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Nodding Off at the Wheel?; Massive Winter Storm; President's Health Care Push; Celebrity Court Drama

Aired December 4, 2013 - 05:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Nodding off at the wheel. A New York train engineer admitted he zoned out moments before that deadly derailment.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, CNN ANCHOR: A deadly winter storm dumping piles of snow on parts of the country. Millions waking up to arctic temperatures this morning.

You know who's tracking all of this for you? Indra Petersons.

BERMAN: There she is.

SAMBOLIN: He's taking a look at damage and what is one the way, folks.

BERMAN: A celebrity chef in court battling out with two sisters claiming they stole millions from her. We're live in London as the drama unfolds.

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

SAMBOLIN: And I'm Zoraida Sambolin. Nice to have you with us. It is Wednesday, December 4th. It is 5:00 a.m. in East.

Up first, human error, the likely cause of Sunday's deadly train derailment here in New York. According to a union representative, the man at the helm, engineer William Rockefeller, nodded off and caught himself too late in the moments before the wreck. What he said was, "I was in a daze." And that's a direct quote from him.

Four people were killed. Rockefeller's layers calling it a case of highway hypnosis. Lawyers, I'm sorry.

We get more from Nic Robertson.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The lawyer representing William Rockefeller, the train driver, says that his client acknowledges that he had a lapse of concentration, the highway hypnosis, zoned out when driving the train shortly before hitting that bend. He was doing 82 miles an hour going into a 30-mile-an-hour curve.

The lawyer says that his client had a good night's sleep before. That he went to bed at 8:30 in the evening, woke up at 3:30 morning, showed up for work just after 5:00 a.m. He says his client is sorry, that he is cooperating. That he's very upset. The NTSB saying they have looked at the train, they have found nothing wrong with the signaling that the train was using, and nothing wrong with the brakes on the train.

EARL WEENER, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: We've determined that the Metro North mechanical department performed the proper brake test prior to the accident train leaving the station and there were no anomalies noted. Based on these data, there's no indication that the brake systems were not functioning properly.

ROBERTSON: The more the investigation goes on, the more it does seem this was a result of human error.

Back to you, John and Zoraida.


BERMAN: Our thanks to Nic Robertson for that.

We have a major case of winter whiplash to tell you about. Temperature swings of 40 to 70 degrees in major cities.

SAMBOLIN: I call that whiplash.

BERMAN: That's like major whiplash. Not just whiplash, major whiplash.

The extreme cold is now gripping a lot of country.

SAMBOLIN: Eighty-nine-year-old snowfall records, if you can believe it, have been shattered in north Utah, and the snow just keeps on falling there. The treacherous conditions causing hundreds of wrecks on highways and surface streets. Transportation officials are issuing an alert. They are asking people there to limit travel.

BERMAN: Snow, strong winds, also hitting Colorado, up to three feet of snow in some areas. An avalanche watch is in effect for many in northern and central mountains throughout that state.


So parts of Montana experiencing subzero wind chills. Ouch. It may feel like 20 to 30 below in some areas. Montana saw some of the coldest temperatures Tuesday with single digits in Yellowstone National Park.

BERMAN: Continuing with the M states now. Snow already creating tough conditions in Minnesota. Another foot could fall today on top of the two feet already on the ground in some areas --


BERMAN: -- left frozen by the arctic air.

SAMBOLIN: This time, it's really bad, and there had been some really, you know, some deadly accidents. So, let's get the latest on all the snow and where it is heading next.

Indra Petersons has that for us.

INDRA PETERSONS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes. It's just time of year. System after system continues, really rolls through the country. We'll take a look where we're seeing the action right now. You can definitely see on the radar, in through Colorado still seeing the snow falling and also into the Dakotas and Minnesota. So, let's talk about how much we're still expecting as we go throughout the day.

It's still a good amount that's expected to be out there. And still over a foot football, if not a foot and a half in the Colorado area. And again, also into the Midwest, we're talking about a foot of snow possible in those regions.

So, let's take a look at that actual system, easy to see why. You see the two lows out here producing those showers. Let's watch what happens as we go. So, as we move into tomorrow, this is the thing we're really concern about it.

Notice the pink here. That's the wintry mix. What we're concerned about is the threat for icing. Now, take a look in Arkansas, even back through Texas, similar to last week. The threat of freezing rain currently is in the forecast.

I notice even as we go through Thursday night that freezing rain and wintry mix can stretch all the way into the Ohio valley. So that's something we're looking at, how much of it can we see? Especially when you consider it's still going to be in the forecast as we go through even Friday and another round behind it over the weekend.

As far as the numbers, this is something so early in the forecast. A lost forecast offices, they're varying from each other. Just keep in mind, what we look at a threshold of over a half inch. If you get over a half inch of freezing rain, you have the threat of power lines coming down. So that's what they're trying to figure out as we get closer in time and get a better, accurate idea.

Otherwise, temperatures, look at that difference, this is what we're talking about, Dallas 80, Bismarck, six degrees is the high. That's the different graph across the country and it's only going to get colder.

SAMBOLIN: Colder here, too.

Thank you so much, Indra.

BERMAN: All right. There's a lot to look out for.


BERMAN: President Obama vowing to keep fighting for the health care law, urging Americans to focus on the benefits of Obamacare, despite the barrage of criticism over the rollout of, that Web site that had so many problems.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The bottom line is, this law is working, and will work into the future. People want the financial stability of health insurance. And we're going to keep on working to fix whatever problems come up in any startup, any launch of a project this big that has an impact on one-sixth of our economy, whatever comes up, we're going to just fix it.


BERMAN: Meanwhile, former President Bill Clinton says his recent suggestion that President Obama keep his word and let people keep their health insurance plans was not aimed, or not trying to distance himself from the president's health care law in an effort to help his wife Hillary's potential 2016 presidential bid.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT: I said nothing about this. Not one word, until the president himself spoke. I don't think you can find anybody in America who's worked harder for his re-election or supported this bill or went out of his way to explain the bill to the American people more than I did.


BERMAN: So, Mr. Clinton says he does not know whether his wife will run for president, and adds that he would support Joe Biden as a 2016 presidential nominee if he got the nomination. He'll support any Democratic nomination.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, that's true.

Notre Dame is suing over Obamacare birth control mandates. They're doing this again. The university filed a fresh lawsuit opposing a requirement to provide insurance for birth control to student and employees, saying that it goes against the teachings of Catholic Church. The Affordable Care Act does make exceptions for religious institutions. So, this new lawsuit seeks an expanded exception for schools and universities as well.

BERMAN: The House has passed a 10-year extension of the 25-year-old ban on plastic guns that can slip pass metal detectors and X-ray machines. New York Senator Charles Schumer calls the extension better than nothing, but not by much. He plans to try to pass a tougher bill on the Senate on Monday, the day the plastic gun ban is scheduled to expire.

SAMBOLIN: Vice President Joe Biden meeting with the Chinese Prime Minister Xi Jinping. The two men already have a cordial relationship. Biden will be trying to calm tensions between Beijing and Tokyo. The vice president spent yesterday in Japan, calling on China to drop claims of sovereignty over disputed air space above the South China Sea.

A live report from Beijing coming up in the next half hour of EARLY START.

BERMAN: The Obama administration says it is prepared to allow Iran to engage in a limited nuclear enrichment program. But that applies only to the nation's peaceful energy needs. In a statement released Tuesday, the White House says it will negotiate with Tehran as long as it holds up its end of the international agreement to curtail its nuclear capabilities under tight oversight. This is the first time the U.S. has explicitly said that Iran has the right to enrich.

SAMBOLIN: Yasser Arafat was not the victim of poisoning according to tests by French forensic scientists. So, that contradicts a Swiss report on the 2004 death of the Palestinian leader that found he was probably killed with radioactive polonium. The French conclusions were immediately challenged by Arafat's widow who has argued his death was a political assassination by someone close to her husband.

BERMAN: This will not put the conspiracy theories to rest. Those will never be put to rest, I don't think.

BERMAN: Eight minutes after the hour.

Coming up: a celebrity chef in a heated courtroom battle. Did two sisters steal millions from Nigella Lawson? We're live in London.

SAMBOLIN: And, an incredible underwater rescue caught on camera.

BERMAN: Beyond incredible.

SAMBOLIN: It is. A man trapped for days under his capsized boat. We have great video for you.

BERMAN: Plus -- this is really an impressive video and an amazing video.

Plus, it is time for your morning rhyme. Tweet us with your own original verse. It can be about anything. Extra points if you rhyme Jacoby Ellsbury. The hashtags are #earlystart and #morningrhyme.

SAMBOLIN: That would be cool.

BERMAN: We'll be read the best ones in the next half hour.


SAMBOLIN: Welcome back to EARLY START.

Twelve minutes past the hour. So glad you're with us this morning.

So, the fraud trial of two former assistants to Nigella Lawson and her ex-husband Charles Saatchi heating up. The celebrity chef, front and center today, expected to testify against two sisters who allegedly embezzled more than $1 million from her.

We're going to get a lot more from Erin McLaughlin. She is live in London.

Good morning.


That's right. Just a short while ago, Nigella Lawson arrived here in court. She was expressionless to the flash bulbs of the world's media. After all, this has been considered an absolute PR disaster for both Lawson and Charles Saatchi. There have been allegations of drug use, as well as details into the breakdown of their marriage. And neither of them are the ones on trial. The defendants in this case, two sisters, their former personal assistants, Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo.

The prosecution alleges that the two sisters fraudently used Saatchi company credit cards to fund a lavish lifestyle, charges that the two sisters deny.

Now, on Friday, it was Charles Saatchi turn to give evidence in court. He was asked questions by the defense about an e-mail that he sent to Lawson in October. In that e-mail, he writes of her daily drug abuse, marijuana and cocaine, and said that he -- that she allowed the sisters to spend as they liked.

Now, he explained to the court at the time he wrote that e-mail, he was very upset, distraught, heartbroken, in fact, over the breakdown of their marriage, that he was simply speculating to the sisters' defense saying that Nigella Lawson to his knowledge has never used drugs.

We have yet to hear from Nigella Lawson. She's never responded to any of these allegations. That, of course, could all change. She is expected to testify later today, Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: What a mess. So, you started out by saying this is a PR nightmare for Nigella.

So, once this trial is over, what's next for her?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, once the trial is over, she is expected to appear during the second season of the ABC show "The Taste." There also have been media reports of a planned tell-all interview to Oprah. Though her spokesperson tells me that is simply not going to happen. It still remains to be seen the long-term effects of some of the allegations that have emerged during this trial -- Zoraida.

SAMBOLIN: All right. Erin McLaughlin live in London for us. Thank you very much.

It is 15 minutes past the hour.

And families in Newtown, Connecticut, are bracing for the release of the 911 calls from the Sandy Hook massacre. This just 10 days before the first anniversary of the shooting, when 20 first graders and six school staffers lost their lives. A judge ruled last week to make those tapes public, affirming a Freedom of Information request. State attorneys spent months fighting the release. It is now set for 2:00 p.m. today. BERMAN: Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro died by his own hands. That's the conclusion of an independent review announced Tuesday. Castro was found hanging in his prison cell in September after being sentenced to life plus 1,000 years for imprisoning and assaulting three women for a decade. It points to all signs as a suicide. Although I have to say, there's still plenty of questions how he ever was given the time and space to commit suicide to begin with.

SAMBOLIN: Exactly, when they should have been watching very closely.

All right. Sixteen minutes past the hour.

A Montana judge under fire for saying a 14-year-old rape victim looked older than her age. He admits he broke judicial ethics code but 72- year-old Judge G. Todd Baugh tells "The Associated Press" he should be censored but not removed from the bench for his remarks. The case involved the rape of high school freshman who later killed herself. The judge sentenced the teacher convicted in that case to 30 days in jail.

BERMAN: Production on "Fast & Furious 7" now on hold following the death of star Paul Walker. The 40-year-old actor died along with a friend in a fiery crash this weekend. Autopsy results completed Tuesday are being withheld right now. The latest movie in the blockbuster series was set for release next July. Universal Pictures says it will donate some proceeds from the last installment to Walker's charities.

SAMBOLIN: Well, this is a miraculous rescue. It was all caught on tape after a man actually survived three days at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Harrison Okene was working as a cook aboard a tugboat off he Nigerian coast when a heavy swell caused the vessel to capsize and ultimately sink. His 11 other colleagues drown. But Okene found an air pocket inside the sunken ship and survived for nearly three days before being found by rescue divers.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's that? You found one --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's alive! He's alive. OK. Keep him there. Keep it there. All right.

All right. Just hold him there, keep him there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know what we're going to do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. Just keep him there. Keep him calm, OK?

(END VIDEO CLIP) SAMBOLIN: You know why they're so shocked because they were on a recover mission. They did not expect to find anyone alive after three days. Okene survived on a single can of soda for three days. This all happened this past June. Remarkable.

BERMAN: It is amazing. I wonder how he kept his hopes up. What a miracle.

SAMBOLIN: Well, when you look at the video, and you see his face when they found him, he seems just totally shock. So, he must have been prepared for the worst, right, and then there are people, not sharks, coming for him. Amazing.

BERMAN: A wonderful ending to that story.

SAMBOLIN: It is remarkable.

BERMAN: All right. Eighteen minutes after the hour.

Two sky divers were killed when they collided in midair and crashed to the ground during a jump Tuesday in southern Arizona. Witnesses say they were descending when their parachutes -- with their parachutes opened, when they collided at about 300 feet. The chutes then collapsed, and they then fell to the --

SAMBOLIN: Wow, terrible.

So, it is official. Detroit will become the largest U.S. city ever to file for bankruptcy. A judge handing down this landmark decision to approve the filing Tuesday. So, it now clears the way for the motor city to slash an estimated $18 billions in debt, including reducing pensions for city workers. It's quite controversial. Many of those workers protested that decision outside of the courthouse Tuesday.

BERMAN: And an impressive move by the Illinois legislature. They've approved an historic plan to eliminate the state's enormous pension shortfall. And Governor Pat Quinn says he will sign it. Public employee unions opposed the bill and promise to take legal action. They argue that the legislation is unfair to workers and retirees who contributed to retirement plans who will now see their benefits cut because of what they called government mismanagement.

SAMBOLIN: It is. This battle has been going on for years. Unfortunately, something had to happen, because if not, it's another Detroit.

BERMAN: It was a mess.

SAMBOLIN: Yes, it is a mess. Hopefully, they're fixing it.

Recent outbreaks of meningitis at Princeton and at UC-Santa Barbara are troubling health officials, not just because of the number of cases, eight at Princeton, four at Santa Barbara. But because this is the type of infection for which the United States does not have an approved vaccine. So, in a rare move, federal officials are allowing Princeton to vaccinate students next week with a drug not yet approved in the United States.

BERMAN: "Newsweek" is returning to print. "The New York Times" reports the magazine will begin publishing a weekly print version beginning next January or February. It will reportedly depend more on subscribers and less on advertisers. And readers will pay more than they did in the past.

SAMBOLIN: So, remember those Google Glasses? The person thought to be the first driver to get a ticket for wearing Google Glass has pleaded not guilty. Cecilia Abadie from San Diego is charged with speeding and distracted driving.

Her defense, there is nothing illegal simply wearing Google Glass when it was not turned on. But when she looked up at the officer who pulled her over, the glasses were activated.


CECILIA ABADIE, TICKETED FOR WEARING GOOGLE GLASS: It's on. The device is physically on. But it's not active in the screen. So if I do either these or these, then you can see the screen light up a little bit.


SAMBOLIN: Google Glass is not yet on the market. Abadie is one of about 10,000 people chosen to try out the product.

BERMAN: But not while driving.

SAMBOLIN: No, that is just not a good idea, I think.

BERMAN: All right. Twenty-one minutes after the hour. This is what will be up this morning. A big, big deal. The Yankees hoping that money can buy them love. They spend a lot of it on all-star Red Sox outfielder. Andy Scholes breaks it down.

SAMBOLIN: Are you heartbroken?

BERMAN: It's a lot of money. Coming up next on "The Bleacher Report."


BERMAN: The New York Yankees doing the one thing they know how to do. Spend money. And they are spending a lot.

SAMBOLIN: Are you editorializing right now?

BERMAN: No, this is a fact. They spend a lot, and they're spending a lot of money on the Red Sox centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, leaving the world champion Boston Red Sox and going to the team here in New York.

Andy Scholes --

SAMBOLIN: Somebody's hating. Somebody's hating this morning, Andy.

BERMAN: Andy Scholes, give us the details.

ANDY SCHOLES, THE BLEACHER REPORT: I feel a little spite in your voice there, John Berman.

You know, missing the playoffs for just the second time in 19 years, you knew that wasn't going to sit well with the Yankees. This move has a deja vu feeling to it. In 2005, the Yankees signed away Johnny Damon from the Red Sox after they just won the World Series. And they've done the same thing again.

This deal, the Yankees are giving Ellsbury, it's a big one. He's reportedly going to receive a seven-year, $153 million contract. That's the fourth largest deal in Yankees history. And then you know what this mean, Ellsbury is going to have to shave that beard because Yankees had a no facial hair policy.

All right. The Warriors-Raptors game last night in the NBA looked like a snoozer. Toronto had a 27-point lead in the third quarter, but then Golden State mounted an epic comeback. The Warriors used a barrage of threes to outscore the Raptors 42 to 15 in the fourth quarter. They came all the way back to get the win, 112-103. It was the seventh largest come back in NBA history.

And turning to today, did you ever think about inviting your favorite pro athlete to your wedding?

SAMBOLIN: Oh, yes.

SCHOLES: You know, just to say they were invited. Well, that's one couple did with Payton Manning. And check it out -- they got a handwritten response.

The couple posted the pic at the RSVP online.

SAMBOLIN: That was nice of him.

SCHOLES: Yes, Manning respectively declined. But, you know, did sign an autograph for the couple and how cool is that, he must get thousands of fan mail and he actually took the time to send a handwritten response. Pretty cool deal.

BERMAN: That is very nice. And congratulations to the young couple. If they wanted something cool at their wedding, they should have invited Tom --

SAMBOLIN: They should have invited you?

BERMAN: Tom Brady.


(LAUGHTER) BERMAN: All right. Andy Scholes, appreciate it.

SCHOLES: All right.

BERMAN: We're going to have the top headlines and absolutely everything you need to know for the day.

SAMBOLIN: Absolutely everything?

BERMAN: Every last thing.

SAMBOLIN: All right.

BERMAN: It's all coming up right after the break.

SAMBOLIN: Tall order.


SAMBOLIN: Dazed and confused. A New York train engineer admitting he may have been nodding off at the wheel moments before a deadly derailment.

BERMAN: A deadly winter storm plaguing a lot of this country with ice, snow, and arctic temperatures. Indra Petersons tracking the storm's damage.