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@THISHOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA

9/11 Museum Opens in NYC; Eric Shinseki Testifies on V.A. Scandal; 23,000 People in San Diego County Issued Evacuation Notices; California Wildfire Rages

Aired May 15, 2014 - 11:00   ET

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


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ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: And the New York Philharmonic just capping off what can only be described as a spectacular start to a six-day dedication ceremony for the memorial museum here in New York City.

We're so used to doing this on September 11th. It feels odd at this time, but it was such a spectacularly produced and beautifully and poignant ceremony and so fitting.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Right. I haven't seen an occasion about the day that has been more meaningful than this other than the obvious significance of what time was marked, the first year, the fifth year.

You know, for people like us, as you may know, I mean, Ashleigh was here for so long covering it so deeply. And I, of course, then was at ABC doing it. We can never forget. It's too penetrating a memory, obviously.

But there are so many who are in our business now, who are growing up, who didn't live it, and this museum, I'm telling you, when you go in there, it tells the story of that day, the sounds of the emergency locator beacons that they have playing in demonstrations of rubble that represent --

BANFIELD: I never knew what they were when I heard them.

CUOMO: You heard them for days.

BANFIELD: Confusing.

CUOMO: Every one of those represented the firefighters who was lost, every one. And you hear them when you go to the museum.

BANFIELD: I'm going to be honest, I haven't -- having been there that day and actually when the North Tower fell, I haven't been back here but three times, and this is the third time in 13 years.

One was for the first anniversary, one was for the tenth anniversary, and now today.

This was how I spent September 11th, and that was about a few minutes after the North Tower had fallen. And the window directly below me was broken, so that we could scamper in for protective cover.

That was the World Trade Center security guard who was cleaning his eyes out, and behind him was an NYPD officer, as well.

It's not a place I like to be, I have to be honest with you, but I've got to say, Chris, seeing these pictures of this museum, I'm thrilled. I feel really great. This is a beautiful and poignant memorial.

CUOMO: You know, you'll learn many of the things that matter most in life are hard. They take effort. There's difficulty. This is no different.

But it is worthwhile because of what it does, and I think one of the things they captured very well, which often doesn't get done well, is you have New York, of course. You have D.C. You have Pennsylvania. And they were all woven together in this tribute to the opening of the museum.

And that's important, because there were three different cities that are now threaded together in a way that they're inextricably linked.

And you do have this sense of pre-9/11 and post-9/11.

BANFIELD: Very much.

CUOMO: And I think that came through as well. Everybody spoke the right way about what mattered on this day. And hopefully people come and see the museum for what it is, not what it isn't.

BANFIELD: And it's not just a museum. It is a cavernous experience.

I mean, if you ever saw what Ground Zero looked like after the pit, as they called it, had been cleared, it was this massive excavation site that looked like it could never be filled again.

And the museum itself really keeps it perfectly, and at the same time, just displays remarkably all of those artifacts. The number of things that you'll see in there and the mass and scope of them is spectacular.

By the way, the president -- it was perfect that he was here today. It's a sort of a national moment for us, perfect that the president was here, as well.

Jim Acosta has been traveling with the president.

CUOMO: Jim, let's go to you. We know the president had to leave early, we're told, according to the scheduling.

But what did you observe being with him today?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Chris and Ashleigh, and we should point out the White House is now saying that the reason why the president and the first lady left early is because of the security bubble that they take with them everywhere they go. That security bubble shut down the museum, and so they wanted to leave in the middle of the ceremony, so after it's over, the families can go inside and tour the site here freely. And so that's the explanation that we got from the White House on that.

You did hear the president really give a solid endorsement of this museum. He called it a profound and moving experience.

And you also heard during his remarks a reflection on the sacrifices here at Ground Zero, here at the World Trade Center site, and really, a huge salute to the bravery of the people who survived and to the people who perished trying to rescue those survivors.

And you heard at one point the president saying, "Nothing can ever break us. Nothing can ever change who we are as Americans," and so I was talking to some White House officials who said that's what this day was really about, the president paying tribute to what happened here, to how this country has persevered in the years that followed.

And really this is a president, even though he was not in office when 9/11 happened, his presidency has been very much shaped by 9/11.

You'll recall when this president was, you know, giving the nominating speech for John Kerry in 2004, he talked about how this country is not a collection of red states and blue states. We're the United States of America.

It's because this country was pretty well divided, in part because of the Iraq War after 9/11, and so this president has always tried to bring this country together. It hasn't always worked, but his foreign policy has been very much shaped by this.

And so you didn't hear the president talk about this today. We'll hear him talk about that in the coming months, but he definitely wanted to pay tribute, wanted to honor the victims here and honor this museum. And we definitely heard that from the president today.

BANFIELD: We talk about the kinship of Shanksville and the Pentagon and New York City, and there's a kinship among the reporters, as well. Here we are, 13 years later, back at the same site.

Deb Feyerick, you as well on that day, with a brand-new baby and off you went to report, as well. And now you've had a chance to see that memorial for yourself.

DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. What I found so moving about this entire ceremony was just how everyone's lives intersected and connected on that day.

You know, you hear the message of a mom who's calling her son who was on one of the hijacked planes, basically saying, you know, these planes are being hijacked. They're slamming into buildings. Do what you can do.

And that was one of the men who was able to take down that plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. You heard another story about a woman who got lost in the dust and the debris, and she heard some man on a bullhorn saying, "If you can hear this, follow the light. Follow the light."

The acts of bravery -- and even when the president spoke about the man in the red bandana who sort of appeared out of nowhere, people trapped on one of the higher floors, and he said, "Come this way. Here's the exit. Here's the exit."

And so it wasn't just about the people who died but about the people who they saved, as well. And you feel that, that sense of connection. It was just incredibly done.

You know, from my perspective, I had a newborn baby at home, and I went essentially that evening to the command center, and I will never forget Mayor Giuliani and the fire commissioner at the time talking about the number of lives that were lost, not only the firefighters, 343 of them, but all the souls, one, Giuliani saying, you know, it doesn't matter how many were lost. It's going to be too much for us to bear.

And you felt that today. It was powerful.

ACOSTA: And, Deb, I should point out that in the weeks that followed 9/11, I had my first assignment for CBS News, my previous employer, down here at Ground Zero.

They sent me down here a couple of weeks after the attacks had occurred. And I remember walking around on the streets, actually with a photographer who I saw here earlier this morning covering today's event, and I tried to -- I'll just share this story.

I tried to do a stand-up, and I remember trying to do an on-camera stand-up for my story that day. And I remember not being able to do -- I just couldn't find the words --

FEYERICK: Nobody could.

ACOSTA: -- to talk about what I was seeing around me. And I'll just never forget being down here for those weeks that followed.

And it's amazing to see how the city has come back, and this part of the city, how it's come back. It's incredible.

FEYERICK: (Inaudible) museum, really.

Ashleigh? Chris?

BANFIELD: "Never forget" being the absolute, ultimate theme as we look upon the reflecting pools below us.

CUOMO: And you see often when you come to the pools, the families. Remember how many kids there were, just born, just getting to know their parents who were lost on that day, and they've had to grow up without them.

And you'll hear mothers and fathers say how they resemble, you know, spouses who were lost.

And so many of them had the same message in the aftermath after dealing with the anger and the grief was that you have to live your life. Life is a blessing. You have to make the most of it.

So for all of the tragedy that was absorbed and endured, the message of that resiliency, that the water goes in and comes back and re- circulates, is something that you equally take as message.

I got engaged 11 days after 9/11, because seeing all these people who had lost their chance at their life, it became even more urgent that we all make the most of our lives while we can.

BANFIELD: You felt as though we were certainly one nation. There were no red states, blue states, and everybody was a brother and a sister at that point.

And this is the message, so as we leave you today, it's about courage, it's about unity, it's about compassion, it's about love, all after the tragedy.

And "@ THIS HOUR" with Berman and Michaela begins right after this quick break.

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JOHN BERMAN, CNN CO-ANCHOR: Hello, everyone, I'm John Berman.

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN CO-ANCHOR: And I'm Michaela Pereira.

@ THIS HOUR, right now on Capitol Hill, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is in the hot seat. His job is on the line after an explosive CNN report revealed deadly waiting times and allegations of a cover-up and cover-ups at V.A. hospitals.

BERMAN: So the most troubling problems we know about happened at a Phoenix Hospital. At least 40 veterans died while waiting for care.

Now, Secretary Shinseki has just started speaking a short time ago.

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ERIC SHINSEKI, VETERANS AFFAIRS SECRETARY: In response to allegations about manipulation of appointments, scheduling at Phoenix, I am committed to taking all actions necessary to identify exactly what the issues are, to fix them and to strengthen veterans' trust in V.A. healthcare.

First, the office of the inspector general, as many of you have pointed out, is now conducting a thorough and timely review. If any of these allegations are true with regard to scheduling at Phoenix and elsewhere where we've invited the i.g. to come and look at issues that were -- that surfaced, if any allegations are true, they're completely unacceptable to me, to veterans, and I will tell you the vast majority of dedicated VHA employees who come to work every day to do their best by those veterans. If any are substantiated by the inspector general, we will act.

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BERMAN: Our senior investigative correspondent Drew Griffin is the one who really exposed this crisis. He joins us now from Capitol Hill.

We're also joined by Dan Caldwell of the Concerned Veterans for America.

And Drew, I want to start with you here. The secretary says of these allegations, the allegations make him mad as hell, he would use stronger language if he could.

But he keeps using the word "if," if these allegations prove to be true, if they investigate and find out it's happened, then they will take the appropriate action.

Is there really an "if" at this point associated with it? Based on your reporting, there's a lot of strange, strange stuff that happened here.

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and that's what's so incredulous about this hearing that's taking place. A lot of outrage, a lot of back slapping. I just don't get it. It is a proven fact that veterans across this country have died because of delayed care. 23 of them by the V.A.'s own count. Okay? It's not just happening in Phoenix. This has been proven. The office of inspector general has already reported on problems in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas. Everybody in the room should know this. Now Shinseki is talking about doing something about it now. It just seems very hollow. We're outside the hallway where he's going to come out and speak to us, John, and I'm going to ask him these questions. Where have you been?

PEREIRA: And we're anxious to hear how he responds to your questions, Drew. Dan, we want to bring you into the conversation. We want to know what your thoughts are. I know that you're calling for Shinseki's resignation. You call these hearings a joke. Do you think anything's going to come of it?

DAN CALDWELL, CONCERNER VETERANS FOR AMERICA: No. Most hearings like this, committee hearings on Capitol Hill, are dog-and-pony shows. They're scripted. We know what people are going to say ahead of time. It's just political theater. In regards to the chairman of this committee who's running the show, he's not taking this seriously. In his opening remarks, he tried to minimize this problem and then remarks previously he basically said that this is some vast right wing conspiracy. The problems are minimal and that the reporting that CNN and others have done should just be ignored. As Drew said, we're past the alleged stage. The V.A. Has admitted that veterans have died from delayed care. This is before phoenix. This is before any of these issues came up. And our group is calling for Shinseki to resign, not just because of Phoenix but because of a long pattern of mismanagement. BERMAN: Senate hearings one thing they do do, however even if it may not provide immediate results, they do shine a spotlight on this problem, Drew, that you've been investigating for months and months and months. What is the current status, right now, of your investigation and also the secretary who says he's doing a face-to- face meeting with every hospital practically in the country right now?

GRIFFIN: Look, our investigation is blowing up across the country. We're getting whistleblowers coming out of the woodworks now, telling us that there are secret waiting lists. There's manipulation of wait times. There are people coming forward saying my husband, my father died because let's just be straight. Why these guys are dying, all right? These are old guys who are dying because they're not getting a colonoscopy, all right? That is pretty damn sad. That is what the office of inspector general has found. That's what we're talking about, the health care here. This is you or your father not being able to get a colonoscopy within two years when you finally get one, guess what? You've got full-stage cancer, and you are dead. It's that sad. It is that simple. And as for what's going on in the Senate, the house veterans affairs committee has been railing on this for the past year. So I don't get what's going on down this hallway.

PEREIRA: Dan, quickly, what are you hearing from veterans there in Phoenix? We know the folks there, they've got to have very little confidence that they're going to get to the bottom of this.

CALDWELL: There's zero confidence in the department of veterans affairs out here in phoenix, Arizona. It's a sad thing to say, but veterans out here, for a long time, not just this year or the last, going back to 2011, have dealt with problems in the V.A. Hospital. I experienced many of those firsthand as a veteran myself and then as a V.A. case worker in the congressional office, there have been many, many problems at both the regional office which handles disability benefits and the health administration.

And it's going to take a lot to restore the trust. They recently sent in a new acting director to replace Sharon Hellmann while she's on administrative leave and the investigation goes forward. But frankly, you know, there was an American legion town hall the other day, and nobody has faith that this guy they sent down from Utah is really going to fix anything. There's just no trust because there's no accountability. There's no faith that they're going to do the right thing and fix it here. Veterans are angry, and they have every right to be. And they should be.

PEREIRA: They need a voice, too.

BERMAN: And of course, veterans are people, we owe so much to them in their time of their lives which makes this all the more infuriating. What this is about is fudging records at V.A. Hospitals in getting the treatment that they need. Dan Caldwell, thanks so much.

PEREIRA: Great reporting.

BERMAN: Drew griffin, this is a day that's due to your reporting on this issue at this time. Thank you to you. We really appreciate it. Coming up for us, schools closed. A nuclear power plant evacuated. Parts of the Camp Pendleton military base shut down all because of fast-moving fires in California. We will take you there live next.

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CAPT. BUZ MILLER, SAN DIEGO FIRE DEPARTMENT: This is extreme. This has gone from just dry conditions to volatile conditions with severe spotting.

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PEREIRA: Severe indeed. Wildfires in San Diego county have forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate. Already destroyed almost two dozen homes. Nine wildfires have already burned more than 9,000 acres. We need to remember, look at your calendar, it's only May. We're not even in the wildfire season yet. Not for another couple of months.

BERMAN: Having a serious, serious impact. A nuclear power plant was evacuated. Schools across the region closed. Parts of Camp Pendleton, the military base, shut down. Even legoland had to close, and what is much worse there on the ground today. Temperatures are expected to reach 105 degrees.

PEREIRA: A recipe for bad.

That's Carlsbad just north of San Diego. 23,000 people were issued evacuation notices. A serious, serious situation there. Joining us from Carlsbad is Akiko Fujita. Give us a sense, Akiko, of what's going on on the ground right now.

AKIKO FUJITA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John and Michaela, you said it, a lot of people out here just asking what time of the year is it? because this is really early for fires to start up. Usually fire season doesn't really get started until July and August. I can tell you these fires have really shut down much of San Diego county. You mentioned it, schools closed. We know the university just to the east of us, cal state-San Marco's had to actual cancel their graduation ceremony this weekend. And you can just smell the disaster all over. I want to show you this building behind me because this is one of two homes on this block in Carlsbad that was completely destroyed. This structure engulfed in flames yesterday. Now, having said that, we are hearing some good news on the ground. At least here in the city of Carlsbad. The fire here, 60 percent contained. That's the good news. But it was a different scene yesterday. I want to bring in Steve Van Dyke who is a resident. He lives just down the street from here. And Steve, I know you were at your office when this all took off yesterday. You must have just been terrified.

STEVE VAN DYKE, HOMEOWNER: Yes, I was down in La Jolla, and the people I work with at Scripps health, they get the emergency notifications. They told me there was a fire in Carlsbad. And I found out it was on poinsettia and black rail, and that's right here. I mean, right a block away from my house.

FUJITA: And what are you thinking as you're in your office, seeing the flames come through here, get closer and closer to your house?

STEVE VAN DYKE: It was really terrifying. I was just thinking about, you know, my dogs at home, how many I going to get home? I was worried about my neighbors, you know, just all the families down here. It was really bad.

FUJITA: And you couldn't get in. You said you wanted to check in on your dog, but they wouldn't allow you in.

STEVE VAN DYKE: Right. No, I tried to get in about six different ways. I know different back roads and stuff, but the sheriff's department, I mean, they really did a good job blocking the area. I understand why. A little frustrating, but I did get back in about 8:30 last night.

FUJITA: Okay. Give me a sense of what this looked like. We've got -- it's really hot today. You said yesterday it was just a cloud over this entire neighborhood.

STEVE VAN DYKE: It was really hot. We had the Santa Ana winds blowing in from the east. And I mean, this area, I came up the road here behind us. And it was just black. I mean, plumes of black smoke. You couldn't even believe it. Flames everywhere. That's really why I started getting nervous about what was going on, really trying to get back into my house.

FUJITA: We've been talking about this all morning. It's still may.

STEVE VAN DYKE: Right.

FUJITA: We know how dry the conditions are here. I mean, what are you thinking as you look to June and July when the fires could really start to ramp up?

STEVE VAN DYKE: I think it's going to be a really bad season. I mean, it's just time for everybody to recognize about the fire breaks and everything that we need to do to prepare for it. The drought's really exacerbated these conditions. You can just see how dry it is. You can feel it in the air.

FUJITA : Great. We're glad to hear that you're safe, your house is safe. John and Michaela we should mention that while things look good on this end, it really is -- the focus right now is to the east of us in the city of San Marcos. 0 percent containment. 700 acres burned so far. So firefighters out there just scrambling in this really intense heat, trying to get a handle on those flames.

PEREIRA: Akiko, we thank you for that. It's such a challenge, John, when you've got that Santa Ana winds. So it's dry. You've got the drought. There's low humidity, and you've got that wind coming in. It is the perfect fuel, all of it, for a fire. I've never heard of the fire season starting this early in southern California.

BERMAN: Very early.

PEREIRA: I used to remember it was September, October. It's really upsetting.

BERMAN: Making for long days for these firefighters.

PEREIRA: Absolutely. Probably coming from all over the state and U.S. as well.

Coming up, Hillary Clinton pairing up with her daughter's mother-in- law who has political aspirations of her own.

BERMAN: Plus, basketball great Lebron James says the league needs to bounce Donald Sterling. Is he willing to strike over it? That's ahead @THIS HOUR.

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