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Mass Illness on Cruise Ship; Atlanta Shut Down

Aired January 29, 2014 - 15:00   ET

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


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: This trip was cut short after some 700 people got very, very ill on board this ship. So, We are talking to passengers as they're getting off the cruise ship.

Then, on the right of your screen, at least I'm seeing movement. That's the headline at this hour here, what has really been a major American city just crippled by snow, two inches of snow, Atlanta shut down by the storm system, some drivers stranded for 24 hours-plus after the snow started falling, because everyone got out on the roads at the same time.

You have the city, mayor of Atlanta and Georgia's governor in front of cameras, trying to explain what happened. And that has really angered some of these people spending the nights in Home Depots and gas stations and places they had never been before.

So, let's begin with that, with the crisis, the catastrophe that is Atlanta, Georgia. Now, as I'm looking at my clock here, three hours until sundown. Thousands are people are still stuck. They are stranded on these ice-covered interstates into and out of the country's ninth largest metropolis.

Some of these people have spent a night and day in these hellish conditions already.

We have our meteorologist Chad Myers. He's standing by to talk about this a little bit.

But Stephanie Sarkissian you are joining me now, a CNN employee who happened to be on a bus heading from Orlando to Atlanta. You hopped on this bus yesterday, got off this bus this morning. Total time on board?

STEPHANIE SARKISSIAN, CNN: Twenty-two hours total time.

BALDWIN: Twenty-two hours total time.

SARKISSIAN: Yes. Yes.

BALDWIN: You look bright eyed and bushy-tailed for being on a bus so long.

SARKISSIAN: Happy to be off the bus. That's why I'm happened.

BALDWIN: Tell me what happened. Take me through the journey. SARKISSIAN: Pretty much, we boarded the bus at around 1:00. It left as scheduled. They said the journey would be OK to Atlanta. If you were continuing after Atlanta to the northeast or something, you might have some delays after that.

We made it to the Atlanta area in eight hours, no problem, 20 minutes away from the Greyhound station, complete gridlock on I-75 Northbound, like complete shutdown. People were turning off their cars. Our bus, Greyhound bus was in park. He just kept it on to keep the heater running so that we wouldn't all freeze on there.

BALDWIN: Did you have the heat the whole time? Because it was very cold outside.

SARKISSIAN: Yes, we did. I'm thankful we had enough fuel to keep us warm for the 14 hours that we were waiting. So, we waited longer than the actual trip from Florida to Georgia was.

BALDWIN: And these pictures, are these your pictures?

SARKISSIAN: Yes. That's how I was entertaining myself on that bus.

BALDWIN: Taking photographs, because you are a good young journalist who knows to take pictures.

You have in your hands an MRE. Let's just -- guys, if we can take this on one of these cameras, you can see. We have been talking about MREs. These are meals ready to eat that are typically handed out to our men and women in uniform in Afghanistan.

And instead this morning, thank goodness for the National Guard going car to car, Greyhound bus to Greyhound bus handing them out.

SARKISSIAN: Yes. Actually, the National Guard was the first sign of any help that we got. Throughout the night, we were not sure exactly what was going on, how long we would be there for. People were getting restless because we had gone about 12 hours without any food or water.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: How long?

SARKISSIAN: Twelve hours.

BALDWIN: Twelve hours.

SARKISSIAN: Yes. We had been on this bus without food or water for that long. People, needless to say, were getting very restless about that time.

We saw a National Guardsman just walking the wrong way towards us, kind of flagged him down. And we asked if he knew what was going on. He said to the best of his knowledge he was just trying to make sure people were OK medically, because the gridlock was so terrible that emergency medical services couldn't get through. He was making sure there were no medical emergencies and nobody with diabetes, no children, and people were starving and so he was nice enough to bring a box of MREs. People just chowed.

They were so hungry, they just inhaled these MREs.

BALDWIN: They chowed down on these MREs, which I'm sure on a normal day are not as delicious as they were for you this morning, not having eaten or drunk anything for 12 hours.

What was this sense? Just take us on the highway. For people across the country who are watching and cannot wrap their heads around what has been going on in Atlanta, a major, major city stuck.

SARKISSIAN: I feel like the situation went from inconvenience to almost danger and disaster within the 12-hour period.

People were just worried about their safety. You are in this bus that is stopped, that can't go anywhere and then you see cars skidding backwards towards you, cars that have lost traction trying to go uphill. They are skating towards you and you don't know if they're going to miss you and hit a wall or if that's going to be the car that runs into you. We personally saw three different cars slam into the concrete median and just destroy their cars.

Luckily, the people were OK. The general sentiment was that people felt abandoned out there. How do you not hear from anyone for 10 or 12 hours, at least some kind of hope, some kind of timetable? That was the feeling.

BALDWIN: People need to be answering those excellent questions.

SARKISSIAN: Definitely.

BALDWIN: Stephanie Sarkissian, we are glad you are OK. Thanks for taking the picture. Really, really appreciate you.

SARKISSIAN: Thank you.

BALDWIN: And Michael Holmes talking about how treacherous these road conditions are 24-plus hours since the snow began to fall. I see you on the side of a highway. I'm seeing cars moving, which is major news.

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Brooke, I have to tell you we just come off another one of Atlanta's major freeways, I-20, about jampacked.

But I think it's fair to say we are now in a situation where there are a few hot spots of backups. But you're right. Would you love your commute to be like this on a normal day? It certainly isn't and it certainly wasn't last night.

This was one of those images that you saw where no one was moving. We have spoken to people who actually spent the night here. It's freezing now. Imagine what it was like last night. We spoke just a few minutes ago with a schoolteacher, Kathy Switzer. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOLMES: Kathy, you have come back here to get your car. When did you leave it here.

KATHY SWITZER, STRANDED PASSENGER: We left the car about 5:30 and then we got to shelter off Moores Mill about 6:30 this morning.

HOLMES: This morning?

SWITZER: This morning.

HOLMES: How long had you been stuck in traffic?

SWITZER: I'm a teacher. I left school about 3:00 after the students were dismissed.

HOLMES: You got here and basically had to give up?

SWITZER: Pretty much, yes.

HOLMES: You spent the night out here?

SWITZER: Yes. Yes, we did.

HOLMES: How was it?

SWITZER: It was good. I picked up a buddy about 2:00 a.m. because on that Facebook group that I'm sure you have heard about, her son was very worried and he posted my mother is between Howell Mill and Moores Mill and she's thinking about walking to Moores Mill. Is anything near her so she can have a buddy? And I said, I'm near her. And then we were able to figure out how close we were.

She got in the car and that was another three hours.

HOLMES: Social media at work.

SWITZER: I know. I know.

HOLMES: At least you had some company.

What are you going to do now?

SWITZER: We will work the back roads to get to Smyrna. Both of us live in Smyrna, by coincidence, because we didn't know each other until 2:30 this morning.

HOLMES: You made some friends, at least?

SWITZER: Oh, yes, yes.

HOLMES: How will you look back on this experience?

SWITZER: Well, it's certainly an adventure. It's certainly something to tell. I'm just glad the car is safe and glad I'm safe, glad...

HOLMES: Kathy, great. Thank you so much.

SWITZER: Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOLMES: All right. That's Kathy there.

Now I will show you what's going on now. What we have seen driving along 75 North here is this, cars abandoned all the way along here. You can see these little yellow tags on the door handles. The cops actually came along and checked these cars and marked them when they were empty.

The thing now is what we are seeing, tow trucks all over the place. If you haven't picked up your car yet, you better come and get it, because these guys are moving quickly. We actually spoke to one of the tow truck drivers as well. Have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TORREY GRIFFIN, TOW TRUCK DRIVER: It's been busy. It has been exciting and fun at the same time.

HOLMES: Yes? What have you been seeing out there?

GRIFFIN: It's very dangerous. You still have a lot of icy roads and a lot of patches, a lot of bridges and exit ramps.

HOLMES: How many cars have you towed?

GRIFFIN: So far, about 15 to 20.

HOLMES: And you are just beginning really.

GRIFFIN: Since about 8:00 this morning.

HOLMES: You have plenty more to go.

GRIFFIN: Yes, sir.

HOLMES: OK. What's your name?

GRIFFIN: I'm Torrey.

HOLMES: Torrey?

(CROSSTALK)

GRIFFIN: Torrey.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HOLMES: Yes, very busy, Brooke, I can tell you, and they are still working up here. The wheels are spinning and there is still a lot of ice around that.

But when you look back, and you have been saying this, too, when you look back on I think, what, Atlanta is the ninth biggest city in the United States, absolutely extraordinary the scenes that have happened over the last 24 hours. But I think it's fair to say now starting to wind down.

And, as I said, if you haven't got your car, and you're watching us in Atlanta, you better go come to Moores Mill and pick it's up before they do.

BALDWIN: I can't believe that, that they're tagged like that. I suppose that is the best way, but your picture, that's the best stuff we have seen this afternoon, Michael Holmes. Thank you so much for showing us that.

Then one of the next obvious questions, the blame. Georgia's governor, Atlanta's mayor, they're in full damage control mode right now. And while they say, yes, yes, a mistake was made in dismissing the schools and the government agencies and the businesses all at the same time yesterday afternoon, they are laying blame on the weather folks at the National Weather Service.

I want to you listen to Governor Nathan Deal earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. NATHAN DEAL (R), GEORGIA: I didn't mean to imply that we didn't know something was coming.

What I was referring to was that the National Weather Service had continually had their modeling showing that the city of Atlanta would not be the primary area where the storm would hit, that it would be south of Atlanta.

You have already heard some of our agencies saying that based on the modelling, they had not brought some of the resources earlier because they thought there were going to be other parts of the state that were going to be more severely impacted than the metropolitan Atlanta area.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: Our next guest has a little something to say about that.

He is Dr. Marshall Shepherd, and he's the University of Georgia's director for program and atmospheric scientists and the 2013 president of the American Meteorological Society.

Marshall, welcome.

First, let me just quote this open letter that you posted online. This is what you wrote in part: "As soon as I saw what was unfolding with kids being stranded in schools, six plus-hour commute and other horror stories, I knew it was coming. I knew it."

It being what, the blame on the weather folks?

MARSHALL SHEPHERD, UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA: Well, I think in these high-impact weather events, I think it's a stressful situation.

I think we weather folks often are in a tough position in these types of events. I was starting to see some things percolating out there in the social media and even just whispers among my circle of friends.

But, look, it's a tough challenge here, because we have weather information, science information, our models that mean things to us, to our policy-makers and our leaders who frankly I think are getting beat up a little bit more than they probably should. I think they need information perhaps in different forms.

I see this really as a watershed opportunity to try to convey the type of information that really is obvious to us as science and also convey it in a way to our policy-makers and decision-makers who may not convey or use information the same way we do.

BALDWIN: In order for us to learn from this so that this doesn't happen again, the question has to be answered, who dropped the ball? In your best opinion, who did?

SHEPHERD: If you read the blog carefully, I say that there is no specific person or agency to blame.

I truly believe that. I think the governor was right. Governor Deal was right in this regard. I'm on record. I was quoted as saying this to my wife the other night. It really was a damned if you do and damned if you don't situation. I hope I can say that. Excuse me if I can't.

BALDWIN: Go for it. Let's be real.

SHEPHERD: But the bottom line is it was a situation from a meteorological perspective. I think most meteorologists knew we were going to have some snow that Tuesday. I think it was a perfect convergence of timing issues, perhaps people leaving at the same time.

It led to the issues that we saw here in terms of this event. What I'm trying to emphasize and what I emphasized in my blog is let's get off the blame. There's no one to blame here, but let's look at the opportunity we have to convey that we as scientists knew in a way that is more useful to our decision-makers, who may not appreciate or understand that we see an evolving forecast that we have to watch carefully and may not grasp the nuances of what a watch vs. an advisory.

BALDWIN: Sure, and I hear you loud and clear. But I just think there a lot of frustrated people in at Atlanta who would like to, I don't know, maybe have some government folks own some of this.

But I understand. The mayor of Atlanta, I have met him a number of times, wonderful, wonderful man. But at the same time, I think people want to hear I'm sorry.

Chad Myers, you are in New Orleans there to cover the ice and we are talking about -- there you are -- we are talking about Atlanta. I just want -- you have been doing this a long time. Weigh in on this whole thing.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: I think we need to, as Dr. Shepherd is talking about, maybe refocus the way we say our words.

One to two for Atlanta, but a lot more south of Atlanta, that was really the forecast. That was always the forecast. And that's what happened, one to two, 2.3 and 2.6. We were right on the money. Yes, there was more south of Atlanta a little bit north up into Kennesaw as well up in the mountains up there.

But I think because we said more to the south, people lost focus on the one to two that was going to happen and said the three to four will be down there. We are only getting one to two. You put one to two over five million people and three million cars all trying to get out of the city at the same time, I do believe that probably on second thought the schools may not have opened yesterday.

If we knew, and they did, that the snow would start during the school day, and we were going to have to get all these kids back home on a half day, that seems kind of illogical now as we Monday morning quarterback this. You wouldn't have had 10,000 people in cars trying to get their kids. You wouldn't have had buses at all trying to get -- if you think, if we think in the future that a snowstorm or any snow event, ice event starts during the school day, we just say forget it. Just today is a day off. That would really have alleviated an awful lot.

Something else that has happened, and no one talked about this and I don't know how much it played a part, there was a fire at the MARTA station at Five Points blocking north and south MARTA trains. And people may have tried to get in their cars to get where they're going or they may have taken the MARTA, which is our subway system in Atlanta.

It didn't shut down the whole system for a long time, but the scare, people said I'm not going to get on the train. I'm going to take a car. That may have put more cars on the expressways. And 25,000 poultry producers across America were in Atlanta yesterday taking literally all of the hotel rooms.

You didn't probably get one. Very few people at CNN that wanted a hotel room couldn't get one. People that wanted to be not going home still had to try because they couldn't get a hotel room where they were.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS: And it's 83 degrees in Kendall Airport and all of a sudden we are seeing all of this weather all along this front, cold on one side and warm on the other. We had the ice storm here and it's now melted. Our truck has now melted. That's why you see me, because the past couple of hours, our fuel lines were frozen shut.

BALDWIN: Come home, Chad. Come home. Chad Myers, thank you very much for us in the lovely New Orleans. Thank you very much.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: We will have much more on the weather, of course, the other big story this hour, that cruise ship as we were awaiting word from these passengers, many of whom have been ill, hundreds of them ill, disembarking from this ship that is now back home. Cut that vacation short for thousands of people in New Jersey. That story is coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BALDWIN: Well, we now know at least one cruise passenger went from that ship to the ambulance as the Explorer of the Seas docked there in New Jersey.

The Royal Caribbean cruise reached Bayonne in little more than hour -- little more than hour ago, I should say, after a voyage of just misery for hundreds of these passengers and some 600-plus people and more than 50 of the crew experienced a stomach bug so icky and so nasty, the ship had to come home early.

And the liner has the dubious distinction of having the most widespread outbreak on a cruise in the last two decades. This is what we are getting from the CDC.

Senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen is standing just beside that cruise ship.

And, Elizabeth, what other stories are you hearing from these passengers?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: One passenger walked by and I said how was the cruise and he said it was the best cruise of my life. I lost five pounds.

I don't know how he lost it, but I don't know that I wanted to hear the details. But we are hearing that they are getting off of the ship. It is a long process to get 3,000 people off a ship, especially if some of them are not feeling terribly well. They will take about three hours for this to happen, and then they will disinfect the ship from stem to stern.

BALDWIN: And then beyond disinfecting the ship, you mentioned some of the people who are coming off the cruise who are still not 100 percent, they are having them, what, being put up in hotels not to get people sick on a plane.

COHEN: Right. It's actually in some ways easier to disinfect the ship than it is to disinfect people.

What the CDC tells us is people will have the opportunity to go to a hospital if that's what they feel they need. The CDC has also suggested to suggesting to Royal Caribbean they offer up hotel rooms and encourage people if they are still ill to go there and stay there and not socialize. I'm sure they don't feel like socializing anyhow and stay there until they recovered.

Brooke, we actually have on the phone with us a passenger who is on this ship behind me right now. Her name is Shannon Pace.

Shannon, I understand everyone is getting off the ship. But you're in your cabin. Tell why you are not in line to get off the ship.

Shannon, do we still have you?

(CROSSTALK)

COHEN: Shannon, tell me again why you did decide to stay in the cabin instead of getting in line to get off the ship?

SHANNON PACE, PASSENGER: Well, because it's a very big lineup on the gangway. It just seems chaotic and I would rather stay up here to allow the majority of the sick people to vacate the ship. At least I know I'm well up in my room.

COHEN: Right. You are staying away from the people.

Shannon, tell me what this cruise has been like for you.

PACE: Well, it's not your typical cruise, that's for sure.

I was sick myself. I spent three days in quarantine last week. Now, yesterday, my boyfriend had the virus. It hasn't been our typical family vacation. I'm traveling with 12 people. Out of the 12 I'm traveling with, 10 of us got it. It hasn't been what we were all hoping for. We all took vacations and planned our schedules together. And we really haven't seen much of each other. My boyfriend would stay at what you call a ghost ships at some times.

COHEN: Shannon, how do you think Royal Caribbean handled this? Did they move quickly enough to take the ship home and sort of end all this?

PACE: I don't think so.

I think it has been handled very poorly. Every day, things would change. The communication never went down the chain very properly, in my opinion. The captain didn't speak for two days. We should have turned around personally halfway down and come right back.

I don't know why we continued on to Puerto Rico and then to St. Thomas, because people were showing the symptoms within the first 24 hours of our cruise.

COHEN: Shannon, I hope you get off the ship and you get home to your family -- Brooke, back to you.

BALDWIN: I hope so too. Elizabeth, thank you.

And, Shannon, thank you for jumping on the line. Back here with the weather situation in metro Atlanta area. We are hearing just absolute horror stories of people stranded for hours on the roads just because of the snow and the ice.

So, with me now on the phone, just another one of the people with stories.

He is Sean Cook.

Sean, are you home and A-OK?

SEAN COOK, STRANDED PASSENGER: Actually, I am back in my car. I just went out maybe 10 or 15 minutes ago to retrieve it.

BALDWIN: Have you been able to? This is the first we have heard of this. Have you been successful in going to get your car that you left on the road?

COOK: Yes, I am with the car and I was able to get it out from the side of the road where I had it. We are together again, myself and the car.

But I do still have another vehicle that I abandoned that I do need to pick up.

BALDWIN: In the areas where people are just leaving these cars as they did in the wee hours of the morning and last night, are others doing the same at this hour?

COOK: No. People are -- well, some are picking their cars up and there are still a lot of cars that are left by the side of the road at this time.

BALDWIN: OK. Take me back to yesterday. You were with your wife and you hooked up in one car. I know there were two cars at one point involved in this whole thing. When were you your most frustrated?

COOK: Probably at the time when I finally got to my wife. We were literally maybe three, three-and-a-half miles away from the house.

And we probably sat in that traffic for at least two or three hours just to move a mile, mile-and-a-half from that point, maybe about a mile. And then I lost the car on a side road and the ice got the best of it. We had to park at that point and walk the remainder of the trip to the house.

BALDWIN: I'm just -- with all these people who have these crazy stories, are you frustrated? Do you take some of the blame for being out and about in the snow? Do you place blame on the government? Do you place blame on anyone else, meteorologists? Just trying to understand how people are feeling.

COOK: I think it would probably -- I would take a little bit of it because I actually went out, but I do believe the government could have done a little bit better. For instance, the powers that be that made the decision to have the children actually go to school yesterday, that could have been avoided. We had tons of children that were stuck inside of schools that had to spend the night. My wife and myself, we actually observed school buses at 8:30, 9:00 actually venturing out to try to take kids home.

Some of them are actually stuck on the side of the roads themselves. I have heard stories of schoolkids that actually didn't get retrieved from buses until 3:00 in the morning by state patrols and National Guards.

My niece actually spent the night on 285 with her mother. They got home at about 1:30. It was kind of a combination of things, the fact that they allowed the kids to go to school. That would have lessened up the traffic. The reaction and not being proactive to the whole situation itself kind of just all came together. It was really a big mess all over. There was no one that was exempted from feeling some sort of frustration, because if you were at home, you were aggravated because you were wondering where your loved ones were. Everybody felt it this time.

BALDWIN: Absolutely, best put on the show. Sean Cook, thank you so much. I'm glad you got your car. I hope your wife has her car and still a mess, though. It's still a mess out there in the Atlanta area. Think about all the people now who have to go get their cars and the cars are out of gas. How does that work? That's another story.

Coming up next, though, we will take a look at some of the big headlines of the day. Remember the NFL player who accused a teammate of bullying him, Jonathan Martin? He left the Miami Dolphins after those allegations and now he is speaking publicly. You will hear that.

Also, the U.S. attorney gets ready to make an announcement on whether he will seek the death penalty for the surviving Boston bombing suspect.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)