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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Texas Fertilizer Plant Explosion; Investigators Pinpoint Two Men In Photo

Aired April 18, 2013 - 08:00   ET

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


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ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Chris Cuomo. We are here live in Boston, part of CNN's continuing coverage of the attacks of the Boston marathon.

Two major stories this morning, however. First, breaking news overnight. A fertilizer plant explodes in West, Texas, leveling surrounding homes.

That blast, so powerful it literally registered as an earthquake. They do believe there is loss of life, too soon to tell how many people. We know that over 150 people have been injured, treated in local hospitals, search and rescue throughout the night in darkness. Now, in daylight, they'll see their situation differently. An extra factor: difficult weather moving in.

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SGT. PATRICK SWANTON, WACO POLICE STATION: There are homes leveled. There are businesses leveled. There is massive devastation in the downtown West area.

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BERMAN: Plus, we're learning about safety issues at this plant that stretch back as far as 2006.

And we're standing live in Boston this morning, where there is a possible break in the marathon bombing case. Investigators focusing on two men, caught on camera, who may -- may be connected. This as the president prepares to attend a prayer service this morning.

It is Thursday, April 18th. Special edition of STARTING POINT begins right now.

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ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

CUOMO: Welcome to this special edition of STARTING POINT here in Boston. I'm Chris Cuomo with John Berman.

BERMAN: We're standing here now as we want to welcome back our viewers here in the United States and around the world. There is so much news this morning.

CUOMO: Breaking news out of Texas. We were just telling you about. This fertilizer plant went up at 7:00 p.m. local time.

Soon thereafter, that big blast we showed you, right now, door-to-door search and rescue. Fifty, 60 of the homes in this tiny community, less than 3,000 people -- 50 to 60 homes they believe destroyed. Even difficult to find people.

BERMAN: Just after 12 hours after the explosion at this chemical explosion at the fertilizer plant. Again, as we said, the blast leveled homes, leveled buildings, 50 to 60 homes heavily damaged right now. That blast felt as far as 15 miles away.

CUOMO: And it is key that this is a fertilizer plant. We're dealing with chemicals, specifically one called anhydrous ammonia. It is dangerous to breathe in, potentially lethal.

So far, thankfully, very little word of injury. But it is very fluid on the ground there. So, we're going to learn about what this chemical could be and how they're going to deal with it there.

BERMAN: We're hearing as many 160-plus people have been injured. We're getting numbers from local medical facilities where people are being treated right now. The police right now, they say they are treating it as a crime scene, but that is only because they need to find out more information. Listen.

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SWANTON: This is a crime scene. We are not indicating that it is a crime, but we don't know. What that means to us is that until we know it was an industrial accident, we will work it as a crime scene.

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CUOMO: The bigger concerns right now, loss of human life. Firefighters, as many as five who responded to the fire at the plant before it exploded still unaccounted for this morning.

BERMAN: We have live team coverage of this, starting with CNN's Martin Savidge who is on the ground in the town of West, Texas, about 18 miles away from Waco.

Martin, what's the latest right now?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, that heavy weather that we've been talking about is now hitting the area. It's proving to be problematic. We've got high winds that are gusting through what is going to be the devastation there and we got torrential rain. It could interfere in some ways with the signal. But I want to bring in Jill Jenkins. Jill is not only a nurse, one of those who responded right away. She is also a resident of the community that has been so, so hard hit.

And I guess the first thing is to ask, how are you doing?

JILL JENKINS, WEST, TEXAS RESIDENT: I'm good. I'm tired, but I'm good.

SAVIDGE: It was a fire and that's what drew a lot of people out to sort of see what was burning, right? And that's what brought you in?

JENKINS: Yes, that was just a big fire, that's all we knew.

SAVIDGE: Tell us how it went from there?

JENKINS: We drove to see the fire and right when we turned the corner, about four or five blocks I guess, the explosion occurred.

SAVIDGE: How bad?

JENKINS: It was bad. It was very loud. Like a bomb went off, and you still weren't really sure what exactly it was.

SAVIDGE: Most people go away, but you went toward the area.

JENKINS: We went around because we started seeing people with injuries and things like that. So the closer we drove to, you know, kind of the --

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BERMAN: All right. We're having some technical issues in West, Texas. As Martin said, heavy weather right now, could screw up our satellite signal right there. We'll get back as soon as we can 40 to 50-mile-an-hour wind gusts, heavy rain, lightning strikes could affect that area.

CUOMO: And we already know, significant injury numbers here, especially how strong the community is 150 people. Doctors and nurses have been busy at the Hillcrest Medical Center in Waco, Texas. That where a majority of the casualties were brought.

We have George Howell on the scene there monitoring for us. George, any latest information?

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Chris, we're diligently checking with hospitals. The latest numbers we have at Hillcrest as you mentioned, the hospital that saw the most patients, 101 patients. We understand that five of those patients are in intensive care. Two in critical condition, and three in what is described as serious condition.

Also, in Providence Hospital, 65 patients were seen, and the number one trauma center, Scott & White, which the level one trauma center here in the Waco area. We understand five patients there. Two of them children, in critical condition.

We understand also, three adults, two adults in critical condition, one in stable condition. And two people sent to Dallas, Texas to Parkland hospital. It's unclear of their condition. But by our count right now, a fluid situation, 173 people that we know of that were sent to hospitals. The casualty number less than we heard estimated by firefighters from --

CUOMO: All right. George, we know you're keeping an eye. Thanks. We'll be back to you soon.

Obviously, with daylight now, John and dealing with the weather elements, they don't really know what they have yet in terms of injuries. Hopefully, they don't have no other big waves. But you just can't tell (INAUDIBLE) to it.

BERMAN: No, you can see.

Martin Savidge, you can see how weather is affecting things right now. Heavy winds, strong rain, lightning could be a factor there this morning.

I think we have Jennifer Delgado for us right now to talk to us about the situation on the ground there -- Jennifer.

JENNIFER DELGADO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hi, John. Hi, Chris.

You're right. All of the things are affecting the situation in West, Texas. We're dealing with lightning, as well as gusty winds, and the wind right now, 33, coming out of Northwest. That's a sign that the front is moving through. And the temperature has dropped 25 degrees over the last two hours.

So, again, that line of storms making its way through West, Texas, as well as into Waco, yes. We're still looking at some lightning and as well as some hail.

So, certainly, everyone needs to take caution as we go through the next couple of hours. T heaviest rainfall looks like going to be out of the region by 9:00 local time. But on a wider view, you can also see some of those heavier pockets that are still going to be moving through.

And as this does, we'll continue to see wind gusts at times up to 40 miles per hour, and through the afternoon, we are talking about wind gusts right around 25 to 30. But you can see right now, the winds are still coming out of the south, out of the Northwest, still at 26.

Now, as I take you back to the graphic. I want to give you an idea of the day is going to look like. This is 7:00 a.m. And then as we move through Thursday, the jet stream is what's going to be ushering in a lot of cold air and that is really starting to filter in now.

And that means overnight lows tonight are going to be significantly cooler, dropping down to 38 degrees. So that is also going to be a big shocker, all of those who don't have a home, don't have shelter and emergency responders out there.

Chris, John, this is something to watch as we go through the next 24 hours.

BERMAN: All right, Jennifer Delgado. Our thanks to you.

Of course, these weather conditions inhibiting the search and search efforts, very dangerous right now. But there could be some beneficial effects.

CUOMO: There could be. You know, to be clear, the first is not out. They believe they have it somewhat under control. There's a risk that there's another major silo of this fertilizer chemical that could explode.

So, these winds blowing the fire. That's a danger. It could blow it obviously away from the town. That's what they thought was going to happen.

BERMAN: But these dangerous gases, sometimes the rain, sometimes the wind could help dissipate the threat there.

CUOMO: You know, tamp them down into the ground. That would be good.

Now, we also reported earlier on that the White House aware, made resources available. Now, we understand they are being deployed. National Guard troops being sent into Texas right now. Exactly the kind of help they need. They have the right equipment, the man power.

Barbara Starr, live at the Pentagon with the U.S. military is also keeping a close eye on the disaster in the little town of West.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Chris, John.

We know 21 members of the Texas National Guard on the way to the scene. Their expertise? Monitoring air quality.

Everything you both just said, they need to monitor the air quality for the people there, the emergency responders. That will be their main job. Additionally, Texas National Guard search and rescue, extraction team on alert at this hour and could go in the coming hours later today. All of this is part of the Texas National Guard's activated by Texas Governor Rick Perry.

So, it's a state effort. Texas National Guard, one of the best equipped in the country, very capable. They like to look after their own business.

But in addition clearly, the Pentagon, everyone in Washington, monitoring the situation, in case there is an additional need for federal help. The Pentagon will be available we are told to respond to that in a real sign of all of the tragedy this week, just a couple of days ago. The Texas National Guard issued a statement of support for the Massachusetts National Guard and their efforts in Boston. The National Guard often on the front lines in so many communities in times of trouble -- Chris, John. BERMAN: Right behind us.

CUOMO: That's right. They're standing right behind us as they have been, on extra long shifts, keeping the perimeter secure.

Barbara, thank you very much. We'll be back to you.

BERMAN: We're learning more about the fertilizer plant where the explosion happened and some potential safety issues.

Let's get to Christine Romans in New York with details on that.

ROMANS: And, again, this plant is right in the middle of town. So many homes and businesses right in the vicinity.

This is what we know this morning. We know that this plant was cited in 2006 for a lingering smell of ammonia. A local television station is reporting that this plant was fined in 2006 by the EPA for not having a risk management plan in place that met federal standards.

We know now officials from the chemical safety board are en route from Washington, to look at the overall safety, history and the protocol in place here at this plant.

We know this morning, "The Dallas Morning News" said it filed with federal and state officials. It had no risk of fire. That's what it reported to officials. That report said the worst-case scenario at this plant would be a 10-minute release of ammonia gas that would not kill or injure any.

This is authorized to hold up to 54,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia. It's called the West Fertilizer. It's owned by Adair Grain. That is a private company.

Why does a grain company own a fertilizer company or a fertilizer plant? That's because this kind of fertilizer is a prolific component in agriculture. It has been used for and really an ag boom has meant more use in this chemical.

It's also used as an explosive in construction and mining and it's used in quarries. We also know it's used for instant cold packs. So, there are a lot of industrial applications for anhydrous ammonia, but a fire at a plant like this leading to explosion, clearly the worst- case scenario.

We know that officials told us that the operating assumption is an industrial accident, but they are treating it as a crime scene, investigating it as a crime scene, but they have no reason to believe that it was not -- a very dangerous and terrible industrial accident -- guys.

BERMAN: Christine Romans, standard operating procedure down there for them right now. They're calling them a crime scene, the proof that they want that it is an industrial accident.

Christine Romans, our thanks to you. ROMANS: You're welcome.

CUOMO: Everybody has eyes on this situation, in government and around the country. Texas music legend, taken to Twitter, expressing concern over this, the massive fertilizer explosion.

The one and only Willie Nelson tweeted this message, "West has been in any backyard all my life. My heart is praying for the community we call home." And certainly, everyone around the country joins in that sentiment. Once they get through the critical phase what we do to help, because they're going to need help there.

BERMAN: And the National Guard on the way. That's a breaking news from us just a short while ago.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, we'll have continuing coverage of that giant explosion at the fertilizer plant that just simply devastated the town of West, Texas. That fire still burning right now. The threat level is still very real.

CUOMO: And here in Boston, investigators say they are zeroing in on two men caught on tape at the finish line of the Boston marathon. The details when we come back.

You are watching STARTING POINT.

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ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BERMAN: Welcome back, everyone. John Berman here in Boston where we continue to cover the investigation into the aftermath of the Boston marathon terror attacks. Chris Cuomo gone over to the church of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross where President Obama will be coming later today for that interfaith prayer service.

Meanwhile, we are covering other breaking news. You're looking at it right now, that fire burning in the town of West, Texas, just north of Waco, where there was a massive explosion last night at a fertilizer plant there. Officials say right now, anywhere between five and 15 people may have been killed, but that's a preliminary estimate. They do worry that that number could grow.

More than 160 people have been injured in local area hospitals being treated right now. A search and rescue operation is under way. Dozens of homes have been reduced to rubble. Half that town evacuated.

Meanwhile, here in Boston this morning, there've been some new developments into the investigation of those terror attacks that happened here on Monday. Investigators now say they're spotting two men caught on surveillance cameras near the finish line. There are pictures coming from cameras from a Lord & Taylor Department Store roof near the sight of the second blast, also from a local TV station.

Those pictures, they are now in the hands of federal and state agencies all around the country. In the images, one of the men is reportedly seen carrying a black backpack. Later this morning, as I said before, the public will get a chance to gather, to pray, to grieve at an interfaith prayer service. President Obama on his way shortly.

Susan Candiotti is following the latest developments in the investigation. As we said, Susan, there have been some developments. What do you know about these two pictures being sent around of these individuals?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. Yes, I've seen the images of these two men. And, we are not showing them for now because, at least for now, law enforcement people have asked us not to show them so as not to jeopardize their investigation. Now, at this point, they're saying that they have a high interest, that's what they're saying, a high interest in talking with these two people.

Why? Well, you indicated part of the reason is because of where they were and what time that was. And, they were standing near the finish line. They were standing there before the bomb blasts, and they stand out, because they are carrying -- because of what they're carrying. In one case, as you've said, one of them is a dark backpack and the other one appears to be a duffel bag.

That might be significant, because, as we know, the investigators in this case have said that that they believe that the bombs were carried in those kinds of black nylon backpack as well as a dark nylon bag. So, no one is making any connection to say that these are the people. Authorities are simply saying for now that they have a high interest in talking to these two men.

They say that they don't have the names. They haven't released the photographs public yet. We don't know why. But, we do expect to have a news conference possibly today, and perhaps, there will be a change of heart on that. We're waiting to see -- John.

BERMAN: Susan, this investigation is still going on right behind me. The crime scene just a block away. People still not able to return to their place of business there. So, with these photos being circulated, the statement of federal agencies, how significant a development is this?

CANDIOTTI: Well, certainly, it's significant enough that they've, as you said, spread these photographs around to various federal and state agencies around the country, saying if any of you know who these people are, please let us know. So, it remains to be seen how significant it will turn out to be.

It may simply be that authorities want to speak with them, ask them some questions, and walk away from it. But, that's something that is still down the road and will have to be determined -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Susan Candiotti, our thanks to you. Again, as I said, this investigation still very much ongoing with the area behind me still blocked off. The National Guard, police still there. And investigators still working on that sidewalk.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, President Obama is coming here, headed to Boston this morning with the first lady to help this city heal after the deadly terror attacks. We'll bring you the latest when we come back.

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CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. I'm Christine Romans with a look at today's top stories.

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ROMANS (voice-over): A Mississippi man is under arrest this morning in connections with a ricin scare in the nation's capital. Letters addressed to President Obama and Mississippi senator, Senator Roger Wicker, were intercepted at a mail processing facility. After test indicated the presence of the poison, the letters are now undergoing additional testing.

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JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Any time a suspicious powder is located in a mail facility, it is tested. And I would underscore that the mail is screened. The mail sent here is screened and that these tests are undertaken at remote sites to mitigate the risk both to those recipients and to the general population.

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ROMANS: The FBI says results of the tests on those envelopes could be released later today.

President Obama vowing to fight on after a gun control bill came up short. The Senate voting down a compromised measure to expand background checks and to ban military-style assault weapons. The president says the gun lobby lied about that bill and that senators of both parties caved in to political pressure.

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BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington. But this effort is not over. I want to make it clear to the American people, we can still bring about meaningful changes that reduce gun violence so long as the American people don't give up on it.

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ROMANS: The president he would push to make it easier for states to use the current background check laws.

A major break in the case of three high profile killings in Kaufman County, Texas. The wife of a disgraced former justice of the peace is pinning the crimes on her husband. Authorities say Kim Williams (ph) knew details about the shootings of a prosecutor, a DA and a DA's wife. Details that weren't made public, and she confessed that her husband, Eric, pulled the trigger.

She is charged with capital murder. He is in jail on a terroristic threat charge. Investigators say an e-mail threatening more attacks was traced back to him. We're expecting more information this afternoon.

Strong storms left their mark in Oklahoma last night. No one was hurt, but several buildings were damaged. Now, the same system is moving east. Nine states from Michigan to Louisiana are looking at severe weather today, including tornado threats.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, a possible break, a possible break in the Boston marathon bombing. Authorities have a high interest in two men photographed near the finish line just around the time of the explosions. We're going to tell you why.

Plus, we're going to take you back to the devastated town of West, Texas, where half the population has been evacuated after a deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant. You're watching STARTING POINT.

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ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BERMAN: Welcome back to this special edition of STARTING POINT. I'm John Berman live in Boston this morning. We are following breaking news on many fronts.