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Limo Catches Fire in California, Killing Five; No Burial Ground Yet for Tamerlan Tsarnaev; Israel Bombs Syria; Interview with Andrew Tabler

Aired May 6, 2013 - 07:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. I'm Christine Romans.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin on STARTING POINT. It was supposed to be a night of celebration, but it ended in horror. Five women, including bride-to-be killed in a stunning limo fire. We're live with details about what went wrong there.

ROMANS: Then, the family of the dead Boston bombing suspect struggling to bury his body as communities fight to keep him out. As a friend accused of helping the surviving suspect hears to court, what could we learn more about the terror attack now?

SAMBOLIN: And Israel accused of launching rocket attacks into Syria with Iran encouraging retaliation. Will the U.S. be forced to respond? We're live in Syria and Israel, covering the story like no other network can.

ROMANS: Plus, a teenage surfer swims for his life after a shark bites through his ankle ripping four tendons. So, why does he call the experience pretty cool? You've got to hear this.

It's Monday, May 6th. STARTING POINT begins right now.

SAMBOLIN: And our STARTING POINT, this happened in an instant. The stretch limousine taking nine women to a bachelorette party suddenly became a death trap when it burst into flames. New video released overnight shows the limo engulfed on a bridge over San Francisco Bay. Five of the passengers died, four were able to escape along with the limo driver. CNN's Dan Simon is following all of the developments for us. He is live in San Mateo, California. What can you tell us, Dan?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Zoraida. The main questions today, how exactly did that fire start? It seems to have broken out in the back of the limousine, and why wasn't everyone able to escape? And adding to this tragedy, the group was literally just minutes away from the hotel where they were planning to celebrate an upcoming wedding.


SIMON: It was supposed to be a night of celebration. A bachelorette party near San Francisco for a woman getting married next month in the Philippines. But as they crossed the San Mateo Bridge in a stretch limo Saturday night they noticed smoke.

OFFICER AMELIA JACK, CALIFORNIA HIGHWAY PATROL: We got calls of smoke coming from the limousine. The limousine pulled over, and then all of a sudden it became engulfed in flames.

SIMON: There were 10 people in the limo, including the driver. He and four women in the party escaped. Five others, including the bride-to-be, did not. They died in the flames. So badly burned it's reported that dental records will be need to make positive IDs.

JACK: The driver was able to get out, and good Samaritans did stop and assist and try to pull people from the fire.

SIMON: The mother of one of those who survived distraught but relieved.

ROSITA GUARDIANO, VICTIM'S MOTHER: We did not sleep, both of us crying and crying. No. Thank god that she survived.

SIMON: All of the women were in their 30s or 40s. Most, if not all, were nurses.

GRACE KANU, CO-WORKER: It's so hard on Sunday morning we heard that they died.

SIMON: The limousine was operated by a company called Limo-Stop. In a statement the company said it was deeply saddened by the deaths, and that Limo-Stop will do everything possible to investigate and assist authorities in determining the cause of this fire, in order to help bring forth answers and provide closure to the victims and their families.


SIMON: The limousine driver was not hurt. He has since spoken out and says that originally he thought the group was asking if they could smoke, when in reality they were complaining about the smoke. He estimates it took about 30 seconds to one minute before he pulled over. Now the four survivors were able to escape by climbing over the partition and then getting out a front door. They're being treated at local hospitals with smoke inhalation, and burn injuries. And those who died, the five, were found up against the partition, this gives you an idea of just how quickly that fire spread, which even melted the fenders. Zoraida?

SAMBOLIN: And also how desperate they were to try to get out of there. Dan Simon reporting live for us. Thank you.

ROMANS: Another bachelorette party tragedy to tell you about. Investigation under way this morning into a woman's fatal fall out of a party bus, as 26-year-old Jamie Frecks was on the bus for a bachelorette party Saturday night in Kansas City when she fell through the emergency door and she fell onto Interstate 35. Police say three vehicles hit her. Frecks died at the scene. She leaves behind a six- week-old baby, a fiance, and a devastated family.


CYNTHIA MATTESON, VICTIM'S AUNT: She always had a smile. She was a great girl. She loved everybody, didn't care who it was. Jamie loved everybody.


ROMANS: No one else on that bus was hurt.

SAMBOLIN: And two weeks after the Boston marathon bombings and still no final resting place for Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Relatives of the suspected terrorist want him laid to rest in Cambridge. But town officials insist that is not going to happen. Susan Candiotti is live from Boston this morning with the very latest for us. Good morning, Susan.

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Zoraida. Rejected -- one after another, the funeral director who is in charge of the suspected bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev's body says he cannot find one cemetery, not one in the region, who will take charge and provide a burial plot. Now, even the city of Cambridge, where Tsarnaev used to live with his wife and child, says it wants no role in any of this, and is asking whether the federal government could get involved.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Send him back to Russia.

CANDIOTTI: For days protesters outside a Worcester funeral home making it clear suspected bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev is as hated as much dead as he would be alive. One sign reads, "Bury the garbage, but not in perk." His remains are in limbo at a funeral home, much to the chagrin of its director.

PETER STEFAN, FUNERAL DIRECTOR FOR TSARNAEV FAMILY: The thing is we have to bury this guy. Whatever it is, whoever he is, in this country, we bury people. I don't care who it is.

CANDIOTTI: So far not a single cemetery will take Tsarnaev's remains. His uncle from Maryland, who in the days after the bombing called his two nephews losers, spent Sunday at a funeral home to cleanse and shroud the body as required by Islamic faith.

RUSLAN TSARNI, UNCLE OF TAMERLAN TSARNAEV: I'm left alone to deal with this matter. I was so stressed that Tamerlan Tsarnaev has no other place to be buried.

CANDIOTTI: President Kennedy's assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is buried in the Dallas area. Home grown Oklahoma City terrorist bomber Timothy McVeigh's ashes were scattered after his execution. Where remains a mystery. As for Tsarnaev's widow, according to her in-law, she's steering clear of burial plans. Her attorney says she's still cooperating with the FBI.

On Sunday FBI investigators wearing protective suits spent hours back at Tsarnaev's home where a law enforcement source said bomb residue had earlier been found on the kitchen sink, table and bathtub. Surviving bombing suspect Dzhokhar told the FBI the bombs were built in that top-floor apartment.

And a few hours from now one of the younger brothers' three jailed friends, American student Robel Phillipos will ask a federal judge to set him free on bail pending trial. He's accused of lying to investigators about going to Dzhokhar's dorm room. Two other students from Kazakhstan are accused of ditching evidence.


CANDIOTTI: That hearing will be this afternoon. And in court papers, Phillipos says he is not a flight risk, nor is he a threat to public safety and he's offered to wear an ankle monitor pending trial. He also said in his words his charges have ruined his, quote, "once bright future." Zoraida?

SAMBOLIN: Should have considered that when he lied. Susan Candiotti live in Boston for us. Thank you.

ROMANS: Syria vowing this morning to exact revenge on Israel after a series of massive explosions rocked Damascus Sunday. The Syrians say Israelis are targeting a military research facility just outside their capital. They claim Jerusalem has joined forces with Al Qaeda. CNN's Fred Pleitgen live from Damascus this morning. Good morning, Fred.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Christine. It was absolute mayhem that night. We were torn out of our sleep in the middle of the night by these gigantic explosions. There were several, initial big blasts that went through the city, and then there were secondary explosions that went on for more than two hours. You could hear these explosions, you could hear gunfire in between residents of that area actually thought that there was a full-on battle going on there, and then Syrian state television informed everybody that it was these strikes. Have a look at the size of the blast.


PLEITGEN: It was at around 3:00 a.m. local time that gigantic explosions lit up the skies over Damascus. One deafening blast after another, it went on for more than an hour, rocking a large military area in the suburbs of Syria's capital and prompting terrified nearby residents to run for cover. The Deeb family lives a little over a mile away. Daughter Anna tells me what happened.

ANNA DEEB, WITNESS: After the first two bombs, we kept hearing explosions. There were like nine of them, because everything kept exploding over and over again. We can hear gunshots, we can hear people screaming. So, basically, we didn't know what to do.

PLEITGEN: In the second alleged Israeli air strike in three days the Syrian government says the latest target was a military research facility. The opposition says it was an ammunition depot.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, Syria's deputy foreign minister said Syria would retaliate at its own time and way.

FAISAL AL MEKDAD, SYRIAN DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER: This is an alliance, I mean, between Al Qaeda, Wahabbism, and Israel attacking together Syria. It shows common interests. And what Israel and its allies have tried to hide for a long time is more clear.

PLEITGEN: Is this declaration of war?

AL MEKDAD: When they attack this is a declaration of war.

PLEITGEN: Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the attack, but as the violent uprising against the regime of Bashar al Assad drags on, Israel has become increasingly worried about Syria's chemical weapons stock piles and believes the regime is trying to shift conventional weapons to Hezbollah, an extremist group that the United States and other countries have declared a terrorist organization.

AL MEKDAD: Until now, the information is not very clear on what happened. Did they fire missiles or planes? It's not clear for me because I'm not aware of how it happened. But, of course, it's worrying, but Israel will suffer the same.


PLEITGEN: And some very strong words there as you can hear from the Syrian government. We'll wait and see whether or not they actually do retaliate. But of course all of that has this entire region on the edge, even more so than it was before, waiting to see what will happen next, Christine.

ROMANS: All right Fred Pleitgen, thank you, Fred.

SAMBOLIN: While the Syrians are pointing fingers at the Israelis, officials in Jerusalem won't even confirm they're behind the bombing. Let's go right to Sara Sidner live in Haifa, Israel this morning where an iron dome battery has been deployed to defend northern towns. So Sara, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu met with his security cabinet Sunday. Do we think more attacks are imminent?

SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There is absolutely no indication that that is exactly what's going to happen. We have not heard anything from the military, for example, on that, nor any of the prime minister officials or the foreign ministry, as well.

What we can tell you is that there have been two iron dome anti- missile batteries that have been put in place on the northern border. And to make clear, they've been put on the place near the Lebanese border, not near the Syrian border. And that is partly because Israel is obviously concerned that there could be some kind of reaction from Hezbollah over in the Lebanese side of the border.

When it comes to Syria, a lot of analysts are looking at the situation there and saying, well, Syria has been in this war for such a long time, they are weakened, and they do not expect a major reaction from Syria, for example, an open war on yet another one of Syria's borders. It has enough to deal with inside. Now Prime Minister Netanyahu actually had a meeting with his security cabinet, and then decided to go ahead and go on a planned trip to China. Before he left he made comments about what he believes should be done with Israel, but he did not say anything, very, very quiet, about what has happened inside Syria.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: My father taught me that the greatest responsibility we have is to ensure Israel's security and guarantee its future. This legacy should unite all of us, every day, every hour, and it does.


SIDNER: And just to give you a clear picture of why we are here in Haifa. This is the area in 2006 where a multitude of rockets were coming over from Lebanon during the Lebanese war. The mayor here has said he has told his staff to be prepared to make sure the shelters, for example, are cleaned up, and ready to protect people. He has also talked to the central government and asked them to consider looking into whether or not to remove certain very explosive items from inside some of the industrial complexes here, for example, gasoline. There are many refineries here. The government has said we're going to wait and watch to see what happens at this point. No one should panic. But certainly, there are tensions that are rising on this border. Zoraida?

SAMBOLIN: Sara Sidner live in Haifa. Thank you.

ROMANS: New clashes overnight between police and Islamic protesters in the capital Bangladesh. Authorities say at least 15 people were killed in this violence in Dhaka. Dozens more were wounded. Demonstrators demanding the government implement an anti-blasphemy law. Meantime the death toll from last week's building collapse in Bangladesh now stands at 657, and the government vowing reforms amid allegations that its modern-day slavery inside those factories.

SAMBOLIN: And new this morning we have some shocking images to show you. It's a vintage plane going down during an air show in Madrid. Thousands of people are watching in horror as this happens. That plane crashed into a building and then it exploded, take a look at that, into a huge fireball. There it is. The pilot was killed. Several people on the ground were also injured. And the victim was an experienced pilot who worked as an assistant to Spain's defense minister. The cause of the crash is under investigation.

ROMANS: A heartbreaking update to the story we've been following, 46- year-old Ricardo Portillo, a soccer referee, father of three, losing his fight for life. He had slipped into a coma last week after a 17- year-old soccer player, angry over a call, violently punched him in the head. Family and friends gathered for a vigil yesterday, calling for an end to violence during athletic events. While there his daughter described the last time she you her father conscious.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOHANA PORTILLO, REFEREE'S DAUGHTER: I hold his hand, he pressed my hand really hard, it was like daddy, we're going to be OK. He saw me. He started crying, and he said "no." And then they pulled me out of the room because he started going into shock. And that was the last time I saw him conscious.


ROMANS: She says he will -- she will forgive her father's attacker but right now it's just too soon.

New this morning, a surfer sharing his story after escaping the jaws of a shark. Sixteen-year-old Michael Adler now recovering from surgery, which included 20 stitches to repair tendons in his foot. Here's what he says happened Saturday morning off the coast of central Florida.


MICHAEL ADLER, BITTEN BY SHARK: Caught one of my last waves in, and I kicked off the wave, and I was off my board. When I went to go back on the board, the shark bit me right in the foot and immediately tried to yank it out.


ROMANS: Doctors expect him to make a full recovery.

SAMBOLIN: He is adorable. Like nothing happened.

ROMANS: What a story. What a story. All right the Biebs attacked by a fan. A hardcore Belieber overcame security in Dubai, attacked the pop star during his show. Lucky for Bieber his security quickly tackled the fan before he could disrupt the show too much. His rep had no comment. Whoa!

SAMBOLIN: That's what happens when -- that's one excited Belieber. But Bieber tweeted "Dubai, nothing stops the show."

And ahead on STARTING POINT, if Syria retaliates against Israel for reportedly firing rockets into their country, will the U.S. have to get involved? We'll talk with Andrew Tabler (ph) next. He has inside knowledge into how Washington is dealing with the Syria crisis.

ROMANS: Then Youtube may not be 100 percent free for long. The new plan to start charging you on some premium channels. Just ahead you're watching STARTING POINT.


SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. The tension between Syria and Israel reaching a boiling point. Syria claiming Israel launched rockets into their borders, and Iran now encouraging retaliation.

ROMANS: Joining us now is Andrew Tabler (ph), he's the author of "In The Lion's Den," an eyewitness account of Washington's battle with Syria. He's the senior fellow of the Arab politica program at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy.

Welcome to the program this morning. Good morning to you. You know, Israel also saying that it wants to stay out of Syria's civil war. Any action Israel takes, it says, it will be against Hezbollah. Do you think they're targeting only Hezbollah, or Syria, as well? Can they draw that line?

ANDREW TABLER, AUTHOR, "IN THE LION'S DEN": You increasingly can't. And that's because Hezbollah, by its own admission a few days ago, by leader Hassan Nasrallah is working in concert with the Syrian regime at unprecedented levels and being backed up by Iran. These three forces are coming together, and I think that's the reason why Israel decided to strike the Syrian military facility with some kind of weapon that was bound for Hezbollah. So something unprecedented certainly in the years I've been covering Syria.

SAMBOLIN: The big question here is what action, if any, will the United States take? Listen to senator John McCain talking about Israel's strikes yesterday on Fox News.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R ) ARIZONA: I think that it will probably put more pressure on this administration, but what one of the things I worry about is incremental. I saw this in the Vietnam War. Incremental escalation. We need to have a game changing action, and that is, no American boots on the ground. Establish a safe zone. And to protect it, and to supply weapons to the right people in Syria who are fighting for obviously the things we believe in.


SAMBOLIN: So, do these strikes provide enough pressure for these game changing actions in your opinion?

TABLER: I think the Obama administration can see the same trajectory of the conflict that the Israelis see, inside of Syria. You know Bashar al Assad is moving up the escalation chain, using scud missiles against his own population, and increasingly accusations of chemical weapons. These are red lines for the United States. Now the overall problem, though, are strategic weapons, chemical weapons, surface-to- surface missiles and so on, and their possible transfer to Hezbollah, or those weapons falling into the hands of extremists among the opposition groups. So I think the United States will increasingly have to get involved. How to do so in a smart way. Get out ahead of a policy that quite frankly the White House has been behind for a very long time.

ROMANS: We've been airing some sounds from Syria's deputy foreign minister Faisal al Mekdad who told Fred Pleitgen these strikes are a declaration of war on their country and he says Syria will retaliate. Do you feel this will expand, turn into a regional war? That is what so many people in the neighborhood are so concerned about.

TABLER: Well, Syria certainly could. But it would be a very rapid way to end their regime and in a way they probably wouldn't like. The Israeli military advantage is substantial. Syria's military capabilities aren't that good. Now, there are a lot of things that Syria can do. But this is very important. Israel has hit Syria over the years, over Bashar al Assad's presidency, a number of times. Syria says something, or some variant of this, every time and in the end they don't do much of anything because it would expose their relative weakness.

SAMBOLIN: All right, Andrew Tabler, thank you very much for joining us. Appreciate it.

ROMANS: Ahead on STARTING POINT this morning, the days of shopping online and avoiding a sales tax, could they be over? Why Congress wants you to start paying more. Next. You're watching STARTING POINT.


ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, minding your business this morning, the Dow, the S&P 500 sitting at record highs. This is what's happening to your money if you are invested in the stock market. The Dow is up 14 percent since the start of the year. NASDAQ up 11 percent, the S&P 500 up 13 percent. Futures mixed right now. Dow is up about 26 points, S&P is slightly lower. That's two hours to go until the opening bell.

If you shop online, listen up. The Senate is expected to vote today on an internet sales tax law. It would allow states to require large online retailers to collect sales tax on purchases made by their residents. Currently consumers are supposed to pay taxes themselves if they purchase items online from retailers in a different state but only around one percent of shoppers do that. The bill has a good chance of passing the Senate but then will go to the Republican- controlled House. So watch this space (ph).

SAMBOLIN: I think it's a big bummer.

ROMANS: I know. Ever since online shopping began this has been the holy grail. You know, when are they going to start taxing and when are they going to start make money from our addiction to shopping online.

SAMBOLIN: I say there's no purpose to shop online except for the convenience of sitting at your desk and shopping.

Ahead ON STARTING POINT the family of one of the Boston bombing suspects trying to bury his body but one community is simply not having it. The funeral director in possession of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's body is next with the protests and problems that he is facing.

ROMANS: Then they're preaching a different kind of message. The unorthodox lesson taught at one mega-church that involves firearms. Next, you're watching STARTING POINT.


SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT I'm Zoraida Sambolin. ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. Two weeks after dying in a confrontation with police, Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev still hasn't been buried, and there may not be a cemetery in Massachusetts willing to give him a final resting place. Tsarnaev's uncle says he should be buried in Cambridge, but the town won't even consider it. Susan Candiotti live for us this morning.