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Memorial Service in Boston; Fertilizer Plant Explosion in West, Texas; Fertilizer Explosion Releases Gas; First Responders Talk Texas Explosion; Teacher Talks Response to Explosion; Flash Flood Warnings in Chicago; EPA Cited Plant Prior to Explosion.

Aired April 18, 2013 - 13:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to CNN's continuing coverage. I'm Jake Tapper. This is Erin Burnett.

We're here in Boston where the city took a moment today to pause to heal. There was a memorial service that just ended within the last hour. It was to honor those killed and wounded in Monday's twin bombings. President Obama was there. He offered words of comfort to the families of the three people killed in the attack and the dozens wounded. He also tried to provide reassurance to those wounded. And he had praise for the city of Boston.

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BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You showed us, Boston, that in the face of evil, Americans will lift up what's good. In the face of cruelty, we will choose compassion. In the face of those who would visit death upon innocence, we will choose to save and to comfort and to heal.

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TAPPER: Investigators are trying to identify two men seen in images near the finish line moments before the explosions. Photos of the men are being circulated among state and federal law enforcement agencies, but not yet to the public. Authorities are debating whether or not to release the photographs to the public. There's concern that releasing them might impede the investigation. It's still unclear whether the attack was an act of domestic or foreign terrorism.

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ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: And this is another American community healing today, West, Texas. It's a burning fertilizer plant. It went off last night like a bomb. We were here and people we were talking to a mile away were describing it like a bomb in their backyard where literally all their windows were blown out. Right now, we understand at least five people have been killed. It happened late yesterday. And the fire is still not completely out yet. More than 160 people are hurt. And rescuers are still not found several firefighters missing since the explosion.

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SGT. PATRICK SWANTON, WACO, TEXAS POLICE DEPARTMENT: 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.

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BURNETT: The fire and explosion at the West, Texas, fertilizer plant released what's called anhydrous ammonia, a gas used in fertilizer production. Officials say the chemical in the air is not of physical concern, which we weren't sure of last night, but victims have been treated for chemical burns.

Elizabeth Cohen joins us now, along with Chad Myers, in Atlanta, to talk about the weather, which people thought the bad weather and rain last night could be a bad thing. Ended up perhaps being a miracle.

Elizabeth, let me start with you.

In terms of the damage that can be caused from the ammonia when people are getting chemical burns and people afraid it could cause physical damage. Is that true?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's true. It can cause a whole array of damage. So what you dread is this huge concentration coming at you. That can kill you, actually, quite quickly. Now, what you hope for is that it's so dilute and you're breathing in a low concentration. You might feel burning in your nose and throat, but probably no long lasting effects.

BURNETT: And does it matter how far away you were from the location of the explosion?

COHEN: Absolutely. The concentration's going to be highest right near it. And it's going to be lowest farther away. I don't want to say a blessing here, but an explosion will actually burn some of this up. So that's a good thing in some ways.

BURNETT: Burn it off.

COHEN: Right. Exactly.

TAPPER: And exactly what kind of health problems does this pose in addition to what you were just talking about?

COHEN: Well, it depends again on the concentration you're breathing in. So if you survive it, and appears people have. I mean, this doesn't appear to be the major problem here. The actual problem -- but you could have long lasting lung problems. You could have long lasting upper respiratory, ear, nose, throat problems -- (CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: So this is not just a short-term thing? This could affect you for the rest of your life.

COHEN: It could be a short-term thing if the concentration you breathed in was really low. It could just -- you -- it wouldn't feel great, but it wouldn't be a big deal and you just go on. But if you breathed in enough of it, it could affect you for the rest of your life.

We have a lot of experience with this chemical but unfortunately it's involved in explosions with some frequency. In fact, when you hear about crystal meth labs blowing up, that's ammonia. So doctors know a lot about this.

BURNETT: Elizabeth, thank you.

I want to ask Chad more about this.

Not just ammonia. Ammonia's used in everything, fertilizer, used in everything. Chad, what more can you tell us about it, this form? It's basically anhydrous, a form of storing the ammonia.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It's not the ammonia you might have under your sink to wipe them down with. You still want to use gloves because you can get a chemical burn from household ammonia.

This is a gas, anhydrous ammonia, nitrogen and three "H's," the hydrogens, NH3. It doesn't have any water in it. Hydrous means without water. Anhydrous means that if it touches you it will try to get the water out of your skin or eyes or lungs. That's the real threat of it burning you. It's the chemical burn itself. If it's released into the air, it's actually at a point still heavier than air and sink to the ground where the first responders are. So this is the issue there last night. They could actually smell the chemical.

A cold front went by last night and into this morning and changed the wind direction significantly. That's the perfect thing that could have actually happened here. You will have breathing difficulty if you breathe too much in.

Let me just go back to background. I grew up in Nebraska. In Nebraska, they use anhydrous ammonia. It comes in a big long tank looks like a big hot dog, a big propane tank. You drag it behind a tractor. You inject this gas that's really a liquid for a while into the soil. It becomes a perfect fertilizer for plants to use. But if you ever would see someone dragging this along, you'd never really want to be close to that. And the farmers that would be using that would always want to make sure they knew what wind direction was because if you breathe it in, it could be absolutely fatal, especially to the farmer just a few feet from the tank that he's dragging behind his tractor.

Back to you guys. TAPPER: Chad, it's Jake Tapper here in Boston. I understand there's heavy weather in Texas right now all the way up to Canada. How is that affecting the recovery effort in Texas?

MYERS: It couldn't be better. This could not be better. Yesterday the plant right here had winds coming out of the south and southeast blowing this anhydrous, blowing this gas back into the north part of town. And there's I-35 right there. If you drive from Dallas down to Waco, you drive by this town all the time. Well, what's happened overnight is that the winds have shifted direction and are now blowing the wind from the north and from the northwest away from this town. First responders and rescue men and women are able to get in there without really any risk hazards being there because it's blowing downwind and past the school into the prairies of eastern Texas -- Jake?

BURNETT: Chad, thank you very much.

Last night, when this first happened, they had to for a while, Jake, the choppers going in to try to help people, they couldn't fly because of the wind and the wind shifted, they weren't able to go in.

TAPPER: Right.

BURNETT: They were worried about some of the rain, but that rain helped dampen.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Absolutely.

BURNETT: So we're going to continue to follow the two top stories we're following, the Boston bombing and explosion in Texas. If you're looking to help those affected, we want to make sure you know you can help if you want to. CNN's "Impact Your world," go online and you can find that there.

Jake and I will be right back.

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TAPPER: Welcome back to CNN's continuous coverage. I'm Jake Tapper here in Boston. Here with Erin Burnett.

A major development overseas about the man who wants to be leader again. Pervez Musharraf is Pakistan's former president and right now he's under house arrest and wants to be president again. Musharraf returned to Pakistan just last month after several years of self- imposed exile. He faces charges dating back to when he was Pakistan's military ruler. Musharraf was hoping to run for political office again.

BURNETT: And now more on the devastation in West, Texas, after a fire and explosion at a fertilizer plant. It happened around 7:50 central standard time last night. People watched in horror as a huge fireball, explosion and then burst into the sky. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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BURNETT: Fredricka Whitfield talked to responders.

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UNIDENTIFIED FIRST RESPONDER: We need any ambulance we can get this way.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 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 standing at my truck and then boom.

(EXPLOSION)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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 FIRST RESPONDER: Going to have to go to 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. And 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 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.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: We're going to go right now to a man who was one of those first responders. His name is Chris Kubacak. He's actually not a professional first responder. He's a teacher. His mother works at the nursing home and he went right to the nursing home to help out.

Mr. Kubacak, thanks so much for joining us.

What did you see when this happened?

CHRIS KUBACAK, FIRST RESPONDER (voice-over): I was actually 20 miles away when it actually happened. By the time I got there it was just -- it was total chaos would be the best way to say it. I mean, there were people everywhere. We had people getting out -- getting people out of the nursing home on wheelchairs taking them down a couple blocks away to a staging area and then again to a triage area. Just really trying -- you know, everybody was very helpful trying to get as many people out as quickly as possible.

TAPPER: So you heard that this happened and you just went immediately to where your mom works? Did you call her first? Did she call you? How did that work?

KUBACAK: I got a text from my dad. My mom works at a doctor's office right across the street from where the nursing home was. And my dad texted and said there had been a big explosion and that windows had been busted out of their house. So I just headed that way to help him board them up because I figured he would need some help. And about -- I was about halfway there and he texted me again and said that there was a lot of damage at the nursing home and they are needing help getting people out. So I -- as soon as I got there I swung by their house just to make sure that it was somewhat secure, and then headed down to a nursing home. I parked at my grandfather's old house and ran for several blocks down the street from there.

BURNETT: And, Chris, last night when this was happening, we were hearing reports that there was a partial collapse of that nursing home, that they hadn't been able to account for all of the elderly people who live there. What was the condition of the people there that you were helping? Were they all right or not?

KUBACAK: The few people that I was able to wheel out and get down, they had cuts and scrapes and things. I didn't see any major injuries. I did hear that there were possibility of other major injuries, there just weren't any that I saw.

BURNETT: Chris, thank you.

TAPPER: Thanks so much for your heroism, sir.

Coming up, there is flooding in Chicago. We'll tell you all the latest right after this. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to CNN's continuing coverage. I'm Jake Tapper live in Boston with Erin Burnett.

And in keeping with the Old Testament-plagues that we're facing here with ricin and the horrible terrorist attack and the explosion in Texas, we're now told that there is a flood warning in Chicago.

We're going to go to Chad Myers.

Chad, what can you tell us about this?

MYERS: Jake, it's been an ugly morning. Hundreds of flights canceled, the rest delayed. Over 500 flights at O'Hare didn't even go out today. But the rain has finally moved away. Six to eight inches across last night, as well. Even though the rain has slowed down, the south side still seeing rainfall. I could go on to traffic.com, this is traffic.com. Shut down in places, Eisenhower still shut down. So many places here under water.

And one more problem we saw, a sinkhole on the south side, 9600 block here. Look at this. The car here on the right was there, then all of a sudden that car ends up in the same hole that those other two cars are already in. Authorities trying to figure out what's going on here, could it be something underground, maybe a water pipe, but most likely a lot to do with the water that came down from the sky in less than 24 hours.

Guys, back to you.

BURNETT: All right, Chad, thank you. Of course, the sinkhole, when you see that video, only minor injuries.

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TAPPER: Thank god for that. That's crazy.

BURNETT: Yes. Sinkholes lately, maybe we're hearing more about them, but feels there's a lot more of them.

The other story is the Biblical plague-like nature of what's happening, the explosion in West, Texas, we've been talking about. The plant had been cited for having an ammonia smell in the past. People asking questions about its past, the regulations, and we've taken a look at that. Coming up, that report.

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BURNETT: The fire and the explosion at the Texas fertilizer plant rocked the town of West, Texas, last night. The entire town, much of it destroyed. The explosion blew out walls and windows in nearby buildings. The rumblings could be felt as far as 50 miles away. Now officials are still telling us they believe between five and 15 people were killed. There's some firefighters who are still unaccounted for as we speak. More than 160 others were injured. Search and rescue teams are still trying right now to find victims.

Christine Romans looks into how this happened. Have there been past regulatory issues for this fertilizer company?

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CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Before the explosion, this is what the plant looked like. It was a facility authorized to hold, we're told, up to 54,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia. That's a farm fertilizer stored under high pressure, a gas stored under high pressure, and is loaded on to trucks to be used to put into sprayers and sprayed on farm fields.

Now, it was cited, this plant, in 2006 for a lingering smell of ammonia. There was a complaint in to state officials. We have this from Texas environmental regulators, the lingering smell of ammonia. That was in 2006.

And a local TV station reports either this plant was fined in 2006 by the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, for not having a risk management plan that met federal standards.

Now, "The Dallas Morning News "is reporting the plant file then with federal and state officials that it had no risk of fire at its facility. That report said the company, the plant, told the EPA, "The worst-case scenario, the worst-case scenario for this chemical facility, for this fertilizer facility, would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that wouldn't kill or injure anyone."

Now, West Fertilizer -- that's the name of the facility -- is owned by Adair Grain, a private company. Why does a grain company own a fertilizer company? This is a prolific component of agriculture used for years and years. But is also used as an explosive in the construction and mining industries. And it can be used for quarries and instant cold packs, anhydrous ammonia.

Officials from the Chemical Safety Board are en route. There are state environmental officials, national and federal environmental officials, all working right now what is still a search-and-rescue operation.

Now, under the assumption -- all of these investigations are being done under the assumption this is an industrial accident and they are trying to figure out what caused that explosion.

Back to you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Thanks, Christine.

We'll be back at the top of the hour with the latest on the Texas explosion, and, of course, the Boston bombings live from Boston, me and Erin Burnett. Stay with us.

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