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EARLY START WITH JOHN BERMAN AND ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN

Fire on Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship; Wife and Mother Arrested in Mexico; Senator McCain Meets Rebel Leaders in Syria

Aired May 28, 2013 - 05:00   ET

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


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Cruise ship disaster. This time, fire erupts on board. More than 2,000 passengers watching in fear as the decks burst into flames.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Wow, look at that.

An American grandmother thrown into jail, accused of smuggling drugs. Why even Mexican state officials are saying she was framed.

ROMANS: A surging wildfire forcing thousands to evacuate. And this morning, this fire is moving fast.

BERMAN: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It is Tuesday, May 28. It's 5:00 a.m. right now in the East.

BERMAN: And up first, oh, no, not again. A vacation up in flames, literally. Thousands and thousands of passengers in life jackets, many fearing for the worst.

Right now, Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas is docked in the Bahamas. More than 2,200 people are waiting to be flown back to Baltimore this morning, one day after their ship caught fire at sea.

Look at those pictures. Here is Erin McPike.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The entire back end of a ship scorched. More than 2,200 passengers aboard a Bahamas-bound cruise were roused by a terrifying wake-up call early Monday morning.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE) supposed to have been lowered around (INAUDIBLE) in our life jackets. Not a drill, not a joke. I was freaking out.

MCPIKE: For the third time this year, mechanical problems caused a major cruise ship to abandon a Caribbean vacation for thousands of passengers. This time, it was a fire aboard Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas.

Passenger Kathie Coleman told CNN -- KATHIE COLEMAN, GRANDEUR FO THE SEAS PASSENGER: It's obviously the most terrifying thing in my life.

MCPIKE: In February, it was a engine room fire on Carnival Triumph, shutting down power and the ship's sewage system for days. One month later, Carnival's Dream lost power from a generator failure while in port. And now, rival Royal Caribbean has its own set of problems.

Royal Caribbean said in a statement, "On Monday, May 27th, at approximately 2:50 a.m., Grandeur of the Seas experienced a fire on the mooring area of deck 3. The fire has since been extinguished. But in an abundance of caution, the captain deemed it necessary to muster all guests at their assembly stations."

All passengers were found and safe, but some took to message board of cruise critic and complained there was fainting and vomiting as they waited for hours.

The Grandeur of the Seas was just renovated last year. It was rerouted on Monday to Freeport for evaluation. The Royal Caribbean CEO Adam Goldstein already surveyed the damage. The National Transportation Safety Board and the Cost Guard will investigate.

(on camera): Royal Caribbean has canceled the cruise and all of the passengers will return to Baltimore on Tuesday. They'll also get a full refund for this cruise and a voucher for another one.

Erin McPike, CNN, Baltimore, Maryland.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BERMAN: We are going speak with two passengers who are on board that cruise ship. They were terrified. Wait until you hear their story. That's coming up after 7:00 a.m. That's coming on "STARTING POINT."

ROMANS: All right. An American wife, mother, grandmother accused of smuggling pot in Mexico may find out today if she'll go free or remain in jail until her trial. Mexican officials arrested Yanira Maldonado last week as she and her husband were returning by bus from a family funeral, her aunt.

Officials say they found marijuana under her bus seat. She says she's innocent and a Mexican state official believes her, saying she was framed.

Maldonado's daughter wants her free.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNA SIOTO, DAUGHTER: I know there's people out there saying or asking did she really do it, are you sure? You know, that hurts, you know, to see that, if you would have known my mom. If you just would have met her, you would have known she had nothing to do with it.

(END VIDEO CLIP) ROMANS: People said the Mexican consulate is working on the case. But Arizona Senator Jeff Flake has had several conversations with the deputy Mexican ambassador trying to bring Maldonado home.

BERMAN: Now, the latest developments in the story that really has gripped us all -- the dramatic escape and rescue of three women in Cleveland from the home of their alleged kidnapper Ariel Castro. The women finally tasted freedom three weeks ago after spending years essentially in prison, right under their neighbors' noses. And this morning, they are about to get financial help.

Pamela Brown talked to neighbors and others trying to help the girls about how things are now.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Anthony Westry (ph) lives just two doors down from the home where a decade-long secret came to a very dramatic end.

(on camera): Is it sort of a creepy feeling to think of, for all these years, they were two doors down?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With the boogey man.

BROWN (voice-over): He's talking about Ariel Castro, the man accused of kidnapping Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight and Amanda Berry, and holding them captive for years.

Now, neighbors, like Westry say they are just trying to adjust to their new normal.

(on camera): If we were to spend a day with you after what happened right next door, what would it be like?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Almost like a Mardi gras, a constant stream of cars.

BROWN (voice-over): But what's a tourist attraction for some is more of an eyesore for neighbors like Israel Lugo.

ISRAEL LUGO, NEIGHBOR: Every time you wake up, you see the same scene there. You got a big old 60-foot gate metal around house of horrors, as they say in Cleveland, and you know, it's the saying (ph), I'm not saying it's my backyard, but it's like. I wish they could knock it down.

BROWN: Though what allegedly happened inside these walls has left an indelible mark, the women's courage inspired people in this community and beyond.

CHRIS KELLY, JONES DAY LAW FIRM: The e-mails keep coming and coming wanting to help. We are trying to channel those now, more towards contributions to the fund.

BROWN: Chris Kelly of the Jones Day Law Firm runs the Courage Fund set up for the three women and little girl rescued earlier this month, raising more than $650,000, with the funds to be equally distributed into four separate trusts.

(on camera): What does it say about the girls when they chose to put the money in a trust rather than take the money directly now?

KELLY: They have the savvy and sense to know that they want to have the money protected.

BROWN (voice-over): Those who know the women say they are drawing on the same strength that helped them survive so many years in captivity.

KELLY: They are exceptional human beings, having gone through this ordeal and to be able to come out of it and start to heal and move forward so quickly is amazing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And we spoke to a councilmember who helped start the Courage Fund. He tells us that it's already gone up at least $50,000. So, at this point, that fund has ballooned at $700,000, at least.

And if you would like to learn more about the Courage Fund, all you have to do is go to our Web site at CNN.com/Impact and go to the Cleveland foundation link right there.

But it's clear, talking to people who know the girls that they are healing and they're trying to move forward with their lives.

BERMAN: That's terrific. And, Pamela, what about Charles Ramsey? A lot of people want to know about the man who helped those girls.

BROWN: Yes. I mean, Charles Ramsey became sort of an overnight sensation. The video of him being interviewed right after he rescued Amanda Berry went viral not only here in the U.S., but really around the world. And we are hearing he doesn't like all this attention.

He spoke to one of his very good friends yesterday. And we're hearing that Charles Ramsey wants to be out of the spotlight. He wants to focus to be on the girls. We've heard about the fact that he's getting free hamburgers for life and donations and we're hearing that he doesn't want any of that. He just wants to go back to the way life was before all of this happened.

BERMAN: All right. Pamela Brown, back in Cleveland for us this morning, thanks so much.

ROMANS: New this morning, a U.S. pilot rescued after ejecting from his jet over the Pacific Ocean. A Japanese helicopter found floating on a life raft, plucked him out of the water after a problem forced him to eject from his F-15 mid-flight. That flight took off from the U.S. Air Force Base in Okinawa. The pilot was found about 70 miles off the coast from there. No word on how the pilot is doing this morning. The Air Force is investigating what caused that crash.

BERMAN: An incoming athletic director accused of abuse at Rutgers University says she was intense not abusive. And this morning, we've learned that Julie Hermann will keep her new job which is set to begin next month. Hermann was tapped to turn the school's athletic program around after an abusive coach scandal involving former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice.

But "The New Jersey Star Ledger" newspaper uncovered a letter from 1997 that accused Hermann, herself of mental cruelty and abuse when she coached volleyball at the University of Tennessee in the 1990s. Hermann says she's not sure of the motivation of players bringing up that turmoil 17 years later. She says she has no plan to resign from Rutgers and the president of Rutgers himself decision lately says he plans to keep her on.

ROMANS: On the next Jersey shore, President Obama and Governor Chris Christie together again today. They'll be in Asbury Park, New Jersey this morning, to view the ongoing recovery and rebuilding after following superstorm Sandy's devastating impact along New Jersey's coastline. If you recall Obama and Christie cause a real bipartisan stir when they surveyed the storm damage together, just days before the November election.

BERMAN: There will be heightened security this morning in several high schools in Oregon after a teenager was arrested for allegedly planning a Columbine-style attack. This 17-year-old boy you see right here is due in court later today. He was arrested after police received a 911 tip that he was making a bomb with the intention of blowing up West Albany High School. The prosecutor said police found six types of explosives and recovered napalm, pipe and drain clean bombs, as well as Molotov cocktails from Grant Acord's bedroom. Acord's family says he suffers from a rare form of obsessive- compulsive disorder.

ROMANS: George Zimmerman returns to court today for what could be the final hearing before his murder trial begins in two weeks. His attorneys are expected to ask for a delay. They are also pressing the judge to allow jurors to visit the scene where Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin last year.

BERMAN: New this morning, a wildfire growing and on the move in a national forest outside Santa Barbara, in California. It has been burning for about 12 hours now and forced as many as 6,000 residents and campers to evacuate. Firefighters hope that today's weather will help them this all under control. It's just about 5 percent contained right now, only 5 percent. Forest officials think the fire began at a camp sight.

ROMANS: New this morning, what it feels like to be inside a tornado packing winds up to 175 miles an hour.

(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)

ROMANS: These pictures were taken yesterday in Smith County, Kansas by renowned storm chasers Brandon Ivey and Sean Casey from the hit IMAX movie, "Tornado Alley." They drove their tornado-intercept vehicle right into the twister. This is what the especially designed vehicle looks like. We're told the instruments on the roof were ripped away by yesterday's twister, and a door and a hatch were torn open. But everyone made it out safe and sound.

I got in there last year with those guys.

BERMAN: Oh, yes?

ROMANS: Yes. I mean, it's like --

BERMAN: It looks like a batman vehicle.

ROMANS: It's awesome. It's awesome. I still would not ride it into 175-mile-an-hour winds.

BERMAN: I think the tornado is still going to win.

Eleven minutes after the hour right now. And ahead on EARLY START: 76 years old and into the war zone. Senator John McCain sneaks across the border into Syria, face to face with rebel leadership.

ROMANS: And a passenger plane and the military jets passed dangerously close to one another in the skies above Washington, D.C. We've got the air traffic control tapes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Good morning. Welcome back.

A senator and war veteran sneaking into Syria. John McCain has become the highest ranking U.S. official to go there since the war broke out. He met for about an hour with more than a dozen commanders of the Free Syrian Army. All these happening while the E.U. agrees to end the embargo on weapons for the rebels. And conditions grow desperate and deadly in a town near the Lebanon border.

CNN's Nick Paton Walsh is joining us from Beirut with the latest.

Nick, what more can you tell us about Senator McCain's visit?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Short, but highly effective, in (INAUDIBLE) Turkish city in Turkey, south on the border, about a kilometer inside, (INAUDIBLE) entry to Syria, a lot of refugees there. (INAUDIBLE) distance, but he appears to make the most of it, meeting with the head of the Free Syrian Army, General Salem Idris, and other leaders from around the country. Clearly, to give them some vote of credibility, him being a high-ranking U.S. official.

But, of course, to embarrass the Obama administration who've been very ponderous and kind of professorial on how they thought about intervening inside Syria and not really wanting to be dragged in. McCain is much more direct. He wants to see a no-fly zone, air strikes against key Syria regime military assets, perhaps not U.S. troops on the ground, but a much stronger intervention, arguing that the longer America does not act, the more harmful in the longer it will be -- Christine.

ROMANS: Meantime, Nick, the E.U. ending its weapons embargo. Does that mean it will supply the rebels? WALSH: Not yet. The story here is how much effort it's taken to get the embargo lifted. The British and E.U., so British and French position was simply they wanted to change the sanctions as a threat to Assad. The Assad regime might take negotiations a little bit more seriously.

But even this change in sanction says nothing will be supplied to the rebels alone until the 1st of August when they'll have another talk about what these sanctions actually mean. But the lengthy debate they have had emphasizes how torn the West is on helping the rebels. Those against changing the sanctions in the E.U. said they were very concerned weapons supplied and it was still a long way off, may end up in the hands of radical and extremists, who many say are in Syrian rebel ranks.

So, a key move by the E.U., but nothing actually effected on the ground yet, Christine.

ROMANS: All right. Nick Paton Walsh for us live this morning in Beirut -- thanks, Nick.

Seventeen minutes after the hour.

Anti-Muslim sentiment on the rise in England. About a thousand right wing protesters taking to the streets of central London yesterday, shouting Muslim killers off our streets. They are angry about the brutal, hacking death of a British soldier Lee Rigby last week. Two suspects say they did it in the name of Islam.

BERMAN: Six kids burned in a Memorial Day boat explosion in Maryland. Two of those kids burned very seriously when a flash ignited someone tried to start a stalled motor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mom was throwing -- just throwing all the kids overboard in the water.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It was crazy. We thought at first it was a joke. And then we're like, who would do this? The water is so cold. It was freezing then. It was like you could they were just frantic.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The gentleman who was pushing them off, all of a sudden, he started taking life jackets and throwing the life jackets off.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: A fire official says none of the burns appear life- threatening. Two adults were also hurt. The flash fire triggered the boat's fire protection system, which quickly put it out.

ROMANS: Crews are working to remove all the debris from last week's bridge collapse in Washington state, along with twisted metal. There's also a truck, a trailer and a car in the Skagit River that need to be taken out. A temporary bridge is expected to be in place to handle traffic within a few weeks. A permanent new bridge alongside the damaged one scheduled to open by September.

BERMAN: A high school resource officer in Georgia breaking up a brawl using a stun gun. Two teenage girls were punching, kicking and pulling each other's hair. The officer said he used taser after he saw one girl's head bounced off the concrete. School and police stand by his decision.

ROMANS: Actress Amanda Bynes says she will sue the New York City Police Department over her recent arrest. Bynes claims officers illegally entered her apartment late Thursday night, last Thursday night, and lied about her alleged possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

She also hinted at a career change, tweeting, "Looks forward to seeing me in music videos. I'm getting in shape and getting a nose job. Looking forward to a long, wonderful career as a singer/rapper."

BERMAN: It doesn't end, does it?

ROMANS: No.

BERMAN: All right. Nineteen minutes after the hour. The San Antonio Spurs are back in the NBA finals for the first time since 2007. Man, these guys are old, but they're good. Tony Parker pouring in 37 points last night to lift the Spurs to a 93-86 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. Last night completed a four-game sweep.

San Antonio has a six-game winning playoff winning streak and will face-off the winner of the Miami-Indiana series in the finals. The heat right now lead the pacers two games to one. The Spurs have been around forever, it seems. You know, Tim Duncan leading them to four championships, looking for a fifth. It would be amazing if they won.

ROMANS: All right. Coming up, do you like summer?

BERMAN: Love it.

ROMANS: Do you like time off?

BERMAN: Yes.

ROMANS: You may want to move out of the United States, John Berman. How our paid vacation time stacks up, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: Ooh, my goodness. So, take my word for it. This is an actual real-life picture of New York City right now. A beautiful, beautiful sunrise over Central Park. There's the city skyline right there. Look at that blue sky.

ROMANS: The sun is rising and so are stock futures this morning.

Welcome back. Minding your business --

BERMAN: There's a nice segue. You are a pro. You have done this before.

ROMANS: A couple times.

U.S. markets are open for business after Memorial Day holiday and after last week's losses. Futures are trading higher. Look, the Dow future is up more than 100 points right now. S&P, NASDAQ also pointing higher.

This week, investors want to know how you are feeling. That's after the Federal Reserve signaled it may start to wind down its bond buying program. That program known as QE-3 is pushing home prices higher.

The traders are looking for clue to figure out how the markets and your 401(k)s will perform without the Fed. Home prices have been on the rise. Economists expect a big jump in today's home price numbers. We're also going to get a read on consumer confidence. Later this week, we'll find out how much you are making and how much you are spending.

Meantime, a recent study by the New York Fed that 20 percent of Americans plan to cut back on saving as a result of the payroll tax hike that kicked in at the beginning of this year. And nearly 80 percent say they'll cut back on spending. The New York Fed expected the average American family to spend about 720 bucks less this year because of that payroll tax change.

So, with less money to spend, Americans may cut back on vacations. And no problem according to a report from the Center for Economic Policy and Research. The report finds, get this, the U.S. is the only advanced nation that doesn't require employers to provide paid vacation time. And employers aren't required to pay workers extra for working on official holidays.

Japan is the next closest with 10 paid vacation days. At the other end of the scale, workers in France, they get 30 paid vacation days.

BERMAN: (INAUDIBLE)

ROMANS: And if you live in Austria, you get 22 vacation days, 13 paid holidays and a month's pay to help pay for your vacation expenses.

BERMAN: I don't speak Austrian, I would be happy there, too.

ROMANS: I don't know. The naysayer says, yes, look at the GDP of those countries, you know?

BERMAN: Yes, but they are off, man. They're having --

ROMANS: Your accent is very, very good.

(CROSSTALK)

ROMANS: But I will tell you, futures are higher this morning. About 100 points higher. So, it looks like after a short week, this will be a short week to try to recover some of the losses from last week.

BERMAN: Can't wait to see that.

All right. Twenty-five minutes after the hour right now.

Here's this -- a near-miss over the skies of Washington, D.C. A passenger plane and helicopter pass dangerously close to one another. You are going to hear the dramatic tower audio that caught all the chaos. That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)