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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Explosion At West,, Texas Fertilizer Plant; Obama Heads To Boston Today; Investigators Pinpoint Two Men In Photo; Remembering The Victims; Obama Rips Senate Over Gun Vote; Tainted Letters Sent To Obama And Senator Wicker; Cruise Ship Power Failure

Aired April 18, 2013 - 07:30   ET

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


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: -- after a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant. First there was a fire, then a blast so powerful it registered as 2.1 magnitude seismic event like an event quake.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Look at the pictures, simply amazing. Police right now say as many as 15 people may have died, but those numbers could grow very preliminary right now. What they do know at this point more than 160 people have been treated this morning in area hospitals. That small Texas town is only 20 mile from Waco. Right now, it is the scene of utter devastation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SGT. WILLIAM PATRICK SWANTON, WACO POLICE DEPARTMENT: There are homes leveled. There are businesses leveled. He says it looks like when the blast occurred that the concussion and the pressure impact, if that's the correct wording, literally destroyed homes in and around that plant.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: Half this town had to be evacuated because of the threat of leaking ammonia. A second fertilizer tank they were worried that might possibly explode.

CUOMO: It's a complicated situation because it's not just the massive fire, but chemical propelled and these chemicals can be poisonous, used as -- we will teach them about you later on.

We will have people come in to tell you what anhydrous ammonia is, why it can be so dangerous, how it's complicating their efforts. The good news is they don't believe they are seeing a lot of exposure there.

We have live reports from Texas. We have CNN's George Howell. He is in Waco. He's monitoring the situation at the hospitals and Martin Savidge is in West, Texas. Let's start with you, Martin. What's the latest from the ground?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the weather that they had been talking about is now finally arrived. There's a mixture of good and bad that comes with that. We've got some pretty heavy steady rain coming down. Temperatures dropped about 15, 20 degrees. Here's the good news. Overhearing from officials, the rain will help wash, clean the area of some of the particles. So that could help if there are any toxic fumes still over the city and then on top of that it would help to extinguish some of the embers and some of the fires that had still been burning.

I mean, we're not talking -- approaching almost 12 hours after the blast. The bad side is, of course, it's going the hamper and hinder the search and rescue effort, which the mayor says is still ongoing at this hour. And the big thing is going to be waiting for daylight because they expect to learn a lot, both about what the impact has been and counting up those who have been lost.

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

BERMAN: CNN's George Howell is standing by for us live from Waco, Texas right now. George is at one of the medical centers where so many people have been treated, more than 100 where he is at the Hillcrest Medical Center in Waco. George, what's the latest from where you are?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, john, first of all, just as Martin indicated, we are also starting to feel that weather come through. The same storm system, John, that we tangled with just a few hours ago in Oklahoma. This is a pretty strong system. It will bring a lot of wind, a lot of rain to this area.

And we'll certainly make it difficult, will hamper that search house- by-house that investigators are doing, a very thorough, methodical search. But here at this hospital at Hillcrest, they saw the most patients, 101 patients. We understand that five of them are in intensive care. Two are in critical condition.

And the other three are in what is described as serious condition. Also at Providence Hospital nearby they saw 65 patients. They admitted 12 of those patients. At Scott & White, which is a level one trauma center, they saw five patients, John. We understand that two of them are children in critical condition at this hour.

We understand that there were also three other patients there, three adults, two of those adults in critical condition and one in stable condition. We also know now, john that two people were sent to Dallas, Texas, to Parkland Hospital, still unclear their condition. The total count that we have right now, 173 people injured in this situation.

CUOMO: All right, George. Just to be clear, that number, we've had it for a little while. You haven't seen a new wave of injured there?

HOWELL: You know, we are diligently checking with these hospitals to keep up. It's a fluid situation, especially, Chris, as we have daylight and we, you know, learn more from these investigators as they go house by house looking for victims, looking for the potentially dead.

At this point the casualty number we understand is anywhere from 5 to 15. That number is significantly less than what we initially heard from firefighters who said it could be as high as 70, now 5 to 15 and at our count, 173 injured.

BERMAN: All right, George Howell at the Hillcrest Medical Center in Waco, Texas, our thanks to you.

One of the things we're watching for as these people recover inside these medical centers is any potential exposure to this chemical agent, this fertilizer, anhydrous ammonia, which potentially can be very, very dangerous.

CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen is here with us to explain exactly what this is and how dangerous it can be.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. So this is a chemical in the fertilizer. It becomes gaseous after an explosion. When you breathe it in, if you breathe in enough of it, it can kill you right away.

If you don't breathe in very much, it's not necessarily such a big deal. You can get some fresh air and you will be fine. In the middle, you can have lung irritation or ear, nose, and throat irritation.

It sounds from what we've heard that the explosion has been a much bigger deal than the inhalation of this gas. That's what we're seeing, the injuries, is the explosion, not so much the gas.

CUOMO: The question is, if this explosion blew into these homes, you know, enough obviously to damage them. Does that mean that it's carrying this chemical along with it or when it explodes is the burn from it then burning up the chemical?

COHEN: The burn from it can burn up the chemical. So hopefully that's what happened, is that it can burn up some of the chemical or a lot of the chemical. Hopefully also the weather conditions are right. Hopefully also there's a lot of wind to take it away. So there are a lot of variables going on here.

BERMAN: We did hear early on that some of the first patients admitted did have eye irritation.

COHEN: Had to be irrigated, yes. That's often the first, eye irritation, nose irritation. We have a lot of experience with this chemical. Unfortunately, it is involved in explosions with some frequency. There are many people who have that level, that eye irritation or nose irritation and then they're fine.

BERMAN: All right, Elizabeth Cohen, thank you for being with us right now. We're going to go to the White House and talk to Brianna Keilar right now because obviously with so much going on in the country, so much news, the White House monitoring any number of situations, including the one in West,, Texas. Brianna, who what do you know about what the White House is saying?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. At this point, all we know is that they're aware of the situation. They're keeping an eye on this and they're really doing this through FEMA.

I will tell you this is very much a state operation there. The Texas Department of Public Safety is very much the point organization. As you know, Texas is a big state with a lot of capability. So as of now, it appears that this state is largely handling this situation on their own.

But I'm told that -- by a FEMA official that the federal authorities here do stand ready to help if needed. There are actually a couple of damage assessment teams on standby and a federal urban search and rescue team that has been alerted but not deployed at this point.

At this point, though, FEMA coordinating their efforts with state and local officials there in Texas, either regional office in Benton, Texas. But again, John, this is very much a state operation for now in Texas, appears to be handling this.

BERMAN: The president headed to where we are in Boston today -- Brianna.

KEILAR: That's right. President Obama is heading to Boston for this interfaith memorial service taking place at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. He will be going early this morning, really in not too long here in the next hour.

And he will be speaking in the 11:00 hour. He will, according to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, be giving a message of resolve. We heard him in recent days talking about the heroic acts that we saw in the wake of the bombing in Boston.

I think we will be hearing more of those because some of the points that he's going to want to touch on really is that he will be talking about how some of the moments really should be the things that define the bombing, how people responded, not necessarily running away from the danger, but running toward it to help other people.

People who ran the marathon and even after such a grueling race, went to the hospital, gave blood so that they could be of assistance to the victims. I will tell you some of the folks in addition to President Obama who will be at the memorial service, of course, state and local officials.

But you're also going to be seeing first responders, some of the people on the scene. They have been invited, family members of victims and also a number of volunteers from the Boston Athletic Association, which puts on the marathon. And again, John, we're expecting those comments in the 11:00 Eastern Hour.

BERMAN: All right, Brianna, thanks so much. Of course, CNN will bring you that live, the interfaith service. I know Chris, you will be there as the president arrives and gives that message, as Brianna said, a message of hope, reaching out to the people who were heroes in the minutes and hours after the bombing. CUOMO: One of your fellow Bostonian said to me last night, it was an act of terror, but we are not terrified. To show that resolve, to use the president's word, that they're here, that together, they're going to move forward together as well. And this service today will be a big part of that and we'll bring it all to you live.

BERMAN: Still head on STARTING POINT, the investigation here does continue and there has been what investigators call a possible breakthrough. A significant development in the terror attacks.

CUOMO: We will show you some photos that they're interested in, a piece of videotape they believe in which they spotted men near that finish line. What it could mean to the investigation, the latest when we come back.

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CUOMO: Welcome back. I'm Chris Cuomo here with John Berman in Boston, part of our continuing coverage of the attacks at the Boston marathon.

The headline this morning, new developments, a possible breakthrough in the investigation of the attacks, investigators pinpointing two men caught on camera near the finish line.

Their pictures coming from cameras at a Lord and Taylor Department Store roof near the site of the second blast and also from a local TV station, those pictures are now in the hands of federal and state agencies.

BERMAN: Now in the images one of the men is reportedly seen carrying a black backpack, significant, of course, because they saw the remnants of those backpacks on the ground later on. Three people were killed from the blast, 178 injured, 66 this morning are still in the hospital and 13 of them in critical condition.

CUOMO: Later this morning, the public will get a chance to come together, pray, and grieve together in an interfaith service. President Obama and the first lady are going to be traveling to Boston this morning.

They're going to be joined by local dignitaries and clergy as well as first responders and they will use this memorial service to honor the victims of Monday's bombing at the marathon.

BERMAN: Pamela Brown is standing outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross right now here in Boston. Good morning, Pamela.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, John. The interfaith service doesn't begin until 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time. Crowds have been building outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross since around 4:30 this morning.

Let's look take a look here at the crowds. Several blocks out from the cathedral, as far down as I can see, about three blocks right now. You can expect crowds to continue to build because the service is open to the public.

As mentioned, President Obama will be speaking this morning, along -- he will be joined by first lady, Michelle Obama, also former Massachusetts governor and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney will be in attendance today.

The president's message will be focused on resolve, a shared commonality of the American people with the people of Boston and a big focus will, of course, be on the victims from Monday's tragedy, those who suffered and those who have lost their lives.

Late yesterday afternoon Boston University officially released the name of the third victim killed, a 23-year-old graduate student and Chinese national by the name of Lingzi Lu and we just learning this morning that the parents obtained expedited visas and they may already be on their way from China to the U.S.

That is according to a State Department source. Lingzi was standing on the finish line with three friends when the bombs went off on Monday. One of her friends was suffered injuries and taken to the hospital.

After that a frantic search erupted on social media from friends looking for Lingzi and that was followed by a wave of sympathy Tuesday after it became apparent she had been killed. Her lost has sent shockwaves throughout the BU campus, which has a strong Chinese community. Here's what one student had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JACK CAO: We just know our friend was lost in this. We are really devastated. We are trying to do something for her. I know there was a vigil yesterday and so many people came and they show up and give support from Chinese students. We want to do more for her.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: There will be a memorial service on the Boston University campus at 7:00 tonight and, again, we are learning this morning from a State Department source that Lingzi's parents may be on their way to the U.S. from China and that they received expedited visas.

Again, President Obama will be here at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time. Not only will he focus on Lingzi, but also the other two victims who lost their lives in the tragedy, 29-year-old Krystle Campbell and 8-year- old Martin Richard, the face of this tragedy.

We do expect family members of some of the victims to be here this morning along with first responders and others who were there on Monday when the bombs went off. Also, a big crowd, members of the public will be attendance at this morning's interfaith service.

BERMAN: Thank you so much, Pamela Brown, outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Again, those services begin at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Time and CNN will bring you coverage of that event. Meanwhile, the NHL and NBA are paying tribute of the victims of the bombings here on Monday. Both the Bruins and the Celtics during last night's game in Toronto, the Celtics and Raptors gathered at midcourt for a moment of silence.

Meanwhile, the Bruins were the first sports team to play at home in Boston since the attacks on Monday. There was a moment of silence before their game as well against the Sabres. And in a stirring moment, Rancor put down his microphone, encouraging the crowd to sing "The National Anthem" instead.

CUOMO: On a night like that, another song, such strong meaning to people, some solid to people who gathered with feelings of community.

BERMAN: That's what everyone was singing. Listen to everyone in unison.

CUOMO: They've got that kind of spirit. They can come back to it. They will. They sang it through, loud and proud.

BERMAN: Ahead on STARTING POINT, President Obama making a passionate, passionate vow saying the fight is not over after that compromised gun control bill went down to defeat in the Senate. Ahead, we're going to talk about the White House's next move.

CUOMO: You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CUOMO: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. Chris Cuomo here with John Berman in Boston. President Obama is on his way here, but also vowing to fight after a gun control bill went down to defeat. The Senate voted down a compromise to expand background checks and ban military style assault weapons. The president says the gun lobby lied about the bill.

Let's go to Brianna Keilar. She is at the White House with more. Strong words, Brianna.

KEILAR: Very strong words, he was upset, Chris and John. White House officials early on decided that the reality of this debate was that a really -- what they would consider a bold gun control measure like an assault weapons ban had no chance of passing Congress.

They were certainly right about that, but they were pinning their hopes on expanded background checks for gun purchases. You heard White House officials and the president say that they thought Newtown had changed the dynamics of this political debate. It turns out they were wrong.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR (voice-over): President Obama angrily called out Congress for failing to expand background checks on gun purchases.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington.

KEILAR: It was an emotional speech delivered with families who had loved ones were killed in the Newtown massacre and shooting victim, Gabby Giffords looking on.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: It came down to politics, the worry that vocal minority of gun owners would come after them in future elections, so they caved to the pressure and they started looking for an excuse, any excuse, to vote no.

KEILAR: The normally staid Senate chamber erupted as Republicans block the key amendment to the gun bill.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There will be order in the Senate. The gallery will refrain from any demonstration or comment.

KEILAR: Despite broad public support for expanded gun background checks and personal pleas by Sandy Hook families, the bipartisan compromise failed. One conservative senator criticized the White House for having the families of the victims lobby for the legislation.

SENATOR RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: In some cases, the president has used them as props and that disappoints me.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Are they serious? Do we really think thousands of families whose lives have been shattered by gun violence don't have a right to weigh in on the issue? We think their loss is not relevant to the debate?

MARK BARDEN, SANDY HOOK PARENT: Our hearts are broken. Our spirit is not.

KEILAR: The president and Sandy Hook families vowed the fight is not over.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: Now, you heard President Obama and White House officials say they really think this comes down to what the American public thinks. So obviously they are hoping that this defeat galvinizes some public support for stricter gun control measures.

But that really makes it an issue of 2014 and those senators up for re-election then. John and Chris, as of now, there is really no big legislative plan "b" to tackle background checks. Again, there is this gun bill in the Senate.

But certainly from the White House's perspective, it's very watered down measure including straw purchases, a measure on straw purchases and school safety, which they say are necessary, but certainly not as much as they would have liked to have seen.

CUOMO: All right, Brianna, thank you very much for the reporting. We'll check in with you later on. It's a very complex and emotional debate when it comes to gun control. There is a large portion of the country, 45 percent of the households have weapons.

There is a big sentiment there that, yes, we all care about the victims and we want to make sure it doesn't happen again, but laws that restrict the rights of getting guns lawfully.

You know, the good guys, as they call them, is not the way to go about it and that's what you see in the pressuring of the politicians who voted no on this bill.

BERMAN: A complicated issue as you said, 45 percent gun owners. Up to 90 percent saying they would support some kind of background checks right there. A little bit of dichotomy.

CUOMO: And we do have background checks. So it gets complicated and this is going to have to take a lot more dialogue.

BERMAN: For Democrats voted against it also. All right, a lot going on. Let's get to Christine Romans in New York with more of the headlines. Good morning, Christine.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, guys. New developments in the ricin scare in the nation's capitol. A suspect is now under arrest. He has been identified as Paul Kevin Curtis of Mississippi.

Police believe he sent the letters addressed to President Obama and Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker. Letters that were intercepted at a mail processing facility after tests indicated presence of the poison. The letters are undergoing additional testing many results could be known later today.

More problems for the troubled for Carnival cruise line. The company confirms a power failure last night on board its shipped called the Carnival "Ecstasy." According to a statement, the power failure lasted about 12 minutes. All hotel services and propulsion systems were restored. The ship is now making its way back to Port Canaveral, Florida. It was on the final leg of a five-day cruise to the Bahamas that departed last Saturday.

North Korea now threatening, quote, "sledgehammer blows" to the U.S. and South Korea, unless a list of demands are met. The North says it will only sit down to talk if U.N. sanctions are lifted. Also the U.S. must stop military drills in South Korea and the U.S. must apologize to North Korea. South Korea calls the demands preposterous. The U.S. has said before any talks, the North must move away from its nuclear program. Back to you in Boston.

BERMAN: Thanks so much, Christine.

CUOMO: We'll be following all of the breaking developments here. We do have the interfaith service coming up here, a great opportunity for people to start taking that step. Be together in the time of grief. We'll bring it all live and the major breaking story of the morning in Texas.

BERMAN: As many as 15 people dead. It could be more, could be less, still very preliminary, many injuries and the threat not over.

CUOMO: They've been through it overnight. With daylight now, they'll have to see the situation. It's far from over there for sure. We'll stay with it all morning long.

BERMAN: Plus, what they are calling a possible break in the investigation here in Boston into the terror attacks. We'll bring you the latest on the investigation, right after the break.

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