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Nineteen Firefighters Dead in Arizona; Record Breaking Heat Wave; Obama in Africa; Mandela's Health; George Zimmerman Murder Trial

Aired July 1, 2013 - 05:00   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking overnight: heroes fall. Nineteen firefighters dead in the battle against the blaze raging out of control in Arizona. The latest in moments.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: The record breaking heat wave turns deadly. Almost unbelievable temperatures in some places. Will they get any kind of break this morning?

ROMANS: Car show mayhem. Spectators sent flying when a driver loses control. The story behind this amazing video, next.

BERMAN: That is crazy.

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

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. It's Monday. Monday, July 1st, it's 5:00 a.m. in the East.

BERMAN: And we do begin with this breaking news this morning, tragic news. Nineteen firefighters killed, battling an out of control blaze in central Arizona. This is the biggest loss of life for fighters since September 11, 2001.

The Yarnell Hill Fire near Phoenix has now grown to 6,000 acres. It has burned dozens of structures. And as we said, it is clearly deadly and dangerous.

Authorities believe it began with a lightning strike. It is being fueled by the extreme heat, drought conditions and gusty winds.

CNN's Kyung Lah is with us. She's on the phone from near Prescott, Arizona.

And, Kyung, we are getting information piece by piece here. What can you tell us about these firefighters and what can you tell us about how they died?

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Well, John, I can tell you this is an extraordinary loss for the community of Prescott and also for firefighters across this country, especially those who have to battle the wildfires in this extraordinary weather.

This is an elite squad. They are called the Hot Shots. The reason why? Because they earned that name -- they go close to the fire, they act as a barrier and try to stop the flames in their tracks. The fire chief came out, the fire chief in Prescott, and made the announcement to reporters.

Here is what he said.


DAN FRAIJO, FIRE CHIEF OF PRESCOTT, AZ: The 19 firefighters were killed in what is probably the worst disaster that has taken place in wildland history in the state of Arizona.


LAH: You can just hear the grief. It's very difficult for the firefighters who have already had an incredible year to deal with this.

Something else we should mention, John, these firefighters were found having deployed the fire shelters. If you cover these wildfires, fire shelters are deployed as a means of last resort -- meaning that this fire, they knew the fire was coming. It was about to overtake them and they were trying to get under these shelters to save their lives -- John.

BERMAN: You know, Kyung, we toss around the term hero so easily sometimes in our society. With these people involved here, clearly such heroes fighting the fire that seems to be exploding in size and intensity. What is driving this and what is the situation on the ground right now?

LAH: I can tell you standing here, it is the incredible winds. I mean the winds have been ferocious for a short period of time. The Phoenix airport, in fact, had to be shut down because of the wind.

So, what you have incredible winds. You have this fuel out here. It is drought conditions and then you have lightning storms. So, it is a triple threat here, very frightening for the firefighters as well as the residents who live throughout the Southwest.

BERMAN: They are dealing with this fire at the same time. They are dealing with this tragedy, this tragic loss of life, 19 firefighters killed. Kyung, as we said, the worst loss of life for firefighters since 9/11.

Do you have a sense of what the mood is on the ground there?

LAH: Well, you heard it from the fire chief. The grief is really difficult for all the firefighters here. The reason why is because these are the best of the best. These fire crews, the Hot Shots, they are deployed, the best trained. They are deployed on their own.

They actually go out there with tact and spend days trying to create that break, that fire break, that barrier so that the other fire crews can get a handle on it to create, that contain the circle that we often talk about. So, when you lose the top tier, the very best, you can imagine what kind of impact that has on all of the thousands of firefighters who are dealing with the wildfires.

BERMAN: The best of the best, 19 lost this morning. Kyung Lah, near Prescott, Arizona -- we'll let you get back to reporting and check back with you in a little bit. Thanks for being with us.

ROMANS: So the heat is not helping that Arizona firefighter, record breaking heat wave baking the West and the Southwest, no end in sight. And California's Death Valley, one of the hottest places on earth, they haven't seen this kind of heat in almost a century.

CNN's Tory Dunnan has more.


TORY DUNNAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A deadly heat wave from Texas to the Western Seaboard.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going to take a toll on your body.

DUNNAN: Scorching through southern California, where a hiker died and in Arizona where a firefighter was taken to the hospital for dehydration.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't want to come out here in the middle of the heat.

DUNNAN: The sweltering temps may be to blame for the death of an elderly Las Vegas man. It's affected flights in Arizona and California where dozens of small planes were grounded.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When it's 110 to 115 degrees, the air is thinner. The thinner the air, the less lift on the airplane.

DUNNAN: Animals are feeling the burn. At the Houston zoo, monkeys turn to popsicles.

In Death Valley, the wind is like a hair drier rather than a cool breeze.

(on camera): The high today being Sunday was --


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's very beautiful. So, it's worth it.

DUNNAN (voice-over): Tourists are flocking at the chance to witness record breaking temps.

(on camera): Describe how you are feeling?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very hot. DUNNAN (voice-over): But down here, it's not too hot to handle. They put the phrase, hot enough to fry an egg to the test.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's just not bad.

DUNNAN (on camera): Did you really just eat that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I really did. I really It's not bad.

DUNNAN (voice-over): The West Coast has turned into a life-like oven.

Tory Dunnan, CNN, Death Valley, California.


BERMAN: A life like oven. How uncomfortable that must be. How much longer will it last?

Indra Petersons is here tracking this extreme and deadly weather for us.

Good morning, Indra.


One of the things I like to explain is what a dome of high pressure is. A lot of times, you have a dome blocking out the other weather. And that's what we're dealing. We have two, one in the west producing the radical fire danger. And then, out on the East, it's actually helping all the moisture and all the record rainfall out in the east.

So, let's talk about the dome of high pressure in the West. That is sinking air. The stagnant air making the temperatures soar. And, really, if you look at the next several days, we are still talking the record heat. I mean, temperatures, a good 15 degrees above average in many places. And it looks like as we go through the next three days, we are not seeing much in the way of relief.

By the second half of the week, though, we should start to see those temperatures should come down.

Now, we mentioned on the East Coast, record rainfall for the month of June. I mean, this is what we're talking about, over 10 inches of rain in many places. Well, what's going on there? I'll show you, very easy to see.

There's the other dome of high pressure is hanging out around Bermuda. It fuels all the moisture up the Eastern Seaboard and continues to do so. As long as it stays there and doesn't allow the low on the west side of it to move in, we're going to continue to see the pattern. So, flooding is still a threat here.

So, really, both weather patterns are stagnant, they're not going to be moving for the next couple of days.

BERMAN: We have to get through the first half of this week for relief.

All right. Indra, thanks so much.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela still in critical, but stable condition in a hospital in Pretoria this morning. His family is saying he's alert and does recognize visitors. He's still on life support with his family by his bedside.

President Obama spent and emotional weekend in South Africa. While he did not see Mandela himself, our president did meet with Mandela's family and visited Robben Island where he was held prisoner for so many years. President Obama is on his way to visit Tanzania.

Nima Elbaghir is in Darussalam for us this morning.

Nima, good morning.


Well, as you said, we are ready and waiting for President Obama here. He is expected to land a little later in the afternoon and he will be heading into a joint press conference with the Tanzania president, Jakaya Kikwete. But from there, and this way it goes to show what this trip has really been about. From there, he's going to be hosting a business forum bringing together local partners with the U.S. businessmen have come along with him on this trip.

President Obama has made very clear that this trip, for him, is about expanding those investment opportunities for U.S. business. He needs to do that. Three years ago, in 2009, China surpassed the U.S. as Africa's largest individual trading partner. And ever since then, the U.S. has been playing catch up.

And given the demographics, the burgeoning consumer oriented middle class, a really untapped market here, President Obama has made it very clear, John, that he wants America to step up its game in Africa and not be left out when it comes to taking advantage of the opportunities this continent presents -- John.

BERMAN: Nima, there are two U.S. presidents visiting East Africa right now. Former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush also in Africa. We know that First Ladies Michelle Obama and Laura Bush will take part in an event.

But will the presidents -- will President George W. Bush and President Obama meet there?

ELBAGHIR: Well, at the moment, we don't have any expectation of that. They have been having very different schedules. President George W. Bush is in Zambia. He's going to be heading from that part of southern Africa, over here to east Africa.

It's interesting they are here at the same time, because when you speak to a lot of the people that we've been chatting to in Kenya, in Tanzania and across a lot of this continent, when you speak about President Obama and his roots in the east of Africa, slightly further up from here, in Kenya, you would expect the people would be a lot more optimistic and enthusiastic speaking of President Obama. But, actually, a lot of people here feel that George W. Bush has done a lot more for this continent.

So, it's interesting timing they are here at the same time, John.

BERMAN: All right. Nima Elbaghir, thank you so much. Reporting for us from Tanzania this morning -- I appreciate it.

ROMANS: New allegations this morning about the NSA's spying program. The German news magazine "Ders Spiegel" reporting the U.S. bugged the European government offices and infiltrated E.U. networks in Washington and at the U.N. those revelations in NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

The head of the European parliament asking for a full clarification from the Obama administration.

BERMAN: Meanwhile, Edward Snowden is holed up in the airport in Moscow and he may not be leaving anytime soon. Ecuador's president now says his country will not take any action until Snowden's asylum request until Snowden arrives on Ecuadorian soil or at one of their embassies.

Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, says it's up to Russia to decide what happens next. Vladimir Putin called for Snowden to leave the country. But the NSA contractor's American passport has been revoked. He apparently has not asked for a travel visa elsewhere.

BERMAN: A new future in politics for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. "The Wall Street Journal" says the online activist is planning a run for the Australian senate.

The wrinkle? Well, he's not in Australia. He has spent the last year living inside Ecuador's London embassy, trying to avoid extradition to Sweden as part of a sex assault investigation. Assange grew up in Australia but he hasn't been back since 2010.

BERMAN: Scary moments at a car show in Poland. Look at this.

ROMANS: Oh, my.

BERMAN: Awful. A Swedish luxury car skidded into the crowd that was lined up to watch. Some 17 people hurt. None of the injuries are said to be life threatening which is amazing. At this point, the accident is under investigation. That's just so scary. The people were so close to that track. It seems like an epically bad idea.

But again, no life threatening injuries. That's the good news.

Twelve minutes after the hour.

Coming up, a huge morning in court. George Zimmerman, in his own words, telling police what happened the day he was shot and killed -- sorry, the day he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. It could become key evidence in this murder case. But will the jury get to hear it? It's coming up next.


BERMAN: Welcome back, everyone.

A crucial moment today in Stanford, Florida. George Zimmerman, in his own words. This morning, a judge is set to decide whether the jury can hear statements that the former neighborhood watchman volunteer gave to police. And as George Howell tell us, this may shed light over what happened the night Trayvon Martin died.


GEORGE ZIMMERMAN, MURDER DEFENDANT: All I could think about is when he was hitting my head, it felt like it was going explode.

GEORGE HOWELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's George Zimmerman walking investigators through the incident less than 24 hours after shooting and killing Trayvon martin. This video, along with two audio statements and a written statement he gave police that could become critical new evidence in the case.

If Judge Deborah Nelson allows it in court, the jury could examine Zimmerman's demeanor and possible inconsistencies in his statements. Prosecutors are also expected to call on more pivotal witnesses this week, including the investigators from the Sanford Police Department, Chris Serino and Doris Singleton, who found George Zimmerman acted in self-defense.

Jurors ended the week on day five hearing from the only eyewitness to the struggle between Zimmerman and Martin. John Good told police he saw two people on the ground. The person on top was wearing darker clothes. And the man under seemed to have a lighter complexion like George Zimmerman.

MARK O'MARA, ZIMMERMAN DEFENSE ATTORNEY: What you saw was the person on top in an MMA straddle type position, correct?


HOWELL: Good's testimony is important to the defense because it contradicts the testimony of two key witnesses for the state. Selma Mora told the jury she heard yelling, stepped out of the home and saw a man, who appeared to be George Zimmerman on top.

O'MARA: The person on top did not respond to the first two times that you called to him, correct? And the third time he said, just call the police?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Call the police, correct.

HOWELL: Another important witness for prosecutors, Rachel Jeantel, who is on the phone with Martin moments before he was killed. Over four hours of questioning, she maintained that it was George Zimmerman who was the aggressor. DON WEST, ZIMMERMAN DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I thought you said it could have been, for all you know, Trayvon Martin smashing George Zimmerman in the face is what you heard?


WEST: Yes, just earlier today.

JEANTEL: By who?

WEST: By you.

JEANTEL: You were get (ph) that from me?

HOWELL: George Howell, CNN, Sanford, Florida.


ROMANS: It's a fascinating case.

All right. Authorities say NFL star Aaron Hernandez has been a model inmate since his arrest last week for allegedly orchestrating the execution style killing of Odin Lloyd, the semi pro football player. Three other people are in custody as possible accomplices.

Meantime, Hernandez's former team, New England Patriots, is telling fans they can trade in their Aaron Hernandez number 81 jerseys for a new Patriots jersey.

BERMAN: I know a lot of families doing that. I really do.

Police in Florida are searching for a gunman on what appears to be a deadly case of road rage. This happened on Interstate 4 near Tampa. Police say the victim, 47 year old Fred William Turner, had called 911 to say he was being followed by a man with a gun.

During a call, a dispatcher heard a series of shots. It's not clear what may have provoked the fatal shooting.

ROMANS: All right. Coming up, student loan rates, they rise, soaring overnight. They doubled actually. What it will now cost students struggling with tuition to go college.

BERMAN: A lot. That's the answer, a lot.

ROMANS: Yes, a lot more.


BERMAN: Welcome back, everyone.

A hot, steamy, overcast morning in New York City where it's been sticky and rainy the last few days.

ROMANS: And it is the first day of the second half of the year. Are you ready? BERMAN: Welcome.

ROMANS: Half of it is in the book. You got another half to go.

Welcome back to EARLY START. It's money time.

Look, stocks futures higher despite signs of weakness in China. Two readings of manufacturing there, hinted weaker than expected growth in the second quarter. As I said, it's the first day of the second half of the year.

The Dow Industrials had the best half since 1999. Up, 13 percent.


ROMANS: What you're seeing right here is the last week. The Dow last week rose just shy of 1 percent. The NASDAQ was up 1.4 percent, the S&P 500 up 0.9 percent. So, all that drama about the Fed, still, the best first half of the year for the Dow since 1999.

Now, students this morning are being told to prepare for worst, hope for the best. The rate on student loans doubles today from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. Congress unable to come up with a compromise to deal with these rates, to keep them from doubling. There's hope that after the July 4th recess, lawmakers could come up with a plan retroactive to back July 1st.

There are 7 million students it affects. They are slated to take subsidized Stafford loans this year. The higher interest rate would add about $4,500 to the cost of a four-year degree. This is a time when students are struggling with debt and poor job prospects.

The average student now owes nearly $27,000 in loans when he or she has finished college. One in eight has more than 50 grand, one in eight.

BERMAN: That's crazy. You're counting on Congress. What could go wrong here?

ROMANS: Exactly. This is Congress not being able to fix it. But this is something that's going to affect 7 million students when they take out new loans this fall.

OK. To housing news now. Starting this week, hundreds of thousands of struggling borrowers with mortgages back by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac who are at least 90 days behind will start receiving offers from lenders to lower their payments. The new effort is called the stream line modification initiative, and first time -- this is really important. That part of the fixing that part of the mortgage problem.

Now, this is another part of the housing story to tell you about. First time home buyers are not participating as home sales are rising. In May, first time buyers are 28 percent of home purchase. That's down 34 percent from a year ago and 36 percent from two years ago.

So, I keep telling you about the happy housing news, but first time home buyers are just over a quarter of the action here right now.

BERMAN: It's kind of selective targeted happy housing news.

ROMANS: Absolutely. You would like to see more first time home buyers be able to take advantage of it, no question.

BERMAN: All right. Christine Romans, thank you so much.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

BERMAN: Coming up here: this is a terrifying story, a child kidnapped, snatched from her mothers cart inside a Walmart -- look at that -- and then held at knife point. It is all caught on camera. We'll tell you the story, next.