Return to Transcripts main page


Drivers Still Fuming; Icy Gridlock; Good Samaritans Aid Stricken Motorists; Russia Arrests Alleged Volgograd Bombing Accomplices; Finnish Snow Expert Guarantees Snow in Sochi; Atlanta Olympics Security Director Addresses Sochi Concerns; Obama Speaks in Wisconsin

Aired January 30, 2014 - 12:00   ET


ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Always good to hear from you. Brilliant minds and brilliant thoughts. Thank you for that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you much, Ashleigh.


BANFIELD: And thank you all for watching. CNN NEWSROOM continues now.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Just before the Winter Olympics begin, two brothers who police believe may have assisted in a deadly terrorist bombing in Volgograd are now in custody.

Amanda Knox will find out this hour whether she'll be convicted of murdering a British exchange student more than two years after she was acquitted in the case.

And heaven help Atlanta say (ph) three inches of snowfall next time. That is the question that's frozen in everyone's mind. How did two inches of snow bring a major city to its knees? No one wants to play the blame game, but is anyone willing to take responsibility?

And welcome to the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Carol Costello. Thanks so much for joining me.

The ice that caused Atlanta's traffic nightmare has almost melted away, but the fiasco will forever be frozen in the city's memory. Right now, drivers are beginning to retrieve more than 2,000 vehicles abandoned all over the city. At least 10 deaths were reported across the south from this week's wintry blast.

And in Alabama 1,600 students were still hunkered down in their schools as of this morning. George Howell is traveling around Atlanta today to give us a firsthand look at the car recovery efforts.

Good morning, George.


You know, we're hearing so many stories about how people had to deal with that situation when the ice came in, when things started to freeze. I want to bring in here Ginny Nickles.

And you are the executive director of the Day Shelter for women here in Atlanta. Tell me, first of all, what did you have to do when you were in the situation where you had to leave your car?

GINNY NICKLES, EXEC. DIR., ATLANTA DAY SHELTER: Yes, exactly. It was terrifying. Everything was just solid ice. I had stayed at the shelter until we could get all of our homeless guests transported to their night shelters so that we knew they were safe. I left and headed down 75 around 2:00 in the afternoon.

I only made it to Mount Paran exit. It took me about six hours to get there. And I made it to the top of the hill, and I started down the hill and it was just a solid block of ice. So I started sliding. And I was tapping the brakes, like they tell you to do. I was trying to steer my car to the side. There were Georgia State Patrol lined up. I thought the cars were just backed up, but they were just sliding down hitting each other.

I slid over to the side and had my dad on the speakerphone on my cell phone in my lap and I said, you know, I have a chance to pull into the grass, what should I do? And he said, pull in, pull in. He goes, just pull in and stop. So I pulled up on the grass, sat there for a few minutes and chatted with dad and decided that the best option for me was to try and hoof it about two hours up to the Waverly Hotel at the Kobbs Galleria (ph) where they had said they were taking in folks to stay the night.

HOWELL: Ginny, it's amazing that, first of all, you know, you weren't hit in that situation. And here you are now and so you know we're at a location where people are coming together to be reunited, you know, to retrieve their cars. The National Guard is helping. What have they said about you getting back to your car?

NICKLES: They're amazing. I mean the groups that really have come out, I've watched Facebook, I've watched different friends talk about going out. This group here, they said it will just be a matter of minutes. I literally got here maybe five minutes ago and they said it's going to be maybe five more minutes until they have a Humvee to take me out to my car. And they're prepared with, they said, the hero units are going to go out with us to jump our cars if we need it.

So, I mean, the response on this end has been amazing. And I'm just so thankful for all the men and women who are out here helping us, because they're working on little sleep too.

HOWELL: Ginny, thank you for your time.

And, also, important to put this out that 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time, 9:00 p.m., that is when you want to make sure that you've been here, you've talked to the National Guard, you've talked to the State Patrol because if your car is still on the roads after 9:00 p.m., it could be towed by a private company. You could potentially have to pay for your car to get it, to find it. So, again, you know, now is the best time to get with these guys and get your car off the road if you're here in metro Atlanta. COSTELLO: All right, George Howell, many thanks.

Question everyone in Atlanta is still asking, how did this happen? How did a modern city like Atlanta suddenly become paralyzed by two and a half inches of snow. Official responses from both Georgia's governor and Atlanta's mayor have been inadequate at bets. Mayor Kasim Reed told us his power is limited, even inside the city limits.


MAYOR KASIM REED, ATLANTA: And I think rather than playing the blame game, we have shared responsibility. But I want to state clearly, I don't have jurisdiction to clear inner state highways in the city of Atlanta. I'm responsible for the streets that are in the city of Atlanta. We got our streets cleaned. We kept our hospitals open. We kept our people safe. And the city of Atlanta is running again.


COSTELLO: Now, Governor Nathan Deal has said, you know, it was due to a faulty weather forecast. He has not responded to our repeated requests for an interview, but the Republican governor did appear on Fox News this morning.


GOV. NATHAN DEAL (R), GEORGIA: The real snow started about noon and a little after that. At about 12:15, our signals on our interstates was that all the roads were green, that is they were free and ready to move. Within about 15 minutes, it had gone to almost completely red. So the congestion on our interstates occurred within a very short period of time.


COSTELLO: So let's go right to Victor Blackwell.

Victor, 48 hours later, do we have a better handle on how all of this went down?

VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN ANCHOR & CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's no disagreement amongst the city leaders, the state leaders or the people who live here in the Atlanta metro area what the problems were, as you heard from those leaders. But the question is, whose job was it to make sure that everything worked properly?

Now, the mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, has said several times that the releases, the dismissals from schools, from businesses, city governments and state offices should have been staggered. However, he has not said that he made any calls to try to stagger those.

Now, he has made it very clear that he does not have control over when students are released, but another question, did he call the superintendents of local school districts? Did he call companies like Coca-Cola, major companies here, Delta, major companies in Atlanta, to determine when they would release their employees? We have not gotten an answer to that.

Now, for Governor Deal, in that - also in that interview with Fox News, he said that, you know, the roads changed from green to red almost immediately and that, you know, the roads were clogged in just a few minutes. No mention of, you know, trucks with the tires, the tractor-trailers coming through requiring them to have chains on those tires or getting the salt trucks, the brine out before the storm started.

So, again, everyone has identified the problem, but so many times in situations like this, and we've seen it over the last three days, no one's saying that is my fault.


COSTELLO: Victor Blackwell reporting live this morning.

Well, there is a silver lining to this fiasco. While government officials have been busy pointing fingers at each other, ordinary people stepped up. Countless good Samaritans have come forward during the worst of the storm to help people who had been stranded for hours in the freezing weather. More now from Nick Valencia.


NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hours seeming like eternity for thousands of Atlanta motorists trapped in their cars. Major stores like Home Depot and Kroger staying open to shelter stranded passengers. The National Guard handing out meals and blankets.

CAPT. DARRELL GRIFFIN, ARMY NATIONAL GUARD: We've got the meals ready to eat. Just basic nutrition. That's what your soldiers are eating out in Afghanistan.

VALENCIA: But it was the everyday people who immediately banded together to help those in need. Robin and Greg Jacobs housed 22 kids stranded at the local elementary school.

GREG JACOBS, HOSTED 22 SCHOOL CHILDREN: It was just a lot of kindness outside, you know, not just in our home, but just everywhere on the streets people were trying to help everybody.

VALENCIA: Social media exploded with stories of other Atlantans springing into action, pulling out stuck motorists and clearing ice.

LEONARDO (ph) JACKSON, ATLANTA RESIDENT (ph): Me and my wife wanted to just come out and see if we could help push people up or, you know, just do whatever we could do to help.

VALENCIA: This man throwing chains under tires to help cars gain traction.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You got to do what you can to help.

VALENCIA: And these good Samaritans, equipped with a cooler strapped to a sled, handing out food and water.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were just trying to help out. You know, my wife was stuck in five hours and we thought that was bad and woke up this morning and here it is people are like 24 hours.

VALENCIA: The never ending gridlock led hundreds to abandon their cars. For Nick Anderson and his pregnant wife Amy, walking wasn't an option when she suddenly went into labor.

AMY ANDERSON, DELIVERED BABY DURING STORM: We couldn't go forward anymore and that's when I knew the contractions had gotten so strong.

VALENCIA: An officer, on his way to a traffic accident, saw the couple on the side of the road.

OFC. TIM SHEFFIELD, SANDY SPRINGS POLICE: I walked over to him and I said, are y'all broke down? I saw that he was on the phone and he said, no, actually, we're having a baby.

VALENCIA: Equipped with a first aid kit while Nick was on the phone with the 911 operator, the three delivers a beautiful baby girl named Grace in the midst of massive chaos and frustration.


COSTELLO: Nick, I talked to that officer in your story earlier in the NEWSROOM and he said the most amazing thing is there were two other children in the backseat and they were watching their mom give birth. The whole family was very calm.

VALENCIA: This is a story that they're going to be talking about for decades, Carol. And it was the random acts of kindness, that police officer going out of his way to help that family, we saw strangers helping strangers, the whole Facebook page dedicated to just really these random acts of people helping out each other in tough situations. And, you know, that really made all the difference. And you're right, Carol, that was this silver lining. And if there's any good story line out of this, it's that southern hospitality here in Georgia.


COSTELLO: Oh, my gosh, is that sun over your head? Do I see sun shining outside?

VALENCIA: Yes, no jacket, no scarf, taking off the beanie.

COSTELLO: Whoo-hoo.

VALENCIA: This is good news for those of you watching here - you know, here in Atlanta and beyond. It's starting to clear up out here. You know, things are looking better where Victor Blackwell is, where George Howell is. Things are starting to shine out here as well. There are still some icy patches especially in sort of the - you know, near the downtown area, in the midtown area here. But things are starting to clear up and it's looking very good for the clean-up process. We want to reiterate and reemphasize though, if you did leave your car abandoned out there on the interstate, as George Howell mentioned, 9:00 p.m. tonight, 9:00 p.m. is when they start towing. So it's a good idea for you guys to go pick up your cars.


COSTELLO: Good advice. Nick Valencia, many thanks.

VALENCIA: You bet (ph).

COSTELLO: Here's more of what we're working on for you at this hour.

One week and one day, that's until the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics. The Russians say Sochi is the most secure place on the planet right now. Do you believe them? We'll take you live to Sochi next.

And the president will speak at a GE plant in Wisconsin in just about 10 minutes. When he begins speaking, we'll bring it to you live.


COSTELLO: Police in Russia now say they know the names of the two men who blew themselves up and killed more than 30 other people in the name of terrorism. There was two separate suicide bombings last month, one inside a large train station, a second one inside a public bus, both in the city of Volgograd. Anti-terrorism officials say the men belonged to a well-known militant group that operates in that part of the former Soviet Union. Police also arrested two people who may have helped the bombers. CNN's Ivan Watson is in Sochi, Russia, now to tell us more.

Good morning, Ivan.


That's right, the Russian security forces say that they captured these two brothers on Wednesday, that they claim were accomplices to those deadly twin suicide bombings that hit the city of Volgograd at the end of December and killed more than 30 people. The two suspects were arrested in the Russian Republic of Dagestan, which is about 600 miles east of Sochi here where I am where the Winter Olympics are going to be held.

And the Russians say that they're continuing security operations. They insist that these are going to be the safest Winter Olympics ever. We've certainly seen massive amounts of Russian security forces, very well-fortified Olympic venues.

But I have to add that the head of the U.S.'s National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, he briefed congress members yesterday, and he said, yes, he does think the Olympic venues will be safe. But he fears that the city of Sochi and districts beyond Sochi that they are soft targets and, quote, "there is substantial potential for a terrorist attack there." Carol?


Ivan, I want to change gears just a bit because there's another problem in Sochi right now, and kind of that problem kind of dims in light of what you've just said, but it is serious because these are the Winter Olympics and there's no snow in Sochi. It's 50 degrees there, right?

WATSON: It is. I'm here on the coast of the Black Sea, and the Russians have billed Sochi as, look, it's warm down at the sea and up in the mountains it's cold.

But we were up in the mountains today, and it was around 50 degrees and raining by the ski jump site, and very little snow in sight.

So I talked to a guy who I've described as the "snow whisperer." He's from Finland. He's a snow specialist.

And I asked him, is there going to be snow a little bit over a week from now?

Take a listen to what he had to say.


MIKKO MARTIKAINEN, FINNISH SNOW SPECIALIST: First of all, don't worry about the snow. Snow will be guaranteed.

WATSON: Guaranteed?



MARTIKAINEN: Because the concept is based on three steps.

First of all, backbone, order a snowmaking system.

WATSON: Snow machines?

MARTIKAINEN: Snow machines, below-zero temperatures, we will start them.

Again, then as a first backup, we have snow storages on the mountain. We transport snow.

WATSON: And this is snow from last winter.

MARTIKAINEN: Last winter, yeah.

WATSON: That you've been storing just in case the weather's warm.


And then third, we have an above-zero snowmaking system also over there.


WATSON: Incredible. They've actually been storing hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of snow from last year under insulation up in the mountains, and they can pull them out if they need them, Carol.

In the meantime, that snow whisperer, as I like to call him, he says the Russians may be getting some help from Mother Nature in the days ahead. This weekend, there's a cold front coming in.

COSTELLO: I've never heard of a snow whisperer. Is it kind of like a horse whisperer?

WATSON: You know, this man points out that in Finnish there are at least 30 different words in the Finnish language for snow, so this man spent a long time studying snow, and he's giving his well-earned experience to the Russians to make sure there is snow on the ski slopes in the weeks ahead.

COSTELLO: Ivan Watson, many thanks.

Let's go back to the safety and security questions in Sochi. I want to bring in somebody who once ran security for an entire Olympic Games.

William Rathburn was the director of security for the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Welcome.


WATSON: So as the Russians are making a big deal that they're arresting terrorists at a record pace, does that make you feel better?

RATHBURN: Doesn't reassure me greatly. I'm certain they're doing everything they can to arrest the people responsible for those two bombings in Volgograd.

I think there are a lot of other potential terrorists in that whole region that they have to worry about, so it's a step in the right direction, but I think very small step.

WATSON: Well, you know, a lot of analysts say that the Olympic village itself will be fairly safe because security will be very tight there.

The softer target will be in the city of Sochi. Surely the Russians are doing something about that too though?

RATHBURN: Certainly they are. You know, they've studied past Olympics. I think they're doing everything they possibly can, but they have their hands full.

There's never been a higher threat to the Olympic Games in the history of the games. It's an unannounced threat. It's a credible threat. It's one that's been proven that can be carried out by those three bombings in Volgograd. I have serious concerns.

I'm confident that the Russians can do a good job with the Olympic venues themselves.

However, I must say that I have some concerns because the Olympic Games takes tens of thousands of people, support staff people, to put on the games that stage the games, so there's a screening process that has to take place. And there's constant pressure to backfill the positions as they vacate themselves.

So there is a real concern about the venues, but they have been hardened, but there's an infinite number of soft targets available.

WATSON: A lot of Americans are leaving for Sochi to watch the games. What advice would you give them?

RATHBURN: I guess my major concern is public transportation. There's certainly been a clear pattern of suicide bombing attacks on buses, all the transportation buses and on trains.

So I think that's the biggest concern to the extent they can avoid using public transportation, I would avoid it.

I would walk instead of taking a bus. I would take a taxi instead of taking a train. I would do everything I could to avoid those two modes of transportation.

WATSON: William Rathburn, thanks for joining us this morning. We appreciate it.

RATHBURN: Thank you, Carol.

WATSON: In Syria, CNN has learned that food is starting to get through to a refugee camp near the capital Damascus.

This is the first U.N. aid convoy to reach the region since January 21st. It comes as opposition delegates hold peace talks in Geneva.

More than a hundred-thousand people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began nearly three years ago. Millions more have had to leave their homes.

President Obama, taking his State of the Union message on the road, he is now in Wisconsin.

We're going to talk more about that after a break.


COSTELLO: President Obama, on the road again, taking his State of the Union message to the states and pitching his plan to get the middle class on solid ground, right now, the president is in Wisconsin.

He's due to speak at any moment now at a G.E. gas engine plant, but before the president begins speaking, let's head to Washington and check-in with Wolf Blitzer.

When the president landed in Wisconsin, Wolf, it was interesting to see the Republican governor greeting him. There wasn't a Democrat in sight.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE SITUATION ROOM": You know, it's pretty amazing when you think about it.

The president of the United States he comes to Wisconsin. The governor, Scott Walker, he's a Republican. He's up for re-election. He's there at the bottom of the stairs, welcomes the president.

They have an opportunity to talk about the propane shortage that's going on in the Midwest, including in Wisconsin, has a letter he's already written to the president.

He does the right thing. He welcomes the president of the United States to his home state.

He's being challenged by a Democrat, Mary Burke, who is nowhere in sight.

There's the president when he landed just a little while ago in Wisconsin. You can see the governor is there to receive him.

But Mary Burke, who's challenging Scott Walker, she's in the other part of the state today. She decides she's not going to be anywhere near the president of the United States, presumably because she thinks that kind of photo is not going to help her chances of beating Scott Walker.

Now, if this were just one isolated incident, that would be that, but it's happened a few times.

When he went to North Carolina a few weeks ago, the incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan, she was nowhere in the state. They always have an excuse of being busy, a full schedule.

He went to Louisiana, Mary Landrieu, the incumbent Democrat up for re- election, she was busy with other stuff she had to do. She wasn't there to receive the president.

There seems to be a pattern here of Democrats who feel that you might not necessarily be helpful in their bids to win their elections, although they certainly would like him to raise money.

But they don't necessarily want to be photographed with the president, and that's a disturbing sign if you're a Democrat, if you're the president of the United States.

COSTELLO: Well, it's just ironic perhaps, because remember Chris Christie's big hug with President Obama when President Obama visited the Jersey Shore after the hurricane swept through?

That picture of the governor embracing President Obama really upset Republicans. And now you have a Republican governor willing to have his photo taken with President Obama. And they're shaking hands. And he thinks it's a plus for his political career.

BLITZER: Yeah, I mean, it's important. He's the governor of the state. The president of the United States comes there.

There, you see he's walking into the room where he's going to be speaking making his pitch on some of the issues he laid out in his State of the Union address.

The governor does the right thing. He welcomes the president of the United States. It's not every day a president comes to Wisconsin, so he did the right thing, Carol.

But, you know, some of these Democrats who were nervous about getting re-elected, they're not there.


Let's listen to the president, Wolf.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Hello. Well, it's good to be in Wisconsin, good to be in Waukesha.

Now, I always appreciate the hospitality that Packer Country gives a Bears fan. I remember when I was up here campaigning the first time and there was some Cheese Heads for Obama, and I felt pretty good about that.

Neither of us feel that good about our seasons, but it's OK. There's always next year.

We have three of your outstanding elected officials with us here today. We've got Congresswoman Gwen Moore, we got the mayor of Milwaukee, Tom Barrett, and we have Milwaukee County executive Chris Abele, and we've got your former governor Jim Doyle.

It's also good to see -- I had a chance to see backstage somebody who was a huge part of my economic team before she became chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Dr. Becky Blank is here.

We want to give Becky a big round of applause. She says she missed Washington, but she doesn't really. She was just saying that to be nice.

I'm so proud of Reggie. And I'm grateful for the terrific introduction. I want to thank Jim for showing me around the plant.

I have come here to talk with you about something that I spent a lot of time on in my State of the Union address on Tuesday, the idea that no matter who you are, if you are willing to work hard, if you're willing to take on responsibility, you can get ahead, the idea of opportunity here in America.

Now, we're at a moment where business like G.E. have created 8 million new jobs over the past four years.