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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Cruise Ship Sinking: Passengers to Lifeboats in Alaska; Can Buyout Firm Fix Chrysler?; Florida Wildfires

Aired May 14, 2007 - 08:00   ET

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


JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. We've got breaking news to tell you about on this Monday, May the 14th.
Just off of the coast of Juneau, Alaska, in the Icy Strait and Chatham Strait -- that's in the very tail end of Alaska -- we've got a cruise ship, Kiran, that appears to have hit a reef. It's taking on water, and the passengers and crew are currently in the midst of abandoning ship.

KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. We're getting this information from the chief of media relations at the U.S. Coast Guard, Commander Jeff Carter.

According to Jeff, 281 passengers and crew were aboard this ship. They're abandoning it, as you said, right now, using lifeboats, after the ship ran aground. And the Coast Guard cutters, as well as aircraft and good Samaritan vessels that just possibly happened to be in the area and heard that distress call, are also coming to aid in this.

When we get pictures, this will certainly be a very dramatic scene, no doubt.

ROBERTS: Yes. The ship is called the Empress of the North. And if we have the right ship online that we're taking a look at pictures of right now, it's not one of those typical big cruise ships that you see off of the straits of Alaska, and particularly down in the Caribbean. It almost looks like a large river boat type of ship.

It does have a number of suites. It holds 223 passengers. Apparently it maxes out at some 84 crew members. But it's not one of those great, great big ships.

The seas were said to be about three feet, which is not particularly heavy. Winds about 15 knots. And rain.

But as we understand, it's taking on water about one nautical mile from shore. This is about 50 miles from Juneau, near Icy Strait and the Chatham Strait. The Coast Guard responding with cutters and aircraft.

But right now we hear that the abandon ship order has been given. People are departing the ship, disembarking from the ship, getting on board those lifeboats.

As far as we've heard, there has been no injuries, no loss of life at this point. But complicating, perhaps, these efforts and efforts to abandon ship are the fact that the ship is listing some 8 degrees, and it doesn't like it's got a lot of free board at the water line there. So, listing 8 degrees for a ship like this might be a little bit problematic -- Kiran.

CHETRY: So, we're showing a picture right now that says the guest capacity of 223, which doesn't necessarily jive with the information we're getting from the Coast Guard, who said there were 281 passengers and crew aboard that ship.

ROBERTS: Right. Well...

CHETRY: Unless it's -- they're including in that the -- all the crew.

ROBERTS: Yes. I think it's 223 passengers, and 84 crew members. So, that number of 281 sounds like it could be accurate. But, you know, we're going to try to get somebody from the Coast Guard on the telephone this morning to give us more information about these rescue attempts, and I'm sure that one of our affiliates in Juneau, Alaska now with this newsbreak -- and will have dispatched a news helicopter. So hopefully we'll get some pictures of that.

And, of course, these Coast Guard cutters and helicopters, as well, typically carry with them a camera crew. So it shouldn't be long before we do get some video of this.

We're trying to establish contact with the Coast Guard right now. And so if we just want to hang in for a couple of seconds, Kiran, we may be able to get some information from people on the scene.

CHETRY: Yes. And let's show the picture again, because you were right.

When we think of the modern-day cruise ship that we see, it's usually those enormous ones that can carry, you know, almost 500 or more. But as you said, this one has room for 223 passengers, 84 crew.

It's about a 360-foot ship. And there you see the picture. You're right, it looks like there's a paddle wheel almost in the back.

ROBERTS: Yes.

CHETRY: Two hundred eight-one passengers, so if that's the case, it was pretty much packed to capacity. Two hundred eight-one passengers and crew. And this, again, 15 nautical miles from Juneau, Alaska.

ROBERTS: Hey, we've got Commander Jeff Carter, the chief of media relations for the U.S. Coast Guard, on the phone.

Commander, what have you got for us on the Empress of the North?

COMMANDER JEFF CARTER, U.S. COAST GUARD: Hey, good morning.

We got word that 281 passengers and crew aboard the 360-foot U.S.-flagged cruise ship Empress of the North are abandoning the ship after the ship ran aground 50 nautical miles from Juneau, Alaska, near Icy strait and Chatham Strait. The cruise ship is taking on water. There's three-foot seas, 15-knot winds, and there's some rain coming down.

We do have a response going on. We have assets in route. The Coast Guard cutter Liberty and a Coast Guard helicopter are scene -- just got word of that -- as well as a tug and barge, which is on scene with a capacity of 200 people.

We've also gotten word that an Alaska state ferry is in route, should be there in a couple of hours, and has more than enough capacity to handle the rest of the passengers.

ROBERTS: Right. It's -- what is it, 3:00, 4:00 in the morning there, Commander? Any idea how the ship ran aground?

CARTER: That we don't know. We are in contact with the ship, and we are trying to determine what cause the cause was, but that investigation will come later.

CHETRY: And Commander, how long does it take? Do you have any estimation of how long it's going to take for the first rescue boats to get out there to the scene?

CARTER: As I said, we do have a tug and barge on scene now with a capacity of 200 people. So, hopefully they're plucking people now.

ROBERTS: Hey, Commander, have you had any reports of lives in imminent danger? I mean, other than the abandoned ship, which obviously represents a certain danger to life, but have you heard about any casualties at this point?

CARTER: We don't have any reports of casualties at this time.

ROBERTS: All right.

And what about the ship taking on water? Is it in danger of sinking?

CARTER: Well, any ship taking on water is in danger of sinking. And I'm sure that the crew is fighting that now. We do have reports that there is water coming into the ship, and it's listing about 8 degrees.

ROBERTS: Right.

CHETRY: How does it work? How do they actually get -- I mean, when you're dealing with a cruise ship, it's obviously pretty big. How do you get the passengers safely to that tug and barge that is already there now?

CARTER: Well, this is an inspected vessel that holds a (INAUDIBLE) certificate. And the crew is trained in how to get the passengers to abandon ship. The passengers are briefed on that at the beginning of any cruise, and so they're executing their plan now and putting the passengers in the lifeboats.

ROBERTS: Commander, you haven't heard any reports of passengers actually being in the water themselves, have you?

CARTER: I have not gotten any reports of that.

ROBERTS: All right. I was just wondering what the water temperature is, and if somebody were to be in the water, what sort of -- what sort of time frame they would have to get out?

CARTER: Well, the water in Alaska is cold. And, you know, we work very closely with the cruise ships to make sure that they train their people to get people safely into the lifeboats. And we hope that's what's happening now.

CHETRY: And Commander, what about the, as you discussed, three- foot waves, light rain, little bit of wind in the area? That doesn't sound too terribly bad in terms of coordinating a rescue.

CARTER: No. It's not perfect conditions, but I think it's very manageable.

ROBERTS: Right. Well, Commander, thanks very much for the update on that.

Can we check back with you a little bit later on just to see if you've got any further information?

CARTER: Absolutely.

ROBERTS: All right. Appreciate it. Thank you.

That's Commander Jeff Carter. He's the chief of media relations with the U.S. Coast Guard here in Washington reporting on the Empress of the North.

This is a cruise ship. It's one of those inner island cruise ships off of the coast of Alaska, some 50 miles away from Juneau.

About a mile offshore, apparently, it hit some sort of a reef. It's taking on water. It's listing 8 degrees.

They issued the call to abandon ship. It's the middle of the night there. People apparently getting off on lifeboats. We have not heard of any loss of life or casualties of any kind at this point.

But we'll keep checking back with the Coast Guard throughout the morning -- Kiran.

CHETRY: And it's good news that the rescue barge, tugboat already on scene aiding with this, and many more boats coming to assist any way they can.

Well, it's a new day and new life for Chrysler Motors this morning. Right now we're monitoring a news conference coming from Chrysler headquarters in Germany about the sale of Chrysler to a private equity firm.

Here's a look at the conference.

AMERICAN MORNING'S Ali Velshi is live at Chrysler's U.S. headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

What are they talking about today?

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kiran, what you'll see at the press conference -- I can't see it, but it's going to be Dieter Zetsche, the CEO of DaimlerChrysler, and former U.S. secretary -- Treasury secretary John Snow, who is the chairman of Cerberus Capital Management. That's the company that's buying 80 percent of Chrysler.

It's a private equity firm, so it's going to go private. They're buying 80 percent of it for $7.4 billion. That's about a two-thirds discount over what Daimler paid for Chrysler nine years ago. But Chrysler is coming home.

Now, this is a deal that seems to be endorsed by all of the parties involved. We have been reporting this for a few hours, but this is now the official statement that is coming out.

We're also hearing from the United Auto Workers that it is behind this deal. Vice President Ron Gettelfinger of the UAW has said, "We are satisfied now that the decision has been made so our membership and management can focus on redesigning, engineering and manufacturing the finest quality products for the future success of The Chrysler Group."

The U.S. company which used to be Chrysler is now going to be called Chrysler Holding. The German company, DaimlerChrysler, will go back to become -- being called Daimler AG.

Now, Gettelfinger talks about redesigning. This is what Chrysler needs to do.

It needs to reduce its alliance on trucks. It has too many trucks in a day of high gas prices. Those sales are sagging. It needs to speed up the development of new products. And it also needs to redesign and replace its cars faster.

If it can do that, it can add to the basic state of competition in the U.S. auto market. We've already seen General Motors try to do that. We know Ford is still struggling with that, but it can -- this could be a bit of a rebirth for the U.S. auto industry.

Those are the challenges ahead. We'll of course stay on this story. But for now, Chrysler Corporation coming back home -- Kiran.

CHETRY: Ali Velshi live for us in Michigan this morning.

Thank you.

ROBERTS: Now to the wildfires that are burning across the country. In California, firefighters say the Catalina Island fire is mostly under control. Crews say cooler weather conditions are in their favor. Humidity is up, the winds and temperatures are down.

In northeastern Minnesota, near the Canadian border, a wildfire growing 10 square miles today. Dozens of houses and cabins burned there, and hundreds of people forced out of their homes.

Then to the South. In Georgia and northern Florida, parts of I- 75 and I-10 remain closed because smoke is limiting visibility. More than 200 fires are burning in 57 out of 67 Florida counties. And forecasters say winds could kick up again today and make things even worse than they are already.

CNN's John Zarrella is in Lake City, Florida, near the junction of I-10 and I-75. He's on the ground with a whole lot of fire crews that are about to go in.

John, what's it like there today?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, just in the last couple of hours since we've arrived here, the winds have picked up a little bit. In fact, the temperature is cooler now than it was at 6:00 this morning.

Now, all of these fire trucks here you see, they're at the staging area, they're lined up, they're three deep. There will probably be between 75 and 100 trucks here before they all start setting in.

Now, one of the things people might think is that these guys here and women here are going to be going in to actually be on the front lines to fight the fire. That's not their responsibility.

The responsibility of all these folks here -- and these folks here are from Osceola County, near the Orlando area.

And Lieutenant, let me ask you a question. What do you guys do? What is your responsibility when you're called in here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today our responsibility is for -- the interaction plan was for structural protection.

ZARRELLA: What does that mean? What does structural protection mean?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Basically, what we do is, when the fire comes up, we try to keep it from jumping the lines, protect the neighborhoods, so that way the houses don't catch on fire.

ZARRELLA: And doing things that a lot of people probably should do ahead of time, clearing brush and things like that from their homes to make sure their houses don't catch fire.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Exactly. Just making sure that all the debris is off their roof, the trees from around the area are taken out, so that way it doesn't have an effect on their house.

ZARRELLA: Lieutenant Sean Miller (ph), thanks very much for spending some time. And good luck today.

You can see they're all getting ready. Another fire truck here getting ready to move in.

Today, John, a pivotal day because of the winds coming up and the temperature dropping, the humidity dropping. They've got to keep a handle on this. They're hoping that the fire does not jump the lines today, and that the fire lines that they've worked so hard to build the last three days will hold -- John.

ROBERTS: John, this is supposed to be just about the beginning of the rainy season there in Florida. Is there any rain in the forecast?

ZARRELLA: Yes. You know, usually, John -- and you know Florida -- about the middle of May, it's like turning on a faucet.

ROBERTS: Yes.

ZARRELLA: The rainy season will just kind of start. But this has been a terribly drought-plagued year. The winter was awful dry, and the long-range forecasters are saying that it may be several weeks before we actually begin rainy season and begin it a little bit late this year.

So, it may be some tough going for several weeks yet to come all across Florida -- John.

ROBERTS: It might be one of those years when they actually welcome a tropical storm.

ZARRELLA: Yes, exactly.

ROBERTS: John Zarrella there in Lake City, Florida.

John, thanks.

Who's hot and who's not? Even the experts say the candidates for the White House are all starting to run together. So, what can be done to stand out?

Our political roundtable has got some ideas coming up next.

And the latest trend in going green really does involve you going, for good. Environmental friendly funerals coming up.

You're watching AMERICAN MORNING. The most news in the morning is on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHETRY: Breaking news and an update now on what's happening right now as we speak. About 50 miles off the coast of Alaska, 283 passengers -- 281 passengers and crew members right now are abandoning ship. This is the cruise ship Empress of the North. It's a U.S. ship 360 feet long. They're abandoning it after it ran aground about 50 miles from Juneau.

We just heard a few moments ago from the commander, Jeff Carter, chief of media relations for the U.S. Coast Guard. He says there's a rescue barge on scene, as well as a tugboat.

They're doing everything they can to assist with getting the passengers, as well as crew members, off of the ship that's taking on water, sinking, really -- I mean, after it starts taking on water, the next step is that it's going to sink. They think that everything is going to be OK, though, with this rescue. They think they're doing well getting everybody off, and there are Coast Guard cutters, aircraft, and good Samaritan vessels that are also en route to help any way they can. But as we said, they are now in the process of abandoning ship, using lifeboats, with the help of the Coast Guard, to get all of the 281 passenger and crew safely off of that ship -- John.

ROBERTS: Seventeen minutes now after the hour, and time to take the pulse of the presidential campaign. Which candidates are doing well and who's hit a rough patch?

Joining me now to look at that and more, Republican strategist Ron Christie and Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor James Carville.

Ron, you're just back from a lengthy trip.

RON CHRISTIE, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Thank you.

ROBERTS: James, you're about to go on one.

Over the weekend, I was reading sort of a wrap-up of all the appearances on the Sunday talk shows, and the highlight that people were pointing to was Rudolph Giuliani really breaking a sweat on "FOX News Sunday," trying to explain himself on abortion.

You know, within the Republican Party, how is he doing on that?

Not too well. I have to tell you, he has not done well since the Republican first debate out in California. You would think Rudy Giuliani, having been the mayor of New York City, and long been criticized for being pro-choice by many of the pro-life movement in the party, you would think he would have had a much stronger answer and a much stronger response to how to deal with the life question. And it just seems to me for the last couple of weeks, gentlemen, that he's floundered, and yesterday he looked terrible.

ROBERTS: All right.

What about John McCain on the issue of the war? And before you give me your answer, let me play a quick little piece of his appearance on "Meet the Press" yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We have a chance of success, and I don't think that a lot of Americans are as fully aware as they should be of the consequences of failure in Iraq.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: So, he attracts the war like nobody else, even though Giuliani also supports it, as well. Do you see this hurting or helping him? Because some new polls I saw show him leading in all four of the early primaries.

JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I think a function of it is I Don't know if it's Giuliani falling and McCain rising. But what strikes me -- and every time I see McCain, even in that clip, it doesn't matter what he says. He looks tired. He looks like there's just no enthusiasm, there's no kind of spark in a debate. A couple of times he talked about bin Laden he looked like the old John McCain.

But, yes, he -- but this war is not -- you know, is not popular among the general electorate, but the Republicans, by and large, still support it. So it's probably a good political place for him to be.

ROBERTS: I tell you, in that first GOP debate he certainly looked enthusiastic. I wonder how he's going to look tomorrow night in South Carolina.

CHRISTIE: Well, actually, the one I'm look forward to seeing tomorrow night in South Carolina is Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney looked very strong on "60 Minutes" last night.

He has been on a roll. He's raised more money than the other Republican candidates, $21 million. And I think if you look at the early caucuses and primaries, New Hampshire, Iowa, Mitt Romney looks strong.

ROBERTS: Yes. He's on the cover of "TIME" magazine, as well. He looks presidential, but what is that it he believes?

James, do you think that the de facto GOP nominee is already in the mix, or still out there?

CARVILLE: You know I have thought for some time and continue to think that the Republican Party is very orderly. They've always had -- from 1944 to 2004, they've always had a frontrunner. That frontrunner has won the nomination. There is none this time.

I think Republicans are desperately scratching their head trying to get somebody in this race.

ROBERTS: What about Obama? Does he have a problem with his lack of experience? He spent much of the weekend explaining that he still has qualifications even though he lacks qualifications.

CHRISTIE: Well, I think Senator Obama has long said he wants to be the fresh start, he wants to turn the page when it comes to the political landscape that we have here in Washington.

And let's face it, John, we've had either a Bush or a Clinton in the White House for the last 24 years. I think that plays very strongly for Mr. Obama for saying he wants a new start.

ROBERTS: And one more quick question, James. An interesting piece in "The New York Times" yesterday from Patrick Healy saying that Bill Clinton may become an integral part of Hillary's campaign with his own plane, his own press corps.

Is the nation ready for that?

CARVILLE: Well, you know, yes, people understand that she's going to be married to him and he's going to -- he's campaigning for his wife. Of course he is.

ROBERTS: Right.

CARVILLE: And then, yes, he is a great surrogate and he does fund-raising. And I'm sure he, you know, opines to her frequently.

ROBERTS: Boy, that would be a real change, wouldn't it?

(CROSSTALK)

CHRISTIE: Might be more of an albatross than it could be worth for the Clintons, I think.

ROBERTS: Two for the price of two.

CHRISTIE: We'll see about that, James.

ROBERTS: James Carville, Ron Christie, thanks very much for joining us.

And a reminder, too, that we've got our big debates coming up on CNN. The Democrat 2008 hopefuls debate on June the 3rd. Republicans debating on June the 5th. All in new Hampshire -- Kiran.

CHETRY: All right. And we'll be there watching every second.

Well, the stars are coming out to help find a little missing girl. Madeleine McCann snatched from her bed in the middle of the night. David Beckham, J.K. Rowling of "Harry Potter" fame, even Simon Cowell, all of them asking for your help.

Also, how to be green in the afterlife? Why some folks are opting for a less than traditional sendoff.

We'll explain coming up on AMERICAN MORNING.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHETRY: Welcome back to AMERICAN MORNING.

More Americans are changing to energy-efficient light bulbs, driving hybrid cars, maybe even looking into solar panels around their home. Well, now some are going green as their final gift to the Earth. We're talking about green funerals today.

AMERICAN MORNING'S Greg Hunter checked out this trend.

What did you find?

GREG HUNTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's very peaceful. Well, Kiran, there's a growing interest in a scaled-down version of a traditional funeral, which costs on average more than $6,000. But cost is not the only reason people are choosing to go green.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I picked a little cedar tree.

HUNTER (voice over): On a stroll new Ramsey Creek nature preserve, Sharon Tarry (ph) and her son Jim Nichols reconnect with nature...

JIM NICHOLS, CHRIS' BROTHER: Everything is blooming.

HUNTER: ... inspect flora and fauna...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I wonder what this one is.

HUNTER: ... and examine spider webs.

Ramsey Creek is also a cemetery where Chris Nichols, a son and brother, is buried.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Beautiful.

HUNTER: Before dying of cancer three years ago at age 28, Chris told his family he wanted a natural or green burial at Ramsey Creek. No embalming, fancy casket or burial vault.

NICHOLS: I thought it was a little kooky at first.

HUNTER (on camera): And now?

NICHOLS: Now I couldn't imagine a better option for my brother. He was a nature lover, I guess, is the best way to put it. Anything having to do with nature, in its natural state.

HUNTER (voice over): Kimberly and Billy Campbell run Ramsey Creek's 76-acre preserve in South Carolina. Their goal: to conserve land and provide the right setting for families to deal with grief.

BILLY CAMPBELL, RAMSEY CREEK PRESERVE: And when they leave after a service, they'll say, "This is the way I want it." This is -- this is -- "I love this place. This is really great." Families come back.

HUNTER: Ramsey Creek is one a half-dozen such burial ground across the nation. The Campbells are also helping build another preserve in Atlanta. In his book "Grave Matters," author Mark Harris says people are beginning to return to the old-fashioned values, thrift and simplicity of earlier American funerals.

MARK HARRIS, ENVIRONMENTAL JOURNALIST: This is not something that's new and is something that is bizarre, but I think it's something that speaks to people, because they're familiar with the concept.

HUNTER: Although its woods and plants appear to grow naturally, all the graves at Ramsey Creek are precisely mapped and marked.

HARRIS: This is ground surveyed, and they're into a GIS (ph) mapping system.

HUNTER: More than 80 people are buried here. Three hundred more have reserved spots for the future.

Among them, the Nichols family, who say visiting Chris' grave is a positive experience.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We feel that there is a sense of living in this place.

NICHOLS: It's really a stroll through the woods that just happens to be a cemetery.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HUNTER: Family members do have the right to decide how their loved one is laid to rest. For example, many states do not require embalming the body, although funeral homes may require it. If that's the case, just check for a funeral home that has refrigeration, ample refrigeration. Usually you can keep a body for four days.

A good Web site to take a look at is the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC.com. Look under the funeral section of it. It is empowering.

CHETRY: And what should people keep in mind if they actually want to do this for themselves, they want a green funeral and a burial?

HUNTER: Well, it is cheaper. It's a lot cheaper. And one of the things you need to keep in mind, look for a funeral home that has refrigeration.

And another thing, the cost is a lot cheaper. I mean, at Ramsey Creek, the cost is roughly $2,500, $3,000. That includes the burial plot. And if you take a look at the average cost of a funeral in America, that doesn't include the burial plot. It's around $6,000.

So, Kiran, that is a significant amount of money.

CHETRY: And this stays a woods where people -- the public can go, they can still hike through it? It's still a forest?

HUNTER: Yes. It's really peaceful.

When you see a cemetery, you know, you see all the tombstones lined up and everything like that. Some people like that. But this is, you walk out there, and if you didn't know you were in a cemetery, you wouldn't know it.

I mean, it just looks like woods, until you walk up on a grave stone. And you think, oh hey, this is a cemetery. There's 80 people buried on this part of the cemetery.

CHETRY: You're right, you can't really tell by looking at it.

HUNTER: You can't tell.

CHETRY: Greg, thanks so much.

HUNTER: Thank you.

CHETRY: Well, we're following breaking news off the coast of Alaska this morning. We got word about 30 minutes ago of a cruise ship, the Empress of the North. It ran aground, taking on water, and they are evacuating passengers and crew right now.

We'll bring you an update when we come back.

Also, the woman behind "Harry Potter" getting behind the search for a missing 4-year-old girl. We're going to find out more about that on AMERICAN MORNING.

The most news in the morning is here on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: Good morning to you, it's Monday, May 14th. I'm John Roberts in Washington, D.C.

CHETRY: I'm Kiran Chetry. Thank so much for joining us.

We're following some breaking news right now. About 300 passengers and crew are on a cruise ship; they're currently abandoning this ship. It ran aground about 50 miles off the coast of Juneau, Alaska. We'll talk more about how this rescue is taking place.

We spoke with the Coast Guard media spokesperson who said it's actually happening right now. A pretty orderly evacuation taking place. Coast Guard already on the scene with tug boats and rescue barges.

ROBERTS: Yes, it's a 360-foot, what they call a cruise ship, really it's more like a large river boat, if you will. You can see it; looks like it would be in the Mississippi River as opposed to the straits and inlets off the coast of Alaska. But apparently this type of ship very good for getting close to the glaciers, which of course what people really want to see there. Unfortunately it got too close to the reef and hit it in the middle of the night, taking on water. Those people being evacuated right now. Commander Jeff Carter is the head of the media operations for the U.S. Coast Guard, headquartered in Washington, D.C. Here's what he told us just a little while ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CMDR. JEFF CARTER, MEDIA OPERATIONS, U.S. COAST GUARD: We don't have any reports of casualties at this time.

ROBERTS: All right. What about the ship taking on water, is it in danger of sinking?

CARTER: Any ship taking on water is in danger of sinking and I'm sure the crew is fighting that now. We do have reports that there is water coming into the ship and it's listing about 8 degrees.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTS: So, again, that ship, the Empress of the North, about 50 miles from Juneau, Alaska, which of course is down there in the tail end of Alaska, the capital of the state. But it is only about a mile off shore. That's the good news. And there are fishing villages that dot that whole area up and down there.

They have Coast Guard assets on the ground. They've got aircraft in the air. And there is a lot of what are called good Samaritan boats, I guess, that are coming out from the fishing villages along the shore there, and aiding in this rescue.

So, hopefully, everybody will get off the boat and get into the life boats and get to safety. Don't know what is going to happen with this ship, as Jeff said, it is taking on water. Don't know how deep the water is there, whether it could fully sink, but as we saw just a couple weeks ago in the Mediterranean. That ship that was literally 100 yards from shore, Kiran, it went right under in just a matter of hours.

CHETRY: That was scary when we saw that. And, as you said, it's about 3:00, 4:00 a.m., middle of the night, pre-dawn hours. And we are going to get a check with Rob Marciano of the weather in that area; just how cold those choppy waters are.

And when we heard that report, Rob, they were talking about three-foot waves and wind, certainly, and a little bit of light rain.

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, it looks like, you know, from the description of where that ship is located -- and here's a map of Alaska, as John mentioned in the southwest corner of the state is where Juno is.

Let's zoom into that area and give you a better idea of what kind of landscape we're looking at there. If it is 15 or even 50 miles from Juneau, we're still looking at -- it's in one of these straits here, icy strait, right here. So that's why the seas aren't very high. Obviously, if was off in the Gulf of Alaska, then we'd be talking about big-time seas.

Water temperatures? I was trying to find a buoy that actually works in this area. And there aren't many. This is Glacier National Park up through here. So these are glacier-fed waters and the Pacific Ocean down around the Pacific Coast of the northwest corner of the U.S. this time of year would be around 45 and 50 degrees.

So, I got to assume that water temperatures in through this area are right around 40 degrees, maybe 45 degrees. Here's Juneau, somewhere in here. I am still looking for an exact location of where this ship is having trouble, but that is the reason you're only seeing three-foot seas, because obviously, it is in these straits.

The weather forecast? There are a couple of storms that are affecting the weather here. One is coming through right now, which is weakening, not a tremendous windy storm, but it does have some rain, low visibility. They get a bit of a break tomorrow as far as the weather is concerned. Tomorrow looks to be a dry day.

Obviously, John, we hope to have this situation cleared up by then.

ROBERTS: All right, Rob. We'll stay with the story this morning on CNN. Appreciate that.

Internet Correspondent Jacki Schechner has been looking into the Empress of the North online. She joins us now with more.

What are you learning, Jacki?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, obviously some pictures of the ship, from the Web site. As you were mentioning it was more of a paddle boat than a cruise ship, as we would traditionally think of one.

They do these 360 tours on their Web site, and one of the lounges, you can see the Paddle Wheel Lounge. If you take a close look you can see the paddle wheel out the windows. It gives you a general idea of what the ship is generally like, what we're talking about.

Now, it's interesting to note on some of these crew review web sites, like cruisecritic.com. They have information more about the ship, gives you a look inside. They were also talking in one of the reviews how the passengers of the ship tend to be of an older age.

One of woman was writing that she and her husband were in their 50s and 60s, and generally the cruisers on this particular ship were more in their 70s and 80s. If that happens to be the case on this particular cruise, that could definitely complicate matters in trying to get everybody off board, especially if the temperature of that water is in the 40s and 50s, as Rob was mentioning.

Another thing we noted as we started to look into this ship is that it actually did not have a very good food rating. The Centers for Disease Control did a rating of their food inspection back in February 2007. They came up with a rating of 67. Everything from hygienic practices, potentially hazardous food temperatures, and 85 is a passing score. So the score of 67, obviously, not exceptional.

On the Web site there is a corrective action statement. It seems to address some of these issues, but, obviously, the Empress of the North going to have some problems not only structurally, but also internally, as well, John.

ROBERTS: All right, Jacki, thanks very much.

As you can see from the photographs online, it describes a boat that looks like one of those Mississippi River boats, not a lot of what they call free board, which is the space between the deck and the water. They're very shallow bottom boats and we understand it's listing at about 8 degrees.

Now, 8 degrees really isn't all that much, but when you have that small amount of free board, 8 degrees can be enough to start to dip the rail under the water, which would, A, perhaps hinder the evacuation to lifeboats and, B, present even more of a problem for that ship in terms of it actually going under.

We'll keep staying with the story for you this morning here on AMERICAN MORNING and, again, coming up on "Newsroom". We'll let you know what's happening with this Empress of the North -- Kiran.

CHETRY: Thanks, John.

Well, parents of students at Scales Elementary School in Tennessee outraged this morning after hearing what teachers and an assistant principal did on a class trip. They told the kids that a gunman was on the loose. The kids were hiding, they were crying, scared, and it wasn't until much later that children learned it was only a drill. If you can call it that. We talked a little earlier with 11-year-old Dalton Brown, as well as his mom Brandy Cole, earlier on AMERICAN MORNING.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DALTON BROWN, STUDENT ON CLASS TRIP: They come up and tell us to get downstairs. So we're downstairs, and they tell us to get under the tables we have a code red.

ROBERTS: A code red? What were they saying was the code red?

BROWN: A code red is when there is a person in the area with a gun, knife or bomb.

ROBERTS: So what went through your minds, you and all your fellow students?

BROWN: I was really scared because I come on this trip and I'm really excited and then I hear that there are people with guns in the area.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHETRY: The mom said she got a memo and in it they said, well, you know, camp fire stories, scary tales around the camp fire, she's not buying it. The school's assistant principal said the mock attack was intended as a learning experience. The principal says the situation involved poor judgment. And it looks like, John, as more heat is on the situation, the story was changing a little bit, at least according to this little guy's mom.

ROBERTS: Yes, this idea of a drill sounds -- to this woman, at least -- like a little revisionist history.

Two more shock jocks fired for racially charged remarks. Are we seeing an important protection of the airwaves or an assault on free speech? We're putting the question to Glen Beck and Comedian Paul Rodriguez, coming up.

You're watching AMERICAN MORNING, the most news in the morning is on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: It's 43 minutes now after the hour.

Iran now confirms that it is holding an Iranian-American scholar in prison. Haleh Esfandiari has been held since last year when she went to Iran to visit her mother. An Iranian newspaper says she's a spy for America and Israel. Shaul Bakhash is her husband and he is here with me now.

Shaul, how did this whole thing happen?

SHAUL BAKHASH, WIFE HELD BY IRANIAN GOV'T: My wife, as you said, had gone to Iran to visit her mother. She was deprived of her passport when she was about to leave, and then subjected to some 50 hours of interrogation in January and February. And Tuesday they arrested her, took her to the notorious Evene (ph) Prison.

ROBERTS: Have they given you any reason for her arrest? The newspaper in Iran is saying she is spying for the United States and Israel. That she's trying to ignite a velvet revolution to change the regime there.

BAKHASH: Those charges are falsehoods and fabrications. And I think concocted by men who have lost touch with reality. But I think they take you to Evene (ph) Prison to extract from you a confession. And I think perhaps that is what they are intending to do in this case.

ROBERTS: She is the head of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

BAKHASH: That's right.

ROBERTS: Here in Washington, which of course is headed up by former Congressman Lee Hamilton. Has he tried to intervene here to try to win her release, to try to convince the Iranian government it let her go? BAKHASH: He wrote a letter to the Iranian president, on February 20, which was sent to Tehran through the Iranian mission at the U.N. He received no reply. Not even an acknowledgment. And, obviously, he has stayed in touch with the Iranian ambassador trying it learn what happened to Haleh.

ROBERTS: When was the last time you talked to Haleh?

BAKHASH: I talked to her, I guess, on the Monday -- last week before her arrest. I had been speaking to her on the phone and by e- mail ever since her problem. Since she's been in prison, which is now a whole week, all her mother in Tehran has had were four very brief telephone calls to say she's OK. But who knows what is happening inside that prison?

ROBERTS: Those were phone calls from Haleh? Were they?

BAKHASH: Yes, that's right.

ROBERTS: You had no contact with her? You have no idea what her status is? You have no idea what her well being is at this point?

BAKHASH: They've not allowed the family to see her, aside from these telephone calls. No contact at all. You know, Evene (ph) Prison is not a nice place.

ROBERTS: No, I mean, would it be like Abu Ghraib?

BAKHASH: I don't know about that. But reports we hear that prisoners are subject, often, to solitary confinement, very intensive and intimidating interrogation. Blindfolding.

ROBERTS: What about the State Department? Have you asked them to intervene?

BAKHASH: I'm sure they're doing what they can. And I hope all governments will do what they can to end this situation. It's cruel to treat anyone to this kind of treatment.

ROBERTS: Shaul Bakhash, our heart goes out to you. We certainly hope that everything is going to be all right. That this is just a misunderstanding. Obviously, given the state of relations between the U.S. and Iran, it's very dicey.

BAKHASH: John, I hope the Iranian president when he released the Britons who were in Iran recently said this was an act of compassion. I hope he'll show equal compassion to a fellow Iranian, and release my wife, and allow her to come home again.

ROBERTS: We do, too. Shaul, thanks very much.

BAKHASH: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Appreciate you coming in. >

CHETRY: CBS Radio firing a pair of suspended radio shock jocks for a prank phone call they made making fun of workers at a Chinese restaurant. The New York duo made their comment just a day after Don Imus' meltdown a month ago. The initial airing of the call, on "The Doghouse with Jay B and Elvis," went unnoticed and then a re-airing of the segment, after Imus' firing, prompted an outcry from Asian- American groups.

So, with these latest firings and the Imus fallout, could this actually be the beginning of the end of the shock jocks? Joining us now from here in New York syndicated talk show host Glenn Beck.

Good to see you, Glenn.

GLENN BECK, SYNDICATED TALK SHOW HOST: Hi, how are you?

CHETRY: Also Las Vegas comedian, Paul -- in Las Vegas, you're not just a Los Vegas comedian of course. Paul Rodriguez, thanks for being with us.

PAUL RODRIGUEZ, COMEDIAN: Good morning.

CHETRY: So, Glenn, let me ask you about this, because you talked about political correctness as the classic great idea gone wrong. Where do we draw the line?

BECK: Well, I think the individual needs to draw the line. This is a capitalist society. Everybody talks about corporate responsibility and CBS what they are they doing to stop this? What is the average person doing?

These companies would not put this kind of material on the air if it wasn't selling. This is a choice of the American people, they're making every single day. It's not just in New York City or Los Angeles, this happens all across the country. You need to take personal responsibility, and if you don't like it, turn it off.

CHETRY: All right, here's -- but the question is, in the days of YouTube and in the days of 24-hour cable, all this stuff get talked about again, recycled. For example the "Opie & Anthony Show", this past week, they apologized for this, but they had a segment where they laughed as a homeless man fantasized of raping our secretary of State and first lady. Is that where we should be when it comes to radio?

BECK: No, but this is where we have gone. This is where we have been so for so long, and this is really not about -- much other than a lot of special interest groups. There is a real feeling, I think, on the Left, they couldn't get the Fairness Doctrine out, so what they're trying to do is shut people down. If you look at the people that are on the shock radio list, you'll see that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and I am on that list. Gee, I don't know the last time that I was doing sex calls.

CHETRY: Right.

BEKC: This smacks of a Leftist witch hunt in many ways.

CHETRY: Let me ask Paul Rodriguez about this. You believe there should be some limits on what is acceptable in radio. How do you make sure then you don't turn it into a PC world where no one can say anything?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, you can't have a shock jock without shock. This is their trade. I mean, it started with people who aspired to the heights of Imus and Stern. You have to shock. In a sense, you and I and CNN, we're doing these relatively obscure jocks a favor because we're discussing, we're talking. I think it was all premeditated.

I don't know -- more so I don't agree so much -- I don't know if there is a Left or Right conspiracy. I think that the marketplace -- though, I do agree with Beck, the marketplace itself, it has its own repercussions. You know, in the club where Michael Richards said his things, I mean, look, if you are -- if you use these words, you're not going to draw a lot of people to come see you. And who would want to draw those kinds of people?

I mean, I feel so much that it wasn't as funny, or it wasn't done, but I don't believe in restricting whatsoever. I think that -- like, I believe that the people --

CHETRY: So, you think the marketplace should decide. If people don't like the things --

RODRIGUEZ: It will.

BECK: Yes.

CHETRY: -- that Michael Richards is saying, they're not going to see him.

RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely.

BECK: I will tell you, is this the end of the shock jock? Absolutely not.

RODRIGUEZ: No, no.

BECK: There are too many devices out there now to pipe this in. This is something -- unfortunately -- I'm not saying this is a good thing -- but this is what America is consuming. And if it's taken off the radio it will go to satellite or it will go iPod and consumed.

(CROSS TALK)

CHETRY: If you think a minute, though, if these people got fired for their jokingly and they said some really offensive things about Asians.

BECK: Sure.

CHETRY: But when you look at what Howard Stern has done in the past. I mean, that's nothing.

RODRIGUEZ: What Mr. Imus has done. Relatively what Mr. Imus has done -- look, CBS, they knew how fast this horse could run when they bought it. Imus was not a secret to the executives. Before they hire somebody you go through tremendous amount of scrutiny. He has said things before. Now, I don't as much see this last comment, that got him fired as much as a racist, mind you, as more of a -- you know, chauvinist -- you know, to be talking about this basketball team like that.

CHETRY: So, Paul, are you watching things that you're saying? So you change what you are going to be doing in your bits, because of the intense scrutiny that seems to be happening lately?

RODRIGUEZ: Not really, it isn't my trade. I talk about the condition of being Mexican-American, if somebody else talks about that and he can make -- I believe the only offensive joke is the joke that's not funny. If you can find a way to say these things --

BECK: Are you telling me that you that you've never told a joke that wasn't funny? I mean, that's the problem. When you start saying it's not -- if its funny, it's not offensive.

RODRIGUEZ: Well, in the privacy of our own homes, Mr. Beck, in the privacy of our own homes -- obviously, these ideas and these thoughts don't come out of thin air. They came from somewhere. We can't get, like you and I, you can't get on the air and be all pious about it, and point our fingers and say this. People -- look, America is a society --

BECK: I'm not being pious about this at all -- I take --

RODRIGUEZ: Well, you're blaming the Left --

(CROSS TALK)

CHETRY: No, I think you guys are actually agreeing more than you think. I think Paul is making a joke, the only offensive one, is one that is not funny.

RODRIGUEZ: And that one wasn't funny.

CHETRY: Glenn, do you watch what you say?

BECK: You know, I will tell you -- do I watch it? No. Because the line keeps moving. What is politically acceptable today is not tomorrow. And, again, this is all about, this is all about special interest groups.

RODRIGUEZ: The neat thing about this is that America has this problem. You know, other societies that have other groups, I was reading in an article where Norway had taken in some people from the Sudan and now they're comedians are starting to do jokes like that. No country in the world has the amount of ethnic groups that America does.

BECK: True.

RODRIGUEZ: Now, this could be something that's uplifting to us. But there's always going to be -- see, comedy, the very essence of a punch line has to have a victim.

BECK: Why are we discussing ethnic groups as if it's the only thing? Shock jock --

CHETRY: Well, because this is what got two people fired.

(CROSS TALK)

RODRIGUEZ: That's what it's about.

CHETRY: That's why, Glenn.

BECK: Are you telling me -- I don't mean to be -- I don't mean to be crass, but we are talking about people who market in graphic, graphic sex, and that seems to be OK, but if you say --

RODRIGUEZ: So, a lot of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) jokes, that's not racist. But look, when you --

CHETRY: All right. We're out of time, both of you. This is a really interesting discussion and I'm glad you both of you joined us today.

RODRIGUEZ: America still needs to have this discussion as a town meeting. This is thing is not going to go away --

CHETRY: We will, but our show ends in eight minutes, we have to go.

(LAUGHTER)

RODRIGUEZ: I know, I'm sorry.

CHETRY: But thanks to both of you for being with me today.

RODRIGUEZ: I appreciate that.

ROBERTS: Up next, the latest on our breaking news story. A cruise ship run aground now taking on water off the coast of Alaska. The abandon ship order has been given. The latest on the massive rescue effort coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTS: It's 56 minutes after the hour. More on the breaking news out of Alaska. That cruise ship sinking off the coast of Juneau. Hundreds of passengers evacuating in life boats. Our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr has been talking with her sources there at the Pentagon, who are keeping tabs on the situation.

What are they saying is going on up there?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: John, indeed, the U.S. military now monitoring this situation. The command center at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs looking at this situation minute by minute. They tell us that so far they, the U.S. military, has no requests for assistance. They believe the Coast Guard is able to handle the situation, but we spoke to officials at the command center area just a few moments ago.

And they also told us that they are now getting reports there are at least 50, pardon me, 40 to 50 small boats, good Samaritan boats in the water now. Fishermen with small boats who have come out to try to render assistance, and help the Coast Guard get the people off this sinking cruise ship and get them all to safety.

First reports unfolding, of course, but it looks at this point, like the Coast Guard, plus these good Samaritans will have it well in hand, John.

ROBERTS: All right. That's terrific. Barbara Starr, thanks for that update.

Here's a quick look now at what the CNN NEWSROOM is working on for the top of the hour.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice over): See these stories in the "CNN Newsroom." For a third day, U.S. troops search for three missing soldiers in Iraq.

Opening statements in Miami today, one-time enemy combatant Jose Padilla on trial for terror-related charges.

Strong winds could spread the north Florida wildfire today.

And a Detroit man facing charges. He's seen on tape viciously beating a 91-year-old World War II vet.

That's in the "Newsroom", at the top of the hour, on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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