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All Passengers Rescued From Cruise Ship Off Coast of Alaska; Coalition Troops Search for 3 Missing U.S. Soldiers in Iraq

Aired May 14, 2007 - 11:00   ET


T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Well, hello there, everybody. Thank you so much being with CNN. You are informed.
I'm T.J. Holmes, sitting in today for Tony Harris.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, everybody. I'm Heidi Collins.

Developments keep coming into the NEWSROOM on this Monday morning, the 14th of May.

Here's what's on the rundown.

Vacation interrupted. Hundreds of people flee a cruise ship off the coast of Alaska after it takes on water.

HOLMES: Also, an al Qaeda-linked Web site warning the U.S. to call off a search in Iraq. Thousands of troops scouring an al Qaeda stronghold right now looking for three American soldiers.

COLLINS: Fire and wind. That combination can equal disaster. Exactly the scenario Florida firefighters are facing today.

This hour, live to the battlefront in the CNN NEWSROOM.

COLLINS: Cruise ship rescued. Just minutes ago we were told all passengers are now safely off the ship. The cruise ship ran aground off the southeastern coast of Alaska just after midnight. IT hit a reef about 50 miles from Juneau. That's Alaska's capital.

The Coast Guard is on the scene. Several volunteer boats also helping in the rescue effort.

The ship is the Empress of the North. It carried 281 passengers and crew on board. Those passengers now on their way back to dry land.

Our Jeanne Meserve is tracking this developing story for us from Washington, and we are now live with Jeanne.

Jeanne, what is the latest that you have heard about this? Things seem to be under control.


As you said, the Coast Guard says all 248 passengers have now been taken off the Empress of the North, and they are on their way to Juneau. There are no reports of injuries or fatalities, but the National transportation safety Board is dispatching a go team from Washington, D.C., to investigate this accident.

Here's what we know.

As you mentioned, at about 2:00 a.m., the Empress of the North ran aground near Hanus Reef in Lynn Canal. That's about 50 miles from Juneau. And according to Coast Guard, it's a passage used regularly by ships.


CAPT. MARK GUILLORY, U.S. COAST GUARD: I can't really speculate on why they ran aground. I can answer your question that this is a pretty routine route.

Apparently, they were on a seven-day cruise from Juneau. They left on Saturday, and they were due to return, I guess, next Saturday. And again, it is way too early to speculate on why they hit this rock.


MESERVE: When it ran aground, the vessel began to take on water and was listing to one side. An emergency call went out, and as many as 50 good Samaritan private boats responded, as well as the Alaska State Ferry and the Coast Guard.

Those on board were put on lifeboats, according to the Coast Guard, and then many of them were transferred to a private barge and tug which had come to the scene. The crew, The Coast Guard says, is still on board, which has now drifted away from the rocks. The Coast Guard says the Empress of the North will be taken to Juneau for inspection and then repairs.

Heidi, back do you.

COLLINS: Well, certainly glad that it sounds like things are under control, but not what you would expect as one of those passengers. That is for certain.

Jeanne Meserve, thanks so much for the update.

MESERVE: You bet.

HOLMES: Yes, it sounds like things are getting under control. That is certainly a good thing.

And weather was a concern, and also that water temperature was a concern. We need to let folks that it doesn't appear that anyone went into the water or any threat of that, but certainly it was something to keep an eye on.


HOLMES: And unfolding this hour in Iraq, coalition troops searching for three missing U.S. soldiers, and now facing an ominous warning from the terror group that claims to be holding them.

CNN's Arwa Damon is in Baghdad.

And Arwa, the U.S. is now going ahead and saying, yes, it is, in fact, al Qaeda.

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, T.J. That statement coming out from Major General William Caldwell, the spokesman for multinational forces here, saying that the U.S. military now believes that the three U.S. soldiers are in the hands of al Qaeda or an al Qaeda-affiliated group.

For its part, the Islamic State of Iraq -- that is the umbrella extremist insurgency group that is -- that was formed by al Qaeda -- has also come out with its own statement issuing a warning to U.S. forces here, saying quite simply that, you should not search for your missing soldiers, threatening that if the search does continue, perhaps the consequences could be a lot worse.

But it also makes a number of very biting statements directed straight at the U.S. military. It says, "For your soldiers are in our hands. So if you want your soldiers' safety, do not search for them. And we know that you would rather have your entire Army perish than have one crusader in captivity." This, to a certain degree illustrates the sophistication of this group that appears to be fully aware of what is one of main the tenets of the Soldier's Creed, and that is never to leave a man behind.

Now, the U.S. military is continuing its very intense efforts to try to locate its missing soldiers. Some 4,000 U.S. forces, backed by Iraqi Army troops, are still combing through that area south of Baghdad known as the Triangle of Death -- T.J.

HOLMES: All right. And can you tell us, Arwa, what are U.S. coalition forces searching for these three -- the area that they're searching, what are they up against in terms of locale and terrain?

DAMON: Well, the terrain is really very difficult to navigate in that area. If you can just try to imagine, it's fields and farmlands, interlaced with canals. These canals have high reeds around them. It's very difficult to maneuver through this area.

In fact, the U.S. troops, for the most part, don't use the main roads because they are known to be inlaid with roadside bombs. They will tend to move around this area on foot just to try to avoid the hidden dangers.

It is an area that really offers up a plethora of hiding spots for a potential ambush or an attack by the insurgency. So it's quite dangerous, and it's also a known al Qaeda stronghold.

In fact, just to illustrate how dangerous this area is, if we go back to some of the details that Major General Caldwell also put out, when the backup forces were trying to respond to this initial attack that took place Saturday morning, the first unit that moved in found two roadside bombs on the way. They were held up trying to safely navigate past them. The second unit that moved out also came across a roadside bomb trying to reach these soldiers after that attack took place.

So this really just illustrates the various challenges that the troops are up against there -- T.J.

HOLMES: All right.

Arwa Damon following the developments for us in Baghdad.

Arwa, as always, thank you so much.

COLLINS: And new security movements in Iraq now. Details from the U.S. commander in northern Iraq. He talked with CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr. She is joining us now with the highlights.

Barbara, what did General Mixon have to say?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Heidi, you'll remember that Major General Mixon, who's the commander in northern Iraq, as you say, last Friday made a lot of news when he told the Pentagon press corps he needed more troops in Iraq. So, we went back to him earlier today and asked him, "What happened? What's the status of that request?"

We spoke to him, and General Mixon said he now is getting more troops, that that request is being fulfilled, more troops with Stryker vehicles, the kind of vehicles that are fairly resistant to IEDs. Here's a bit more of what he had to say.


MAJ. GEN. BENJAMIN R. MIXON, U.S. COMMANDER OF NORTHERN IRAQ: It's important to understand that the battle for Baghdad extends outside of Baghdad. Everybody focuses on Baghdad as a little concentric circle, but it's important to control all the avenues of approach. That is, the roadways that lead into Baghdad and the activity that's in the surrounding provinces, particularly Diyala.


STARR: So, what General Mixon is laying out there, Heidi, is what these extra troops are going to do up in Diyala province and further northern Iraq, where his units operate. What they want to do with these extra troops is shut off those access routes down into Baghdad, shut off the routes that insurgents are traveling to either get to Baghdad, or even to escape Baghdad with the security plan. They know that an awful lot of insurgents have been moving out of city, moving north into Diyala province, and now with these extra troops General Mixon hopes he's going to be able to shut down that activity -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Barbara, any idea when those activities or that mission, if you will, will begin? STARR: Well, you know, they're already starting now. It turns out that when he talked to the press last Friday and said he needed more troops, he already had this plan in effect beginning to move the troops in. But due to security concerns, didn't want to say too much about it. And he also tells us that he does expect to even call for more troops in the weeks ahead if they continue to see the insurgents trying to escape Baghdad, trying to move north.

IEDs, however, are a big problem in his area, as well. They have captured a number of weapons stockpiles, he tells us. And those Stryker vehicles, even though they're fairly resistant to IEDs, they have also taken a number of hits from roadside bombs. So he wants to get as many troops as he can in there to shut down that activity -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Dangerous work, no question about that.

CNN's Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

Barbara, thank you.

And conflicting stories this hour on a shooting today involving U.S. soldiers near the Pakistani-Afghan border. How it happened still unclear, but a Pakistani army spokesman says it left a U.S. soldier and a Pakistani soldier dead.

One account says the shooting took place at a three-way meeting about a border dispute. An Afghan general says a Pakistani soldier stood up and fired point blank at two U.S. soldiers and an Afghan soldier. He says Pakistani and Afghan soldiers returned fire, but a Pakistani military leader tells a different story.

He says a convoy leaving the meeting was fired on by militants, killing the U.S. and Pakistani soldiers. The U.S. military in Kabul is checking on the reports.

HOLMES: Firefighters in north Florida likely to face an even stiffer test today. Strong winds expected to fan a stubborn wildfire, making their job a whole lot tougher.

CNN's John Zarrella is in Lake City, where he has been all weekend watching these tough firefights.

We've been seeing this scene from you this weekend. Sometimes we can see you with all -- we can see you, it's kind of clear, and sometimes there's too much smoke. So, tell me, where are these flames from where you are right now?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, about six to 10 miles to the north of me, T.J., passed Interstate 10, out in the forest out there. That's where the flames are. And you know, you can see all of these fire trucks here lined up behind me here, and these men and women are waiting for their orders on where they are going to be deployed today. Because of these high winds, a lot of what they're going to be doing is structure protection. They go in and they make sure that homes and businesses out there, that there aren't -- there isn't debris around them. That's primarily their job. They don't actually go in and fight the fires. That is left to the heavy equipment, the bulldozers and all.

Guys out of Bradenton here.

Brad Jones (ph), right?

Hey, Brad. What have you guys been doing?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we just got here just a few minutes ago. We were in Bradford County, sent up from Bradenton. We were helping out there. And we're just waiting on an assignment right now, which I guess we're going to be getting here in a few minutes.

ZARRELLA: But a lot of that structure protection, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir. We are a structural protection assignment. We are not actually out in the woods at all. We are just protecting the homes and stuff that the fire is going to effect.

ZARRELLA: Well, that's a big job, and that's important for the residents.

Listen, thanks. Good luck to you all guys out there today.

Now, we heard a little while ago at the press conference that, you know, the winds are picking up, but they're confident, they're hoping that they can get through today. If they do, they're going to be very, very lucky.

We were out there the other day with them. We managed to see some of what they call these small burns. They want the fires to actually burn up to the fire lines and then to go out. That's what they're hoping for so that the embers don't spread.

We were also -- at the press conference we were told of a rescue out there in the woods. And not a human rescue, but actually the rescue of a mother bear and her cub. And an officer with Fish and Wildlife explained how that all transpired.


KAREN PARKER, FLORIDA FISH AND WILDLIFE: The mother, when we first approached, was on the ground by the tree guarding her cub, who was about 65 feet up in the air in the tree. Of course the cub picked the tallest tree in the area to climb.

We were able to dart the mom. Our veterinarian looked at her, discovered that she had really badly blistered paws. He started an IV on here and took her down to the school.

The cub was a little bit more of a difficult problem. What we had to do was bring in some heavy equipment, clear the area around the tree, get a bucket truck in from Columbia County, get up and dart the cub. When she fell asleep, she fell out of the tree and landed in a tarp that FWC officers had surrounded the tree with.

Both are doing pretty good.


ZARRELLA: That was a terrific rescue out there. And we were glad we were able to get some pictures of the bears out there.

And again, now today, the question is going to be maybe they can get some air assets up there in the air if they need them with the buckets to continue to put these fires out -- T.J.

HOLMES: All right. Well, it sounds like some -- certainly some progress being made. Good to hear there.

John Zarrella for us in Lake City.

Thank you so much, John.

COLLINS: Teachers stage a mock gun attack during a school field trip. Parents are not too pleased.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kids running underneath the tables scared, shaking, crying.


COLLINS: Real-life lesson or cruel hoax? Hear from both sides coming up in the NEWSROOM.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm Ali Velshi in Auburn Hills, Michigan, outside the U.S. headquarters of DiamlerChrysler. Chrysler Corporation coming back home to the United States. But what does it mean to you?

I'll have more in the NEWSROOM.

HOLMES: And certainly no crash test dummies. Not these three vehicles we're going to be telling you about. They're getting top marks.

Those results ahead in the NEWSROOM.


COLLINS: You're in the NEWSROOM. I'm Heidi Collins.

Landmark stand on immigration. Voters in one Texas town put landlords on notice. Will action on the local level translate to national reform?

That's ahead in the NEWSROOM.

HOLMES: And I'm T.J. Holmes here. Paying up at the pump. Where is your money going?

We've got an answer and a reality check. That is ahead in the NEWSROOM.


HOLMES: A wakeup call this morning on Wall Street and in Detroit. A transatlantic auto marriage ends in divorce. Private investors buying an 80 percent stake in Chrysler for more than $7 billion.

What does this mean for American consumers?

CNN's Ali Velshi live at Chrysler's U.S. headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan, with the answer for us.

Hello to you, sir.


It's unclear what it means, but it means that Chrysler might have a new chance at re-attracting the buyers that it so depended on all these years. Chrysler is coming back home.

DiamlerChrysler has agreed to sell 80 percent of the U.S. company to a private equity firm, Cerberus Capital Management. The chairman of that firm, by the way, is former U.S. Treasury secretary John Snow.

They're paying $7.5 billion for this. This is for 80 percent of it. And nine years ago, Daimler paid $37 billion for all of Chrysler. So, it's what you call a fire sale.

Now, the idea is that this company can be more nimble. It doesn't have to respond to shareholders. It was shareholder pressure on DiamlerChrysler that led them to get rid of the U.S. division, because it wasn't profitable.

Now, what does this mean for Chrysler? Chrysler has got to make better cars. It has some leadership in the area of minivans, in the area of small SUVs and things like the Chrysler 300, but it's really lagging in other areas.

It's not got the reliability that it needs to have. It's still depending on a lot of truck sales. And with gas prices where they are, that's going to be a problem.

The unions are on side, at least for the time being. The UAW, the biggest union, saying that it thinks this is the best deal it can get for its workers.

You will remember that Chrysler laid off 13,000 people earlier this year. No addition layoffs announced as a result of this deal, T.J.

Now, one of the announcements that was made this morning was by Dr. Z, Dieter Zetsche. He's the CEO of DiamlerChrysler. He said that they were looking for the best deal for DaimlerChrysler investors and they got it.

Listen to this.


DIETER ZETSCHE, CEO, DAIMLERCHRYSLER: Today, exactly three months after opening up all options, we are here to announce the results of that effort which meet all of those criteria. We are confident that we found the solution that will create the greatest value overall, both for Daimler and Chrysler.


VELSHI: And T.J., as a special favor to you, in case anybody wasn't watching earlier, we gave you that sound bite in both English and German. Right now we just gave it to you in English.

HOLMES: We do appreciate that. It helped a lot. I understood what he was saying this time.

You were talking about the possibility now of the company being back -- back in American hands, if you will. It could attract some American buyers, but still, they've got other things to do, including maybe improving the quality of their cars and attracting people that way.

Is that certainly something we can expect?

VELSHI: All of the finance talk aside, T.J., all that matters is that people want to buy a car. And if they can get people to buy cars -- and this is a problem that Ford and GM continue to face -- they can make the designs and have the reliability people want, they'll buy the cars.

T.J., when I see you getting out there on the Chrysler lot and telling everybody how hot it is, that will be the corner that they have turned.

HOLMES: We will see if I get there. And yes, it will be a big day and it will be a big story.

VELSHI: Keep me posted.

HOLMES: All right. Sure will.

Ali Velshi, always good to see you, kind sir.

VELSHI: You too.

COLLINS: Want to make sure we circle back now and give you the very latest information on a story that we've been following all morning long, that cruise ship that actually hit a reef off the coast of Alaska. You are looking at it now. Want to go ahead and bring on one of the people who was involved with the rescue that is happening. The cruise ship started to take on water. They needed to get all of the people off, about 281 passengers.

We now have on the line the captain of the Evening Star, Blake Painter.

And Blake, I understand that you were involved as one of the good Samaritan vessels in helping to get the people off of this cruise ship.


About 1:30 this morning we were just finishing up a halibut trip coming to the inside waters, and we heard them issue a mayday, and they were only five miles from where we were. So we buzzed over there as quick as we could, got on the scene.

They were laying over pretty heavy to one side. We came alongside. They put 33 passengers on us.

About that time, another fishing boat showed up. They put a few guys on them. An hour or so later, more people started coming to the scene, and we kind of spread the passengers out amongst everybody and got everybody off the boat safe.

COLLINS: So what was the scene, Blake? People pretty nervous about what was going on? You see the boat was listing pretty rough.

PAINTER: Yes, it was. And to tell you the truth, from what I gathered, it was mostly a group of senior citizens. And when they got on our boat, they were in good spirits, nobody was shaken up. Not at all what you would expect.

We fed them coffee. One of the guys played his guitar for them. And they were pretty upbeat.

COLLINS: Wow. Well, certainly not something that they would have expected as they were getting on, I'm sure, the Empress of the North and trying to do a bit of touring around those beautiful waters.

We keep looking at the ship now.

But what happens next, Blake? You guys got the people to the shore? Correct?

PAINTER: Well, they put the passengers on us. Like I said, we spread them amongst a few of the vessels that were around.


PAINTER: Later on in the morning, about 5:00 or so, I would say, the Coast Guard showed up. They brought a cutter in, they took, I believe, 122 passengers on there. Another large towboat with a barge showed up. They put passengers on there. So everybody's off the cruise ship. I think they've got it stabilized. And they are, I believe, in the process of getting all the passengers on to another cruise ship that was going through the area.


But you know, give us some perspective if you could, Blake. You are a fisherman. You know the waters well. You know the temperatures that we're dealing with when something like this happens.

How perilous was this or could this have been by way of the ship possibly, you know, taking on a whole lot of water and people going into it?

PAINTER: You know, everybody is really fortunate that they only breached a certain part of the ship, because this water is, you know, frigid cold. If it would have went down, the people -- there's no survival suits. All they have life jackets, and I wouldn't expect anybody to live more than a minute or two in this water.


PAINTER: So, it was really fortunate the weather was nice. We were on scene. A couple other boats were on scene. So, everything worked together in their favor.

COLLINS: All right.

PAINTER: And thank god everybody made it OK.

COLLINS: Well, very good. We like happy endings to these stories that we cover, as well.

We certainly appreciate, as I'm sure the passengers on that boat do, as well, your help in getting to safety.

Blake Painter, captain of the Evening Star joining us from Alaska.

Thank you, Blake.

HOLMES: We turn our attention now to Iraq, where a major story we've been following the past couple of days. We have three U.S. soldiers missing there in what they call the Triangle of Death after an ambush that left four American soldiers killed over the weekend, and also their Iraqi interpreter dead, as well.

Three U.S. soldiers now missing, and claims from an insurgent group that in fact they are holding the soldiers. We did hear a short time ago -- just got some new sound in from Major General William Caldwell, who's a coalition spokesperson.

Let's take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, SPOKESMAN, MULTINATIONAL FORCE, IRAQ: Hi. I'm Major General William B. Caldwell IV, and I'm speaking with you on behalf of the multinational force, Iraq. I'm here to let you know about the massive efforts currently under way to locate our three missing American soldiers.

Here's what happened on Saturday, May 12th, west of Mahmoudiya in Iraq.

A coalition force unit was positioned west of Mahmoudiya to interdict terrorists engaged in placing roadside bombs. Elements of that unit heard an explosion at 4:44 a.m. They attempted to contact all of their observation posts. One position occupied by seven American soldiers, an Iraqi army soldier and two Humvees did not respond. They requested unmanned aerial vehicle support to assess the situation on the ground.

At 4:59, a UAV observed two burning vehicles in that area. Coalition forces immediately directed two units to move to that scene. En route, the first responding unit discovered two roadside bombs. The second responding unit discovered an additional roadside bomb.

By 5:40 a.m., both units were at the scene, began securing the area, and initiated a search for the soldiers who failed to respond.

By 8:04, the responding units were able to finally confirm the deaths of five soldiers. Four of the deceased were located in their Humvees. The fifth was found a short distance from the unit's original location.

Saturday evening, we confirmed that two of the bodies found in the Humvees were American soldiers. Currently, we know that four of our soldiers were killed in action, along with an Iraqi army soldier serving with the unit.

We have completed positive identification on three of our American soldiers. We're working hard at making every effort to identify the fourth American so we can properly notify the families as to the status of their loved ones.

We still have three missing American soldiers. Their duty status is classified as whereabouts unknown.

At this time, we believe they were abducted by terrorists belonging to al Qaeda or an affiliated group. And this assessment is based on highly credible intelligence information.

The details I can share right now are limited for two important reasons. First, the operations to locate our soldiers are ongoing, and we would not want to do anything that would jeopardize these efforts. And the second is we're still providing the families of our soldiers with all of the information we can.

Our thoughts and our prayers are with the families of those killed and missing soldiers. What these families must know is that we are using every asset and resource available to the United States and our Iraqi allies in these efforts. We are doing everything we can to locate our soldiers who did nothing but come here to serve our country and to help the Iraqi people.

We are receiving cooperation from the Iraqi people in these efforts. Tips are coming in, and they are leading to operations against targets of interest. Thousands of our soldiers and our Iraqi counterparts are focussed on this mission. They're supplemented by national and theater assets, by manned and unmanned aerial platforms, by intelligence elements from interrogators to collectors to dog teams, each providing a unique capability to support this effort.

I cannot promise you that these efforts will produce the results we all are praying for. But what I can promise you, the American people and particularly the families of these missing men, is that we are doing everything we can to find these brave and courageous soldiers. Everyone who wears this uniform in combat understands and lives by the soldiers' creed and one of the key tenants is I will never leave a fallen comrade. We live by that creed. Thank you. And when we have more information we can release, we'll do so immediately.

TJ HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: And hello there, everybody. I'm TJ Holmes in today for Tony Harris.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: I'm Heidi Collins. Good morning once again, everyone. Smoke covered highways, Florida officials take no chances and shutting down major roads as huge wildfires keep spreading, an update from the Florida highway patrol in the NEWSROOM.

HOLMES: Also outrage over teacher tricks on a Tennessee class trip.


DALTON BROWN: We were down stairs and they tell us to get under the tables. We have a code red.


HOLMES: Yeah. A prank has students fearing for their lives, doesn't sound too funny does it? Now some parents want those teachers fearing for their jobs. That is in the NEWSROOM.

COLLINS: Medical news, fewer American women getting mammograms, possible reasons behind the decline coming up in the NEWSROOM.


COLLINS: Once again, I want to button up the story that we're following all morning for you. This cruise ship, the "Empress of the North," you see the picture there that ran aground, ran into a reef, actually, we understand, started to take on water and we should now tell you that according to the Coast Guard in the area they have successfully gotten all of the passengers off. 248 of them and are on dry land now. But it was a very interesting scene to say the least. I'm sure frightening for the people on board. We have on the line with us now Gabe Strong. He's a photo journalist who was actually at the scene and saw all of this happen. Gabe, can you hear me? What did you see?

VOICE OF GABE STRONG, PHOTOJOURNALIST: I can hear you just fine. About 20 minutes ago I was in a helicopter flying over the scene shooting some video footage and you can see it was one of the smaller cruise ships, not the large ones that we have here in Juneau that hold 5,000 passengers. It is one of the smaller one that had 2 to 300 people on board. The Coast Guard was already on scene. There was a Coast Guard cutter "Liberty" was there as well as the Alaska state ferry was there, "Columbia" I think it was and they were right on scene and, you know, Coast Guard did a great job responding as usually. You can see a couple life rafts in the water. I couldn't tell if they were people in them or if they had just been deployed or what. But the Coast Guard was right there. There was a barge there in case of an oil spill to help. There was a lot of boat traffic around just making sure everyone was going to be OK and from what I understand, the Coast Guard transported the passengers off the cruise ship and put them on the state ferry that was right there on scene and they're going to taking them on the ferry, bring them on here to Juneau.

COLLINS: Yeah. And we understand, this is only the second day out of a seven-day cruise that they were doing from Juneau and NTSB also going to be sending a go team to investigate what may have happened. Are you by any chance, Gabe, hearing anything on the scene there about what may have happened?

STRONG: You know, I haven't heard what happened for sure, but it looked to me like they may have hit a reef or a rock that's in the area there.


STRONG: It's not uncommon. It's happened before up here that the cruise ships have done this and even the state ferry has been -- has hit one of them, you know. There's so many different rocks and reefs in this area that sometimes it happens and when it's dark and such that that can happen.

COLLINS: Yeah. We understand it to be the Hanis (ph) reef that it may have actually hit.

STRONG: Yeah. That's what it appeared. You know, it is hard when you're up in a helicopter for sure but that's what it looked like.

COLLINS: Sure. Hey, Gabe, what did that vessel look like? Did you see it sort of listing to one side? Was it obvious that something was wrong?

STRONG: Honestly, not really. If I would have just been guessing from being on scene, I would have thought it was the state ferry in trouble because there's where all the boats seem to be clustered around, of course that was probably because the boats were around the state ferry because they have been transporting the passengers from the cruise ship to the state ferry so the boat itself was just sitting there. Didn't look -- you know, from my perspective up in the air to have a no fly zone for five miles or so around there. I was up a ways off the boat and you couldn't really tell from there that there anything wrong with it, no.

COLLINS: Yeah. Well, we continue to watch this story just to make sure everybody is OK. We know that as we have said the Coast Guard has gotten all the passengers evacuated but we'll be wondering exactly what happened here, wondering if it's happened before, in fact. Thanks so much for your perspective, Gabe Strong.

HOLMES: Wind whipped flames big concern today in north Florida where firefighters are battling major wildfires. The biggest blaze has burned more than 100,000 acres and today just what firefighters do not need, higher winds are in the forecast. Also, heavy smoke also a pretty big problem. Sections of two major highways, interstates 10 and 75, have been shut down at various times. That smoke also making the sky hazy as far south as Miami and that is more than 300 miles away. Those smoke-covered highways, that major concern we're talking about here now, for the Florida highway patrol and with us on the phone from Tallahassee is patrol Colonel Chris Knight. Sir, thank you for your time. Just how much of a problem is visibility still on your highways?

VOICE OF CHRIS KNIGHT, FLORIDA HIGHWAY PATROL: Actually, today, we are in pretty good shape. The winds have moved the fog, if you will, and the smoke out so we do have interstate 10 and interstate 75 open at this time.

HOLMES: With these winds kicking up, do you expect to have more problems today?

KNIGHT: Well, we're hoping not but that's always a possibility. That's why we are putting out the word to the public that those motorists that basically we're saying frequent road closures because we just got a gauge as the day goes on. But as of right now, it is open.

HOLMES: Have you seen as well accidents over the last few days that you would attribute to some of this visibility issue?

KNIGHT: No question. We are -- our accident rate in that particular area did go up. That's what prompted us to close it early Saturday morning because the visibility really was down to almost nothing.

HOLMES: That was going to be my next question. Compare it to something, just how severe was this smoke on the highway? You just said visibility zero. It's that bad you can't see a dog gone thing?

KNIGHT: It was pretty close to almost nothing to tell you the truth. That's why we had to do what we did on Saturday. Early Saturday morning, shut it down. We actually ended up with a - quite a traffic jam there because we had to put them off on state road 90 which isn't - it won't hold that volume of traffic coming off the interstate. HOLMES: How big of a section you talk about you had to shut down on these highways?

KNIGHT: From -- in Lake City, up to -- actually up into Georgia so we probably had a good 50 to 75-mile shut down working with our counter parts up in Georgia on the interstate 10. It was a good 50, probably 50 miles across interstate 10, also.

HOLMES: And finally here, sir, a lot of folks of course in the southeast region are familiar with 10 and 75, but for those who are not too familiar, just how important are these two arteries?

KNIGHT: Two of the major roadways that run through the state of Florida, especially I-75, the north/south corridor along the west coast of Florida and interstate 10 runs east west all the way through our state.

HOLMES: Hopefully you won't have any more problems and no more traffic headaches and certainly no visibility issues. That is some dangerous stuff, zero visibility issues. Colonel Chris Knight from the Florida highway patrol, sir appreciate your time, appreciate the update. Good luck to you.

COLLINS: Big wildfires still burning in south Georgia and in the northern part of the state, as well now. This new video just in courtesy of our affiliate WSB. It's happening in Gillmer (ph) County, that's near the Georgia/Tennessee state line. One of the blazes is actually scorched up to 500 acres of forest land. And in south Georgia, this fire called the bugaboo scrub fire has charred more than 130,000 acres. It was sparked by lightning from the Ockefenokee swamp.

News about your health. Fewer women getting mammograms. That's according to a CDC study of about 10,000 women age 40 and older. Sixty six percent said in 2005, they had gotten the breast x-rays. That's down from 70 percent in 2000. Possible reasons include insurance issues, discomfort during the procedure and recent doubts about its benefits. An estimated 40,000 women in the U.S. will die from breast cancer this year. Experts urge all women starting at age 40 to get annual mammograms.

Well, to get your daily dose of health news online, you can always log on to our website. You'll find the latest medical news, a health library and information on diet and fitness. That address,

HOLMES: The search for missing soldiers in Iraq, an al Qaeda- linked website posts a warning today to call off the hunt. That's coming up in the NEWSROOM.

And once dubbed America's dirty bomber, today on trial for plotting jihad overseas. The latest on the Jose Padilla case. That in the NEWSROOM.


COLLINS: We are 15 minutes away from "Your World Today." Hala Gorani is there for us. Hi there Hala.

HALA GORANI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Heidi and TJ. We'll bring you the world on "Your World Today" at the top of the hour at noon Eastern. Join Jim Clancy and myself just as the U.S. and Iran are getting ready to talk through their top diplomats in Baghdad about the Iraq situation. The war of words continues. You see President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad there on a visit to the UAE. We'll tell you what he said, what message he wants to send the United States.

Also, unraveling a mega deal and sending Chrysler back to America, a big divorce in the auto world. Daimler-Benz offloads most of Chrysler to an American equity firm. Why didn't the marriage work? What's next for American car makers?

And bullying is a hot topic of course in the U.S. It's also making headlines in Australia. A 18-year-old says that school yard bullying left him permanently scarred. We'll bring you his story. Join us in about 15 minutes at the top of the hour. Back to you guys.

COLLINS: All right Hala, thanks so much for that. We'll be watching.

HOLMES: U.S. soldiers missing in Iraq and possibly in the hands of al Qaeda. A terrorist group says it is holding the soldiers, soldiers captured in an ambush. The Islamic state of Iraq offered no proof of their claim. A short time ago, the group warned the U.S. to end its search for the three. Four other Americans and an Iraqi translator were killed in that same attack. Thousands of coalition forces are scouring hostile land south of Baghdad for the three. The area, an insurgent stronghold known as the triangle of death.

COLLINS: In custody for five years now getting his day in court, opening statements in Miami this morning in the terror trial of Jose Padilla. Padilla was initially accused of planning to set off a radioactive dirty bomb in the U.S. He was held for three and a half years at a navy brig, but those allegations will not be heard in the Miami Federal court case. Instead, Padilla and two others are accused of being part of a North American support cell for Islamic extremists overseas. All three have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, they could face life in prison. The trial expected to last into August.

HOLMES: A feared fighter, now his battle is over. NATO confirming the death of top Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah (ph). The NATO statement says Dadullah was killed in a U.S. led operation southern Afghanistan. He was said to be in charge of the day-to-day military operations for the Taliban. He claimed to have a line of communication with Osama bin Laden. He was also a legendary warrior fighting the Soviets, other Afghans and more recently, the U.S.-led coalition. In the past, Dadullah had been reported killed or captured only to turn up higher in the Taliban ranks.

COLLINS: They are no crash test dummies. Three vehicles now getting top marks. The results ahead in the NEWSROOM.

HOLMES: And nothing lasts forever, except the new forever stamp. Maybe. You need it today if you plan to mail (INAUDIBLE) coming up in the NEWSROOM.


HOLMES: And big check of the big board, Dow up about 31 points right now on this first trading day of the week on this Monday. Also keeping an eye on the Nasdaq which is down about 6 points right now, so things kind of flat. Still a little ways to go in the day. We'll of course keep you updated here on CNN.

COLLINS: The big break-up. Wall Street wakes up to a huge deal. Consumers and auto workers today asking what's in it for me? DaimlerChrysler today announcing it is selling its U.S. Chrysler group. And a private equity firm, Cerberus is buying an 80 percent stake in the new company called Chrysler Holding. The deal valued at almost $7.5 billion. Daimler-Benz and Chrysler united nine years ago at a cost of $37 billion. Hmm, not good math. Some analysts called it a marriage made in heaven but shareholders grew unhappy. Last year, Chrysler lost $1.5 billion while the rest of the company was making money. In February, DaimlerChrysler CEO essentially put the Chrysler unit up for sale and announced a turn around plan that included plant closings and 13,000 job cuts. Chrysler Group President and CEO Tom Lasorda (ph) says no additional job cuts are planned as part of the sell off.

HOLMES: Well three vehicles topped the insurance industry's new list of safe cars, the 2007 Acura MDX SUV, the 2008 Mercury Sable and the 2008 Ford Taurus. They scored highest in combined tests of frontal, side and rear impacts. Top safety pick awards go to vehicles that score highest and have electronic stability control.

Questions and heartbreak this morning after a deadly incident at a Mother's Day flower stand. Two people killed in LA when a car jumped a curb and plowed into the flower stand and a bus stop. Four people also injured. Police say the driver apparently fell asleep after working all night. He has now been arrested.

COLLINS: Confirmation today of record high gas prices, this time from AAA, $3.07 a gallon. The survey Lundberg survey reported the same price a week ago. AAA says this is third year in a row gas prices have surged past the $3 mark. Reasons include equipment troubles and plant maintenance at U.S. refineries and a supply drop of 15 percent since February.

HOLMES: Are you mailing bills today or anything else? Grab a little extra change. It's going to costs you a little bit more. As of today, a first class stamp is 41 cents. That's up two pennies. The new forever stamp, however, is also available. It's going to remain good forever, forever, ever, regardless of future rate hikes. The Postal Service says letters dropped in mailboxes yesterday should have the new stamp on them but if they do not, they will get there anyway, but this is the only time they're going to hook you up.

COLLINS: Teachers stage a mock gun attack during a school field trip. Parents are not pleased. Real life lesson or cruel hoax? Hear from both sides when we return.


HOLMES: Frightened students, outraged parents.

COLLINS: Some sixth graders in Tennessee still upset after teachers staged a fake gun attack. It happened off campus during a school trip. Teachers called it a prank. Parents, not amused.

Catharyn Campbell of our affiliate station WSMV explains.


CATHARYN CAMPBELL, WSMV CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a big trip for the sixth grade class from Scales elementary, a week-long stay at Fall Creek Falls (ph) state park. But on the last night, students say a teacher told them a gunman was on the loose in the park. They say Assistant Principal Don Bartch even told them to get low and take cover.

SHAY NAYLOR, 6TH GRADE STUDENT: Him and Assistant Principal Mr. Bartch sat down and we were looking out the window and there was a van there and it had the lights flickering on and off and the horn beeping.

CAMPBELL: Shay Naylor said someone then started banging on the windows. She says finally, teachers admitted it was a prank. Naylor says her classmates had mixed reaction.

NAYLOR: About 20 of them were crying. There were seven more laughing about it.

CAMPBELL: Lon Nuell, school board member for 11 years, says the trip is a tradition and teachers have been known to pull pranks.

LON NUELL, SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER: Ghost stories are standard and you scare the kids out of their wits.

CAMPELL: But with school shootings an all too common occurrence, he says this situation crossed the line.

NUELL: This was, you know, very unfortunate timing. If the timing would ever be good to do this sort of thing, this was not it.

CAMPBELL: But school board members feel they have only heard one side of the story. Now they are interested in what teachers have to say.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's some differences in stories. So first of all, that has to be resolved to figure out what really happened.

CAMPBELL: Board members tell me the director of schools is scheduled to meet with the assistant principal and the teachers. They say disciplinary action could range anywhere from a written reprimand to losing their jobs. I'm Catharyn Campbell for CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COLLINS: (INAUDIBLE) director of school issued a news release saying this. This prank crossed the line in what would be appropriate to tell young children, adding, prompt, appropriate discipline will be taken. We'll follow that story for you certainly.


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