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Fire Hits Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship; Cleveland Survivors Get Financial Help; Zimmerman In Court Today; Wildfire Tears Through National Forest; Russia To Ship Weapons To Syria; E.U. Votes to End Rebel Arms Embargo

Aired May 28, 2013 - 06:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Cruise ship nightmare. Flames bursting on board leaving thousands of passengers terrified and desperate to get home.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, more than a thousand California residents forced to evacuate as a wild fire rages on.

BERMAN: And caught on camera, storm chasers go inside a tornado with winds barreling at 175 miles per hour. This is video you simply do not want to miss.

ROMANS: Good morning. Welcome to EARLY START. I'm Christine Romans.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. It is Tuesday, May 28th. It is 6:00 a.m. in the east.

ROMANS: Right. Up first, another near disaster at sea for a cruise ship packed with passengers. Right now, Royal Caribbean's "Grandeur of the Sea," is docked in the Bahamas. More than 2,200 frustrated vacationers waiting to be flown back to Baltimore this morning one day after their ship caught fire.

Erin McPike live for us this morning from Baltimore, Washington International Airport. Good morning, Erin.

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Christine. Well, Royal Caribbean has apologized, but it didn't change that these more than 2,200 passengers were woken up in the middle of the night, just after 2:00 a.m., and they stayed awake all night long because this fire raged for more than two hours.


MCPIKE (voice-over): Scorched. More than 2200 passengers aboard a Bahamas bound cruise were roused by a terrifying wake-up call early Monday morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The emergency life boats have been lowered. Here I am in the life jacket, not a drill, not a drill. I was freaking out.

MCPIKE: For the third time this year, mechanical problems caused a major cruise ship to upend a Caribbean vacation for thousands of passengers. This time, it was a fire aboard Royal Caribbean's "Grandeur of The Seas." Passenger Katie Coleman told CNN --

KATIE COLEMAN, "GRANDEUR OF THE SEAS" PASSENGER (via telephone): It was the most terrifying thing like in my life.

MCPIKE: In February, it was an engine room fire on the 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 at approximately 2:50 a.m., "Grandeur of The Seas" experienced a fire on the mooring area of deck three. 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 the message board of cruise critic and famed there was fainting and vomiting as they waited for hours. The ship was just renovated last year. This morning, it was rerouted to Freeport for evaluation and Royal Caribbean's CEO Adam Goldstein is already surveying the damage. The National Transportation Safety Board and the Coast Guard will investigate.


MCPIKE: Now, even though their vacations were cut short, Royal Caribbean is giving all of the passengers a full refund on this cruise, and a voucher for another free cruise in the future -- Christine.

ROMANS: All right, Erin, thanks. We're going to speak with two passengers who were on board that ship at 7:00 a.m. hour of "STARTING POINT." We'll find out if that deal sounds good enough to them.

BERMAN: Interested to see that. Now the latest developments on a 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 neighbor's noses. This morning they're about to get financial help.

Pamela Brown joins us now live from Cleveland. Pamela, tell us what's happening right now.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, just a few weeks after the arrest of Ariel Castro, neighbors of the accused rapist and kidnapper are trying to put a disturbing past behind them. But the home behind me, Castro's home, all boarded up, guarded by a fence, is a haunting reminder.


BROWN (voice-over): Anthony Westry 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 for all these years they are just two doors down?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With the Boogeyman.

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're 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, just constant stream of cars.

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

ISRAEL LUGO, NEIGHBOR: Every time you wake up, you see the same scene there. You got a 60-foot gate around the house, and you know it's the same, no it's my backyard, but it's like I wish they could just knock it down.

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

CHRIS KELLY, JONES DAY LAW FIRM: The e-mails keep coming and coming wanting to help. We're 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 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 that 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 moneys protected.

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

KELLY: They're 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.


BROWN: We spoke to one of the council members who helped start the fund. He tells us that an additional $50,000 has been raised on top of the $650,000. Every penny will go to the girls' trusts, we're told. If you'd like to learn more about the fund just go to and you can click on the Cleveland courage fund right there -- John. BERMAN: A lot of people looking for ways to help, Pamela. A lot of people also wondering about Charles Ramsey, the man who helped rescue those girls.

BROWN: Yes, Charles Ramsey became an overnight sensation. Since then he's been going to D.C. He went to Kentucky recently to look at a part of a statue that was unveiled. He's been -- he's received, you know, lifetime of free hamburgers from local restaurants here in Cleveland. But we're being told by his friends that he's actually trying to back away from the spotlight. That, maybe he enjoyed fame a little bit right after everything happened. But now, he's trying to go back to the way of life before he rescued Amanda Berry, and before he became this global sensation from all the interviews he did.

BERMAN: All right, Pamela Brown in Cleveland this morning. Thanks so much.

ROMANS: All right, in Oregon, 17-year-old Grant Accord will make his first court appearance today. He's accused of planning a Columbine- style attack at West Albany High School in Oregon. The teen was arrested after police received a 911 tip that he was making a bomb with the intention of blowing up the school.

Extra police will be on hand today at West Albany and other Oregon high schools. The prosecutor said police found six types of explosives and recovered napalm, pipe and drain cleaner bombs, as well as Molotov cocktails from Accord's bedroom. Accord's family says he suffers from a rare form of obsessive compulsive disorder.

BERMAN: 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 today. They're also pressing the judge to allow jurors to visit the scene where Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin last year.

ROMANS: New this morning, an army of about 700 firefighters getting ready to tackle a fast and furious wildfire in a national forest near Santa Barbara, California. The fire started yesterday afternoon possibly at a campsite. It has now burned about 1,000 acres since then. It's only about 5 percent contained, up to 6,000 people had to evacuate the popular camp ground on Memorial Day. Firefighters hope today's weather will help them get this thing under control.

BERMAN: Also new this morning, a U.S. pilot rescued after ejecting from his jet over the Pacific Ocean. A Japanese helicopter found him floating on a life raft and plucked him out of the water after a problem forced him to eject from his f-15 midflight. This flight took off from the U.S. air base on Okinawa. The pilot was found about 70 miles off the coast from there. No word on how that pilot is doing this morning. The Air Force is investigating what caused this crash.

ROMANS: In just a few hours, President Obama will join New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for a look at post-Sandy repair work along the Jersey Shore. The two men will tour some of the areas hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy, just as they famously did in the final days leading up to the 2012 presidential election. New this morning what it feels like to be inside a tornado, John, packing winds up to 175 miles an hour? These pictures were taken yesterday in Smith County, Kansas by renowned storm chasers Brandon Ivey and Sean Casey from the hit movie, I-max movie "Tornado Alley." They drove their vehicle right into the twister. This is what the specially designed vehicle looks like.

BERMAN: Looks like the Batmobile.

ROMANS: We're told the instruments on the roof were ripped off by yesterday's twister, a door and a hatch were torn open, but everyone made it out safe and sound. I climbed around in that last year when they came by with it. I still wouldn't drive into a twister, but it's a cool thing.

BERMAN: Especially designed for tornadoes and it still suffered some pretty heavy damage.

ROMANS: All right ahead on EARLY START, a senator sneaking into a war zone. John McCain's secret mission into Syria next.

BERMAN: Plus the Rutgers athletic director accused of abuse speaking out this morning. Hear what she had to say and why the school says she's going to keep her job.


BERMAN: New this morning, just minutes ago, Syria state TV revealed that Russia is shipping air defense missiles to Syria. Serious escalation as the report says Russia is following through with an established deal to deliver these S-300 missiles.

Nick Paton Walsh live in nearby Beirut. Nick, what does Syria plan to do with these missiles and any reaction to this deal from the U.S. or Israel?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly U.S. officials have been clear that the S-300 air defense system is very sophisticated, and could mount a serious threat in the unlikely future event that may amount to some sort of airborne intervention in Syria or the region. I should point out what we know so far.

We know that Syrian state TV is saying the missiles are being supplied. We have Russian state media suggesting that the supply of these missiles will, quote, "stabilize Syria." We don't know for a fact they'll be delivered and there's been a gray area over the past few weeks as the U.S. put pressure on Russia to suspend this particular delivery.

But it is absolutely vital there because it does seem in the eyes of Pentagon officials to be a bit of a game changer when it comes to Syria's ability to defend itself. Israeli officials even saying that the power of some of these missiles could, in fact, lead them to be offensive, even against the main airport of Tel Aviv -- John.

BERMAN: All right, the other big news, Senator John McCain literally sneaking in to Syria to meet with rebel leaders yesterday. Nick, what came out of that meeting?

WALSH: Well, the key thing, of course, was a bit of an embarrassment to the Obama administration. John McCain long-term advocate of strong U.S. intervention militarily into Syria, airstrikes to cripple the Syrian regimes, air power, artillery, potentially a no-fly zone, perhaps not U.S. troops on the ground necessarily.

There he met, when he crossed over from the Turkish city about a kilometer inside Syria, mostly an area of refugee camps he met the Syrian rebels, military leader, and other leaders from across Syria, talked about his fears about extremism, talked about his fears of the conflict becoming more regional.

But above all sending a strong message there the organizers hoping this would be heard, it's possible to go in to Syria. It's possible to talk to these people on the political level. And the top part of Syria, the north rebel held at the moment is an area, perhaps, where the U.S. could intervene.

That's what John McCain would like to see happen imminently. But many analysts looking now and seeing that the ideal window for a strong U.S. intervention passed some months ago and now we're just looking at a bigger quagmire potentially that the Obama administration might get caught up in.

BERMAN: Nick, there's another big development which could change the equation right there is the E.U. saying it has lifted its embargo on arming the rebels. They plan to send any weapons any time soon?

WALSH: One of the key caveats in this long and messy E.U. debate, now they've resolved it and said they are going to enable sanctions to be modified to supply weapons to the Syrian opposition is a caveat there that says, no, this will actually happen until the first of August. That gives the next two months breathing room for any peace process in Geneva, the U.S. and Moscow are trying to push through to happen.

Above all, Britain and France, who pushed this through against many E.U. members being opposed, they pushed this through because they wanted a threat of the implicit threat of the potential to supply weapons to Syrian rebels in the future in the hope that that would somehow make the Assad regime take the peace process a little more seriously. They could force a political transition.

Now, we've seen this peace process for Geneva potentially next month begin to rumble through, many skeptical about where it will go. And of course the first effect we've seen today from this E.U. embargo being lifted is the strong message from Russia that it believed double standards at play and that will harm any future peace talks -- John.

BERMAN: Nick Paton Walsh in Lebanon this morning -- appreciate it. Thanks, Nick.

ROMANS: Sixteen minutes after the hour.

Anti-Muslim sentiment is building in England this morning. About 1,000 right wing protesters taking to the streets of Central London yesterday, shouting, "Muslim killers off our streets." They're angry about the brutal hacking death of British soldier Lee Rigby last week. Two suspects say they did it in the name of Islam.

BERMAN: The incoming athletic director accused of abuse at Rutgers University says she was intense but not abusive. 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" 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 plans to resign from Rutgers and the president of the school Rutgers is backing her.

ROMANS: The U.S. marine suspected of going on a shooting rampage in West Texas that left one dead and five people injured is also wanted for questioning in another murder. Esteban Jays Smith died early Sunday morning in a gunfight with police. The marines confirmed that investigators are looking for a link between the Texas shootings and a murder at a Jacksonville, North Carolina motel.

BERMAN: Amanda Bynes is threatening to sue the New York Police Department. She says officer illegally entered her apartment and lied about her alleged drug possession. The former child star is also hinting at a career change. She tweeted, quote, "I'm looking forward to a long and wonderful career as a singer/rapper."

ROMANS: It's a happy reunion for a couple and their missing dog who was found more than 500 miles away from home. Karen and Victor Stevenart of Terre Haute, Indiana, say Jasmine disappeared back in April. Somehow she managed to make it down to Atlanta where Fulton County used a microchip to identify Jasmine and her owners.


KAREN STEVENART, JASMINE'S OWNER: I love her. When you see her you'll see how pretty her eyes are.

Looky there. Looky here. Ooh! Where you been?

Look at that. Look at that. I didn't think we'd see her again.


ROMANS: Victor Stevenart believes Jasmine may have hitched a ride to Atlanta with a truck driver. He says their house is only a mile from I-70. Wow.

Nineteen minutes after the hour.

In today's "Road Warriors" report, you've probably used an automated checkout line at the store. Now, Chicago O'Hare set to become the first U.S. airport to get an automated check-in line for passports. BERMAN: Passports. The program, which is already in place at Vancouver airport, allows U.S. passport holders to enter Customs and Border Information at a self-service kiosk. You then bring your passport and receipt to an agent for verification. So people are still involved.

The idea is to shorten wait times without compromising security. The program is set to launch July 1st and could extend to other major hubs, as well. May not be the only change you see if you're passing through O'Hare.

ROMANS: That's right. The airport will be hosting a herd of goats.

BERMAN: Of course, they will.

ROMANS: The job will be to keep vegetation there trim. Other airports have used animals for sustainable gardening include Atlanta and San Francisco. The goats arrive later this spring.

You know, there's an organic herb garden on the roof of O'Hare. Like you can go up and see it. It's really kind of interesting.

BERMAN: I hope the goats don't get up there. That will be a problem.

ROMANS: I don't think the goats will be allowed up there.

BERMAN: All right. Nineteen minutes after the hour.

Ahead on EARLY START, controversy brewing for coffee lovers. Oh, no. The price of coffee is falling but we'll tell you why you may not notice at your local coffee shop.


ROMANS: Welcome back. Minding your business this morning.

Futures are trading higher. The Dow up about 100 points, the S&P, the NASDAQ futures higher, as well. Stocks bouncing back today, as European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan signal they won't be changing their easy money policies any time soon. The Fed and central banks around the world have been pumping money into the system, and markets generally cheer any signal that that policy won't change.

Home prices have been on the rise. Economists expect another big jump in today's numbers.

Also later today, we'll find out how confident you are about the economy. So, that's another important signal for futures. Right now, we've got futures up pretty sharply.

Now, if you're up early like us, this is not going to make you happy, this story.

Prices on coffee are the lowest they've been in three years. Thanks to excess supply of coffee beans in Brazil. The country produces around one-third of the world's coffee and farmers there held onto their last beans, their beans last year waiting for higher prices that never came. As a result, around 20 percent of last year's crop hasn't been sold, that's pushing prices down.

J.M. Smucker and Kraft have already lower prices for Maxwell House and Folger's brands, but don't expect a big price drop in your Starbucks latte any time soon.

BERMAN: That's not fair.

ROMANS: You tend to see grocery store prices go down a little bit but not coffee shop prices.

BERMAN: Brazil is holding onto their beans.

ROMANS: Brazil is holding onto their beans, yes.

BERMAN: So what's the one thing we need to know about your money?

ROMANS: The people in Moore, Oklahoma, they want your cash. They don't want your hand me downs.

You guys I see this every time there's a disaster. You get clothing donations pouring in. You get pallets full of stuff and it's so overwhelming that local groups are asking donors stop sending things to Moore, Oklahoma. Stop sending food. Stop sending diapers.

The city suggests donating money to the Red Cross or local food banks.

I see this every time there's a disaster. And it's so overwhelming for local officials to try to figure -- there's also no central planning about how to get the right kind of stuff there that they need. It's money. It's cash donations that they need.

BERMAN: They would love that, please.

ROMANS: Absolutely. Don't send -- don't send.

You know, there's one disaster where somebody sent a truckload, a truckload of sweat shirts. Men's extra large sweat shirts and the firefighter who was coordinating it said to me I don't need sweatshirts. We need money.

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

And coming up, a visit to Mexico lands an American woman, a grandmother, behind bars. Mexico says she's a drug smuggler. And now, there's a fight to get her out of jail and back to the U.S.

ROMANS: And scary moments on board a flight as a man tries to open an emergency door, forcing other passengers to restrain him with shoelaces. Their story, coming up.