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Young Mother Who Swam To Safety, Grateful For Every Moment; One Good Samaritan Is Haunted By The Images Of Those He Didn't Help; Grim Work For Divers As They Check Submerged Vehicles For Victims
Aired August 3, 2007 - 17:00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BLITZER: And to our viewers. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Happening now, underwater escape: A car plunges into the water, is quickly submerged, a young woman tells about her desperate struggle to survive the Minnesota bridge collapse.
Zero visibility: Feeling their way through twisted debris. Divers right now searching the Mississippi River for victims, trying not to become victims themselves.
And could this happen in your town? As 74,000 bridges across the United States are in bad shape. We're going to take a closer look at some of them.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
The death toll rises, the number of missing may be dropping and the grim recovery operation are growing more treacherous.
Here's what we know this hour in the aftermath of the Minneapolis bridge collapse. Authorities announced the recovery of another body bringing to five the number of people confirmed dead.
But officials are not clear on the missing, while police have estimated up to 30 people are unaccounted for, the county sheriff says the number could be as low as eight.
And the First Lady Laura Bush today met with first responders saying she knows their ordeal is, quote, "very, very tough." Meantime, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have just wrapped up a news conference. The briefing you saw live here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd in Minneapolis.
Brian, what are we learning?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're learning some pretty dramatic new things here, especially regarding the downward trajectory of the bridge as it collapsed. I'm going to ask my photographer, Rick Hall, to pan over to that section that we're looking at there, which we believe is the southern end of the bridge that collapsed.
They say now, the NTSB now says they're focusing their energies on that end of the bridge because of what happened to it while it collapsed. Here's what the NTSB chairman had to say about that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARK ROSENKER, CHAIRMAN, NTSB: It appears that it shifted approximately 50 feet to the east. And when we compare that to what we've seen in the rest of the bridge, the rest of the bridge appears to have collapsed in place.
TODD: Now to clarify, Chairman Rosenker said that this shift occurred as the bridge began to collapse. Did he not say, he actually clarified to say, we do not say at this time that the shift caused the collapse. But did it shift 50 feet to the east, as the bridge began to collapse, Wolf.
BLITZER: Brian, stand by. We're going to be getting back you to.
The president is scheduled to tour the disaster scene tomorrow. The White House says he supports necessary funding to rebuild the bridge. The Minnesota congressional delegation is seeking $250 million for that effort. That's a down payment.
Incredible stories coming out of the bridge collapse. A car plunges into the Mississippi River, quickly becoming submerged. The young woman behind the wheel, refused to die. Let's go out to Minneapolis once again. Mary Snow is following this tale of survival.
Tell us about it, Mary.
MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it really is an incredible tale. It's the story of Alicia Babatz. She was on her way home Wednesday, to pick up her two-year-old daughter. Literally saw her life flash before her eyes. She said she wanted to share with us her story because she believes, she's a miracle.
SNOW (voice over): The scars from her seatbelt are still raw, 22-year-old Alicia Babatz still can't believe she was able to get out of her car alive.
ALICIA BABATZ, SURVIVED BRIDGE COLLAPSE: I thought I was going to die. I'm leaving family behind. But then when I realized I was in the water, I was still alive, and it then went up over my head. I was like, oh, no not this way. And I just kind of -- I saw my family.
SNOW: Babatz says she remembers hearing cars crash around her driving off the bridge, and her car filling up with water. She is in disbelief as she watches footage of her from the side of the river waiting for help.
(On camera): Your car filled up with water. Tell me what's going on at that point.
BABATZ: Again, I -- I thought that for sure -- I thought I was going to drown. I thought I was going to sink with my car. I had my seat belt on, as you can see. But somehow I -- that's the only thing I don't know is how I got out. I felt my hand above the water. I tried to get out. I was kind of stuck. I made one movement, and before I knew it, I was on top of the water. And I just started swimming.
SNOW (voice over): Babatz considers herself a good swimmer. She guesses she swam about 20 feet.
(On camera): Were you in a lot of pain?
BABATZ: Excruciating pain. I was -- I was crying for help. But there was cries for help all around me. So I just -- there was another guy who was in his car. I didn't know if he was stuck. I just kept saying, help. I don't know if I can make it. But I made it. And I just made it to his car. By the time I made it to his car, it's a little bit closer to the other side of the river.
SNOW (voice over): Babatz is looking forward to marrying her fiance, Randall, and raising their two-year-old daughter and says this will forever change her life.
BABATZ: I just -- make me grateful for every second.
SNOW: Now we spoke with Alicia Babatz earlier today at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Fairview. She was treated for a fracture to her lower back. She's going through physical therapy on crutches.
But, Wolf, some news tonight, she has been discharged from the hospital and is home now with her family -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Within a split second these people's lives have changed. I assume, Mary, you're getting these stories from so many people out there, who survived this disaster. It's something that all of us simply can't comprehend what this young woman has been going through.
SNOW: It really is incredible. You know what, Wolf? She said she normally didn't take that route home. But she thought it would be quicker. She said literally it was a few seconds, and she thought her life was over.
You're right, do you hear so many of these stories about split- second decisions. It's really incredible.
BLITZER: All right, Mary, thanks very much. Stand by. We'll get back you to as well.
Working virtually blind, feeling their way through treacherous debris-filled waters. Divers are searching for victims of the bridge collapse at great risk to their own lives. We'll have that story coming up as well. But let's go to Jack Cafferty, in New York, right now, for "The Cafferty File".
JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR, THE SITUATION ROOM: Wolf, there's a very important story developing in Washington, D.C., this afternoon, that's getting virtually no attention because of the nonstop coverage of the bridge collapse in Minneapolis.
So I'm going to tell you about it. President Bush says Congress must stay in session. No adjournment for summer break until it passes a bill increasing the government's ability to eavesdrop on foreigners abroad. Why on the Friday of adjournment, today, is this suddenly such a pressing issue? Well, it's because a federal intelligence court judge secretly declared earlier this year that a key element of the Bush administration's wiretapping program is illegal.
Mr. Bush says that, "So far the Democrats in Congress have not drafted a bill I can sign. We've worked hard and in good faith with the Democrats, to try to find a solution, but we're not going to put our national security at risk. Time is short."
Now the president has the power, under the Constitution, to keep members of Congress in session. And that's apparently going to happen unless they pass a bill that gives the intelligence community what Bush calls the tools they need to protect the United States. It turns out there are some sticking points, though.
Democrats want the FISA court to review the eavesdropping process to make sure they're not focusing on communication that's might be sent to American citizens. The National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell says he'll allow such a review but only 120 days after the surveillance begins, not before.
Meanwhile, McConnell's proposal would give who else but Attorney General Alberto Gonzales the authority to approve and monitor surveillance in the meantime. There's a comfort.
Here's the question: Should President Bush keep Congress in session until it passes a law updating terrorism surveillance rules? E-mail your thoughts to email@example.com or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile. It's quite a story unfolding a few blocks from where you are, Wolf.
BLITZER: It's a major story. I'm glad did you that, in "The Cafferty File". There is another story we're following. And our viewers are going to see that later this hour. John Edwards, the Democratic presidential candidate -- Jack, wait until you hear what he has to say about Rupert Murdoch, and his NewsCorporation purchasing Dow Jones and "The Wall Street Journal." You're going to be interested in what Edwards has to say.
CAFFERTY: I've heard. It's a great story.
BLITZER: All right, stand by for that as well.
Up ahead, that Minnesota bridge was listed as structurally deficient. But tens of thousands of vehicles crossed over it every single day. Is it time to improve safety standards? And we're taking a close look at bridges that need work including some major landmarks, an aerial view across America. That's coming up.
And he raced to the scene to help victims of the bridge collapse, moving from car to car. He's now haunted by those he couldn't help. I'll speak with him coming up right here on THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Amid the horror of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, there with many acts of kindness and heroism. Greg Bernstein was passing near the bridge when it collapsed and he immediately rushed to the site, and following the cries for help doing whatever he could to try to help strangers in need. Greg is joining us now from Minneapolis.
Greg, thanks very much. Not only for being here in THE SITUATION ROOM but for what you did. Mary Snow told us a little bit about that in her piece with you in the last hour. But one of the things that struck my mind is you're sort of haunted by those people you couldn't save. Talk a little bit about that.
GREG BERNSTEIN, HELPED BRIDGE VICTIMS: I guess you make decisions pretty quickly when you're in a situation like that. And I was working with some folks and as I look at pictures from the scene afterwards, you know, I can see that there were cars nearby. And I -- you know, I talked to one of the officers afterwards and found that there was somebody in a car in an area that I may have been able to get to -- but wasn't, and didn't. And so I guess you run through that in your head a lot.
BLITZER: But you did help out as much as you possibly could. And you saved people's lives in the process.
BERNSTEIN: Do what you can, I guess, with what you've got.
BLITZER: So how you are coping now with what has occurred over these past 48 hours?
BERNSTEIN: I'm coping with it, you just sort of keep rolling. Go to work. Hug your kids. Move on. But, you know, you kind of keep thinking about the people that were out there, the people that I saw. I met a couple of people, Jason, Hector, and those guys, and you just kind of keep thinking, I don't see them on the fatality list. And just hope that they're OK.
BLITZER: And walk us through those moments, those split-second decisions you made when you simply instinctively rushed to the scene.
BERNSTEIN: I came down an embankment that was near the bridge and kind of fell out of the Bushes and immediately to my right there was a young woman who was yelling that her mother was trapped inside of the car. So, rather than go straight towards the river, I went that way, which was behind a large embankment.
And I was able to talk to the mother. I pulled the window -- I couldn't open the door. I pulled the window out and the doorframe of the window and able to talk to her. So I just, as quickly as I could, I decided well, she's breathing. I don't see blood pouring. I just said, you know, I asked the daughter to talk to her for a second, and I moved on. A little bit further around the perimeter, I kind of remembered a triage unit I had taken as ski patroller, you know, about 20 years ago. And it just -- all I could think of was airway, breathing, circulation, eminent danger, move on.
And the people that I came across, tried to make sure those things were intact and then I moved to the next person. I came to one person who there was a truck that was kind of upended near him. And I didn't want to move him, because I knew his back was pretty severely injured.
But decided that if the thing -- if the bridge shifted, which I really didn't know where I was in context to the whole thing, so we just quickly decided we were going to move him out of the way. I don't know if that truck ever fell or not. But I hope Hector is OK.
BLITZER: I hope so, too. I don't know if you appreciate the fact that a lot of us consider you a hero, even though I'm sure you're much more modest when it comes to the use of that word.
BERNSTEIN: Yeah. I'm sure there were people over on the other side that were in the water, and dealing with some much more dangerous situations than I was.
BLITZER: Were you ever scared?
BERNSTEIN: You bet. There was gas flowing out of cars, and cars smoking near me. I've seen enough TV to know, you know -- bad stuff.
So, and the other -- actually, the thing I was most concerned about was that one truck and maybe that bridge would shift. So as I was moving around, I was trying to make sure I was some place that at least something easy wouldn't fall on me.
BLITZER: Well, Greg, you ran to the scene. A lot of other people would have simply run away to try to save themselves. But let me just thank you very much for all of our viewers because your instincts, your desire to get to the scene really paid off and you helped a lot of people in the process.
Thank you, Greg.
BERNSTEIN: Thank you.
BLITZER: Greg Bernstein, an average citizen, who just did the right thing at the right time. Thank you very much.
Up ahead, almost zero visibility and unseen debris lurking in the waters. We're going to follow the divers at the bridge collapse as they do their grim and very dangerous job right now.
Could what happened in Minneapolis happen where you live? We have correspondents around the United States looking at other bridges potentially on the brink. Stick around. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: There are almost 600,000 U.S. highway bridges and according to the federal government, close to 74,000 of them -- 74,000 of them are structurally deficient. What does that mean? That means they need significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement. The most recent figures show the nation's bridges are in really bad shape.
We crunched some of the numbers and there are six states where more than 20 percent of the bridges are deemed deficient, Oklahoma, for example. Oklahoma leads; 29 percent of its bridges are in bad shape.
Rhode Island, check it out. Rhode Island close behind followed by Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Iowa, and Missouri. Bridges are actually in best shape in Arizona, down there where only 2 percent are structurally deficient followed by bridges in Florida and Nevada at 3 percent, Florida and Nevada at 3 percent.
Despite deficient designations, tens of thousands of bridges remain in operation. Let's go to CNN's Carol Costello.
Carol, are these bridges generally safe or what's the story?
CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What's the story? Well, Wolf, it depends on who you talk. To the feds say just because a bridge is labeled deficient doesn't imply it will collapse. But some civil engineers say standards are too low and money is to blame.
COSTELLO (voice over): The 35 West bridge has been on Minnesota's radar for years, rated structurally deficient since 1990. A definition that hung in the air as First Lady Laura Bush tried to ease the pain here, by thanking rescue workers.
LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: This just gives me a chance to tell all of you thank you.
COSTELLO: Amidst the comfort, hard questions, like why wasn't the bridge closed to traffic? The Department of Transportation defines structurally deficient as meaning there are elements of the bridge that need to be monitored or repaired, but does not imply that it's likely to collapse.
The Minneapolis bridge was also rated a four on a zero to nine scale, with nine being an excellent. It a rating that would merit a C, or lower, in any classroom, yet more than 100,000 cars a day, and some 5,000 trucks passed over the 35 West bridge. Some engineers feel it's time to improve standards.
CHONG FU, UNIV. OF MARYLAND, ENGINEERING: Always. I would say, you see, the infrastructures in the civil engineers, we say OK, bridges only rank C plus. And this is not acceptable. But we have to tolerate that. Because back to the money issues now.
COSTELLO: And money is an issue. In 2003, 27 percent of the nation's bridges were rated structurally deficient. To fix them all, it would cost taxpayers $9.4 billion per year, for 20 years. That's according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The chairman of the NTSB says he believes the disaster in Minneapolis was an anomaly and drivers should not worry about similar catastrophes. But the tragedy has gotten the attention of federal officials, who say they are reviewing the bridge inspection process.
MARY PETERS, SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION: Something happened there in Minneapolis. We don't yet know what it was. I can assure you that I'll get to the bottom of it, we will get to the bottom of it. We will take corrective action immediately.
COSTELLO: Yeah, but what exactly does that mean? If you're wondering if there is any move to close bridges until safety standards are reviewed, don't hold your breath. We don't know why the 35W bridge fell. And it's impractical. There are too many bridges deemed deficient and to close them all would cause a lot of traffic tie-ups, that's for sure.
BLITZER: In this NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, investigation, if something were determined that caused the 35W bridge to collapse, I guess that could change that assumption.
COSTELLO: That's a possibility. But it can only do that as it investigates. And that could take weeks, months, or even up to a year.
BLITZER: All right. Carol, thanks very much.
The investigations do take a long time. Collapsing bridges, exploding streets. Is America's infrastructure crumbling beneath us? How safe are we really? Soledad O'Brien investigates "Road To Ruin: Are we Safe?". That airs, right here on CNN tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.
Up next, we're going that take you across the country, a CNN reporters, our affiliate partners show us some of the bridges in various cities that need repair. We're going to show you where the dangerous bridges are.
And heroes of the Minnesota bridge collapse, more of them. In fact, there are too many to count. We're taking a look at those on the front line of the dangerous recovery effort. Diving still looking for the bodies of the lost. Stay with us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Trying to find victims of the bridge collapse, divers are basically working blind. Carefully probing the twisted debris in the Mississippi River. The risk to their own lives is tremendous. Let's go back to Brian Todd. He's in Minneapolis.
Brian, tell our viewers how dangerous this operation is.
TODD: It's compounded, Wolf, by the fact that this is a very temperamental river. Just below me it is slow moving and shallow. You can see the bottom. But behind me, just over there at the collapse point, divers are facing much different conditions.
TODD (voice over): An inch at a time, under swirling, murky water, looking, grasping for submerged cars. Dive team leaders tell us they identified a few more vehicles, but no victims inside them. Working in teams of three, they can only safely send one diver in the water at once, tethered to the other two. One dive team leader told me there is virtually no visibility. They have sonar, but they also have to use the Braille method.
CAPT. KEN SCHILLING, DIVE TEAM COMMANDER: If we're able to obtain a license plate, read that, relay that back to the surface, to the investigators, for identification purposes. And then they will go around and they will try to breach or gain access to the passenger compartment, so that they can search and survey by feel primarily, you know, the whole interior of the passenger compartment.
TODD: The current is not as strong as before since the Army Corps of Engineers lower the water level by about two feet. The danger now, falling debris from parts of the collapsed bridge above them. Even worse, the possibility of getting pinned inside a car or under heavy blocks of concrete or twisted metal.
CAPT. BILL CHANDLER, HENNEPIN CO., MINN. SHERIFF'S DEPT.: We're keeping the divers out of the heavy debris. So we're bringing them up, up to the deck of the highway, but we're not penetrating or going underneath any open areas.
TODD: After battling obstacles and currents, finding a car doesn't always mean success.
SHERIFF RICHARD STANEK, HENNEPIN CO., MINN.: One of the vehicles is below another vehicle, meaning one on top of the other. That vehicle is crushed and sitting on the bottom. We are not able to clear that vehicle. We'll have to do it later using heavy equipment.
TODD: Divers repeatedly encountering obstacles like that and with dozens of vehicles still in the water this is a very slow process. Also limited by daylight, Wolf. They usually stop the searches at night fall.
BLITZER: Brian, thank you very much.
And as we told you, close to 74,000 bridges across the United States are listed as structurally deficient, meaning they're in bad shape. Let's take a closer look at some of them right now starting with CNN's Kathleen Koch here in the nation's capital.
KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, here in Washington, D.C., officials say 15 bridges, including the one behind me, that is about 6 percent, are structurally deficient. So the city is facing the same problem as many around the country. Bridges built in the '50s and '60s that are basically beyond their design lifespan. And many of them were built without backup systems. That means that if one small facet fails, the entire structure collapses.
Another problem, they were never designed to handle the traffic that they now do, or the very heavy trucks that are now on the road. Now to fix them, the American Society of Civil Engineers says that the United States needs to spend $9.4 billion a year every year for the next 20 years.
The problem is the federal government right now devotes just $2 billion a year to bridge repair projects. Back to you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks, Kathleen. Let's check in with CNN correspondent Susan Candiotti in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, of Florida's 6,100 bridges, 276 are designated as structurally deficient. This is one of them in Fort Lauderdale. But it is not supposed to be repaired until 2009 at a cost of more than $1 million. And it won't be replaced until about three years after that.
There have been three major bridge failures in Florida over the years. The most spectacular accident when a barge struck the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, killing 35 people in Tampa Bay. Even after a bridge is repaired, it can sometimes take months to get a final inspection to get off that special list.
Florida's governor, Charlie Crist has asked for a status report on all Florida bridges and he wants that report as soon as possible.
Wolf, back to you.
BLITZER: All right, Susan, thank you. Let's turn to Dave Summers of our affiliate WKYC in Cleveland.
DAVE SUMMERS, WKYC REPORTER: Wolf, this is the Interstate 90 bridge. And every day more than 100,000 motorists cross it to get in and out of Cleveland, Ohio. It's a similar design to that which collapsed in Minnesota. It is a steel deck, arched truss bridge.
Now on a scale of zero to nine, which is the federal scale, this rates a four, which makes it a deficient bridge. But the Ohio Department of Transportation says deficient doesn't necessarily mean dangerous. It's harsh climate here in Cleveland. We get a lot of snow. But Clevelanders don't like snow any more than anyone else so we throw a lot of salt, as a result, you can see the rust on the steel beams underneath the bridge. You can see the concrete crumbling. Of course, motorists are aware of it and so is the state. So what is being done? In 2014 this bridge is scheduled for a complete overhaul. In 2010, the state is going to begin construction on a second bridge right next to it to alleviate some of the heavy traffic on this bridge.
Now what ODOT is telling us is that it inspects bridges around the state once a year, even though federal requirements are once every two years.
I'm Dave Summers with WKYC here in Cleveland -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thank you, Dave.
And as we've been mentioning, more than 70,000 bridges across the country are rated structurally deficient. On average, these bridges are crossed by more than 300 million, 300 million vehicles a day. Engineers estimate repairing all of them will take at least a generation and cost more than $188 billion.
We're still getting your dramatic pictures of the aftermath of the Minneapolis bridge collapse. Abbi Tatton is standing by, she's going to show us some of these gut-wrenching personal stories.
Also, we're going to take you on the campaign trail with Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards. He is accusing his competition of getting too heated. Plus, he returns a controversial book advance -- does he return a controversial book advance that he donated to charity? He's getting nasty. The argument with him and Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation getting intense. Wait until you hear what John Edwards has to say right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: As we learn more about the details of the Minnesota bridge tragedy, Americans are asking this question: How do we make sure this doesn't happen again? Certainly a question that anyone who hopes to be president of the United States needs to be ready to answer.
BLITZER: And joining us now from Claremont, California, Democratic presidential candidate, former Senator John Edwards.
Senator, thanks for coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.
JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thanks for having me, Wolf.
BLITZER: Is there one specific step as president you would take, one step right away to try to deal with the nation's crumbling infrastructure? EDWARDS: Yes, America is going to have to invest in making sure that our infrastructure is not deteriorating, that it needs the -- gets the renovation and the refurbishing that it needs.
And, for example, in the case of what everyone has been watching that happened -- this terrible thing that happened in Minneapolis, we know the Mississippi River goes from Minnesota all the way to New Orleans. There are bridges across it over that entire span. And we need to be examining every one of those bridges to see...
BLITZER: But we're talking hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars to deal with this crisis. Where is this money going to come from?
EDWARDS: Well, I think the starting place, Wolf, is to figure out exactly how severe the problem is, which is going to require serious evaluation of what happened in Minneapolis. And to compare what we saw in Minneapolis with what is happening in other places around the country.
So I think the starting place -- and it needs to be done quickly, the starting place is to determine how severe and how widespread the problem is. Then we can determine what sort of resource allocation is necessary.
BLITZER: Because I think in all of the studies that I've seen over the past 48 hours, they pretty much know the status, the shape of these bridges and other critical infrastructure. And they know it's pretty, pretty poor right now. So I think they have a good sense of what needs to be done.
The question is, as president, what you would specifically do immediately to try to deal with this situation?
EDWARDS: I would identify the places that are at greatest risk, where the greatest danger is. And I would make certain that we had the money available to make -- to do the work that needs to be done. That's what I would do.
BLITZER: Would you raise taxes to pay for it?
EDWARDS: Oh, I don't know. I mean, these are all determinations that need to be made in the context of other budgetary considerations. But I would do what is necessary to make sure that our bridges were safe. And I would identify the places where we have the greatest danger.
BLITZER: There has been a feud in recent days and the past couple of weeks or so between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on foreign policy, on national security issues. And there is some suggestion from the Clinton camp that he's not yet ready for primetime, to be the nation's president. Do you believe Barack Obama is ready to be president of the United States? EDWARDS: I don't think we know the answer to that yet. I think that's what presidential campaigns are for. I think that determination and that evaluation, both for Senator Obama, for myself, and for Senator Clinton, will be made by voters as we go through this campaign.
I mean, if you are running for president of the United States, you better be ready to do the job from the very beginning. And that means when there are tough questions, tough issues that you're faced with, you better have a clear vision in your own head and be able to articulate it about what America needs to be doing.
BLITZER: Well, you are satisfied with Senator Obama's answers on the question, for example, of meeting with dictators and tyrants during a first year of his presidency or on the use of nuclear weapons to go after terrorists, whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan or anyplace else?
EDWARDS: Well, unlike Senator Clinton, I'm not interested in getting in a spat with Senator Obama. Here's what I believe. I believe if the question is, as president of the United States, would I meet with Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, any of these leaders, Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong-il, the first issue is whether the diplomacy has been done to determine whether, in fact, the meeting will be productive, it's going to actually accomplish something, or whether it's going to be used as a political ploy to bash the United States of America.
Because there is great risk of that will all of these leaders. They're huge in their anti-American rhetoric and their activity. So that is the first determination.
BLITZER: So it sounds on that point you agree with Senator Clinton as opposed to Senator Obama.
EDWARDS: I believe you have to do that before you meet with these kind of leaders. I think that's the responsible thing to do.
BLITZER: Do you think she's going too negative in her attacks on Senator Obama?
EDWARDS: Here's what I believe. I think that the country is hungry for change. And they need change in the worst kind of way. And they're looking for a president who can bring about that change. And I think when they see this kind of fighting going on, they don't see change. They don't see presidential candidates standing up to the forces in Washington that are obstacles to change. Instead they see politicians fighting with each other. And I think people want to get past that.
BLITZER: You're calling on Senator Clinton to return any contributions, any political money that she received from the News Corporation that is controlled by Rupert Murdoch. Is that right?
EDWARDS: That is correct. Not just her, everybody, including myself.
BLITZER: Well, because you took, what, half a million dollars in advance from Harper Collins, which is part of the News Corporation.
EDWARDS: Well, I had a book called "Home" that Harper Collins published. There was an advance from Harper Collins. Every dime of the money they gave to me has gone to charity, which I committed to do. And I met my commitment. It has gone to things like Habitat for Humanity, helping low-income kids go to college, the International Rescue Committee. So the money is all gone, not to me, but to important charitable causes.
But that's not the point, Wolf. The point of this is that I don't want to see Rupert Murdoch or anybody else for that matter owning every newspaper in America. What we've seen with a consolidation of the media is not healthy for this country. It stifles dissent. It stifles grassroots voices. I mean, we need divergent opinion expressed in this country. And if the media is consolidated, that runs completely contrary to that.
BLITZER: But in terms of the money that you gave to charity that you got from Harper Collins for the book, should you return that money to Harper Collins?
EDWARDS: I don't -- I can't return it.
BLITZER: In other words, use your own money to give that charity as opposed to the money that came in from the News Corporation?
EDWARDS: No, of course not. That is absurd. I've given millions of dollars to charity myself. And the proceeds from this book I committed to give to important charities in this country, including charities that help provide homes for people who don't have them. I met my commitment.
I mean, this is absolutely absurd. This is nothing but a perfect example of what these people do, Wolf. I mean, if you stand up to them and say, consolidating the media is a bad thing, it's an unhealthy thing, what they do is attack you. They can continue to attack. They will not silence me. We are right about this. The media should not be consolidated and Rupert Murdoch should not own every newspaper in the United States of America.
BLITZER: Senator, we'll leave it right there. But I guess the tradition is, if you attack, they're going to attack right back and that is the nature of the political process.
EDWARDS: Well, it's the nature of the way these people operate. I mean, they want to silence anybody who says that what they're doing in helping stifle voices, democratic divergent voices in this country, is not good. And if you say that and you speak out on it, they don't want you to be heard. I'm going to be heard. And I don't think I'll be alone. I hope others will join me. BLITZER: But just to be fair to them, the only thing they said in their statement is, would John Edwards return the half million dollar advance that he took from a subsidiary of the News Corporation, namely Harper Collins? That doesn't suggest, namely, that they're trying to stifle your voice.
EDWARDS: Oh, you're absolutely wrong. What they're trying to do is suggest something they know is not true. First of all, this contract with Harper Collins was confidential. I have absolutely no idea under what authority they think they can give this to News Corps and they can put it out over the media.
The second thing and the more important point is they know full well that that money did not go to me. That that money went to charitable causes, it was the whole purpose of the proceeds of this book from the very beginning. They know all that. This is an effort to distract from the underlying issue.
This is a personal attack in response to me saying something that is not personal. I do not believe that we should consolidate the media in the way that we're seeing in this country. And I don't think it's healthy, I don't think it's for our democracy. I'm going to keep saying that no matter what these people say.
BLITZER: Senator Edwards, thanks very much for joining us.
EDWARDS: Thank you, Wolf, very much.
BLITZER: And still ahead, we're learning about dangerous bridges all across the United States. These are bridges many of us cross every single day. We're going to take a closer look at some of most traveled.
And divers are combing through the twisted debris right now. This is extremely dirty, dangerous work. In our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour right here in THE SITUATION ROOM we'll talk to the head of the dive team about the treacherous conditions. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: From San Francisco to the Deep South, there are bridges desperately in need of repair right now. CNN's Tom Foreman is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. He has got a little tour of several U.S. bridges that might be in trouble -- Tom.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Not an exhaustive list at all, but let's start flying in toward New York as we talk about this. Because news agencies around the country in the wake of what happened in Minneapolis have been looking at areas there and many bridges have raised certain concerns.
On the East Side of New York, not the famous Brooklyn Bridge, but just north of that, the bridge there has raised some questions about whether or not it might need some more repair, more concern about that.
Fly down to New Orleans where in the wake of Katrina you may remember a lot of coverage about the big bridges over the Mississippi down there, the Crescent City Connection. Questions have been raised down there about these bridges and whether or not they need more upgrading, refurbishing at this point.
If we head out to the West Coast and you go to San Francisco, one of the bridges that is cited is near AT&T Park. It's the 3rd Street Bridge. That's one where there have been questions raised about what might need to be done for this bridge.
And on up into Washington State, some other bridges up there, the Alaskan Wave Viaduct, and the Evergreen Point Bridge. In all of these cases, this is not an exhaustive list. There are many, many, many bridges around the country that questions have been raised about. But this is just a little sample to give you an idea of the length and breadth to which news agencies and others are going right now as they inspect bridges all over this country.
Not to say that any of these are imminently in peril. But this is just a little sense of how all across the country these questions are being raised, Wolf. And I presume will continue to be raised as the days go on.
BLITZER: Clearly a wakeup call for all of us, what has happened over the past 48 hours in Minneapolis.
FOREMAN: Absolutely. There's no question about it. And as you know, in many of these communities, you don't think about bridges when you cross them all the time. Washington is a city that is cut by a river, we're cutting across bridges all the time. You don't think about them until something like this happens. And then you realize how unbelievably critical they are to these cities.
That's why states and cities everywhere are looking so closely at all these bridges, including the ones we just saw.
BLITZER: And I thought about it when I crossed the American Legion Bridge over the Potomac River earlier today. Tom, thanks very much.
Let's go to Carol Costello. She is monitoring other some important stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now.
Carol, what do you have?
CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: A couple of things, Wolf. Almost 200 people dead, 19 million driven from their homes, and the South Asian monsoon season still has about a month left. Torrents of water wiped out homes and crops and livestock just today in northern India and Bangladesh. Villagers were left hungry and frightened, up to their chests in water or clinging to rooftops and treetops.
NASA has delayed the launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour by one day so engineers can keep testing a replaced valve. The launch is now set for 6:38 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday. When Endeavor does blast off, former school teacher Barbara Morgan will be among the crew. Morgan has waited 22 years for this. She was the backup teacher in space for Christa McAuliffe, who died in the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
The Coast Guard says three people were arrested after they were seen in an odd makeshift submersible and inflatable boat near the Queen Mary II in New York's East River. It turns out the vessel, if you can actually call it that, is a replica of the 18th Century-era submersible known as the Turtle. It's unclear what exactly the people were doing. But it's believed to be the hobby of one of them.
And police say dogs belonging to Ving Rhames fatally mauled a caretaker at the actor's Los Angeles home. The unidentified man's body was found on the lawn of Rhames' home in L.A.'s exclusive Brentwood neighborhood. An animal control spokeswoman says four dogs, three bull mastiffs and an American terrier mix were taken into custody. Rhames is known for his films such as "Mission Impossible" and "Pulp Fiction."
That's a look at what's happening now -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks, Carol, very much. Still ahead, Jack Cafferty wants to know should president Bush keep Congress in session until it passes a law updating terrorism surveillance rules? Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: Let's check in with Lou Dobbs to see what's coming up at the top of the hour -- Lou.
LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": Thank you, Wolf. Tonight we're reporting on the astonishing scenes in the House of Representatives. A rare walkout by members of Congress, furious Republicans accusing the Democrats of trying to rig a key vote on welfare benefits for illegal aliens. We'll have that special report. We'll be joined by the House minority whip, Congressman Roy Blunt.
Also, the crisis over dangerous contaminated toys, manufactured in communist China and exported to this country. The federal government doing too little too late to protect American consumers. We'll have that report.
And the pro-illegal alien open borders lobby is furious over a new government program against employers hiring illegal aliens. Illegal alien advocates threatening to mobilize the entire Hispanic community to kill the program.
We'll have the story. All of that, all of the day's news and much more at the top of the hour here on CNN. Please join us.
Wolf, back to you.
BLITZER: Sounds good, Lou. Thanks very much.
From Lou Dobbs, let's go to Jack Cafferty to see what he has in the "Cafferty File."
CAFFERTY: Sounds pretty good. I may stay too and watch that show that follows us.
BLITZER: I do every day.
CAFFERTY: The question this hour, should President Bush keep Congress in session until it passes a law updating terrorism surveillance rules? The reason that he wants to do this is that a judge has ruled that some of the stuff they've been doing is illegal. So he wants the law fixed so it's legal.
Andrew writes in from Acton, Massachusetts: "This is more political theater. The FISA judge ruled in January that Bush was breaking the law. There have been four congressional recesses since then. If this was about national security, why didn't he keep them in session over President's Day or Easter, Memorial Day or the Fourth of July? He's doing it now in a last ditch effort to keep Gonzales from getting impeached. And he is counting on the media not to notice."
Glyn in Texarkana, Arkansas: "I agree President Bush should order Congress to stay in session to complete the surveillance bill. Abuse can always be reviewed periodically. There can be a sunset clause if necessary for those who have privacy concerns. But our national security is crucial."
Bill in Virginia: "I know this issue has been difficult for all to fully understand and accept. However, I think it's time for Congress to realize America needs to be protected at any cost. I'm sorry that may mean a few extra days' work, so they may have to work a little harder. But they're paid a salary regardless of the hours they work, just like I am. Sometimes we need to put in a little overtime to make sure things work the way should."
Mark in Lee's Summit, Missouri: "Another attempt by the administration to run roughshod over the legislative branch. Bush is simply having a temper tantrum because this matter in Congress would not be rubber-stamped the way he wants it. Another mechanism to erode our civil liberties."
Greg in Oregon writes: "The Congress ought to tell Bush they will stay if the Iraqi parliament stays in session."
Lee in Remer, Minnesota: "Jack, lighten up, you don't have to be Chicken Little. The sky is not falling. Well, maybe the bridges, and a few thousand or so dams. Maybe the lead paint on imported children's toys, global warming, big deal. The sky is not falling and our children can fix the rest of this when they grow up."
Mike in San Francisco writes: "As long as Bush is requiring Congress to stay in session, maybe they can find time to impeach him and Gonzales."
If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to cnn.com/caffertyfile. We post more of them along with video clips of the "Cafferty File" -- Wolf. BLITZER: This is a story that resonates out there. I'm talking about the surveillance -- the terrorism surveillance, on both sides. Some people say, you know what, you've got to do whatever you've got to do to protect the United States after 9/11. Others say, you've got to be very careful how far the government goes.
CAFFERTY: Well, you know, we're either a nation of laws or we're not. I don't disagree that we have to protect the country. But there are laws and mechanisms, and if they're not sufficient to deal with the post-9/11 world, then you change the laws, you don't just simply start ignoring them because it's too inconvenient to do it the right way.
BLITZER: Fair enough. Jack, see you back here in one hour. Jack Cafferty is here in THE SITUATION ROOM as are we, weekday afternoons from 4:00 to 6:00. Back at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. Let's go to New York, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" starts right now -- Lou.
DOBBS: Thanks, Wolf.
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