to homes has been disconnected. And it is our understanding that those are being both double and triple checked before any service will go back on to those homes.

The Texas Department of State Health Services has been on the ground with ambulance, buses with a mobile hospital and other resources. The Texas Education Agency -- because there was an intermediate school within close proximity -- is working with the local school district to coordinate any immediate needs in the district.

Last night was truly a nightmare scenario for that community. But as I said earlier, we're blessed in this state to have the best emergency management team in the country. And they certainly were at their best last night, along with the citizens.

West is a really small community. And -- just a few thousand people. Anyone who grew up like your dad did, Doc, in a small town like West, they know that this tragedy has most likely hit every family. It's touched practically everyone in that town. So I ask all Texans and Americans to join me and Anita in keeping them in our prayers. And our first responders who are still in some cases may be in harm's way as they work their way through the search and rescue operation.

So, with that said, I'd like for Chief Nim Kidd to give us the most current update and then the lieutenant governor will have a response.


CUOMO: All right, we're going to leave the press conference now. That's Governor Rick Perry. The headlines are that this has obviously been a nightmare scenario for this small community of West. He said it's likely that the tragedy has hit every family there. He does say it's still search and rescue. He did not use the word recovery. And that's key. That means they're still looking for survivors there. They're not looking just to collect the loss of human life. And that's good. The air is being constantly monitored. It's safe as of now is what the governor says, and that's very good because, again, they're worried about this harsh chemical used in fertilizers.

So that's what we know for now. It's still developing. You're looking at a picture from earlier on. At this point, they believe the flames have been significantly squelched.

We're going to take a break now, but when we come back, stay with us, we have breaking news in the story about the letters that may have been laced with deadly chemicals and sent to the president and other politicians. Word of an arrest, when we come back.


CUOMO: Welcome to CNN, viewers in the U.S. and around the world. We have breaking news.

The FBI has arrested a suspect in Mississippi in connection with suspicious letters addressed to President Obama. Chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is live in Washington with the latest.

Dana, what do we know?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We know that this man who was actually arrested last night is set to be charged. It's probably happening as we speak, Chris, in Mississippi. And here are the charges. First of all he is being charged with threatening the life of the president. And second, he is also being charged with threatening the life of others using the mail. And these charges could put him in a place where he could face up to 15 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.

Now, of course, this whole thing came to light because this man, whose name is Paul Kevin Curtis, allegedly sent letters that, at least initially, tested positive with the poison ricin to not just the White House, but also to Senator Roger Wicker, who is from Mississippi. And just moments ago, Senator Wicker spoke for the first time about this, told our producer Rachel Streitfeld that he actually knows this man because he is an Elvis impersonator back in Mississippi. And Senator Wicker and his wife actually hired him a few years back to help at a party they were throwing, he said, for a young couple. But then he went on to say that his impression is that since then this man, Paul Kevin Curtis' mental state has deteriorated and that is pretty clear in the letters -- the text of the letters that went along with what appears to be the poison ricin. It certainly looks like he has some issues mentally, there's no question about it.

So we're going to see what happens in Mississippi, but he should be charged, according to the Justice Department, as we speak down there.

CUOMO: Couple things, Dana. One, they can always add charges, right? And the reason I ask is, if they do test positive for ricin, and it is a deadly substance, couldn't they add charges that are more serious in nature?

BASH: That's exactly right. The labs -- the formal lab work, as far as we know, has not come back to say definitively that it was in fact ricin. So that's exactly what the plan is. The plan is that once this goes before a grand jury, if they do in fact find out for sure that it was ricin that he put into these envelopes, then they will add those charges at that time.

CUOMO: All right, Dana Bash, thank you very much, monitoring the situation. Let us know when you have more.

And right now we want to hand off to Jake Tapper and Erin Burnett. They're going to pick up coverage of all the breaking stories we have for you today.

Erin. Jake.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Thanks, Chris. Appreciate it. We've got two big headlines, as you all know, that we're watching, the Boston bombing and the explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant. I'm Erin Burnett here in Boston.

TAPPER: And I'm also Jake - I'm also here in Boston. I'm Jake Tapper.

We have reporters across the country who are covering these two stories.