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Large Fire Aboard Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship; American Mother Detained in Mexico Jail; George Zimmerman Back in Court Today; Newborn Rescued from Sewage Pipe

Aired May 28, 2013 - 07:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: A large fire aboard a Royal Caribbean liner leaves thousands stranded. When will they return home? We're tracking the situation aboard the Grandeur of the Sea.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And a living nightmare for an American couple after the wife and mother of seven gets jailed in Mexico. She's accused of smuggling marijuana, but she says she's innocent. We'll speak with her husband live here on CNN.

BERMAN: Plus, we're monitoring a fast-spreading wildfire in California. A thousand acres up in flames. Thousands forced to flee. We will have the latest out of Santa Barbara County.

ROMANS: Good morning, everyone. I'm Christine Romans.

BERMAN: And I'm John Berman. It's Tuesday, May 28th, welcome to STARTING POINT.

And happening right now, 2,200 angry, frustrated passengers stranded in the Bahamas waiting to be flown back to Baltimore after a near disaster at sea. Their cruise ship Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Sea caught fire yesterday off the coast of Freeport. One vacationer called it the most terrifying day of her life.

Erin McPike is live from Baltimore Washington International Airport this morning with the latest. Good morning, Erin.

ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. Those passengers will show up here starting in about four hours, and they will continue on through tomorrow on chartered flights from the Bahamas. That's, of course, after many were up all night on Sunday night and into Monday morning after this fire raged for more than two hours.


MCPIKE (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 --

KATIE COLEMAN, GRANDEUR OF 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.


MCPIKE (on camera): Now, the good news for these passengers is that Royal Caribbean is issuing a full refund and, John, if they can stomach another cruise, Royal Caribbean is giving them a voucher for a free one in the future.

BERMAN: We will see about that. Erin McPike at Baltimore-Washington International Airport where some of those passengers, I'm sure, will be flying in today. Thanks, Erin.

ROMANS: Danielle Miller is the passenger who shot that footage on her cell phone just as the ship's guests were being called to the deck. She joins us now on the phone along with her friend Katie Coleman. They were -- they are both still on board the cruise ship.

Danielle, you said you went to bed, it was sort of stormy seas, 2:50 in the morning this all starts to unfold. You actually thought, Danielle, you thought that maybe the ship was sinking or something. It was a little chaotic. Walk me through what happened.

DANIELLE MILLER, GRANDEUR OF THE SEAS PASSENGER (via telephone): The first thing I thought was the boat could have been sinking because when we went to bed, it was extremely wavy and we were rolling around in our beds.

I'm sorry, they're making announcements right now. I can barely hear you.

ROMANS: That's all right. Keep telling me what you thought was happening. I mean you -- at what point did you realize it was a fire?

MILLER: We were on the deck for about a half hour before they announced that it was a fire. But when we did get on the deck, we saw the lifeboats being lowered so we were just freaking out and we saw a light sparking and catching on fire. But other than that, we didn't see any smoke coming up from deck three, and we didn't know it was a fire until they announced it.

ROMANS: Katie, if you're on the line, I mean, what -- what did you think when you were told to put on your life jacket, I mean your life vest? I mean this obviously a scary situation in the middle of the night. What were you thinking?

COLEMAN (via telephone): We honestly had no idea. The night before it was really rocky on the boat. So at this point, knowing that we had to get our life jackets on and seeing the lifeboats being lowered, we honestly didn't know if the -- yes, if we were getting off the boat, if the boat was sinking. We honestly had no idea.

ROMANS: I mean obviously before you took this cruise, you had seen the headlines of Carnival Cruise problems. Were you -- I don't know -- were you wary at all about taking a cruise?

COLEMAN: We honestly didn't really -- yes, we never thought it would happen to us. Like a 1 in a million chance that things like this would happen. So, we honestly weren't that nervous. We weren't expecting anything.

ROMANS: Danielle, what have you heard from Royal Caribbean at this point? What are they telling you?

MILLER: They're just telling us that they're incredibly sorry for what happened and they really want to make this up to us by having another great trip on another one of their boats.

ROMANS: So you're going to get a full refund for this one, right? And then they're offering you a new cruise at their -- at their -- at their expense. You guys drove from Ohio to Baltimore to get this one. Are you going to do it again?

MILLER: I think we are. We were talking about it last night and we would definitely give it another chance. The first few days started out great, so we would definitely cruise again.

ROMANS: All right, Katie Coleman, Danielle Miller. Well, sit tight.

BERMAN: I hope it ends better next time.

ROMANS: I hope it ends better next time. Nice to hear from both of you and thanks for sharing your cell phone video, Danielle. Really appreciate it.

BERMAN: Yes, those pictures of the fire on the boat there, much worse than I thought. A lot of damage.


BERMAN: All right, six minutes after the hour. Developing story we're following this morning -- an American woman accused of smuggling pot in Mexico may find out today if she will go free or remain in jail in Mexico until her trial. Yanira Maldonado says she's completely innocent and now a Mexican state official believes her, saying she might have been framed.


BERMAN (voice-over): The mother of seven is behind bars in Mexico accused of smuggling marijuana. Yanira Maldonado from Phoenix, Arizona, was traveling to Mexico with her husband Gary to attend her aunt's funeral. While returning home, the couple's bus was stopped at a military checkpoint near Hermosillo, Mexico.

Police allege they found marijuana beneath Gary's seat and charged him with smuggling. Then, they released Gary and arrested his wife Yanira instead, saying the marijuana was actually under her seat.

A Mexican state official with extensive knowledge of the case believes Maldanado was framed, telling CNN she would not have been able to carry twelve pounds of pot onto the bus without being noticed. Gary visited his wife over the weekend at the women's jail in Nogales where she's being held.

GARY MALDONADO, HUSBAND OF WOMAN ACCUSED OF SMUGGLING DRUGS: Yanira saw me from a distance and she just kind of like started jumping up and down and giving me a big hug and we just cried.

BERMAN: The couple who have seven children and two grandchildren between them have denied the charges. Gary claims they never told or even used drugs. Their daughter, 21-year-old Anna Soto is pleading for her mother's release.

ANNA SOTO, 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.


BERMAN (on camera): Bottom of the hour, we're going to talk to her husband, also her father-in-law, about this dramatic case and their efforts to get her released from this Mexican jail where she is right now.

ROMANS: All right, George Zimmerman will be back in a Florida courtroom today just two weeks before he's scheduled to gone trial for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman's attorneys are expected to ask Judge Deborah Nelson to delay the start of this trial and would also request jurors be allowed to visit the scene where Zimmerman shot and killed Martin last year. Finally, they'll attempt to block testimony from an audio expert who says he heard Martin begging for his life in the background of a 911 call.

Victor Blackwell live from Sanford, Florida, this morning. Good morning, Victor.

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Christine. The defense team for George Zimmerman, they're asking for an additional six weeks. Mark O'Mara says he needs time to review the qualifications of an expert who could be introduced by the state.

But the big decision made today will be if the jury will be allowed to see photographs and text messages taken from Trayvon Martin's phone. They show pictures of Martin with gold fronts, they're false gold teeth. Also holding up his middle finger; smoke, thick smoke coming out of his mouth. There's also pictures of small pot plants growing in plants. Also, a picture of a gun.

Now let's talk about these text messages that were taken from the phone a week before, a month before, as well, that were sent then. Let's show the first one, and it mentioned possibly marijuana. It says, "I hid my weed." There's another one that mentions, "It's wrapped." And there are also texts suggesting that Martin was actually trying to sell a gun. Someone asks through texts, "You want 150 for the .38?" and the response is "Naw, I'm fixing to get it too late."

Now, the assistant state attorney in this case, the lead prosecutor, Bernie de la Rionda, has not spoken about the new evidence, not spoken about his strategy moving forward. But the attorney for Martin's parents, Ben Crump, has spoken. Also Zimmerman's attorney Mark O'Mara has spoken. Listen to what they say about these photographs and text messages.


MARK O'MARA, ZIMMERMAN ATTORNEY: I'm not sure if it's recreation or whatever, but he's very used to fighting. That he has used some drugs in the past. And again, many 17-year-olds have. But that he has as well.

BEN CRUMP, MARTIN FAMILY ATTORNEY: Are they trying to stay George Zimmerman was justified in killing Trayvon Martin because of the way he looked? It's that same stereotypical mindset that caused George Zimmerman to get out of the car and chase Trayvon Martin. And that's just isn't acceptable in America.


BLACKWELL: The question is, are these texts, are these photographs relevant? Well, O'Mara has said that if the state goes after the character of George Zimmerman, then he believes the jury needs to see this side of Trayvon Martin. The state is trying to keep these texts out of the courtroom. They filed a motion to keep those out as well today. Christine?

ROMANS: All right, what's next in this case, then? BLACKWELL: Well, O'Mara has asked for an evidentiary hearing before the start of jury selection on June 10. And also he speaks about the jury, the state has asked for a third gag order to keep the attorneys from talking. They say it's going to be very difficult to get an impartial jury if Mark O'Mara continues to get in front of cameras and talk about Trayvon Martin and characterize his client, as well. Christine?

ROMANS: All right, Victor Blackwell. Thank you, Victor.

All right, ahead on STARTING POINT, Senator John McCain's daring trip. The 76-year-old sneaks into Syria to meet with rebel leadership. What did he accomplish? We'll tell you.

BERMAN: And passengers forced to use shoelaces and belts after a passenger inexplicably tries to open the plane door in midflight. That story and much more. You're watching STARTING POINT.


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

BERMAN: Just in CNN, reports that two rockets fired from Syria have hit Lebanon, one of them in a residential area. This news coming just minutes after Syria's state TV said that Russia will go through with a plan to send air defense missiles to the Assad regime. A lot going on there.

Israeli leaders very concerned about this. Nick Paton Walsh is live in Beirut. Nick, first, what have you heard about the rockets hitting Lebanon?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, these rockets have been a reasonably regular occurrence, landing in Hermel, a predominantly pro- Hezbollah town. Hezbollah having thrown their weekend in this weekend behind the Assad regime joining the conflict against the Syrian rebels.

You refer most importantly to that Russian announcement. Russian officials on state media saying they will go ahead with the supply of something called the S-300 missile system to the Syrian regime. Those weapons haven't arrived yet but U.S. and Israeli officials deeply concerned about their potential to interrupt any future, perhaps unlikely, NATO intervention, and Israelis saying they have offensive capacity, too. They're high tech. They could perhaps even hit Tel Aviv's airport.

Great concerns on the ground here now that each day we keep seeing another step that seems to regionalize this conflict. That Russian delivery of high-technology coming on the back of a cancellation of sanctions against the Syrian opposition by the European Union to allow them to supply arms. There seems to be a tit for tat going on here diplomatically. Why did they need (ph) this conflict (ph), John?

BERMAN: Of course, the other big news is 76-year-old U.S. Senator John McCain sneaking over the border, into Syria, to meet with rebel leaders yesterday. What do you make of that meeting?

I think we lost nick Paton Walsh in Beirut, Lebanon. Of course there was that news that 76-year-old senator John McCain of Arizona did cross the border in to Syria. He did meet with part of the opposition leadership right there. John McCain has been calling for much greater U.S. support of Syrian rebels, really, for years. A lot of people think this was a little bit of a -- an attempt to show up the White House for their lack of support for the Syrian rebels.

ROMANS: He wants a no-fly zone. He wants American assistance. But not necessarily boots on the ground there. He is the highest profile American, certainly, to get into Syria. All right.

The Supreme Court watch is on between now and the end of June the high court is expected to issue 30 rulings. That list includes several politically explosive cases. The Supreme Court will rule on same-sex marriage, the use of affirmative action in college admissions, the future of the Voting Rights Act and gene patents. The justices have scheduled five public sessions over the next month to announce their decisions.

BERMAN: The odd couple is back. In just a few hours, President Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will team up again for a tour of hard-hit areas by Superstorm Sandy. This time the emphasis will be on recovery. They're getting a firsthand look at just how far coastal communities have come back from the devastation. Of course you will recall just days before last year's election the president, a Democrat, and the Republican governor, with a picture of bipartisanship inspecting storm damage there.

ROMANS: An Arizona man who allegedly tried to open an emergency exit door during an Air Alaska flight will make his first court appearance today. Witnesses say 23-year-old Alexander Herrera began making some strange comments, then he tried to pry open an exit door as the flight approached the runway at Portland International Airport yesterday. Passengers quickly took action.


HENRY PIGNATARO, PASSENGER: I put him in a -- a choke hold, and kind of kind of went up over the seat a bit and brought him down to the ground.


ROMANS: Herrera was subdued. He was tied up by passengers with shoelaces and seat belts. The flight landed safely and Herrera's father tells CNN affiliate KGW his son has a history of mental illness. BERMAN: Ahead on STARTING POINT an American woman jailed in Mexico after Mexican authorities say she was trying to smuggle pot. She denies these allegations. Her husband will join us.

ROMANS: And then for all the coffee drinkers out there, good news coming your way that pertains to your cup of Joe. Details straight ahead. You're watching STARTING POINT.


BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT, everyone. Officials in east China are now investigating the case of a newborn baby who was apparently flushed down the toilet. The infant survived after being cut out of a sewage pipe. CNN's Hala Gorani has more.


HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The dramatic rescue began after cries from a fourth floor apartment toilet. Alarmed neighbors saw a tiny foot and called the fire department. Unable to pull the baby out, rescuers went to the floor below and sawed away the entire section of sewer pipe. But still, the baby remained wedged inside. So sewer section and baby were taken to the local hospital, where firefighters and surgeons working together carefully began removing the pipe, piece by piece.

An hour later, success. A newborn baby rescued. The afterbirth still attached. Chinese media said he's a baby boy. Now in stable condition. Police say they're looking for the parents. They say no one has yet come forward to claim the child.

Hala Gorani, CNN.


ROMANS: Stunning story.

Minding your business this morning, U.S. markets are open today. Dow futures up around 100 points right now. S&P and NASDAQ pointing higher as well. Markets, this is a big bounceback after last week's losses. The European central bank and the bank of Japan signaling they will keep pumping money into the financial system and when you hear about central banks putting money in the system that tends to be good news for stock investors.

Good news for coffee drinkers, prices the lowest they've been in three years thanks to an excess supply of coffee beans in Brazil. Farmers there held onto their beans last year waiting for higher prices. Those higher prices never came as a result around 20 percent of last year's crop hasn't been sold. That pushes prices down when it goes onto the market. Prices for Maxwell House and Folgers brands are already lower but that doesn't mean your Starbucks latte is any cheaper. The company dropped prices on its prepackaged coffee but has not dropped prices on over-the-counter drinks.

BERMAN: Shame. All right, 25 minutes after the hour. Ahead on STARTING POINT the family of the teen implicated in an Oregon school bomb plot says their son has a rare mental condition. He's set to be arraigned today. Will this news impact the case against the 17-year- old?

ROMANS: And we'll speak with the husband of the American woman jailed in a Mexican prison after being accused of smuggling marijuana. We'll hear their side of the story. You're watching STARTING POINT.


BERMAN: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. Classes resume this morning at Albany High School in Oregon, for the first time since 17-year-old student Grant Acord was arrested. That student is accused of plotting to blow up his school. The suspect will appear in court today while police increase security at the high school. The prosecutor said police found six types of explosives. They recovered napalm, bomb and -- pipe and drain cleaner bombs, as well as Molotov cocktails from Acord's bedroom in a secret compartment under his floor. Acord's family says he suffers from a rare form of obsessive compulsive disorder.

BERMAN: Police in New Mexico have released dramatic dash cam video of a high speed chase involving two young murder suspects. It began May 3rd on Interstate 25 near Las Lunas when officers tried to pull over the car for a traffic violation. They ended up on this chase at more than 100 miles per hour. Two women inside the car ages 18 and 21 have been charged with killing the man who owned the vehicle. His body was found in the trunk.

So the incoming athletic director accused of abuse at Rutgers University says she was intense but 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 this abuse 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 1990's. 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 Rutgers at this moment is backing her.