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CNN NEWSROOM

Colorado Avalanche Shuts Down I-40; Insensitive SNAFU Angers Families of Slain Veterans

Aired January 6, 2007 - 17:00:00   ET

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


RICK SANCHEZ, CNN: A close call today, for the head of Baghdad's emergency police, he narrowly escaped injury when his convoy was targeted for a car bomb. Also at the capital, 71 bodies were found dumped near a cemetery, most had been tortured.
An emotional good-bye to a promising young athlete killed in a drive-by shooting on New Year's Day. Darrent Williams has laid to rest today in Ft. Worth, Texas, his hometown. The Denver Broncos cornerback is survived by two children, he was killed right after their last game.

And this is the big story that we're going to be staying with for quite some time. It's our top story. It's really what's being called a monster avalanche. It's outside of Denver as you go west of course into the mountains which is really the only direction you go to as you go out of the Rockies, near Berthoud Pass, it's Highway 40, by the way, for those of you familiar with the area. Several cars we understand, had to be buried.

We're going to be showing you some pictures of some of those cars that actually have been buried by this thing. Other cars were swept off the edge of the road as that face of the avalanche came down. Seven people had to be rescued. Crews are now searching for more survivors. It's a 200 feet wide, 15-foot-deep avalanche as it's described. It followed weeks of heavy snow in Colorado. You remember the stories that we've been bringing you here about the Denver airport being closed.

Well, that's what creates the condition that really is the beginning of something like this. We talked in fact to Winter Park Resort earlier today. Let's listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

DARCY MORSE, WINTER PARK RESORT: It is of some concern but Colorado Department of Transportation does extensive avalanche control, so really we feel very confident in the level of avalanche protection that they are providing. This particular avalanche is certainly disconcerting for most but I think that as we're being told, they are doing everything in their power to get through this and make sure that everyone comes out safely.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

SANCHEZ: Stay with those pictures. Can we get those pictures back up? We're going to go to our meteorologist Bonnie Schneider. But take a look at that. That's what it looks like after the avalanche. It's hard to get a sense of just how deep that snow is from up above. Obviously if you were right there on the ground and you had a camera on the road you'd really get a real good sense of it. Not long ago I was in Colorado. I was taken by some of the experts there to a place called Seven Sisters where you have the literally that same thing you're looking at there. You have two passes there that have had an avalanche go through them. There were seven were like seven of them and they explained the people in the area know this is an avalanche zone, just like I'm sure people in this area know that that is an avalanche zone.

Meteorologist Bonnie Schneider has been following this, can talk a little bit about what the conditions are that actually would lead up to something like that.

Right, Bonnie?

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, it's a combination of many factors, if indeed weather was the cause and it looks like we had severe weather in the region over the past few days. Let's talk about what's happening.

Winds right now are still very strong, out of the west, about 20 miles per hour. They've actually died down a bit in the past couple of hours but we still have a blowing snow advisory. That means we're expecting one to three inches of snow, of new snow possibly for the area tonight but the blowing conditions of the strong winds are likely to cause very poor visibility, that, plus temperatures that will drop below freezing tonight will cause icy roadways. So treacherous travel certainly for a good portion of the Colorado foothills.

Now I want to show you this graph. This is really interesting because this is from avalanche.org and what it shows you is the way the winds were right at the time of the avalanche right around 10:30 in the morning, Mountain Standard Time. You can see right there this curve that is going up right there.

It shows a surge in the wind speeds that occurred, and also a change in direction earlier on this morning, I'd say, since about 4:00 a.m. or even 3:00 a.m. in the morning we had winds coming in from the northeast. They shifted to a westerly direction, pretty quickly into the early morning hours, and then the intensity grew to the point where we had wind gusts as high as 40 miles per hour. So very strong winds.

That combined with the snowfall totals that we've been tracking, and we're talking about three blasts of snow in just a few weeks' time. Let's break it down for you. We had December 20th, 21st in 2006, two feet of snow, 24 inches. December 28th through the 30th, 10 inches of snow and just yesterday, new snow fell, seven and a half inches a cording to the National Weather Service. So the snow is heavy. The temperatures have also been very, very low. We're still seeing some blowing snow kind of popping up here on the radar area, not for Denver, more towards Aspen. But look at the temperatures. They are about 36 in Denver, once you start heading further up toward the mountains it's definitely getting colder and really over the past few weeks, maybe temperatures a couple times got into the 40s but that's about it. It's been very cold, particularly overnight. So any snowmelt that occurred during the day we saw refreezing at night and only that increased the weight of the snow pack.

So that's what we're seeing in Berthoud Pass, some very, very heavy snow. And if we can put Google Earth behind me, I want to talk more about how these westerly winds work in terms of an avalanche scenario.

What we're looking it, it's in GR-113, what you will find that you are looking at some very strong winds coming in from the western side of the mountains, and as the wind blows from the west, they come up on the windward side of the mountains and eventually fall back down on the leeward side.

Here we are, the winds coming in from the west, this is what we saw early morning hours, bringing the show to the top or what we call the starting zone of the avalanche. Then with the rush of wind and the melting snow pack with the heating of the day that we're seeing, we see the snow falling quickly in terms of an avalanche along the track, coming down the mountain on the lee side and here's Berthoud Pass right through here and then the rush where the snow is deposited right here in the pass area.

So it all sounds like it happens slowly but it actually happens very, very quickly, Rick, and that's what we're seeing the depositing of snow right in here where it all stops right along the roadways.

SANCHEZ: You've left me without question your explanation was so thorough. Thanks so much, we appreciate it. We'll be getting back to you.

Let's talk to somebody now who actually experienced this, Angela Sackett, she is on the phone with us now. And what I understand from our researchers is that you barely missed this avalanche. Take us through it.

ANGELA SACKETT, WAS DRIVING NEAR AVALANCHE (on phone): Yes. We actually were on our way up to go skiing in Winter Park and we just turned the corner. There was tons of wind but I'm a Colorado native and it didn't seem like anything abnormal. So we just saw the wind clearing and all of the sudden there's an avalanche.

It was just ...

SANCHEZ: Did it happen behind you or in front of you?

SACKETT: It was in front of us, it was about seven cars in front of us.

SANCHEZ: Wow! How far away were you from the avalanche itself? You say seven cars. That was a distance of what, a couple football fields?

SACKETT: Seven cars, well, it was kind of bumper to bumper going up, so it was, I mean, we were -- I would say there was maybe two feet between each car so very close.

SANCHEZ: Give us a sensory explanation of this. What did you hear? What did you see? What did you feel?

SACKETT: I've got to be honest, we were listening to a lot of music in the car so we mainly saw stuff more than heard stuff. I just saw tons of wind so honestly, it just looked like you know, blowing snow. And then all of the sudden it was there and all the traffic stopped and people went running out of their cars.

SANCHEZ: I'm curious, how long after did it happen did you get out of your car and go to the scene, if you did?

SACKETT: Once it settled, I did get out of my car. I had my digital camera in my hand and I wanted to take a picture and see if everything was OK. I didn't have a shovel. People -- it was kind of interesting. A lot of people just were turning around and heading down, just scared to death because you don't know if another one's going to come.

SANCHEZ: Right.

SACKETT: And then there were people that didn't even think about their danger and were running towards the scene. So I started going towards the scene, my fiance kind of, was like "Get in the car, we need to get out of here" so I actually just shot that picture and we headed down the pass.

SANCHEZ: Right. There's actually some places you can escape from. And one of the things they teach you and you learn about these things. Let's put that picture back up. We talked to her quick and we explained that there's an area of vegetation. You see it in the picture there. You see the area where the track is actually covering the road. If we can get back on that picture full screen, if we can, OK, if it widens out, you'll actually see there are trees. The avalanche won't take the track through the trees, generally speaking. So if you're in that area usually you're going to be OK.

You see the roadway you see between the two avalanches or between the two tracks there, that's because there's vegetation. So those are the two tracks that separated. I imagine, Angela, people were able to go up there and see what was going on, if you would be kind enough to give us a bird's eye view so to speak. We're looking at it from the top I shouldn't say a bird's eye view, a roadside view of what it looks like, how deep the actual snow was.

SACKETT: Yes. Actually the pictures do not do justice. It was massive. I mean, I would say when you looked at it, there was actually a jeep parked in front of us that just missed the avalanche and I would say it looked almost as tall as maybe three cars piled on top of each other, large SUVs, very deep and actually as I got close enough to take a picture, I mean, when I was out to the car I thought it was a half mile long. You couldn't see an ending. It's very massive.

SANCHEZ: It looks smaller from here as we look at it. But I imagine if you're right up on it, it looks much more threatening.

SACKETT: You could barely see the end of it. That little gap between it, you couldn't really see that from roadside. All you saw was just snow all the way along. I could barely see another car, because it kind of goes up the hill somewhat. You could you see another car at the very end but really it looked just like massive. I didn't know where the end was. So I've never seen an avalanche. So I didn't know how severe it was. I knew it was bad. So at that point, that's why we turned around.

SANCHEZ: How frightened were you?

SACKETT: Very frightened. I've actually, my heart was pounding. I think the hardest thing all day today is, I wish we could have helped, but I've always learned, if I didn't have a shovel and I couldn't do anything, it would be better for to us get out of the way than stay there and try to assist. There wasn't really anything you could do. Because there's so much snow.

SANCHEZ: It sounds like for many of the people we have spoken to they feel confident that they've gotten everybody out. I'm not quite sure how they can guarantee that 100 percent or if they can. But what's your sense of it, while you were there watching?

SACKETT: Honestly, I don't see how there can't be cars underneath there, and that's what scares me to death. I mean, they say there aren't. But as I said, the biggest thing was it came literally like the blink of an eye, and so I don't think people had enough time to get out of the way of it.

SANCHEZ: I suppose especially if there were some mountaineers, some snowmobilers, some skiers that may have been up on the topside of this mountain up toward the summit which they often do in this area.

SACKETT: They do. They do. So I would say that's the scariest part of it, like for instance, us in our car listening to music, going up to go skiing. It would have just hit us out of the blue, when you're not paying attention, you don't think of it and honestly, even being a native, you see those avalanche signs, but you never really think it would happen. You know what I mean? Oh, they're just -- it never happens. So it's crazy to actually see that.

SANCHEZ: By the way, before I let you go, I've got a couple of things for you, one is, do you know what the conditions were? Did you see any signs, was it orange? Do you know?

SACKETT: There were no conditions of like -- well on the way it up said there was going to be heavy traffic. It took us three hours getting up there.

SANCHEZ: What I'm referring to is the avalanche warnings, I know they have usually orange which means moderate or black which means severe. Do you know what the conditions were?

SACKETT: I didn't see anything. All I saw was the normal avalanche sign that just said avalanche area. I didn't see any signs. SANCHEZ: Hey, Angela, you mentioned you took pictures. And I just wanted to check, what did you get, did you get some pictures? We'd like to see if we could possibly share those with our viewers?

SACKETT: Yeah. I actually did forward one over to you guys, unfortunately I only got one, but you could see how many cars were behind, and you could see a couple of gals pointing down at the cars below that had been pushed off. There you go. That's the picture that we got.

SANCHEZ: Perfect, Angela, we thank you. In fact, anybody else out there who may have pictures like this one that you'd like to share with us, just go over to cnn.com, click on I-Report and we can show you how to get those to us. Angela Sackett, we thank you so much for sharing that information with us. Sorry about the scare as well.

Let's do this, let's take a break but right on the other side of this break we're going to be talking to a photographer who was also there, and got some amazing pictures of some of the cars straight up. We're going to show that to you right on the side of this break. You're watching CNN, the most trusted name in news.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SANCHEZ: And I'm Rick Sanchez in the CNN NEWSROOM. We are following this developing story, an avalanche not far from Denver. Officials say it happened in Berthoud Pass. It's about 60 miles west of Denver, sent several vehicles, according to reports, over the edge, what we mean by over the edge, if you can tell, there's a side of those tracks there where you see all of the snow, like these two right there that come onto the road and for some of the cars that were on that road, they were literally pushed off the road.

Don't know exactly whether, at this point, everyone has been accounted for that may have been on the road. Obviously it would be difficult to know exactly who was on the road at the time but officials that we've talked to so far seem pretty confident that they've been able to get to everyone who was there on the scene.

As we look at those pictures let's bring in Pete Ferigan, he is a photographer who was there and able to take some pictures. We understand we have as many as 10 pictures that we can share with you now and that's what we'll do here at CNN, is not only stay on top of the story but bring you the latest video as it comes in. This is just that. Pete, take it away. We're looking at a picture. Can you see it on your screen at home?

PETE FERIGAN, PHOTOGRAPHER: Yes. I can.

SANCHEZ: Describe it for us.

FERIGAN: Basically that's one side of where the avalanche came down. It's on the side closest to Denver in Empire, which is the town just below where the avalanche happened. SANCHEZ: Is that part of the avalanche itself?

FERIGAN: Yes.

SANCHEZ: And now we're looking at it roadside, right?

FERIGAN: Yes. What you're looking at right there, that photograph, is taken from in between the two slides.

SANCHEZ: Gotcha. I imagine that there may have been -- there you go, I was going to ask you the question, were there cars pushed off the road? It looks like this car was pushed off the road.

FERIGAN: It was. That's one of the cars pushed off the road. There was two of them. A lot of the people that were on the scene made their way down to help the people out and help them up the side of the ravine as soon as possible.

SANCHEZ: Stay with that picture if we could, before we move back. That car is turned upside down, right?

FERIGAN: Correct.

SACNHEZ: And the people, were you there when the people who were in that car were extricated?

FERIGAN: I was actually standing at the top, where the road was ending. My friend, Mike actually went down there, one of the first guys down there, to help the people out of the car, and help them up the side of the mountain and really, it was a great effort by everyone who was there to try to help as much as possible.

SANCHEZ: Wow!

FERIGAN: Until the emergency services arrived.

SANCHEZ: So to be clear, the people who were in that car got out and were able to walk up that side and they were able to get them to whatever care they needed?

FERIGAN: Yes, as far as I know, there was a family of three in there. Everyone made their way up. They were obviously in shock, a few shapes and bruises. That's all that I had seen, and that was when we got them over to the emergency services.

SANCHEZ: And that's exactly what we were talking about earlier, avalanches don't just cover people or cars, they push them, they throw them from wherever they are. Tell us about this car.

FERIGAN: That is actually just a bumper from the car of the other car that was down in that ravine and I believe the people were OK as well. That's actually just the bumper that ended up sitting on the side of the road. There's not a car buried underneath there.

SANCHEZ: Was this car also pushed by the snow or is it still on the road? FERIGAN: No, that car was also thrown over the side. It would have been just to the right of the other photograph of the car. I didn't go all the way down there. I stayed at the top by the road so that I was as close as I could get for that photo.

SANCHEZ: Let me ask you this question as we look at this picture, what kind of slope is there on the other side of the road? In other words it's hard for to us tell looking at the aerial view of the slope, is it pretty steep?

FERIGAN: I would say at least 45 degrees. It's very steep. Those cars probably rolled down sideways, as they were driving they probably were hit completely from the side, as far as I know and obviously thrown over the guardrail sideways and rolled down. It was definitely amazing to see those people crawl out of there.

SANCHEZ: They are hit by the snow, they are pushed off the road and they go down the other side at a slope of about 45 degrees, which would be a pretty good distance then to be rolling down that hill, right?

FERIGAN: I would say they were at least 200 feet from the road, maybe 300 feet.

SANCHEZ: So that would be almost a football field. We're looking at another car that's also been turned upside down, right?

FERIGAN: That's the same photograph.

SANCHEZ: So we look at your pictures, here we go, there's a new photo we haven't seen before. Tell about this one.

FERIGAN: OK, well, that photo right there is a group of people, the search and emergency services that showed up out in the area had some avalanche beacons and started probing around, they thought they felt something from and the people on the side of the road that had shovels helped out.

SANCHEZ: Can -- director, can we go back to that shot? There you go. These are people who you said were rescue officials or were they just people who got out of their cars and went over to help?

FERIGAN: Most of the people there are people who just tried to help. There's only a few rescue people on the scene at first. They tried to gather information and kind of direct us in the right way, and then once more, those guys who are trained to do that sort of thing showed up. We started leaving to open up the area for the emergency vehicles to get in there and basically start looking and make sure nobody was under those piles of snow.

SANCHEZ: So they're probing so to speak. And how long did that process take?

FERIGAN: You know, we were there for about 10 minutes while the probing was going on. And there's only so many shovels and there's emergency services coming so as soon as we felt like we couldn't help very much more, we tried to help clear the area and basically make our way back to Denver.

SANCHEZ: There's another picture from a little further back. While you were there, did they find anyone under that snow pack, under those 15 feet as it's described? By the way this picture here is really valuable I think. Because this gives us and our viewers all over the country who are watching a real sense of just how steep or how deep that snow is, which we couldn't make out from the aerial views.

FERIGAN: Right, that's true, and actually, I feel like it almost doesn't give it justice because the truck is in the foreground. It was back far enough at a level over the top of it, the snow was just as high if not higher than the truck.

SANCHEZ: Look at the guy wearing that blue winter jacket there, the top of it is blue. You could tell that, let's suppose he's what, 5'10", average height our something like that. You could put another one of him on top of his own shoulders so we're probably talking about, you know, certainly over 12 feet.

FERIGAN: Definitely. I would definitely say anywhere from 12 to 15 feet on that high side closest to the mountain.

SANCHEZ: We're hearing now, by the way, Pete, I'm just going to interrupt you for a moment, I certainly apologize. My producers are telling me we've just learned that authorities are now saying, with confidence, that there is no one else in the snow, that there is no one else that needs to be rescued. They feel confident they've gone through there, and gotten everybody out that they needed to get out. Does that pretty much correspond with what you had a sense of while you were out there watching?

FERIGAN: As far as I can tell, it didn't look like there was anyone else in there. And obviously the force of the snow pushing those other two cars over the top, you know, it was definitely a chance there wasn't any other cars in there, and knowing the Colorado Department of Transportation, they're really good about that stuff, so I would definitely take their word for it.

SANCHEZ: Wow. The value of these pictures really illuminates for us and so many people watching us, Pete, we can't thank you enough for bringing us these. Because you're really taking us to the story as it was happening and actually shown us what was happening there at the time.

And real kudos to these people who got out of their cars and helped the rescue officials get to these people right away. Did it seem to you like everyone was able to get out okay? Was there anyone who looked like they were critically injured?

FERIGAN: I didn't see any serious injuries like that. I heard there was a man who was trapped and had a broken leg, at worst, and that's what we're hoping for as well.

SANCHEZ: Wow. I guess it's all about timing some luck and getting to them in time. FERIGAN: Definitely. We stopped to use the bathroom on the way up there, so another five minutes and we could have been right in there.

SANCHEZ: Right in the middle of it. Pete Ferigan, you're a good man. We thank you for talking to us.

FERIGAN: Thank you. Thank you so much.

SANCHEZ: We appreciate it and certainly we're going to continue to follow this developing story for you. Unbelievable video still coming in. A story that really has only happened over the last couple of hours. So as we get more information and as we get more video, we'll be sharing it with you. And as you just heard, let's update this one more time, authorities in Colorado are now telling us they can account for all of the people who may have been affected by this particular avalanche.

Also, a long-awaited new strategy that we are going to be talking about as we shift our new focus as well on Iraq, a strategy from the president, when, where and what. We'll look at that. We'll be right back. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SANCHEZ: We welcome you back to the CNN NEWSROOM.

In Baghdad today Iraq's much maligned army took the fight to the insurgents. The government says 30 insurgents were killed in a Sunni enclave in major firefight. Just this morning Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki announced his forces will take the lead in a military push in the capital.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NURI AL MALIKI, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER: Protecting the people should be the Iraqi armed forces responsibility and the weapons must be only in the hands of our armed forces and we will not permit anyone to act as a replacement to the sovereign government, such as militias and we will fight them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SANCHEZ: So the obvious question now, what is the United States role? What is going to happen here, from our perspective? Coming up this week, the long-awaited plan by the president to turn the tide in Iraq, or try to. The centerpiece is expected to be an infusion of U.S. troops. Here's CNN's Elaine Quijano.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With Democrats now in control of Congress, President Bush in his weekly radio address stressed cooperation on domestic issues, but he steered clear of Iraq.

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: I'm confident that we can find common ground in our efforts to serve our fellow citizens and to move our country forward.

QUIJANO: Saturday morning the president huddled with top members of his national security team. Among those spotted at the White House, the outgoing director of national intelligence, John Negroponte, defense secretary Robert Hates, and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Though a National Security Council spokesman described the meeting as part of regular and ongoing discussions, it came just days before the president is expected to unveil his new Iraq policy.

It also came amid new political pressure from Democratic leaders in Congress. For the second day in a row, Senate majority leader Harry Reid launched a pre-emptive strike, arguing against the most talked about option the president is considering, a temporary surge of thousands of U.S. forces.

SEN. HARRY REID, (D) NV: Based on the advice of current and former military leaders we believe this tactic would be a serious mistake. These military professionals say there is no purely military solution in Iraq, there's only a political solution in Iraq.

QUIJANO: White House press secretary Tony Snow acknowledged the Democrats' opposition to a surge but he also challenged Democrats to offer other ideas.

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Not only do we want to hear what they want to say but if they have alternative plans and views we're interested in hearing that as well.

QUIJANO (on camera): As for a time frame on an Iraq announcement that's expected to come in a prime time presidential address to the nation Wednesday or Thursday. Elaine Quijano, CNN, the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SANCHEZ: And the breaking news in case you haven't heard looks like this. Those are two different tracks that you're looking there of what is an avalanche, a slide, if you will. It has basically taken over what is I-40, that's I-40 right there. It is about 15 feet high as you look at it and there were cars that happened to be going down that road at the time and those cars were very, very much affected by this.

Thank goodness, there happened to be a lot of people on the road at the time, including some emergency officials, that were able to get to the scene fast enough to rescue people trapped by this avalanche.

I think we may have some pictures that we can show as well of some of the vehicles affected by this. Remember, the vehicles were on the roadway, but they were hit by the snow. They were thrown off the roadway and went off an embankment and rolled about, we were told moments ago by one of the photographers who shared these pictures with us, Pete Farigan (ph), that that they rolled the length of a football field, about 300 feet or so. Obviously, that's a pretty good distance, the people, after they rolled had rescue officials then come and extricate them from their cars. There you see the front bumper of one of the cars. They got them out and able to get them the care that they needed.

Here is the good news. The good news is, Colorado officials are telling CNN that they have able to account for everyone who was there on the scene. They do not believe, at this time, in fact are quite confident in saying that no one else is trapped at this time as a result of this avalanche, despite the pictures that you're looking at right now.

That's obviously wonderful news we're only too happy to report at CNN, the story will have updates as we get more pictures and information we will be sharing them with you.

Also we will bring you this and other stories involving the latest going on in Iraq and the political ramifications of that. You're watching CNN. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SANCHEZ: Welcome back. I'm Rick Sanchez in the CNN NEWSROOM.

A major snafu. Boy, I'll tell you, it could really affect some of these people. The Army is saying I'm sorry as a result of it. Families of about 275 wounded or dead officers received letters from the Army last month. The letters were actually urging the soldiers to get back to work, to re-enlist. The statement from the Army, officials are contacting those officers, families now to personally apologize from the U.S. military for erroneously sending those letters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STAFF SGT. JEFFREY ALLAN HESS, MARINE CORPS. RECRUITTER: It has definitely become more challenging. I got here about the time that 9/11 happened, just after, and there was a flux of a lot of patriotic Americans that wanted to join, and then after a time has dwindled down, it changed a little bit. It began to get very challenging.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terror, they make it tougher for the U.S. military to find and enlist those that are willing to serve, to help make the recruiting goals, some requirements, we understand, are now being relaxed. But just how much has the bar been lowered.

Winslow Wheeler, he's from the Center for Defense Information, and he is good enough to join us live from Washington.

I can't help but begin this interview with something I wasn't planning to begin this interview with and that is to ask you about this erroneous, and seemingly insensitive letter -- from the standpoint of those who receive it, obviously, before they get apology --that has been sent out by the U.S. military, actually asking people who have either died or have been maimed in the military to somehow see if they can re-enlist. Your reaction?

WINSLOW WHEELER, CENTER FOR DEFENSE INFORMATION: It's not the first time this has happened. It won't be the last time.

A year or two ago, we were sending wounded soldiers bills for not showing up with their units. We were giving them bad credit reports because they were not, because of the pay problems. What this is really all about is the Defense Department is not unique to the Army. Their incompetent financial management, it's incredible, but it's true, that the entire Defense Department doesn't know what it does with its own money. It can't keep straight pay records. It's such a shambles that not only do they flunk audits, their books are in such bad shape they cannot even be audited.

SANCHEZ: Well, the obvious question, where is the accountability? Could you imagine if your son or daughter has died in Iraq, and you get a letter from the military telling you that they want them back in? What that says is, we didn't even know they died.

WHEELER: It's a system that's out of control. That's been the case for decades. Every year, Congress has problems.

SANCHEZ: How do you fix it?

WHEELER: By accountability, like you said, by firing people who don't can't keep the records straight, by holding programs in abeyance until they can pass audits. This is a decades' old problems. Annually Congress has hearings about it. They all say how terrible it is, proceed to do absolutely nothing about it, and wait for next year's hearing.

SANCHEZ: Let's talk about the topic we planned to talk about to you, originally, when we called you, that is the lowering of the standards. Make us understand what they mean by that. For example, just to speak in concrete terms, who will get in now that wasn't able to get in before?

WHEELER: Well, the Army's trying to get up to its authorized level and they're having a hard time meeting their goals for recruitment. In order to increase the size of the pot of people they can attempt to enlist, they're doing things like recruiting fewer people with high school diplomas, people who score lower in the Armed Forces Qualification Testing, people who have visible tattoos, people who have a misdemeanor record, have some problems in their behavior in school, that's one of the ways they try to meet the recruitment goals.

SANCHEZ: Do we compromise quality when we do that in our military?

WHEELER: Sure do. There's two kinds of consequences. One is that a lot of these people turn out fine. Some of them don't, however, and if he fall out of the system, which means you have to recruit that many more. Also, if you have pressure in the system, as we do now, to hold on to every warm body you can get your hands on, these people show up in deployed units and can be problems at the sharp end (ph).

SANCHEZ: One bad apple, right?

WHEELER: We've seen it happen.

SANCHEZ: We certainly know. We thank you so much. This has been really an enlightening conversation. We thank you for taking the time to talk about these serious problems with us.

WHEELER: My pleasure. Thanks very much.

SANCHEZ: We're also following a developing story out of Colorado, an avalanche that has buried cars. We'll take you back there, showing the video, as it comes in. Also new information coming to us here at CNN, the most trusted name in news.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SANCHEZ: Let's have more on the top story we've been telling you about. The urgent search effort on a highway outside of Denver, Colorado. According to officials there in Colorado, the urgency may be somewhat diminished now. They're accounting for everyone who was there. Several buried cars, by the way, were affected by this and forced other vehicles off the road.

The road we're talking about is U.S. 40, west of Denver, near Berthoud Pass. It's the main route to Winter Park, which is one of the ski areas where a lot of people go. A lot of the people who were affected by this were on their way to Winter Park, because they have to take I-40 to get there.

Seven people were rescued and taken to hospitals. It's obviously a story we'll follow closely for you. We'll update you as more information becomes available to us here.

Let's take a break and we'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SANCHEZ: All right, let's go back to some of the pictures we've been talking about with this avalanche, taking place off of Colorado. It's really a very serious situation for some of the people in Colorado, especially after the kind of weather they've been having there for quite some time now.

You remember us reporting to you how Denver Airport was closed on several occasions and couldn't get planes in and out, that's because of the massive snowfall that they had. This is the result of the massive snowfall. Two avalanches, or really one avalanche, with two slides next to each other coming down this side of this mountain here, which is about, give or take, between 11,000 and 12,000 feet of elevation, just where something like this happens.

And the good news is, that officials in Colorado are telling us they can account for all of the people who were trapped, literally, or thrown by the snow in this avalanche off the side of the road. Some of the cars, we're told by witnesses, may have actually gone down the side of the road about the length of a football field. Well, talking about, they said 300 feet.

We understand we have Emily Gibbons (ph), she is joining us. She is from a group in Ames, Iowa, that was involved in this, and can share with us, because she's spoken to some of the relatives.

Bring us up-to-date, if you can, Emily about what you know. What is your connection to this?

EMILY GIBBONS (ph), REPORTER, KCCI TV: Actually, I'm a television reporter at KCCI in Des Moines, Iowa. I have a spoke with family members, or a family member, who told me a church group from Ames, Iowa, that is about 30 miles north of Des Moines, was involved in this avalanche.

They say at least two people out of the group of about 28 to 30 people had to be rescued, and were sent to a Denver area hospital. We're told Sarah and Darren Johnson were with this group from the Oakwood Road Church in Ames. They were all in Colorado an ski trip, on a ski trip.

Relatives say their injuries were minor. They're doing OK. They've talked to their relatives, they're not in the hospital. No word, though, on how many other people from this church group from Ames were injured.

SANCHEZ: So they were among those who were in a car that was thrown or hit or covered by the snow?

GIBBONS (ph): Right. We don't know the complete circumstances of exactly what happened to them. I do know there were about four vehicles in the caravan of this church group, that were in Denver going on the ski trip. One vehicle made it through before the avalanche came down, two vehicles behind the avalanche. Only one of the vehicles was actually involved in the avalanche and I assume that Sarah and Darren Johnson were in that car.

Luckily, they did say their injuries were minor. They were taken out, taken to a hospital and now are doing OK.

SANCHEZ: Do you have any first person accounts of what happened there, even if it is from speaking to relatives, what it was like at the time to be in a vehicle and suddenly be pounded by this wave of snow?

GIBBONS (ph): We don't. He did not elaborate on exactly what all took place. I guess he was only able to speak with them briefly to be able to know that OK, you're OK. And a relative is on the way to talk to them now.

SANCHEZ: They were able to get them out, I guess, and take them to a hospital to check them out?

GIBBONS (ph): That's right.

SANCHEZ: That's amazing. Emily, thanks so much. Emily Gibbons from KCCI Television in Des Moines, right? GIBBONS (ph): Yes.

SANCHEZ: We appreciate the information. We certainly appreciate that.

Let's go over to Bonnie Schneider. What an amazing story. It's great to be able to show a picture like that and be able to report on the back side of it that nobody was seriously injured.

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST, CNN NEWSROOM: I know, especially when you see those piles of snow. One of the reasons we're seeing so much snow and the varying heights we've seen it, it has to do with the strong winds.

Now, I've been watching it since the avalanche. And we've seen winds get as strong as 40 miles per hour, and coming out of the west at 19 miles per hour. The winds have died down a bit. The problem is there has just been so much snow. And we're not just talking about one snowstorm, or even two. Three snowstorms in just a matter of weeks for the Berthoud Pass area and the foothills of the region.

Take a look at these numbers. Remember, this storm December 20th and 21st, 24 inches of snow; 28th through the 30th, another 10 inches of snow. And then just yesterday and into the early morning hours we had reports of 7.5 inches.

These will vary depending on where you are elevation wise. But as we take a closer look at what we've been watching this graph shows you really kind of the winds and how they increased right before the avalanche happened and shortly thereafter.

This is from avalanche.org. And the arrows you see here shows the wind direction. For example at 6:00 in the morning the wind was coming from the northwest and came more westerly as we work through this graph, around 11:00 in the morning. This little slope you see right here between 10:00 and 11:00 is an increase in wind speed and the wind speed got as high as 40 miles per hour, from 20 miles per hour, in just 30 minutes' time. That's around the time the avalanche occurred.

So that's an interesting fact to note. That combined with the heavy snowfall, and the direction of the winds, if we could put Google Earth behind me once again, I just want to show that we're looking at a westerly flow from the winds, and as the winds come up the mountain, this is called the windward side of the mountain, they pile up the snow right here on the top, or peak, of the mountain. And then the leeward side actually is where a lot of the snow is deposited.

In terms of an avalanche, this weakens quite a bit and we see the rush of snow, falling down the track and then depositing here in the runoff zone, that's the video you've seen, those varying heights.

And Rick, you were also mentioning how we see two piles of snow, so to speak. And that does have to do with the trees. They kind of slow down the terrain of when an avalanche falls. But it's also important to note as the snow tumbles down the mountain, not only does it gain momentum and gain speed, but it also picks up everything in its path. So all of the loose debris -- that probably was caused a lot by the blowing winds we're seeing -- gets picked up right along with it. That's why we're seeing such tremendous snow pack down at the base there.

SANCHEZ: Slope is important. And what it actually forms is a slab, right? It's almost like a slab of snow that forms as a result of the weather conditions that you were just describing.

SCHNEIDER: That's true.

SANCHEZ: That's what comes down.

SCHNEIDER: Yes. If fact, really, almost at the top of the mountain, a big, big slab forms, almost an overhang, if you will. And that can freeze over, but the problem is, the temperatures over the past, I'd say couple of weeks we've seen that temperature kind of get a little bit above freezing and then it comes back down again at night.

So, it freezes, refreezes, melts, and then freezes again. So really the combination of the ice that adds weight to it, then the winds rushing in from the windward side weakens it as well. So, really an abnormally amount of high snow accumulating in just three weeks' time is part of the reason we're seeing such heavy, heavy snow deposits there.

SANCHEZ: We should probably say this -- as I listen to you talk and what we're reporting now. We should probably, for the benefit of the folks in Colorado, let you know that if you're a skier going to a ski resort, you're fine. This type of thing doesn't happen on a public ski resorts, because they automatically do all of the avalanche prevention techniques.

SCHNEIDER: Right.

SANCHEZ: This happens on some of the outlying areas.

SCHNEIDER: Right.

SANCHEZ: The area where virgin snow skiers like to go, after they got this new snow, the area that really not supervised, right?

SCHNEIDER: That's true. This is an area, a course that people take, you mentioned the height, over 11,000 feet, on the way to the ski resorts. And Saturday morning, a busy time, lots of snow falling, people are excited to ski and snowboard, were heading up in this direction to Winter Park, and to Steamboat, to get some skiing in.

SANCHEZ: They could still go there and be perfectly fine.

SCHNEIDER: Yes, definitely.

SANCHEZ: Bonnie Schneider, we thank you so much for bringing us up-to-date. Let's shift gears if we can, talk about incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promising an aggressive legislative agenda, in the first hour, 100 hours, we should say, of the new Congress to tackle her party's priorities, many are designed to improve the lives of the core constituency, the American middle class. Here is CNN's Lisa Sylvester.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT, CNN NEWSROOM (voice over): Democrats are now steering the country. They're promising to give middle class families what they want, a higher minimum wage, to make college more affordable, and to rid Washington of corrupt lobbyists.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D-CA) HOUSE SPEAKER: The election of 2006 was a call to change. Not merely to change the control of Congress, but for a new direction for our country.

SYLVESTER: But the rhetoric may be easier to deliver than results. Democrats may control both chambers, but the margin is so slim in the Senate, and with the Republican president with veto power, this could be the get nowhere Congress.

JAMES THURBER, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: There are many issues where there's going to be deadlock; deadlock within the Senate because, basically, it's tied. Deadlock between the Senate and the House, therefore, but also deadlock between the president and Congress.

SYLVESTOR: The stage is set for confrontation across the board. On trade, Democrats plan to fight to protect American jobs, replacing free trade with fair trade. Many Republicans, including President Bush, vow to fight additional tariffs.

On kitchen table issues, raising the minimum wage has widespread support, but even that's not a given. Republicans are lobbying for more business breaks in exchange, which could be a deal-breaker. And on immigration, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce predicts victory on passing a guest work worker program and amnesty for illegal aliens. The Chamber's president delicately putting it this way:

TOM DONOHUE, PRESIDENT, U.S. CHAMBER OF COMMERCE: People that oppose guest worker programs are as dumb as a box of rocks.

SYLVESTER: That group includes a growing number of Democrats who are listening to concerns of working Americans that inviting illegal workers into the country will drive down wages, and dry up good paying jobs.

(On camera): House Democrats have a long list of promises they've made to the American people. Senate Democrats have not gone that far, so the House could easily pass legislation and claim quick victory, but their proposals might never actually become law. Lisa Sylvester, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE) SANCHEZ: As we get more pictures and information about the situation out West in that avalanche, these are some of the pictures that we've been getting so far, we'll share them with you -- turning them around, so to speak -- for your viewing pleasure. Stay with us. You're watching CNN, the most trusted name in news.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN BREAKING NEWS.

SANCHEZ: It's an avalanche, about 60 miles west of Denver and this is what it looks like an aerial photograph, that we have been sharing with you. You see there, it has actually two slides, separated by that vegetation, that forested area there, in the middle.

That pack of ice that you're looking at there is about 15 feet high. It literally pushed some of the cars that were on that roadway, that roadway is I-40, literally pushed them, or threw them, off the road. And you can't tell how steep it is in this picture but the other side of the roadway, the one on the closest part of this frame to you, is -- got a steepness, or slope, that actually was described to us by somebody as about 45 degrees.

That's pretty steep slope. So the cars that were hit by this pack of snow went rolling down that hillside for a distance of about 300 feet. That would be approximately a football field.

We'll certainly stay on top of this story for you, we'll be getting more pictures. As we do, we'll share them with you. There's much more ahead right here on CNN.

Tonight at 10:00, for example, could you go one year without buying new shoes or new CDs? Two people did. And why they plan to go on a shopping is sabbatical again this year, only necessities they say. We're going to be specializing on that, that one is going to be at 10 o'clock.

Also, Lou Dobbs demands answers and fights for your rights, "Lou Dobbs This Week", that's next, right here on CNN.

But we'll be sticking around, bringing you the very latest information, as it comes in. Expect it from us here at CNN. We'll be back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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