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Investigators Look Into Cruise Ship Fire; Sheriff's Post- Katrina Acts of Kindness Could Land Him in Jail

Aired March 24, 2006 - 08:00   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome, everybody.
I'm Soledad O'Brien.


It's Friday and, as Martha says, that's a good thing.

O'BRIEN: Whooo-hooo.

Our top story this morning, we're talking about those fatal accidents, two in two days involving people on cruise ships. We'll take a closer look at what you need to know under travel safety.

ROBERTS: The wife of a slain Tennessee pastor is now a suspect after she was found hundreds of miles away with the couple's three children.

O'BRIEN: Prayers from a community over a pair of missing boys. Now federal agents are on the case.

ROBERTS: A massive protest in Milwaukee over immigration. They're angry over their home lawmaker's proposal for a tough new law.

O'BRIEN: And yet another problem with the SAT.

How are these crucial tests being graded?

We'll take a look at that ahead on this AMERICAN MORNING.

Investigators are due on the scene of a cruise ship fire today. The ship's docked in Jamaica right now. They're looking into the cause and effect of the fire. One person died of a heart attack when that fire broke out.

AMERICAN MORNING'S Bob Franken is in Fort Lauderdale this morning, which was supposed to be the ship's final destination -- hey, Bob, good morning.


And it's a ship very similar to the one you see in back of me. You get some idea of the magnitude of it. This is a ship that had almost 2,700 passengers, almost, over 1,100 crew members. And then they had, as they were trolling the waters between Grand Cayman in the Caribbean and Jamaica, a little fire broke out.

I say little because it was started by some cigarette embers. But by the time it was through, 100 cabins had been scorched. Not only that, but in the excitement as they went through the drills that accompany something like this, one of the older passengers suffered cardiac arrest and died. Another 11 were injured in all of this, most of them suffering from smoke inhalation.

Now, this is an investigation that is going to go on while the ship is docked in Montego Bay. The Coast Guard is down there. The company is promising complete cooperation. Passengers, many of them, are still staying on the ship as they wait to come back by air. Of course, you can't just immediately put that many people on air flights out of Jamaica, but they're going to try and get them back in the next couple of days.

Others that were in the charred cabins are staying in hotels in the Montego Bay and then Ocho Rios level (ph) as people try and unravel this mystery that has caused just another bit of bad news for the cruise ship industry -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Yes, it really is a mystery.

All right, Bob Franken for us this morning.

Bob, thanks.

Ahead in just a few minutes, we're going to talk with one of the passengers who was on board the ship during that fire; also, talk with Pauline Frommer about -- she's from Frommer's Travel Guide -- about travel safety.

Time for us, though, to get a check of the headlines with Carol Costello in the newsroom -- hey, Carol, good morning again.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Soledad.

And good morning to all of you.

An explosion at a university in eastern France. It apparently happened at the National College of Chemistry. That's located near France's border with Germany. The blast sparked a fire, causing a number of injuries. Fire crews now on the scene. The area around the building has now been evacuated.

A bomb outside a Sunni mosque adds five more people to the death toll today in Iraq. Four people shot and one killed by a bomb during an attack on a bakery in southwestern Baghdad. Two police officers shot dead when their patrol was attacked. And seven people found shot to death, bound and apparently tortured in northeastern Baghdad.

A Tennessee pastor's wife is being questioned in the death of her husband. The body of 31-year-old Matthew Winkler was found in the family's home. After a nationwide amber alert, 32-year-old Mary Winkler and the couple's three young girls were found Thursday in an Alabama beach town. We hear Winkler may be interrogated by both Tennessee and Alabama officials.

The families of two missing boys in Milwaukee, Wisconsin now relying on police and prayers. A vigil held last night. Officers using bloodhounds and divers scoured the area where the boys were last seen. Quadrevion Henning and Purvis Virginia Parker have not been seen since Sunday. A $23,000 reward now being offered for any information in the case.

And some pretty shocking surveillance video out of Los Angeles. Take a look at this. That's a 63-year-old hospital patient. She's wandering the street in her robe, her hospital robe and slippers. A passerby eventually escorts the woman to a shelter. The city's attorney's office is now investigating complaints that hospitals are actually dumping, dumping discharged homeless patients in skid row neighborhoods. And we're going to talk to city officials in the next hour.

That's a look at the headlines this morning.

Back to you -- John.

ROBERTS: Thanks, Carol.

That's a pretty troubling story. We'll get to the bottom of that a little bit later on.

Not only is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defending the U.S. military's strategy in Iraq, he's also defending himself. At the Pentagon briefing Thursday, Rumsfeld said he has no intention of resigning. And he dismissed recent criticism in an exchange with CNN's senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre.


JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Do you feel at all embattled at this point in your tenure...


MCINTYRE: ... given the fact that...


MCINTYRE: ... aside from the retired two star general calling you "incompetent" and asking you to step down in an op-ed over the weekend, we also have a column from Maureen Dowd in which she quoted an unnamed administration official saying that you don't hold the same sway in meetings and that you're treated as "an eccentric old uncle who's ignored."

RUMSFELD: You like to repeat all that stuff, don't you?

On camera. Did you -- did you get that? Let's make sure you got it. He loves that stuff. It's a sure way to get on camera. You'll be on the evening news.

MCINTYRE: I know that you like to have the facts in the premise of the question.

RUMSFELD: Yes, I do. And you did it very well. No.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can do one-armed pushups and put all of this to rest.


The answer is no.

MCINTYRE: Do you hold the same sway in meetings?

RUMSFELD: Oh, come on. I'm not going to get into that.


PAM: Sir, in your opening statement, you said...

RUMSFELD: If you believe everything you read in Maureen Dowd, you'd better get a life.


ROBERTS: Forget it. I'm not going to talk about it. Eh, let me talk about it.

And Rumsfeld also said calls for his resignation are "prompted by politics."

Let's check back on the weather now.

Reynolds Wolf is in for Chad Myers -- and, Reynolds, do you feel like you've got the same sway now that temperatures aren't what they're supposed to be for this time of year or...


ROBERTS: ... do you feel pretty embattled this morning?

I mean, really, what's going on?

Tell us, Reynolds.

WOLF: You know, it's just -- it's just unseasonably cool in many places.

But I'm telling you, John, I mean it's a good looking Friday overall. We don't have any bouts of severe weather we're dealing with this morning.


O'BRIEN: Here's some good news for you. Travel by rail could be getting safer. The Transportation Department has completed the last in a series of test crashes with what's called a crash energy management system. That's the crash right there. It didn't look like a lot happened. The key feature -- shock absorbers on the ends of the passenger cars.

Take a look, though, at the same test done in 2002. A devastating crash likely to claim lives. Both the passenger train and the locomotive knocked off the tracks in 2002. So, of course, when you compare it to what happened in the most recent test here, look. Look at the one on the right. You obviously want to be on that train.

ROBERTS: Yes, absolutely.

O'BRIEN: This year's test keeps both the passenger car and the locomotive on the tracks and you don't have that rising over thing, as well.

So an indication...

ROBERTS: It sounds like a good idea to add that technology to today's trains, doesn't it?

O'BRIEN: Yes, clearly. It took them four years, but clearly more safe.

Ahead this morning, more on that cruise ship fire that we've been talking about all morning, as well as the deadly tour bus crash that happened earlier in the week. We've got some tips this morning on making sure your travels are safe.

ROBERTS: Also, a unique immigration protest in Milwaukee yesterday. Thousands of people take to the streets to show America what life would be like without Latinos. More protests planned for today in other cities.

O'BRIEN: And later, a sheriff who played Robin Hood called a hero. Now his actions, though, could cost him his job. We'll tell you why, ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


ROBERTS: A Mississippi sheriff is becoming somewhat of a modern day folk hero for taking on the federal government. But now his actions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina could land him in federal prison.

CNN's Sean Callebs has his story.


SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Sheriff Billy McGee is a local hero in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. His story a modern twist on Robin Hood. He robbed from the federal government to give to the needy in his county.

It was six days after Katrina. Sweltering heat, steamy desperation. No food, no water and no end in sight. So the sheriff and his merry men hijacked two huge FEMA trucks loaded with ice.

Like any good hero, McGee doesn't like to talk much about what happened.

SHERIFF BILLY MCGEE, FORREST COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI: Just that at some point that we can see the end of the road, that this passes.

CALLEBS: The ice was under lock and key at nearby Camp Shelby. McGee gave his deputies orders to take the trucks and when a National Guardsman tried to stop them, the sheriff had the soldier handcuffed. And they drove off with the government's ice and doled it out to those in need, a dream story for the local newspaper.

RICH CAMPBELL, EDITOR, "HATTIESBURG AMERICAN": It's one of those stories that just -- it almost has a life of its own, because you've got a small town sheriff who took on the federal government, basically, for the good of his people.

CALLEBS: And for that, the sheriff may get prosecuted by the government.

But locals remember the relentless despair after the storm and haven't forgotten the sheriff's actions. A newspaper poll showed nearly 88 percent of the county residents don't want McGee prosecuted. Reports said he had worked out a plea bargain. But then the U.S. attorney in Jackson, Mississippi recused himself because he's a former National Guardsman. Now the case is with the U.S. attorney in Baton Rouge, who is deciding whether to pursue charges.

CAMPBELL: That doesn't sit well with people here, especially people in South Mississippi who lived through the frustration and the incompetence -- if I could be so bold -- of the federal government.

CALLEBS: As much as McGee wants the attention to go away, it won't. Bumper stickers have cropped up and naturally they've already got a folk song to honor their folk hero.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was a hurricane in Hattiesburg so he didn't think twice. Sheriff McGee was hauling ice.

CALLEBS: And it's also good fodder for lunch chat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would have probably done the same thing if I would have been in his shoes, you know? I mean we was hurting up here for a while.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I mean he stepped up and did something for the people. That's it.

CALLEBS: McGee is a four term sheriff and many here would like to see him run again, arguing his career should not come to an end over this -- a sheriff who's more popular than ever after becoming a modern day Robin Hood.

Sean Callebs, CNN, Hattiesburg, Mississippi.


ROBERTS: A great story. And Sean's report first aired on "ANDERSON COOPER 360," which you can catch weeknights at 10:00 Eastern right here on CNN.

O'BRIEN: Tonight on "PAULA ZAHN NOW" at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, her name is the Muslim Madonna. But life in the limelight for this Madonna isn't all fun and games. The singer's racy outfits, even racier lyrics, have brought a lot of uproar from her community and threats against her life.


DEA MIRELA SINGER: One of the creepiest and scariest things that I've been told to my face was how this person would like to cut my stomach so that another whore like me is not born and that the same should have happened to my mom.


O'BRIEN: Her name is Dea and she says her music has some Muslim men calling for her blood, literally.

CNN correspondent David Mattingly shows us tonight on "PAULA ZAHN NOW" at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

Still to come this morning, we'll have much more cruise ship fire that we've been talking about. We talked to a passenger who was on board the ship.

And you've heard about the SAT snafus. Now we learn that even more tests were scored wrong. We'll talk to the College Board and find out exactly what went wrong and what they're doing to fix it, ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


O'BRIEN: A story we've been following all morning, that huge fire on a cruise ship. One person died of a heart attack, apparently. Eleven other people treated for smoke inhalation.

Dr. Philip Shields was a passenger on board the Star Princess.

He joins us by phone from Kingston, Jamaica.

Thank you for being with us, doctor.

We appreciate your time this morning.

Talk me through what happened.

When did you first discover that there was a fire on the ship?

It looks like we're having some kind of audio difficulties.

Dr. Shields, can you hear me?

This is Soledad O'Brien at CNN. All right, obviously we have audio glitches.

We're going to continue to see if we can bring Dr. Shields back in and get his story of what happened there.

Let's move on and talk a little bit about technology. We've all got a phone and a Blackberry and an iPod and a laptop, blah, blah, blah. But will there soon be a device that's actually going to connect all those things in one device?

Our own Miles O'Brien takes a look in our continuing series, Welcome To The Future.


LEON: You know, it's funny, because each of these things is supposed to save me time, but because I have to use them all, it actually winds up costing me time.

Well, I've got two cell phones and neither one does everything that I need it to. They both have their pluses and minuses, but unfortunately there's no way to combine the best aspects of each phone. The systems aren't compatible. If there were just some way to combine them into one device that I could carry around, I'd be set.

To me, the most important thing is to be able to do everything that I can do on a computer on a handheld device. The technology is out there to do it and I'm just waiting for it.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: And so am I. But the single device solution for phone calls, e-mail, Web surfing, pictures, organizer, you know, the gadget that does it all, remains the digital holy grail. And I'm beginning to wonder if it will ever be discovered.

(voice-over): You bet, says technology analyst Rob Enderle. He says the answer may lie in a new breed of fourth generation, or 4G, mobile devices.

ROB ENDERLE, ENDERLE GROUP: The cell phone is trying to evolve into the personal communications device, but something less than a laptop in terms of size, but encompassing all of that in terms of the device.

O'BRIEN: Due out by 2010, 4G comes with promises of full Windows XP capabilities, broadband Internet speeds and a set of worldwide service standards. I'll believe it and buy it when I see it.

ENDERLE: It's really supposed to bring everybody together in some type of a kumbaya environment and things will work. But be aware, we've had this promise before, so I probably wouldn't hold my breath.


O'BRIEN: Right before that story, we were trying to get in touch with Dr. Philip Shields. He was a passenger on the ship that broke into fire. And we want to get right back to him now.

Dr. Shields, can you hear me?


O'BRIEN: Oh, fantastic.

Glad to have you.

Listen, when did you first discover that there was a fire on board the ship?

SHIELDS: Well, I probably stirred somewhere around two in the morning and I could smell smoke. But it was hard to tell where it was coming from. And I actually went out on the balcony and smelled a little smoke, but I didn't see anything. So I sort of laid back down. And then I was awakened again with some commotion and I looked out on the balcony and about 50 yards from my cabin there were flames coming out of another cabin that was aft in the ship.

And so I got my family up, my wife and my son, and we started gathering things to get out of the room. And then they sounded the general alarm to go to -- they have drills where you go to stations on the ship.

O'BRIEN: Were people panicking or were they calm? Was it pandemonium? Describe the scene for me, if you can.

SHIELDS: Well, I think it was -- I think people were scared but every -- when you get on a cruise ship, they have a drill for disembarkment in the case of emergency. And you have to do that when you first get on the ship. And then from what I understand, the employees do it quite often. And so it was very orderly and I think people did a -- I think the ship -- the cruise line did a great job and then the people were relatively calm and went to their stations appropriately.

On the way to one of the stations, I encountered a gentleman who -- apparently his wife said he had opened the door for the balcony and a large plume of smoke hit him in the face. And, unfortunately, he has asthma. So he passed out in front of me and had bronchial spasms. And a friend of mine who was on the ship (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

O'BRIEN: I think we're losing you there.

Let me ask you another question.

You were sort of dipping in and out on the last part there.

This man who suffered a bronchial spasm, do you know what happened to him?


O'BRIEN: Again, we've got -- that's Dr. Philip Shields. And he's joining us by cell phone. And we apparently have just sort of lost him. We'll see if we can get that answered for you and for everybody.

Dr. Shields saying that the evacuation was quite orderly, but obviously very, very scary -- John.

ROBERTS: Just ahead, we're going to talk to a travel expert about what you can do to try to protect yourself on some of these vacations, what with this cruise ship fire and, as well, what happened earlier in the week with that tour bus rolling down a mountainside in Chile. It wasn't officially connected with cruise line, but it certainly was a tour that somebody was taking while they were docked in port from a cruise ship.

What can you do to try to protect yourself against incidents like this?

We'll talk with Pauline Frommer of the Frommer's Travel Guide, coming up.

And a protest that was billed as "A Day Without Latinos." We'll tell you what they're fighting for and why it could be the start of an even bigger movement.

That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


ROBERTS: You know, if ever watch the "LOU DOBBS SHOW," you'll notice that he has this uncanny knack of identifying issues that are going to become major league problems way down the road, and that he gets on them and gets on them and gets on them. And suddenly the issue blows up.

The ports deal was a classic example and broken borders, this immigration reform bill, is another classic one. And that's coming to a head in Congress and it's coming to a head across America, you know, yesterday, today and tomorrow, as well.

O'BRIEN: And those protests have been pretty remarkable to see. "A Day Without Latinos" is sort of how it's being billed. And it's going to be held in several cities, the idea being, well, imagine a day where there were no Latinos in the workforce and the employment where...

ROBERTS: Well...

O'BRIEN: ... you know, of course, these are pictures from Milwaukee yesterday.

ROBERTS: Well, remember that movie, that very controversial movie, "A Day Without A Mexican?"

This is essentially them bringing that movie to life...

O'BRIEN: Bringing it to a protest.


ROBERTS: So we're going to be talking with the woman who organized this rally in Milwaukee. It's Voces de la Frontera, which is Voices On the Border, saying that some of the immigration bills are Draconian, there need to be protections for people who are in this country illegally. But this huge debate in Congress about what do you do with the people who are here illegally?

O'BRIEN: It has truly come to a head.

Also this morning, we're talking about -- I should say we're talking again about problems with the SAT.

Have you heard about this latest wrinkle?

ROBERTS: Oh my goodness...

O'BRIEN: Twenty-seven thousand...

ROBERTS: ... it just seems they can't get it right.

O'BRIEN: ... tests not rechecked.

The College Board, of course, is the organization that administers the tests. Well, now they are getting slammed. Even people who are in the admissions offices are saying this is getting ridiculous, because, of course, there was the original problem in early March and then after that two more problems reported. This is now the fourth big problem.

ROBERTS: And now, of course, we're less than a week away from when the colleges tell...

O'BRIEN: Yes, what do you do?

ROBERTS: ... tell students if they're -- they've been admitted or not. So is all that information going to make it through the pipeline in time for kids to find out what their -- what's going to happen with their college?


ROBERTS: So all that coming up.

O'BRIEN: Yes. We'll talk about that all ahead.

Stay with us.

You're watching AMERICAN MORNING.


ANNOUNCER: You're watching AMERICAN MORNING with Soledad O'Brien and Miles O'Brien.

O'BRIEN: A nice shot of New York City this morning.

Welcome back, everybody.

ROBERTS: Yes, a shame about the clouds, though.

O'BRIEN: I know. I know. Oh, well.

ROBERTS: Sunny every day this week...

O'BRIEN: It's spring, they would say.


O'BRIEN: Yes. It's like a good way to enter the weekend, with a very blah morning here in New York.

ROBERTS: Exactly.

O'BRIEN: Thanks for bringing me down, John.

I so appreciate that.

ROBERTS: No problem.

You thought you had escaped because it was Friday, but I'm just here to make sure...

O'BRIEN: And we're going to get the fore...

ROBERTS: ... you don't fly too high.

O'BRIEN: And we'll get the forecast coming up in just a few moments.


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