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Atlanta Shuts Down; Kids in Schools Overnight; Skydiving Miracle; School Hero Attended State of the Union

Aired January 29, 2014 - 08:30   ET


KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: That's video from this morning. Five deaths from auto accidents are also being blamed on the storm in Alabama. And take a look at this. TV news crew, not covering the story, becoming the story, after skidding out of control on the ice into an SUV. And hundreds of children were stuck inside schools overnight because of the storm, forced to sleep in the school gymnasium. Joining me now for the very latest is Victor Blackwell in College Park, Georgia.

What's the latest?

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR & CORRESPONDENT: Kate, you know, you also saw on the side of the roads the cars that were abandoned. Those were by people who just ran out of fuel. They sat in traffic, some for 10, 11 hours. You know, the storm started before noon. At about 1:45, government offices, private companies and schools dismissed everyone. An those roads were packed.

Now, there are people asking serious questions about how serious local officials took this storm, if they were prepared. But they're also asking about why everyone was released at the same time. Some of them students. Again, schools released at 1:45. Fifteen hours later, there were still students stranded on buses on roads at 6:00 a.m. this morning in Atlanta and around the area.

Ambulances had to rush to those buses to evacuate the buses, take them to a grocery store where those students are still waiting. People slept in Home Depots around the area overnight. They never made it home and there's still people trying to make it home. The mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, will hold a news conference this morning to ask some of the -- answer some of the difficult questions. But right now people are just frustrated and disappointed and they're hoping that this is cleaned up sometime this morning.


BOLDUAN: Yes, understandably so. All right, Victor, thank you so much.

Let's continue asking some of these questions. Joining me now on the phone is the associate superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, Steve Smith.

Mr. Smith, thanks so much for jumping on the phone with me.

STEVE SMITH, ASSOCIATE SUPERINTENDENT OF ATLANTA PUBLIC SCHOOLS (via telephone): You're welcome. Delighted to be here.

BOLDUAN: Thank you so much.

So, first off, how many students are still stuck either in their school or on a bus this morning?

SMITH: Well, first of all, just a point of clarification, Kate, the reference in your earlier portion of this segment, those were not Atlanta Public School students. We only have one student who is currently stuck in traffic on a bus. He is safe. That student is safe with his driver.

We have several hundred students who spent the night at respective schools in the northern region of our city, as well as the western region. We had several students who we sheltered overnight. Those students are all safe. They were in a very safe and secure environment. And we're just very appreciative of the students and the staff and the parents for their understand.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely, Mr. Smith. I mean - and I - and I know you'll agree with this. Be it one student stuck on a bus or 10 students stuck on a bus or 100 students stuck on a bus, that's too many to have that happen overnight. And also having students stuck in schools. That's not good enough, right?

SMITH: We have been very pleased working with our National Guard, our state officials and local and specifically with the one child who we are now working to get home safely. We've had great cooperation from our authorities to get that child home safely. And we've had the opportunity -- we had emergency plans in place with regard to our sheltering overnight of the students we had to shelter at respective school sites. We continue to work through that process. And we've checked this morning, all of the sites overnight were secure and safe and we're checking with those students. We've got food for them. We're serving breakfast and checking for any needs that those students might have as we unfold today.

BOLDUAN: Yes, and you're going to have a lot of parents who are -- will take issue with you saying that you're pleased with how things have been going. I'm sure that you're not pleased that kids were stuck in schools and on buses overnight. Here's the question, though, who dropped the ball here? This shouldn't have happened. Why did it happen?

SMITH: As you will recall, the initial forecast we received was that Atlanta might get a light dusting of snow. We had the preliminary reports that indicated those would be -- that the storm would primarily -- the snow would affect the southern portion of this region, which would have been farther south, and that the snow might be a light dusting.

We were already in school yesterday when the -- we were already in session yesterday with students at classes when the forecast changed drastically. And it changed as we now know quite intensely. As a result, we made adjustments to start early dismissal. We did so. But, however, as we have seen now, the storm was much more intense than anyone knew. And even with our efforts of early dismissal, we still ran into the challenge of having the gridlock.

I think our mayor has gone publicly and indicated that the change in the weather forecast and the fact that it did unfold the way it did, there were roughly a million people in the area of this region who attempted to flee the region and get home and that caused the immediate gridlock. So when you take that piece combined with the ice and the snow and it created quite a challenge for all of us.

BOLDUAN: Definitely a challenge. You can -- we can understand that. Many folks will say, though, and we've talked to our meteorologists here, Indra Petersons' here in New York with me, as well as our meteorologist in Atlanta, and they say the forecast was really right on. That it was -- it really was not a huge snow event how this happened. Was it a mistake to not release the students earlier?

SMITH: We have continuous improvement in terms of this decision-making process when there's inclement weather. We made the best decision that we could make with regard to the information we had. There's always room for improvement.

But we're just appreciative of our parents who have been understanding and patient with us. And our bus drivers have really been the heroes in this situation. They've made some real sacrifices. Our staff and - who have been with students as well have made sacrifices. So our principals and staff, they've worked with us and have been very cooperative. And we'll continue to have that room for improvement.

BOLDUAN: Mr. Smith, real quick last question, when are all the students going to get home today?

SMITH: We will get home - we will get our students home when it is safe for them to be transported home.

BOLDUAN: And when do you think that is?

SMITH: We are in contact with our communications individuals, with our local authorities. And when it is safe for to us transport them home, we'll be more than happy to reunify them with their parents.

BOLDUAN: Are you sure they're going to get home today?

SMITH: We continue to work and plan. And we, you know, you're asking a question that we don't know. It depends on how the conditions unfold, what the traffic patterns are, what the conditions are for travel. And we'll be guided by keeping our students safe. And that remains our priority is to keep them safe. And we will do so and be guided by what conditions unfold.

BOLDUAN: That should be the priority. All right, Steve Smith of the Atlanta Public Schools. I appreciate your time. Thanks so much.

SMITH: Thank you, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Of course.

Coming up next on NEW DAY, we're going to turn to a very different story. A Texas teen decides to celebrate her birthday by skydiving, but she ended up falling 3,500 feet to the ground and she survived. We're going to talk to her doctor and her father is going to be joining us to talk about what happened.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: And we're going to have the hero on the show. A woman who talked down a gunman in her Georgia school. She wound up being invited to the State of the Union as the first lady's guest. Now bookkeeper by day, hero when she has to be, Antoinette Tuff is going to join us to talk about her experience here. Stay with us.


BOLDUAN: Talk about a miracle. This morning, a Texas teenager is in good condition and recovering at an Oklahoma hospital after a skydiving jump went horribly wrong. Makenzie Wethington plummeted 3,500 feet to the ground after an accident on her very first skydiving jump to celebrate her 16th birthday. Joining us this morning is her father, Joe Wethington, who was skydiving with her, and also her trauma surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Bender.

Good morning to both of you. Thank you so much for taking the time.


DR. JEFFREY BENDER, SURGEON FOR GIRL WHO FELL 3,500 FEET: Good morning. Good to be here.

BOLDUAN: Good morning. Thank you very much.

Joe, how is Makenzie this morning?

WETHINGTON: She's - she's faring well considering.

BOLDUAN: Even being able to say that seems like a miracle.

WETHINGTON: Absolutely. She is a miracle.

BOLDUAN: And what do you attribute to how she was able to survive such a fall?

WETHINGTON: Well, I guess, I can say, as the doctor said, her being healthy was a - was helpful. You know, she's a healthy young child.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely.

WETHINGTON: Young lady.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely.

Dr. Bender, what kind of injuries are we talking about now? Is -- can you say she is in good condition this morning?

BENDER: That's correct. Amazingly, none of her injuries actually required an operation to fix. Somewhat ironically, the most minor of them, a broken tooth, may need some oral surgery later this week or next. But all of her other injuries, including a ruptured liver and a fractured pelvis and multiple other bones too numerous to mention will heal on their own.

BOLDUAN: And is it too far - is it too much to say that when she came in after such a fall, did you think -- did you think that she was going to be able to survive this?

BENDER: Well, it's interesting. When she first showed up, there was barely a mark on her. So it was hard to believe the story we were told. But then when we got some x-rays and the C.A.T. scan, the extent of her injuries, I thought she would not - I thought she was not going to survive this.

BOLDUAN: And being a doctor's daughter myself, I know that doctors don't like to talk about miracles very often, but why do you think she survived this?

BENDER: The system saved her. It wasn't any one individual. The EMS people picked her up right away, got her to a proper trauma hospital where we had invasive radiologists able to help stop the bleeding and various other specialists that were necessary.

BOLDUAN: Well, thank goodness for them.

Now, Joe, you went skydiving with your daughter. This was her 16th birthday. She was very excited about this. You were as well. By the time she made the jump, as I understand it, you were already on the ground and you saw this whole thing happen.


BOLDUAN: What do you think happened?

WETHINGTON: Well, she was in trouble pretty much when she came out somewhat. She came out and I was informed by some experienced skydivers that she had a toggle burn (ph). One of her toggle - one of her risers didn't come out when she pulled them. And this caused half of the canopy not to unfold and so she went into a twist and just spiraled all the way down.

BOLDUAN: And can you describe at all what was going through your mind as you had to stand helplessly by and watch this happen?

WETHINGTON: Well, it was traumatic to watch because, first, I wasn't aware of who it was. It was supposed to be another person to go in front of her that didn't go. Decided that he didn't want to go out. And, so, she went. But I was pretty sure that it was going to be her because I pretty much knew that when the plane was leaving the ground that the guy wasn't going to go in front of her anyway. So it was pretty horrific.

BOLDUAN: To say the very least. Has she been conscious enough that you've been able to speak with her? Does she remember any of this?

WETHINGTON: Yes. I spoke with her. And she said she doesn't remember. BOLDUAN: And I know that right now, your focus understandably is entirely on getting your daughter better and her recovery and making sure that she is OK. But at this point, there seems to be a little confusion on what went wrong and who might be to blame here. The parachuting company seems to think that the parachute opened correctly, or did it not?

Have you had any conversations with them about that?

WETHINGTON: No, I have not.

BOLDUAN: Are you going to?

WETHONGTON: Yes. Absolutely.

BOLDUAN: Do you expect her to have a complete recovery now, Dr. Bender?

DR. JEFF BENDER: Yes. She should recover completely from all of these injuries in about six to eight weeks.

BOLDUAN: Six to eight weeks, she is going to be 100% after falling 3,500 feet to the ground. Joe, I don't know what to say about that, other than smile or cry or pray.


BENDER: Perhaps both.

WETHINGTON: Me neither.

BOLDUAN: Well, I'm sure you have a lot to thank Dr. Bender besides you. And you're also very thankful to still have your beautiful daughter with you today.

WETHINGTON: Absolutely.

BOLDUAN: My goodness, I look forward to the opportunity to be able to talk to her myself when she is fully recovered. An amazing story. And a miracle.

Thank you so much both of you for being here and speaking to us and telling us her story.

WETHINGTON: Thank you.

BENDER: You're welcome.

BOLDUAN: Thanks so much.

WETHINGTON: Thank you for your time.

BOLDUAN: Just amazing. Going to head back to Washington where Chris is.

CUOMO: Boy, can you see that father holding it together. He got the worst and best news of his life, so close together. What a ride for that family. We wish them all the best. Great to hear. It looks like it's going to go the right way.

We're going to take a break here on NEW DAY.

Another amazing story. A survival story as well. From bookkeeper to hero to First Lady's guest -- the woman who talked down a gunman in her Georgia school, sparing countless lives. Last night, she was honored with a seat at the state of the union. You remember Antoinette Tuff? She joins us next.


CUOMO: Welcome back to NEW DAY. You may remember Antoinette Tuff. She's the hero bookkeeper who stopped a possible mass shooting at her Georgia school just this past August. You remember, she calmly talked down a gunman to give himself up. You remember the 911 call, take a listen.

ANTOINETT TUFF, HERO BOOKKEEPER: It's going to be all right, sweetheart. I just want you to know I love you, though, OK. And I'm proud of you that's a good thing that you've given up and don't worry about it. We all go through something in life.

No, you don't want that. You're going to be OK. I thought the same thing, I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me, look at me now, I'm still working and everything is OK.

Oh Jesus.


TUFF: Oh, God.

CUOMO: She has the right name, tough, but even more so, the compassion, the poise, the strength that was there. So well deserving of the honor last night being a guest of the First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union. Joining us now -- what a pleasure.

TUFF: Thank you.

CUOMO: What a pleasure. It's great for you to be here. How are you doing?

TUFF: I'm doing great, great. Can't do but great after that last night event -- that was awesome.

CUOMO: Let me ask you about a moment last night before we get more into it. Your experience. You're there. They celebrate the sergeant. You saw him there. He was right leaning over where you were sitting next to the First Lady. What was that moment like to be there for that long celebration of somebody?

TUFF: It was great. It was great. Just to be amongst heroes it was awesome. And then First Lady in the box, put the icing on the cupcake. CUOMO: Were you able to see -- what do you think it meant to that man, to the sergeant to have people stand and recognize his sacrifice?

TUFF: It allows him to be able to feel that no matter what he went through it was OK. For that moment, they know that what he did was an actual honor for everybody in the United States.

CUOMO: Now, he's in a very different situation, right. The fighting men and women, what they deal with all the time. But you had to put yourself in a position to deal with a very dangerous set of expectations as well. You know all the different things that could have happened on that morning when you did what you did. What does that mean to you? The situation, now that you've had some time?

TUFF: It just allows me that God uses all of us in different ways. It's a great point to be able to see why you have to be prepared for your purpose. And for him, his purpose was to go out and do what he needed to do and save our country. And for me, it was for me to be able to save those children.

So I know today, no matter what you do in life, God has a purpose for everybody.

CUOMO: Where did it come from, the Ability to look at that situation and fact that a way that is the opposite of what just about everybody else would do, no panic, no fear, no running, no hiding?

TUFF: You know, it wasn't about god because on the inside I was terrified. And I know I needed him to guide me. Because I know that the words that proceeded out of my mouth that day was going to be life or death not just for me and that young man Michael but also for all the children and parents and teachers that were in the building that day.

CUOMO: How often do you think about that morning and that young man?

TUFF: Every day. You know, when you go through a tragedy like that, it never leaves your mind. It's something that will be bedded in your heart for the rest of your life.

CUOMO: What did it do to you? You're better? You're Stranger? You're weaker, you're worse?

TUFF: Better. I am. I have a better respect for god. I better relationship with him. I know today, in spite of what I've gone through that he loves me. I don't need anybody to validate me because he does. So in all reality, when no matter what it is and what goes on I can love me to death so that's a great thing for me.

CUOMO: Amen to that. Amen to that. You know your motivation, but it's about your action as well. You did things that made you worthy of being there last night. And it's great to have you on the show and let everybody remember people how you can step up to that circumstance.

Thanks for being with us. TUFF: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. You have a great day. Thank you for having me on the show.

CUOMO: How can I not now?

TUFF: Thank you.

CUOMO: You made it great. Thank you very much.

TUFF: Thank you so much. Thank you.

CUOMO: Let's end it on that for all of us here on NEW DAY. That's our show. We're going to take a quick break right now. And, of course, if you want to hear more about Antoinette's story? Of course you do. Her experience is going to be in a book, "Prepared for a Purpose". The inspiring true story of how one woman saved an Atlanta school under street. A must-read to be sure.

We're going to take a break. When we come back on the other side, Carol Costello in the "NEWSROOM" will give you the latest political news and of course, everything that's going on with this terrible eye storm. Stay with us.


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, good morning to you. Thank you so much for joining me. I'm Carol Costello.

It is a nightmare outside. Drivers across the south are being warned to stay off the roads for a second day. Hundreds of motorists are waking up in their cars, still stranded on icy roads and highs. Crippled by paralyzing snow. And when I say snow, paralyzing snow, I mean two inches. In the city of Atlanta alone, nearly 1,000 car accidents were reported.