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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Wildfires Burn in Parts of California; Tornado Kills Storm Chasers; Interview with Reed Timmer; Capitol Hill Focuses on IRS Controversy Today; Box Office Disappointment for Will Smith

Aired June 3, 2013 - 07:00   ET

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


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Good morning. Our STARTING POINT, California wildfire, thousands fleeing from their Southern California homes. Strong winds are making the fire that's already tripled in size completely unpredictable.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Tornado terror in Oklahoma. Just incredible pictures of the sheer force of a twister as a semi- trailer truck gets flipped like a toy car. This, as three storm chasers were killed tracking a tornado. The death toll now stands at 16.

ROMANS: The search for a teen swept over a 600-foot waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park is on, but is it possible to survive a fall like that? We'll go live to Yosemite for the latest.

BERMAN: And Angelina Jolie returns. The stunning actress back on the red carpet and opening up about her double mastectomy. Is she happy with the national dialog that she started? Her answer coming up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROMANS (on-camera): And good Monday morning to you. I'm Christine Romans.

BERMAN (on-camera): And I'm John Berman. Great to see you. It is Monday, June 3rd. Welcome to STARTING POINT.

ROMANS: We begin with a fire on steroids. That's what California fire officials are saying about blaze burning close to homes north of Los Angeles. The so-called powerhouse fire exploded over the weekend, growing to more than 25,000 acres, and it's still far from under control. Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes, and our CNN's Stephanie Elam is live on the fire lines this morning in Lake Hughs, California. What are you seeing there, Steph?

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Christine, I have to tell you one thing they are saying about this brush area is that it's really dry. In fact, some areas around here, they haven't burned since 1929. And that is setting up perfect conditions for a fire that continues to grow.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one. ELAM: By air and land, a full-scale assault on massive wildfires raging out west. More than 1,000 firefighters are battling the ferocious powerhouse fire about an hour northeast of Los Angeles. The unpredictable fire doubled in size over the weekend, forcing the mandatory evacuation of nearly 3,000 people and leaving about 1,000 homes in danger.

CHIEF DARRYL OSBY, L.A. COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT: We have 15 homes that were damaged, six were destroyed.

ELAM: But the Los Angeles County Fire Department says those numbers could have been worse if not for their around-the-clock air assault.

NORM WALKER, INCIDENT COMMANDER: We have put everything that we have into this, including night air attack from the forest service, three L.A. County fire helicopters dropping water at night, and one L.A. city fire helicopter dropping at night.

OSBY: We are the only region in the world that does that.

ELAM: And in New Mexico, firefighters are working to contain two raging wildfires fueled by historic drought conditions. The Trace Lagunas fire has charred more than 7400 acres and forced the evacuation of more than 100 summer homes, some camp grounds, and six hiking trails.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've had the smoke coming over in years before, but it's never been this close and it's never been that big.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It looked like the whole canyon is going to blow up, literally, the whole canyon is going to blow up and we're going to be screwed.

ELAM: Back in California firefighters hope Mother Nature will lend a helping hand.

DEPUTY CHIEF DAVID RICHARDSON, L.A. COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT: We're supposed to see a decrease in our winds and increase in relative humidity.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ELAM: And as we are standing here and the winds kick up, and you can see it. This is the issue. They don't want the fire to spread further near other communities because of these winds. If it does, there could be more evacuations.

ROMANS: Parts of those areas haven't burned since 1929, unbelievable. Stephanie Elam, thanks.

BERMAN: From the fires to the relentless, unpredictable tornadoes. We're not getting a better idea of just how powerful these storms are. I want you to look at something. Watch as a tornado in El Reno, Oklahoma, pulls this tractor truck backwards, flips it. That is vicious. The tornado is so violent it killed at least 16 people, including experienced storm chasers Tim Samaras and Carl Young, also Tim's 24-year-old son Paul. Tim's death is especially shocking given his focus on safety and his decades of experience in the field.

Meanwhile, the search will continue today for six others still missing. Among them is an eight-year-old girl. We're joined by Ed Lavandera in El Reno, Oklahoma. Good morning, Ed.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. After all that video you've shown, that the twister in Oklahoma city was not as strong as the tornado that touched down two weeks ago in the town of Moore, Oklahoma, but that doesn't mean it didn't wreak extreme havoc across this region.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAVANDERA: The search for six missing people swept away in flash floodwaters will continue Monday morning. The bodies of three children and two adults were found Sunday. They drowned as they tried to hide in storm drains from Friday night's storms. Three storm chasers were also killed by the ferocious tornado, their car mangled and shredded by the storm's force, found on a back country road.

DANA TRAMMEL, TORNADO VICTIM: That's the roof of the house.

LAVANDERA: Around Oklahoma City, again people are staring at their homes in piles of rubble, and for Dana Trammel, it's not the first time.

When you look at all of that and you look, where in the world do you begin? That's what I keep asking myself?

TRAMMEL: If it hadn't been for the other time, you know, I probably would have been more devastated than I am now. But I'm used to it now.

LAVANDERA: He's used to it because, as crazy as this might sound, just two years ago another tornado destroyed his house.

Do you feel incredibly unlucky?

TRAMMEL: Sometimes. It's kind of hard to -- kind of hard to take. The more I walk around and look and see the stuff that's scattered everywhere, makes it a little tougher, you know.

LAVANDERA: It is hard to take.

TRAMMEL: Yes. Well, I mean, this is basically, you're looking at everything I owned.

LAVANDERA: He says the only thing he wants to find is an old picture of his little boy with a cast on his arm running around in daddy's shoes.

TRAMMEL: But I'm just afraid it's gone. I don't think that -- I don't think it's possible. As much as it rained, even if it's there, it's more than likely ruined.

ANGELA COBLE, TORNADO VICTIM: And there's really nothing left, much of anything.

LAVANDERA: The Acres of Angel's Farm is a refuge for abused animals in the town of El Reno. Angela cares for everything from pigeons to dogs to llamas. One of those llamas was killed. This llama and several horses and donkeys had to be taken to shelters for treatments of wounds. But her family lived here in a 117-year-old two-story farmhouse that had endured countless Oklahoma storms, but not this one.

COBLE: It was special because we really had our fingers planted pretty deep in the caring for the animals. It was just like a simple country life kind of home. You're away from the city and, you know, I loved it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAVANDERA: And John, What made this tornado treacherous on the ground is several times it changed directions and that really caused a lot of chaos, especially on the roadways as people were struggling and fighting to get out of its way.

BERMAN: Ed Lavandera, this has just been such a brutal month for Oklahoma. Thanks so much, Ed.

ROMANS: And in Ed's piece you can see the crumpled wreckage the white car found in the back country road, those are three storm chasers. That was the car they had. They had been featured, work featured on the discovery channel and they were among the victims of the latest Oklahoma tornadoes. Indra Petersons is here with more on Tim Samaras and Twist-X, a highly respected team of storm chasers. So sad.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It's unbelievably hard for the entire science community this weekend. They're not just chasers. These guys are researchers. There's so much we don't know out there, and they were doing the research, trying to risk their lives to give us a faster warning time.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PETERSONS: A monster twister that forecasters predicted all week could happen and it did.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hold on, brothers. Hold on.

PETERSONS: A crew from the Weather Channel caught in the middle of it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody duck, go, go, keep it going if you can. Keep going if you can. Everybody duck down.

PETERSONS: Watch as a violent tornado sent cars, trucks and everything else in its path flying, the storm so erratic among those killed were veteran storm chasers Tim Samaras, his 24-year-old son Paul Samaras, and fellow researcher Carl Young, three men who normally found themselves running toward the storm, rather than away from it, as seen here in the Discovery Channel show "Storm Chasers." TIM SAMARAS, STORM CHASER: This is Tim. Can we get an update?

PETERSONS: Samaras explained why to Soledad O'Brien in 2004.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Why do you want to get so close to tornadoes and do this?

TIM SAMARAS: I plant probes in the path of tornados and in order to get them correctly in the path you have to be close.

PETERSONS: His team tried to close in on the tornado in what Samaras warned about in what became his final tweet, "Dangerous day for Oklahoma. Stay weather savvy."

Other chasers were in harm's way including meteorologist Mike Bettis and his crew as seen here on the weather channel.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Eventually the camera was ejected. This is the camera. It never stopped recording. Watch it here as you can actually see Bettis' truck rolling over and over in the field.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just saw my wife's face. And I thought, you know, that's, you know, that's my life. I don't want to give that up just yet. And thankfully I don't have to.

PETERSONS: A fortunate fate Bettis' photographer shared as well. He escaped the storm with broken back bones, a broken rib and breast plate, but says he's not done storm chasing.

AUSTIN ANDERSON, PHOTOGRAPHER: There's a lot more to learn about tornadoes, and getting out there and seeing them up close firsthand is important because it's -- I think I feel like I'm helping people learn about tornados.

PETERSONS: A mission he shared with storm chasers Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young, their lifelong passion cut short by a ferocious twister's unpredictable force.

JIM SAMARAS, VICTIM'S BROTHER: I just could never think it would happen to him because of his level of expertise, years of doing this. If I had to have a way for my brother to die, it would be doing what he did, chasing tornadoes.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PETERSONS: The big question is why? Why were so many people in the wrong position during Friday's tornado? Typically tornadoes move in a northeasterly direction. You want to be just south of it, that way the tornado is moving away from you. Unfortunately, as you can see, the El Reno tornado took a dive to the south. What that did is put people right in the line of the tornado. So when they tried to dive south to get south of it, unfortunately it quickly took a turn right back towards them. There was only a highway north and south, no east and west to allow them to escape. Very unusual tornado unfortunately, it can happen, that's why it's so dangerous out there. ROMANS: Thanks for that, Indra. Interesting that it took that turn and chasing a tornado and trying to run from it. The deaths of Tim Samaras and Paul Samaras and Carl Young have left a large void in the storm chasing world. Reed Timmer is a famed storm chaser who knew Tim and his team very well. He starred on the Discovery Channel show with them and remained very close with Tim after the show ended. Thanks for being here. I'm sure this is not an easy morning for all of you in your profession.

REED TIMMER, STORM CHASER: Yes. It seems like it is just a big nightmare. Of all people, I never thought it would be Tim Samaras, someone I've looked up to my whole entire life. He's a genius, a pioneer in our field of science. And his pressure probes measuring the world record pressure fall inside a tornado.

And I'm going to miss our random roadside gas station discussions of tornado science. He was always concerned about our safety. When we were intercepting tornadoes and doing our science as well. I know he'll always be looking out for us as we're storm chasing moving forward. It's just really tough.

BERMAN: It is so hard. You point out what so many have pointed out this morning, which is that Tim Samaras and his team were known for safety almost before anything else, yet this did happen to them. Are you surprised?

TIMMER: Astonished. Yes. I don't understand, you know, something must have gone wrong, horribly wrong, and he was trying to do, you know, the science that was his life's work and has saved countless lives in the past and will save countless lives moving forward. And future generations of meteorologists will take his work and advance our understanding of tornadoes. I'm just astonished. They're the best, most experienced group of storm chasers I know, getting close to tornadoes.

BERMAN: Nevertheless, this is a fairly risky line of work. I have to ask, do you think accident like this, tragedies like this, in some ways like this are inevitable?

TIMMER: I think they can be avoided, but it's just a freak incident and this tornado just had an erratic path that moved east-southeast and took a sharp turn to the left. And I think -- I just hope it never happens again. No storm chaser has ever lost their life directly from storm chasing before. But this is a weird storm. It was a very powerful tornado and had an erratic path, as we said, and someone like Tim, I just never saw it coming. I can't believe --

ROMANS: Are you going to chase storms differently? Do you think people in your profession, you're going to be a little more cautious next time?

TIMMER: I hope that people are, especially the amateur storm chasers out there that are trying to get the up close video and everything, I hope that, you know, they don't get in the path of a violent tornado like this. If someone like Tim, so experienced, can get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and get in trouble, it still just doesn't make sense to me that this happened. And such a nice guy, such a great friend and a genius scientist, and we lost a pioneer in our field for sure.

BERMAN: Reed Timmer, we're sorry for the loss of your friend. Appreciate you being with us to tell us about him this morning?

ROMANS: His friend and his 24-year-old son and another colleague, three in that tragedy.

Ahead on STARTING POINT, a 19-year-old sent over a 600-foot waterfall in California's Yosemite national park. There it is. Could anyone survive that kind of fall? We're going to go live to the site of the scene of the search this morning.

ROMANS: And she stunned the world when she announced her elective double mastectomy. But is she happy with the reaction she's received? Angelina Jolie returns to the red carpet and answers that question and more.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BERMAN: The IRS controversy front and center on Capitol Hill today. This afternoon acting IRS commissioner Daniel Werfel testifies before a House committee about the agency's targeting of Tea Party groups and tomorrow morning members of those groups who claimed they were victimized, they will testify publicly for the first time.

CNN's Dan Lothian is live at the White House this morning, and Dan, California's Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, man, he sure added fuel to the fire this weekend.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. He really did. And as you know, Representative Issa is a fierce critic of this administration. He believes the IRS controversy runs much deeper, that based on interviews the trail comes right back here to Washington and even took a swipe at White House Spokesman Jay Carney.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN: For the first time we're hearing what IRS workers in Cincinnati are telling congressional investigators about why they targeted conservative groups. Republican Darrell Issa in an exclusive interview on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION."

REP, DARRELL ISSA, OVERSIGHT & GOVT. REFORM CHAIRMAN: As late as last week, the administration still trying to say there's a few rogue agents in Cincinnati when, in fact, the indication is they were directly being ordered from Washington.

LOTHIAN: Issa released just partial transcripts, citing an ongoing investigation, so the full context isn't clear. In one excerpt, one worker quotes a supervisor, "he told me that Washington, D.C., wanted some cases." And when asked about targeting Tea Party applications and whether those directions emanated from Washington, the worker replies, quote, "I believe so."

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN ANCHOR: I believe so. It's totally not definitive. As you understand.

ISSA: That one isn't.

CROWLEY: Right.

LOTHIAN: Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on Issa's House Oversight Committee, called his claims, quote, "reckless," saying "so far no witnesses who have appeared before the committee have identified any IRS official in Washington, D.C."

Issa says more interviews and transcripts are coming.

ISSA: This is a problem that was coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington head quarters and we're getting to proving it.

LOTHIAN: But two Democratic sources involved complain Issa released the transcript's excerpts before making them available to Democrats in what they say is supposed to be a bipartisan investigation. The sources tell CNN the excerpts are taken out of context and Issa's claim they indicate direction from Washington is misleading. They say their impression was the workers were talking about consulting with tax attorney specialists in Washington, about how much political activity is acceptable for tax exempt status.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: To the left. Three, four.

LOTHIAN: Issa is also going after IRS spending, saying the agency wasted $50,000 on training videos like this newly released "Cupid Love Shuffle."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm receiving incoming reports from the landing party.

LOTHIAN: And, on an already notorious "Star Trek" spoof, the video shown at one of 225 IRS conferences between 2010 and 2012 costing $50 million, including $17,000 for a speaker on leadership through art at a 2010 conference in Anaheim. Where Issa says one high-ranking IRS worker stayed in the Hilton Anaheim's two-bedroom presidential suite that normally runs $1500 a night.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

Representative Issa also had some sharp word for White House Spokesman Jay Carney referring to him as, quote, "their paid liar," accusing him of making up things about what happened at the IRS. White House Spokesman Carney had no comment. John?

BERMAN: And this is Monday. Not going to get more friendly as this week goes on.

LOTHIAN: Exactly.

BERMAN: Dan Lothian at the White House, thanks so much.

ROMANS: Ahead on STARTING POINT the search for a teen that fell over a 600-foot waterfall while swimming at Yosemite National Park. Park officials not optimistic about his odds of surviving a fall like that. We'll go live to Yosemite.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. Minding your business. Another big drop in Tokyo, the Nikkei tumbled more than 3.5 percent, and in China concerns about manufacturing growth slowing down. We're watching that. Wall Street taking it well so far. Dow futures still up about 45 points.

This follows a stellar May. The S&P 500 jumped two percent in May and, of course you're up six months in a row for the Dow. You've had a good run in your 401(k).

Just in time for summer, Disney raises prices. One day at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando now goes for $95 for an adult. An adult? Anyone over the age of 10 --

BERMAN: What?

ROMANS: -- and it's up $6 from last year. Kids cost $89. For a family of four, a day at the happiest place on Earth will set you back $368. Multi-day admission tickets also went up.

Things went from bad to worse for Will Smith this weekend. First came really bad reviews for his new film "After Earth," then disappointment at the box office. The $27 million in ticket sales was Smith's worst summer opening ever. "Fast And Furious 6," number one for a second week in a row, followed by "Now You See Me." "After Earth" was third.

BERMAN: One of the things that makes me a really bad person. Just one of the things is I kind of love really bad movie reviews and this one, all the ones, they were particularly vicious.

ROMANS: Sometimes you get a bad movie review and you still pull in money, because it doesn't matter. They want to see the big draw. This was bad movie reviews and disappointment in the box office.

BERMAN: This was bad in a bad way, not bad in a good way.

ROMANS: Right, exactly.

BERMAN: All right, 26 minutes after the hour. Ahead on STARTING POINT a swim in are river in Yosemite National Park turns into disaster when a teen is swept over a 600-foot waterfall. The search for the young man continues this morning. We will go live to the national park.

And then, the mother of a 10-year-old Pennsylvania girl who may only have weeks to live, says the government is letting her daughter die. Now she's making a public plea for help. She'll join us with her story.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

ROMANS: I'm Christine Romans. Six homes destroyed, thousands more threatened by a fast-moving wildfire north of Los Angeles. The so- called powerhouse has burned 25,000 acres, just 20 percent contained. Crews have now told thousands of people to get out.

BERMAN: The tornado death toll in Oklahoma now stands at 16 and we're getting another look at just how dangerous and powerful these storms can be.