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Huge Wildfire In Southern California Happening In Cajon Pass; Victims of Chattanooga Massacre Remembered; Investigators Focusing on Gunman's Recent Trip to Jordan. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired July 17, 2015 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:09] JOHN BERMAN, CNN GUEST HOST: All right, good evening, John Berman in for Anderson tonight.

We have a very busy hour ahead, breaking right now. Live pictures of a huge wildfire in southern California. What we're looking at right now, vehicles are burning. That is a tractor-trailer on fire. That is smoke completely obscuring a car carrier right next to it. It is happening on the 15th freeway in Cajon pass, you may know that, as the road from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. What happened was the flames jumped the interstate and set everything and anything ablaze.

So many cars, several dozen cars, maybe as many as 50 or 60 just trapped there on the highway. A good number of them were on fire, several continuing to burn. You're watching live pictures right now of the fight from the sky and the ground. This is a plane -- DC-10 that has been called in to help fight this blaze, dropping the fire retardant, as an air tanker. We see helicopters in carrying water. We have also seen firefighters for the first time recently on the ground right now.

Again, the issue, so many of these cars trapped on the freeway with their gas tanks full. So there is urgency to get this fire out at least on the freeway as soon as possible. Look at the chopper right there. The choppers are dropping water all day on the right-hand side of your screen. The DC-10 which will shortly drop fire retardant on that area right now and hopefully showdown some of the blaze.

While we're waiting for that to happen I'm joined by driver Ryan McEachron. He is in the phone with us. He was in a car on that freeway, force to essentially flee.

Ryan, what can you tell us? What happened?

RYAN MCEACHRON, WITNESS (via phone): Well, you know, I was on my way southbound and I could see freeway, traffic was on a backed up which is not an unusual experience for us. Apparently there is a lot of construction going on right now on i-15. But about half way down on Cajon pass, I noticed the traffic had been really stopped by the California highway patrol. You could see the flames kind of moving from the west side of the i-15 towards the freeway, and basically we just watched it as it literally jumped over the freeway and started the fire on the other side. And it just got worse from there. It started burning a lot of brush.

At some point beyond that, I have to imagine that the fire department instructed folks in their vehicles that were closest to where they had stopped traffic to get out of their vehicles and head back up northbound on the southbound lanes. Because all of a sudden we had a huge number of people just walking towards us. At which point everybody on the freeway just started turning their vehicles around basically, go northbound on the southbound lane. So it was -- really quite crazy at the time.

BERMAN: Were you able to turn around or did you have to get out and walk?

MCEACHRON: No, I was probably about a mile and a half up from where the traffic had stopped. And most people you know, from probably about a mile up, if not even further down were able to turn their vehicles around. Everyone kind of worked with everybody else. Everyone turned their vehicles around, including semi-trucks with trailers on them. Turned their vehicles around, made our way back up probably a mile or so to an emergency access road that goes between the northbound and the southbound lanes.

The San Bernardino county sheriff's department had us go on that emergency access road, which took us basically down to the northbound lanes and then we were able to get back on the i-15 northbound --

BERMAN: And Ryan, we're looking at pictures right now. We have been told about an hour ago there were 500 acres burning. It has to be way more than that. At this point we continue to look at footage of this road that dozens of cars there, several are still burning. We have seen video of firefighters fighting these ease blazes from the air and also on the ground.

You know, you sound like you're from the area, fires are a common thing out there. What is not common, I don't know that I have ever seen anything like this where fires jumped a freeway and set cars on fire. Have you ever seen anything like that?

MCEACHRON: Well, yes, out here we have seen fires jump freeways because of the wind, it just happens quite a bit. But normally, you know, and in most cases the traffic has been stopped before it gets to that point. I think that that is what they attempted to do today, but the wind just shifted and pushed the fire right into the vehicles that had been stopped. So as much as they were trying to prevent that from happening with the winds and the way they shifted and of course, we get a lot of wind here in the high desert and the Cajon pass, and the wind just shifted and that is why you see the line of people --

[20:05:25] BERMAN: Yes. Normally, they stop people, you know, far before and incident like this could happen or far before the juncture where it would jump the freeway and set the cars on fire. That is what I mean. It is just unusual to see cars caught on the middle of it with relatively no warning.

All right, Ryan McEachron, we're glad you are OK. We are glad you were able to turn around before getting to this place as we are looking again a remarkable pictures of cars on fire and a huge efforts to put them out before something even worse happens. So many of these cars no doubt have full gas tanks at this point.

Ryan, thank you so much.

And in what happens to be one of the understatements of the night, state transportation authorities are advising commuters to avoid that area. You can see the traffic backed up. We are going to keep our eyes on this all night and give you live updates as they come in.

But there is other new developments tonight. The new developments in the Chattanooga mass shooting including video that hint of just how intense the final shootout truly was.


BERMAN: All right, witness Karen Hendrick (ph) captured the sounds of the fire at naval depot where gunman Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez murdered four marines before the Chattanooga police shot him dead.

Tonight, we're learning much more about how heavily armed he was. And some of the factors that shaped his life recently and may have factored into this rampage.

Also, we're sadly learning much more about the four marines who lost lives, whose lives he took, the men he murdered. We'll tell you everything about them we learned shortly.

Gary Tuchman reports begins our reporting with new information on the gunman. And he joins us that - Gary.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, tonight we have learned that Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez was fired from his job at a nuclear power plant in 2013. The nuclear facility he worked at was called the First Energy Power Plant in Ohio, that east of Cleveland in northeastern Ohio.

He worked there a total of ten days. The plant spokesperson said he was let go because he did not meet the minimum requirements to keep his job. They say he was never in a secure area of that nuclear power plant. And they also say they are in touch with government authorities discussing this former employee.

Meanwhile, you can see behind me there are many people here at a makeshift memorial honoring the four marines who were so brutally killed. We have learned quite a bit more about that awful morning yesterday.


TUCHMAN (voice-over): A senior defense official tells CNN several marines inside the Chattanooga recruiting center, the gunman's first stop, were marine combat veterans who went into combat mode when Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez started shooting at about 10:45 a.m.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He lifted up his arms like this with a big black gun. And then it was just one shot and then endless shots one after another, just unloading.

TUCHMAN: The marines told everybody to drop to the floor and then cleared the room by getting everyone outside in the back. Everyone survived. But Abdulazeez who law enforcement source and authority say had at least two long guns, including an AK-47 style rifle and a handgun was not done.

It is believed Abdulazeez never got out of his rented FORD mustang convertible. After firing his barrage of shots at this locate, he made a right turn out of the parking lot heading seven and a half miles at the second location. We've now arrived at the second location driving a normal speed. It took us about 13 minutes.

Within that short span of time, something very traumatic happened.

CHIEF FRED FLETCHER, CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE POLICE: Officers began to search and located the gunman driving down the highway. Chattanooga police officers immediately began following and chasing that vehicle between the first and second locations.

TUCHMAN: This is the second location which remains closed off. The gunman made a right turn into this entrance and continued driving down the road to the military support and reserve center. The police still in pursuit.

FLETCHER: Eventually, officers encountered the suspect at the second location.

TUCHMAN: But the gunman was a moving target firing dozens of shots and killing four marines before he could be neutralized.

FLETCHER: Our officers drove down there and encountered him and engaged in a battle with him.

TUCHMAN: Abdulazeez was shot to death. Officials believe he was killed by a Chattanooga police officer.

FLETCHER: I am absolutely convinced that if it were not for the bravery of the police officers and the Chattanooga police department, more people in this community would be dead.

TUCHMAN: The home where the gunman grew up with his parents and siblings was search for hours, bomb squad and canine and k-9 unit inside the home. This picture showing a woman taken away in handcuffs, not arrested but as a precaution. Karen Jones lives right next door.

[20:10:08] KAREN JONES, NEIGHBOR: I was pretty scary because you don't know what they are going to find.

TUCHMAN: Karen has known the family ever since they moved in about 14 years ago.

When was the last time you saw Mohammad?

JONES: Probably this weekend. I can't remember which day it is. TUCHMAN: But this weekend, though?


TUCHMAN: The gunman no longer lived in the home. But according to his neighbor visited quite a bit. Karen Jones saying this weekend, a visit was routine.

JONES: Except for the beard. I mean, he didn't usually wear that. Guys like to grow beards once in a while and he is of age.


BERMAN: Gary, we know authorities are looking very closely at the gunman's overseas travel including possibly a long, long trip to Jordan this last year. Did that neighbor you spoke to know anything about his trips overseas, his trip to the Middle East?

TUCHMAN: Well, Karen Jones did tell us, John, that about three years ago Mohammad, his sisters and the parents, all went to Kuwait and Jordan and they went for three or four months she says. And I asked her, how do you know that? She said they were my neighbors for 14 years, they told me. They told me they were going to for a long time to visit families. So, is that relevant? We don't know but we can be sure that government authorities will be investigating that trip, too.

BERMAN: A contact, no doubt, with officials in both those countries.

Gary Tuchman, thank you so much.

Until today the picture we had of the killer's upbringing seems straight out of Ozzie and Harriet. Today we learned that lie so many families, it was not that simple. There were stresses and strains and claims of domestic violence which in and of itself maybe not that unusual, but it is getting scrutiny as many other things authorities try to identify the factors and forces and possibly other individuals behind this young man's transformation into a mass murderer.

Let's get more on that from our senior investigative correspondent Drew Griffin.


DREW GRIFFIN, CNN SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez grew up in this middle class neighborhood in Chattanooga. He had four sisters, he was the only son. His parents Youssef and Rasmiya (ph) are Palestinians from Jordan who moved to the U.S. and became American citizens. But there was turmoil inside the family home.

In 2009, Mohammad's mother filed for divorce, claiming in court documents her husband abused her and the children and even threatened to take a second wife in their quote, "native state of Palestine." The suit was dropped. And the parents signed an agreement that the husband agrees to not inflict any personal injury harm or insult upon the wife or upon any of the children of their marriage. Abdulazeez went on to college graduated with an electrical engineering

degree in 2012. According to a resume he posted online, he worked at several internships. It was during this time he was also traveling to the Middle East. Jordanian officials confirmed Mohammad Abdulazeez had an extended visit in 2014. And a close friend tell CNN Abdulazeez came back a changed man. He distanced himself, the friend said. And although they had known each other since they were five years old, he said he never became close to me like he had before he went overseas.

At a news conference Friday, the FBI confirmed it was looking to Abdulazeez overseas travels, his possible connections, but so far says, there is no one else involved.

ED REINHOLD, FBI SPECIAL AGENT IN-CHARGE: We have no indication that he was inspired by or directed by anyone other than himself.

GRIFFIN: In the past three months Abdulazeez took a new job and moved to the Nashville area. His most recent photo from a mug shot, taken in April when he was arrested for DUI. Almir Dizderevic saw Abdulazeez just last month.

ALMIR DIZDEREVIC, SHOOTER FORMER MIXED MARTIAL ARTS COACH: I said how are you doing, I haven't seen you in a while, how is everything, are you doing alright? Smiling, laughing, talking to me no problems. And another guy just talked on the phone about the case. He said he saw him just a day ago at a local store. And he said absolutely nothing, shaking hands saying how are you doing, everything is fine.

GRIFFIN: Friends confirmed to CNN Abdulazeez had returned to Chattanooga this week to see his family, prayed with them during this final week of Ramadan. One told us he was here at this mosque just this past weekend. Today, on one of the most festive days of the Muslim year, the mosque is close. The sign on its doors states the families of the victims are in our thoughts and prayers.


BERMAN: All right, Drew Griffin joins us now.

Drew, earlier the FBI said three guns were use in the attack, two long guns and a handgun. They later also told us that they had a rifle they found in the gunman's home. Did any of the friends know anything about these guns?

GRIFFIN: They knew all about guns with Mohammad Abdulazeez because he had grown up with guns. The friends had often gone target practice shooting together. There was nothing unusual about it. No anger involved, John. The friends say that this was just, you know, it is part of life in Chattanooga, Tennessee, so they didn't see anything wrong with the guns.

But they did tell me that he knew how to use them. He knew, and he was able to shoot. So there would not have been any extensive recent training that might have triggered an alarm. This guy knew how to use guns because he grew up with them.

[20:15:08] BERMAN: The FBI also said that some of the guns were purchased legally, but indicated on this one purchase illegally.

Drew Griffin, thank you so much.

Just ahead, two experts on what investigators still want to learn about the killer.

Also, we will honor the four marines who gave so much to our country before the Chattanooga gunman took their lives. And I will speak to one marine's father.

We're also going to get a live report on the wildfires which continue to burn in California. Looking at live pictures right now as firefighters continue to try to put out these blazes. Several cars on fire. A perilous situation in California. We'll get right back to that after this.


[20:19:34] BERMAN: As much as we are learning about the Chattanooga shooter and the investigation, there are still many more questions than answers at this point, which is why we have a pair of experts to discuss this with us right now.

Former FBI assistant director Chris Swecker, he oversaw the investigation and capture of domestic terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph. Also joining us CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank.

And Paul, investigators focusing right now on a trip to Jordan over the last year, possibly for several months by the shooter. If he did want to meet with possible terrorists, if he did want to make trouble what kind of opportunity do months in Jordan provide?

[20:20:10] PAUL CRUIKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Plenty of opportunity, John, because ISIS have a footprint in Jordan. And also there are quite porous borders between Jordan and Syria and Iran where a coast is a lot (INAUDIBLE). There is, in fact, 2000 Jordanians have traveled to join with the jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq. And there is also quite a lot of radical activity in Jordan. They were big demonstration in support of ISIS when they declared a caliphate last year in places like Zarka (ph). And Zarka (ph) is the home town of (INAUDIBLE), Jordanian-Palestinian who actually founded ISIS. So plenty of opportunities to meet up with people that may have terrorist attack plans.

BERMAN: So Chris, there are two different narratives today, almost competing narratives about whether this was or was not an ISIS inspired attack. The chairman of the homeland security committee Mike McCaul said he believes it is, it was. And the FBI agents running the show right now on the investigation in Chattanooga said as of now they have found no link between the shooter in any ISIS or otherwise terrorist organization. Why the discrepancy right now? Is Congress out in front of the story or is the FBI just reticent to say everything they have learned?

CHRIS SWECKER, FORMER FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: Well, the FBI is not -- they're going to have more discipline than what politicians are going to have. They're going to not let their investigation out in bits and pieces. They're putting it altogether right now. They're putting the puzzle pieces together. The Jordanians are at work. The Kuwaitis are at work. They're really not going to jump the gun here and go in front of the press and start speculating. And I think, you know, as I say politicians will be politicians. They like to get out front. It's very likely that this was is-inspired, at least, but the FBI is not going to come out and say that right now.

BERMAN: And Paul, you know, in terms of foreign travel there was Jordan. There is also trips to Kuwait. He has family in both places. Reuters was also reporting a possible trip to Yemen. Now, if that is the case I imagine all sorts of alarm bells have to go off because Americans travel to Jordan all the time. You can go as tourist to Jordan. You can see family. But travel to Yemen, particularly with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula based there, that has to be the source of enormous concern if true.

CRUICKSHANK: John, that's entirely right. If indeed he traveled to Yemen I think that transforms the entire investigation. This is the hot lands of AQAP, a group that three times they are trying to plot attacks against the United States. Also directly responsible western intelligence officials believe that the Paris attacks, the attacks against the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine in the beginning of this year, their leader was just killed in the U.S. gun strike. They may be out for revenge. And when he was traveling in the region, they were very much the group in the forefront. Yemen ISIS only had a fledging appearance at that point.

BERMAN: And Chris, right now, in terms of the FBI investigation, they say they are reviewing everything online, postings, blogs, social media, his devices, cell records. How long will this take? How long does it take to piece together a person's complete profile?