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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Ferocious Wildfire in Southern California; Tragedy Along Tornado Alley; Storm Chasers Killed; Republicans Release IRS Transcripts

Aired June 3, 2013 - 08:00   ET

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


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: A 19-year-old swimmer swept over a 600-foot waterfall in Yosemite National Park. Is there any chance he could have survived that fall? We're going to head to the scene of the search.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: And look at this Cheerios ad. Can you spot what got some people up in arms? We're going to examine this growing controversy this morning.

BERMAN: Good morning. I'm John Berman.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans.

It's Monday, June 3rd. Welcome to STARTING POINT.

Our STARTING POINT this morning: California burning. A wildfire north of Los Angeles growing to 25,000 acres, still largely out of control. The so-called "Powerhouse" fire has destroyed at least six homes, thousands of people still in harm's way. They have been told now to evacuate.

CNN's Stephanie Elam live on the fire lines at Lake Hughes, California.

Stephanie, are crews having much success at this hour fighting this fire?

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPOLNDEENT: Well, since this fire started on Thursday evening, firefighters have been out here actually digging in and also attacking it by the air. But take a look at this flare-up here. This is exactly what firefighters are keeping their eyes on so that this fire doesn't spread further. They're taking care of knocking these hot spots out.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one.

ELAM (voice-over): 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 Tres Lagunas Fire has charred more than 7,400 acres and forced the evacuation of more than 100 summer homes, some campgrounds 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 looks like the whole canyon's going to blow up, literally. The whole canyon's 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, as well as an increase of relative humidity.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ELAM: Now, as the morning light is just starting to crest above the mountains here, there are people hoping they can come home today that have been evacuated. But fire officials are saying it may be tomorrow before they're able to come home.

ROMANS: All right. Stephanie Elam -- thank you so much, Stephanie.

BERMAN: And from the fires to the relentless and unpredictable tornados. We're now getting a better idea of how powerful these storms are. I want you to look at this. Watch as a tornado in El Reno, Oklahoma, it pulls this truck just all the way backward and flips it over.

Also this tornado was so violent, it killed at least 16 people, including experienced storm chasers Tim Samaras, Carl Young and Tim's 24-year-old son, Paul. Tim's death is especially shocking given his focus on safety in his deck adds of experience storm chasing.

Meanwhile, the search is continuing today for six others who are still missing and among the missing is an 8-year-old girl. Ed Lavandera is in El Reno, Oklahoma, which has just seen this storms passing now it seems for weeks and weeks, Ed.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, good morning, John.

Well, that search for those missing people is just now resuming here in the city of Oklahoma City and that search will continue. They tried throughout most of the day yesterday.

These were families that are on Friday night were trying to escape from the violence of the storm as objects and debris was swirling around them. And they apparently from what we're told by rescue teams is that they jumped into storm drains to escape from all that, but what the storm also brought was heavy downpours, causing flash flooding in many areas.

And authorities say that several people were washed away. They found the bodies of five yesterday including three children. There are still six others missing and that search just now getting under way again for another day, John.

BEMAN: And what are people saying what it's been like the last couple of days? I mean, these storms, as we've been saying, they're just simply relentless.

LAVANDERA: You know, it's been interesting, when you talk to people, you get that overwhelming sense that they have over the last couple of weeks going back to not just the Moore, Oklahoma tornado, but even before then. That this has been a tornado season, that they will never forget. They're used to rough tornado seasons, but many people say it has just been unnerving for so many weeks.

It seems like every day or every other day there are tornado warnings and it has a lot of people on edge. And they can't wait it for all of this to finally come to an end for this tornado season, John.

BERMAN: Yes, we hope it ends soon. Ed Lavandera in Oklahoma for us this morning -- thanks so much, Ed.

ROMANS: As I just mentioned, three well-known storm chasers are among the victims of the latest Oklahoma tornadoes. Tim Samaras and his TWISTEX team used to appear regularly on the Discovery Channel.

Indra Petersons -- wow, our own weather event actually at the moment in the studio. Obviously, we're having some lighting trouble.

So let's talk a little bit about -- it looks like we fixed it -- so let's talk a little bit about what happened here. These three respected storm chasers lost their lives.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes. I mean, these are seasoned chasers. And keep in mind, there is so much we still don't know about tornadoes. They were out there doing groundbreaking research with their own instrument, trying to find out more to really save our lives. Very terrible.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PETERSONS (voice-over): 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.

UNIDENTIFEID MALE: Everybody duck! Go, go, go, go! Just keep 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 that among those killed were veteran storm chaser Tim Samaras, his 24-year-old son, Paul Samaras, and fellow tornado 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 CNN's Soledad O'Brien in 2004.

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

SAMARAS: My plan probes in the path of tornadoes, 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 that Samaras ominously warned about in what became his final tweet. "Dangerous day ahead for Oklahoma. Stay weather savvy!"

Other chasers were in harm's way, including meteorologist Mike Bettes and his crew, as seen here on the Weather Channel.

MIKE BETTES, WEATHER CHANNEL: Eventually, the camera was ejected.

REPORTER: This is the camera. It never stopped recording. Watch it here, as you can actually see Bettes' truck rolling over and over in the field.

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

PETERSONS: A fortunate fate Bettes' photograph Austin Anderson told as well. He escaped 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 tornadoes.

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 ever 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: So the question everyone keeps asking is, why?

Now, typically tornadoes move at a northeasterly direction. So atypical this one went down to the south, so they tried to get south of it and, unfortunately, as they so, it turned right back at them, take a hard left turn -- very erratic behavior.

ROMANS: And deadly.

PETERSONS: Deadly.

ROMANS: Indra, thank you so much.

The surprising death of Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young has left the world of storm chasers stunned. Many wondering how this could have happened. I want to bring in someone who knew Tim and Carl well.

Tyler Costantini has been chasing storms since 1998. He's been doing it full-time since 2004.

Thank you for being here this morning. This can't be hard -- this can't be an easy thing to talk about.

TYLER COSTANTINI, STORM CHASER: No, I mean, it's just a shock. And like everybody keeps saying, Tim Samaras was the -- safety was his thing. He was the safest.

He knew storms well. They had really good plans. They weren't out there doing any kind of haphazard, junkie kind of thing. They were doing real scientific research.

And it's just -- you know, if somebody would have told me, a storm chaser got killed in the tornado, there is absolutely no way I would have ever thought that this group would have been it because of their level of just pre-planning, safety, and everything. It has just everybody so shocked.

BERMAN: So, is the message here then, if it can happen to Tim and his group, given how safe they are and always were, if this could happen to then, could it really happen to anyone? Is this just -- is this business simply too dangerous?

COSTANTINI: It's dangerous business. But, you know, in all the years of storm chasing, nobody -- this is the first time this has happened. There have been storm chasers killed in auto accidents. I mean, you drive you thousands of miles, that tends to happen. But this is the first time this has happened and I'm sure we'll learn a lot from it and, hopefully, do a little soul searching, try to figure out what we need to do to try to stay safer out there. But this storm was the most erratic, chaotic storm. You couldn't stay up with it.

You know, we get radar updates every five minutes. And in five minutes, things changed so much.

ROMANS: Like Indra was saying, it's so erratic, like this particular storm path was so erratic.

You know, you guys are trained professionals. You know -- you know better than anyone how to stay ahead of and stay safe but still get close to the storms.

You know, we live in the social media culture where people have apps on the phones showing them how to gets a close as possible to tornado. What is the message there? If this could happen to Tim and his crew, is there a message for the public who like to daredevil on this stuff?

COSTANTINI: Stay away from it. It's not worth it. If you're not trained, there is no need to have 650 shots of a different angle of the tornado anymore. You know, it used to be you'd get out there, you'd get these shots, you report it to the weather service and you save lives.

But one person can do that. You don't need thousands of people around each storm. And if you don't know what you're doing, if it -- like you said -- if it can happen to Tim Samaras, it can certainly happen to somebody who just started yesterday using their iPhone app or phone app to try to just follow radar and find a tornado. And it's just not -- it's not safe to do that unless you have the proper training, experience and learn from somebody that has done it for years.

ROMANS: Tyler Costantini, thanks for dropping by and giving us your perspective and your memories of your friend and the profession -- the profession -- thank you.

BERMAN: People have been talking out there, there are definitely too many people out there with cameras who don't know what they're doing, taking pictures at these storms. This man, Tim and his crew, they were not among those people. They knew what they were doing. They were always very, very safe. Just a tragedy.

Twelve minutes after the hour.

Ahead on STARTING POINT: so, was the White House involved in the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups? Today, lawmakers on Capitol Hill begin hearing testimony from all sides. We're going to have a live report just ahead.

ROMANS: And rescuers hoping to find a teen swept over a nearly 600 foot waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park. Could he have survived that fall?

You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: California congressman, Darrell Issa, with some real tough questions and some accusations, quite frankly, about the Washington role in the IRS controversy. We're going to get some more information today. This afternoon, acting IRS commissioner, Daniel Werfel, testifies before a House committee, and tomorrow morning, members of the conservative groups who were targeted will publicly testify for the first time.

CNNs Dan Lothian live at the White House this morning. What is Issa saying and what do we hope to learn in these hearings about just getting to the bottom of this IRS mess?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, there are a lot of people that don't believe that the entire story has gotten out there, and that's why you're seeing a lot of these Congressional hearings. In fact, three of those hearings are planned for this week here in Washington as Issa, who has been one of the most vocal critics in all of this, believes that all signs lead right back here to Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN (voice-over): 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's 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 "STATE OF THE UNION": "I believe so." It's totally not definitive.

ISSA: that one isn't.

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 headquarters, and we're getting to proving it. LOTHIAN: But two Democratic sources involved complain Issa released the transcripts 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 income and reports from the landing party.

LOTHIAN: And, on an already notorious "Star Trek" spoof. The video shown as 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 $1,500 a night.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LOTHIAN (on-camera): Issa also took a shot at 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. Carney had no comment -- Christine .

ROMANS: Carney has been called a few things over the years --

LOTHIAN: That's right.

ROMANS: Dan Lothian, thanks, Dan.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Ahead here on STARTING POINT, Angelina Jolie stepping out onto the red carpet in her very first public appearance since her revelation that she had a double mastectomy. Find out what she had to say about the reaction to her surgery. We'll tell you all about it next. You're watching STARTING POINT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROMANS: welcome back to STARTING POINT. "Minding Your Business. So much for the old phrase "Sells in May and go away." The Wall Street adage didn't hold true this time around. The S&P 500 rose more than two percent last month, and the Dow posted its sixth straight monthly gain. As for June, first trading day is kicking off with a rally, perhaps. Dow futures are now up about 80 points.

OK. Not all majors are created equal. A new study from Georgetown says majors with low unemployment rates are elementary education, engineering, and nursing. They're all at or below seven percent unemployment. They're considered stable or growing sectors. On the other end of the spectrum, architecture majors are dealing with a nearly 13 percent jobless rate.

Ben and Jerry's is changing how its ice cream is made. The company will stop using genetically modified organisms or GMOs by the end of the year. Right now, about 80 percent of Ben and Jerry's ice cream is GMO free. Proponents are genetically modified food say it helps improve resistance to pests and disease, but critics are worried about health safety.

And it's become business. Trader Joe's and Whole Foods store brands are already GMO free. And quite frankly, there's a growing segment of consumer base that's what they want.

BERMAN: I don't know if I'm GMO free. Information I didn't know until just now. Thank you for that, Christine.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

BERMAN: Brace yourself, because trending this morning, the news we have all been waiting for. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, they are expecting a girl. The reality TV star and mom to be made the big reveal on last night's season premier of her "E!" reality show, "Keeping Up With The Kardashians."

However, it looks like her step-father, Olympic champ, Bruce Jenner, is not a huge fan of Kanye West. He told "Extra" that Kanye is never around. That baby is due next month. I'm sure we will hear more about it on that reality show.

ROMANS: Yes, exactly. Which is where most people reveal all their personal information.

BERMAN: Exactly.

ROMANS: All right. Ahead on STARTING POINT, rescuers search for a teen who plummeted down a nearly 600-foot waterfall in California's Yosemite National Park over the weekend. A live report coming up in just a minute.

BERMAN: And the maker of the iconic cereal brand, Cheerios, standing by a new ad that it says celebrates diversity, but amazingly, some viewers objected to it. We will play you this ad in a bit.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans.

Developing in Turkey this hour, riot police fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters this morning in Ankara, the capital city, despite a call by Turkey's prime minister that people remain calm. This is the fourth day in a row of violence. Now, what began last week as a peaceful sit-in against plans to demolish a park in Istanbul has ballooned into a nationwide protest against the prime minister's policies. CNN's Ivan Watson joins us from Istanbul. Good morning, Ivan.

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. These are the biggest and most sustained protest against this government that this country has seen in more than ten years. In the square behind me which is the Turkish equivalent of Times Square in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, the demonstrators remain in control of it. They've set up barricades around the square after the police retreated and abandoned the square after more than 36 hours of fighting on Saturday.

Istanbul is mostly calm right now, but the fighting that's going on raging not far from where I'm standing in the pre-dawn hours as angry demonstrators were trying to attack the Istanbul office of the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, he flew off to an official tour of several North African countries today.

Before leaving, he gave a speech to the media, basically, accusing the demonstrators of being vandals and members of extremist groups and challenging them saying, listen, if you're accusing me of being a dictator, let's settle it at the elections ten months from now, and we'll see who'll get the majority of the votes.

That is the kind of heated rhetoric that is probably not going to calm the anger of this spontaneous explosion of anger that we've seen in the streets of Istanbul and other cities over the past four days. Back to you.