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THE SITUATION ROOM

5.8 Earthquake Rocks East Coast; The Battle for Libya; Interview with Head of Libyan Mission to the United States; Uncertain Future in Libya; Heavy Fighting at Reporters' Hotel; Park Service Examining Washington Monument for Signs of Stress after Earthquake

Aired August 23, 2011 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Brooke, thanks very much.

Happening now, two huge breaking stories. One of the strongest earthquakes ever to rock the East Coast, measuring 5.8, triggers massive evacuations and shutdowns here in the nation's capital and across the region. This hour, the damage, the disruptions and the fear and the very serious questions about whether this part of the country is really prepared for this kind of quake or worse.

And the other breaking news story we're following -- bullets flying from Moammar Gadhafi's compound in Tripoli only hours after it was captured by rebels.

CNN goes inside the compound as chaos, looting and celebrations unfold. We're following a very dangerous and uncertain situation in Libya right now.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Millions of Americans on the East Coast and beyond heard the ground rumble and felt buildings sway. The earthquake that struck just a few hours ago measured 5.8, the strongest to rock the area in over a century. For this part of the country, it's a rare event. Many people were dazed and scared as they poured into the streets. Some are still feeling emotional aftershocks.

The quake was centered almost 90 miles southwest of Washington, DC, in Northern Virginia. It was felt, to some degree, as far away as both Detroit and Atlanta. Damage reports are still coming in. No word yet of serious injuries. Major airports and national monuments here in Washington were closed. The White House, Congress and the Pentagon were evacuated.

Look at what we experienced here at CNN's bureau here in Washington. We're going to show you a video -- the dramatic video and the sound. That's coming up.

And I want to bring in our homeland security correspondent, Jeanne Meserve.

She's working this story for us -- I think it's fair to say, Jeanne, that a lot of folks watched the reaction, especially people at the Department of Homeland Security and elsewhere, and are wondering, is this part of the country ready for this kind of a situation?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is an earthquake zone, Wolf. Clearly not one as active as the West Coast or the New Madrid Fault in the middle of the country. But it is a zone that does occasionally have earthquakes.

One of the things that the administrator of FEMA, Craig Fugate, said to me is that in an earthquake, in fact, you're not supposed to evacuate a building, you're supposed to find a safe place inside and then leave.

Clearly, that's not what happened in our building and other buildings surrounding us, where we felt this earthquake. People went down the stairwells out into the street. Things appeared to be orderly.

But it does point out the fact that people in this part of the country have not been educated about earthquake protocol. They have things to learn. You can bet that FEMA is going to be underling that. They already are pointing people to their Web site, where they can get information about what to do before, after and during an earthquake.

Some other things that have come up that people have pointed to, traffic. A lot of people immediately tried to leave the national capital region. The roads here are always congested at rush hour. Today, they were congested a little bit earlier. I spoke to a regional official who said they were using all the tools that they have at their disposal in terms of cameras, in terms of communications amongst agencies. Their feeling is that things went relatively smoothly. You might not agree if you were stuck out on one of those roadways. But from their vantage point, things went relatively well. They tell me, though, that they will be looking at what happened today and trying to draw any additional lessons about what they may need to do for events in the future.

The third thing that people learned a little bit about today was communications. If you picked up your cell phone in the earthquake zone and you were trying to make a call, you found out that you simply could not do it. The system was too congested.

Emergency officials say that's something you should have expected. That is going to happen. You can't take for granted that, in an emergency, you're going to be able to make a cell phone connection. What they're saying is that texting works better and Tweeting also was working, that everybody should be thinking about having alternative means of communication and before an event like this, they should have a communications plan in place.

You know, Wolf, we're looking at Hurricane Irene coming up the East Coast. We've got time to proper for that. Craig Fugate, the administrator of FEMA, said to me this points out that a lot of things give absolutely no warning. You have to be prepared. You have to be ready. And apparently, a lot of us on the East Coast had not thought seriously about earthquakes and what we might need to do to be ready for that -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot of government employees in Washington simply evacuated all these federal buildings.

The epicenter was about 80 or 90 miles away from Washington, not far from Richmond, Virginia. And there's a nuclear power plant in that area as well, Jeanne.

What do we know about that?

Because as soon as I heard about an earthquake, knowing there are nuclear power plants in this area, I'm beginning to think of Japan, the Fukushima nuclear power plant there.

What do the experts here, what do the authorities say?

MESERVE: Well, I spoke to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They say that the North Anna plant, which is the plant that is closest to that epicenter in Mineral, Virginia, there are two units. Both of them tripped offline. Emergency diesel generators went into operation. That is exactly what is supposed to happen.

Right now, this is being categorized as an unusual event. That is the lowest category in the NRC spreadsheet of things that might occur.

In addition, there are many other nuclear events in the zone that was affected by this earthquake, all of them, too, have registered an unusual event. But as far as we know, the North Anna units are the only ones that have tripped offline. You can bet that inspectors now are going over those plans with a fine-toothed comb to determine if there is any sort of damage, any sort of impact that we need to be concerned about -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll stay on top of that part of the story.

Jeanne, thanks very much.

I want to bring in Chad Myers from the CNN Weather Center -- Chad, this is an area that was so widespread, that felt this earthquake.

Give us a little sense of how big of a deal this is.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It was a pretty big deal because the East Coast really is sitting on one plate. We think of the West Coast and all the different plates and all the different faults.

Well, when one shakes, there's enough of a break that the next one doesn't shake. We don't have those breaks.

And if you take a look at these red dots, that's all one minute. The shake in this case was a little bit big here. This was the first P-wave, that -- almost that box car event, where all the dirt and all the earth just kind of moves in one direction. And then the -- the S- wave, that up and down shaking that really shakes the buildings apart, was almost one solid minute long, if you were in Virginia.

Now people that weren't there felt it a little bit shorter. And the farther you were away from the epicenter, the shorter this really felt.

But if we get right to this magnitude 5.8 west along the James River, west of Richmond, Virginia, in Roanoke County, right there. We can take you right into that -- that -- that nuclear power plant. And the power plant only 11 miles. There's Lake Anna right there. There's the power plant itself. It was the unusual event that it lost outside power. The outside power was cut to the nuke plant. And so that's why the generators had to go and that's why the entire East Coast, basically, was -- was shaking and going, oh, what are we doing now?

Let's get to this one thing what about. The whole shaking, I -- I had reports from Massachusetts through Pennsylvania, all the way down even toward Alabama, parts of Buffalo and even Ontario, as well, put it there, all kind of one plate. So when it shook right there, this whole plate literally started to vibrate. And that's what doesn't happen on the West Coast.

The USGS has a phenomenal system now. This is just -- we -- we have upgraded the USGS, the Geological Survey, tremendously. You don't even understand what we did here. But this is now what's called a shake map, and, also, the pager map.

The estimated fatalities from this, there is a 76 percent chance that less than one person died. There is a 35 percent chance that we had $100 million or more damage somewhere. And we also can tell you that it was a very strong shaking for 23,000 people. There was a moderate shaking for 76,000 people. And over the East Coast, if you add the numbers together, we're talking about 11 million people that actually felt some shaking whatsoever today. Not a lot of that shaking. It was really just rattling nerves, not rattling buildings. But it shook pretty good, a 5.8. It was a 5.9 for a while. They reduced it to 5.8. So the real number right now, after it all settles down, is 5.8 -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. I -- I think I felt -- and maybe I didn't. Maybe it was my imagination, Chad, some aftershocks --

MYERS: Yes.

BLITZER: -- modest aftershocks after this 5.8 earthquake.

But what do we know about the aftershocks. And what can we expect in the hours to come?

MYERS: The main quake right there, 5.8. And there have been really two that have shown up on USGS, about a 2.8 and a 2.2, not very far from the -- from that epicenter.

If you take a 5.8 quake and we take the first number, that five, and subtract one, you get 4.8. That's technically the largest aftershock that we can see. And you might even feel that in DC, too. It was 5.8 down to 4.8. 4.8 is still a pretty big shake. Right now, so far, the biggest one only 2.8.

BLITZER: Yes. And there are times -- correct me if I'm wrong, Chad, when the aftershock could even be more powerful than the initial earthquake, is that right?

MYERS: It is. And we call that a foreshock. We won't know whether this was a foreshock or an aftershock until another one comes, Wolf. But typically, foreshocks only happen about one hour before the real quake. It's been now almost two, two-and-a-half hours. So the potential for a bigger quake is going down rapidly.

BLITZER: All right, Chad.

Well, stay with me. I want you to watch this video. This is from one of the studios, one of the sets here in the DC bureau.

Let me play the video and then we'll discuss.

(VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. You can see -- you can see how that camera was beginning to shake in that studio. You saw one of the anchors, I think, from CNN Espanol who was standing there in front of that camera. You can see how that was shaking. I felt it, right.

MYERS: Yes.

BLITZER: I was on the eighth floor, Chad. So everybody in this because -- and it's an 11-story building here where the CNN Washington bureau is -- everybody felt it. And people obviously quickly discovered it was an earthquake and they began running out of the building.

MYERS: Some people said that they actually felt two separate shakes, a shake, a stop and a shake. And let me tell you why that happens. Because there are P-waves and S-waves. And they act completely differently across the earth.

The first wave that you felt, which was right here -- this kind of big part right there -- is when you run into the back of a car and that car runs into the next car and then the next car. And that's what the dirt or the earth and the soil does -- boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. So that was that rear-ending of the freight train. And then the next wave is actually called an S-wave. It's the wave that looks like this.

And if you put a building right there and that building shakes a lot, especially if you're on a higher floor, you'll feel it. That's the secondary wave. That's the wave that goes through the earth. And that's that big wave right there.

BLITZER: Well, everybody felt it in this building. Originally, we -- we didn't know what it was.

MYERS: Right. BLITZER: But initially, I thought it might be some construction going on. Some thought it could be terrorism, began to worry about that.

MYERS: Of course.

BLITZER: But within a few seconds, we realized it was an earthquake.

Chad, I want you to stay with us because we have more coverage coming up on this earthquake here along the East Coast of the United States.

I want to get to the other huge story, the breaking news that we're following out of Libya. Rebels today seizing control of Moammar Gadhafi's presidential compound in Tripoli. This is a chaotic, historic day in the Libyan capital. It's just after 11:00 p.m. right now in Tripoli.

We've got some late word of gunfire in that presidential compound, hours after the rebels moved in and forced our own CNN crew to leave.

But earlier, CNN's very courageous journalist, Sara Sidner, got inside the compound with the rebels. She dodged bullets to show the world what was going on live. Look at this videotape.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That is the eastern, the first part of the eastern gate. There are large blast holes in that gate. The sun is setting in this area just behind us, so it's starting to become darker.

Over here, you're seeing them -- these are cars that belong to the Gadhafi regime. They are sitting on them. They are blowing off rounds on the top of them. That's

Obviously a security --

(GUNFIRE)

SIDNER: -- low security (INAUDIBLE) --

(GUNFIRE)

SIDNER: I'm going to try not to get hit by

Any of those rounds.

And then if you go just over here, you see

The people streaming through the main --

(GUNFIRE)

SIDNER: -- the main gate. Now, that's all

The way into the compound. So you see

People --

(GUNFIRE)

SIDNER: -- streaming into the main gate of

The compound. A lot of smoke coming from

The compound. You see these huge walls.

These were supposed to be protective

Walls. This also gives you a sense --

(GUNFIRE)

SIDNER: It gives you a sense of the power

Of the Gadhafi regime.

(GUNFIRE)

SIDNER: This, honestly, is the nicest part

Of the city. You're seeing these large, very nicely

Painted --

(GUNFIRE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We're going to be speaking with Sara. She's going to be joining us live in a few minutes. We'll get an eyewitness account of what's going on right now.

There's also late word of gunfire inside a Tripoli hotel where international journalists have been trapped. The hotel still is held by Gadhafi's forces, who may be using the journalists as human shields. A senior NATO official is warning this war is not over yet. And this hour, still no sign of Moammar Gadhafi or any word about his fate. We'll check in with our own Matthew Chance. He's holed up with the other in -- those other journalists inside -- inside that hotel in Tripoli. Much more on that coming up.

So many questions about the rebels. They are apparently in control of so much of the city.

How much can they, though, be trusted?

I'll talk to the Transitional Council's ambassador to the United States. He's standing by live. And much more on the earthquake that shook the East Coast of the United States -- the lingering fear, the possible danger. Our own correspondent, Brian Todd, he's traveling toward the epicenter in Virginia right now.

We're about to check in with him.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're going to go to Libya and check in with Sara Sidner live.

She's in Tripoli.

Stand in for that.

Let's go to Jack right now.

He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: And this has nothing to do with The Cafferty -- what a great job this woman is doing --

BLITZER: She's amazing, isn't she?

CAFFERTY: And at great personal risk to herself. I don't know anything about her except that she reminds me a little of Christiane Amanpour, that willingness to march right into the teeth of the dragon and say, you know, where's the story?

I'm here to cover it.

God bless her. And I, you know, I hope she takes care of herself and gets out of there all right.

But a very impressive work.

Anyway, the national debt is increasing at the rate of $3 million a minute -- $3 million a minute. Meanwhile, the president and Congress, well, they're on vacation.

When the president took office, in January 2009, the national debt, $10.6 trillion. Three years later, less than three years actually, $14.6 trillion. President Obama has presided over the fastest, largest increase in the national debt in our nation's history.

There's something to be proud of, something you won't see in the reelection campaign promos, either. Under President George Bush, the national debt increased $4.9 trillion. He was no day at the beach, either. But it took eight years to increase that much.

Mr. Obama has the distinction of putting us an additional $4 trillion in the hole in less than three years -- 900 plus days. And he's still talking about wanting to spend more money. It's just insane. These rates of borrowing are unsustainable. It is far and away the biggest problem we may have ever faced -- ever. And our country's very survival eventually will be at stake if this isn't addressed.

Whether anyone likes it or not, the Tea Party, those rabble rousers, seem to be the only group that sort of grasps the severity of all this. They became a force during the midterm elections because of the growing national debt and the refusal of Washington to do anything about it. In fact, the recent debt ceiling standoff was driven by a group of only 60 Tea Party members in the House of Representatives. You can bet the Tea Party is going to continue to ring the alarm bells as we head into the 2012 elections. And they should. Because remember this -- in the time you've spent listening to this segment of The Cafferty File, a minute-and-a-half, the national debt has gone up by more than $5 million.

So here's the question -- what effect will the Tea Party have on the 2012 elections?

Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment there or go to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM'S Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jack, thanks very much.

And the women you and I were speaking about, Sara Sidner, she's outside of Tripoli right now in Zawiyah.

But I want to show you these pictures that we're just getting in from Benghazi. That's the second largest city in Libya. It's where the home of the opposition has been over these many, many months.

They are celebrating on the streets of Benghazi right now. They think that Moammar Gadhafi's regime is about to collapse, even though he still controls, apparently, some small pockets in the capital of Tripoli.

Let's bring in Sara Sidner right now -- Sara, all of us were watching your reports today as you went in with the rebels. You went in with the opposition to the presidential compound in Tripoli. We were scared, I must say. I was frightened. I was worried about you. I was worried about our producers, our camera crews.

SIDNER: Yes.

BLITZER: But give us a little flavor of what it was like when you went with them and they went in to see where Gadhafi was. They -- they thought he was holed up in there.

SIDNER: Yes, I think one of the extraordinary things was that you could hear in the neighborhoods people celebrating, but you weren't quite sure, because we were still hearing blasts and booms from Bab al-Azizia, the Gadhafi compound.

And then we were told, no, no, no, it's free, it's free. And there's lots of rumors that happen or people get overly excited and then it turns out that actually there is still fighting to be done inside of these compounds or inside of these neighborhoods.

But then we decided, all right, we're going to go and try to see it for ourselves. All of our crew agreed as a team that we would go in together, that we would check out the scene and if it was safe enough, that we would go further in. And we ended up going right through the eastern gate, walking right in with rebels first stopping us and saying, hold on, who are you?

We said CNN. They said, come on in, we've been watching. They let us walk right in. and we got to see people celebrating. We had -- we saw people bringing out ammunition, bringing out cars. It was an extraordinary, extraordinary day for all of our crew to watch this happen.

It would be like watching this happen if there was a rebellion in the U.S. and they went into the White House. It is that big a deal here. People see this compound as Gadhafi's personal home, as Gadhafi's personal space. It's something that many people couldn't even access unless you were a close ally or friend of Moammar Gadhafi. And to be able to go in there and to see what he had and some of those buildings people have never been inside. And then they were taking things apart, looking through files. It was an absolutely historic moment, an amazing place to be, but also a dangerous one, because when they start firing off all of those rounds, Wolf, I've got to tell you, you know, we were getting sort of hit sometimes with -- with some of the casings of those -- of those bullets. And it does give you pause for a second when you're in that kind of situation.

BLITZER: We did, I do remember at one point, some of the guys, the rebels were coming out of that compound and showing you some of those files, including a medical file for one of Moammar Gadhafi's sons, Saif al-Islam who is apparently still on the loose right now.

Talk a little bit about that.

SIDNER: Yes, that was really another one of those moments where you're not sure that they really have something. And then they come to you -- and I was reading through it. Some of it was in English. And it was a -- it was a medical file, clearly. There were even receipts, stamped the file. It said his name, Saif al-Islam, on the front. And then there was another one that said his wife's name. And we were opening and looking through them and trying to decipher what exactly we had.

But it was clear that someone had put together a file, that was pretty comprehensive, of -- of the medical state of Saif al-Islam and -- and his wife and that they were able to go into some building inside of the compound and pull these items out and start looking and leafing through them.

It is not something that people in these neighborhoods ever thought that they would be able to do. The celebrations in the neighborhood directly next to Bab al-Azizia was going absolutely wild -- children coming out on the streets, families coming out to celebrate, along with the rebels, saying that Libya is free, no more Moammar Gadhafi, that he no longer has a grip on this country and not on Tripoli either. Really one of those kinds of days where you can't believe your eyes.

BLITZER: We're going to check back with you in a few moments, if we can.

Stand by.

Sara Sidner doing some amazing reporting for all of us.

We're going to go back to Tripoli.

We'll check in with Matthew Chance.

He's still holed up in that hotel, as well.

The other huge story we're following, though, right now here on the East Coast of the United States, an earthquake -- a 5.8 earthquake just a couple of hours or so ago. Washington certainly knows a lot about political fault lines, but real tremors, they are a rarity here, from Washington to New York and beyond. The region is reeling right now from the earthquake that forced evacuations in several states, from North Carolina all the way up to Michigan. We're going to have the very latest on that when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi, remains at large right now, but the transition to a new government is beginning immediately.

Let's discuss what's going on with the National Transitional government's ambassador to the United States, Ali Suleiman Aujali.

He previously served as Moammar Gadhafi's ambassador to the United States, but he broke with him many months ago. He now represents the opposition and the new government of Libya, which the United States and so many other countries represent.

Mr. Ambassador welcome back.

ALI SULEIMAN AUJALI, HEAD OF LIBYAN MISSION TO U.S.: Thank you for having me.

BLITZER: First of all, any update on where Gadhafi is?

AUJALI: No, there's no information.

BLITZER: You still believe he's in Tripoli?

AUJALI: I still believe he's in Tripoli.

BLITZER: He may be hiding, not at the presidential compound j

AUJALI: Of course he's hiding. Of course he's hiding.

BLITZER: But he's not at the presidential compound because that compound, as we saw, has been liberated? AUJALI: Yes. It has been they've been captured by the TNC forces today. And it was a great celebration in every city in Libya, as you see.

BLITZER: There's other bunkers, though, that he could be hiding out there, right?

AUJALI: I doubt it. He may be in the -- in the compound.

BLITZER: You think he's hiding out, as you suggested yesterday, maybe in one of the hospitals, hoping that that would be -- provide him what's called a human shield?

AUJALI: Nobody can predict what this guy's going to do. He may be sitting somewhere, you know, not far away. But the point, until now, they are not reaching him or (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: So he still remains at large?

AUJALI: He still remains at large.

BLITZER: Let's talk about his two sons.

When you were here yesterday, Mohammed Gadhafi, he had escaped. You confirmed that to our viewers here in the United States and around the world, which we thought was pretty amazing. But then only a few hours later, we learned that Saif al-Islam, the most powerful son, arguably, of Moammar Gadhafi, which your government said had been captured, he was free. He showed up at the Rixos Hotel and spoke to journalists.

How did that happen?

AUJALI: Well, this is a war of information. Not only was it a war of weapons --

BLITZER: What does that mean, a war of information?

AUJALI: Of course the Gadhafis are using all the forces to discredit the legitimacy of our --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But the National Transitional Council said he was under arrest.

AUJALI: Yes, but the main thing -- look, for me, Wolf, I consider this as behind. What's happening after that?

Now the TNC is in control. Gadhafi's stronghold is under control.

Now, today, the prime minister of Libya, he made an incredible speech. He said of the Supreme Security Council to deal with the Tripoli security. This is the main issue now.

We gain from that incidence more than we lose. What we gain from that incident --

BLITZER: But you have to understand, because you're a diplomat, you've been a diplomat for 40 years. Your credibility has to be the most important thing. When a spokesman for the new government says that Saif al-Islam has been arrested, we believe you.

AUJALI: You cannot judge the credibility of the TNC for the last six months by one incident. This was miscommunication, misinformation. It's happening like that.

The credibility of the TNC, it is proof to the people, not only to the Libyans, but to the United States government and to the international community, they lead the Libyan people for this fight to get rid of this Gadhafi, and they succeed. That is our main goal. Saif, Mohammed, all this, this is the other issue.

BLITZER: So you're looking for all these sons, in addition to Moammar Gadhafi. If you find them you'll arrest them?

AUJALI: Of course. Of course.

BLITZER: You'll treat them humanely, I assume.

AUJALI: This is the call from everybody. Not only me, but the TNC, Dr. Mahmoud Jibril. He made all these calls. And I'm sure. We have to present to the world that we are a civilized people, that we have to deal completely different what Gadhafi is dealing with --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Did you see the pictures of that presidential compound? And we showed our viewers. They just ran in, they did an unbelievable job ransacking that place, but coming out with files and all sorts of other stuff. It almost looked like they were looting that presidential compound.

AUJALI: I've been there a few times in the place, but I've never been inside.

BLITZER: You were never inside there?

AUJALI: No, just in the offices where -- on Gadhafi's compound.

BLITZER: And this is obviously not a highly-trained military that you have. These are a lot of people that were engineers or scientists or teachers. And all of a sudden, they took up arms, they learned how to use arms, and now they're going after Gadhafi's forces, who were highly trained.

AUJALI: Because of determination and the combination of 42 years of oppression, of injustice, of (INAUDIBLE). This is why.

They are untrained. Some of them, they just get the weapons for the first time in their lives. But now they are making the history of Libya to be a country with the hope, with the future, and work with the international community. That's the great thing that's happening --

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: How secure are those chemical weapons that Gadhafi's military stockpiled, the sarin gas, the mustard gas?

AUJALI: I believe now he has no more access for this.

BLITZER: Who controls those storage facilities?

AUJALI: I really don't know exactly. You know, this kind of thing is always secretly handled. But I'm sure that Gadhafi has no access for this, because now he's somewhere desperate.

BLITZER: He's just hiding, for instance.

AUJALI: Yes, I think somewhere.

BLITZER: So you think it's only a matter of days before he's found?

AUJALI: The main thing to me now, that Tripoli is secure, the TNC gets access to the money, try to keep the security of Tripoli city as much as we can. That's what we need. We need to be United, to deal with the issues, and to determine -- the determination is of the Libyan people is for the future democratic country is going to happen very soon.

BLITZER: I want to you stand by for a moment, Mr. Ambassador, because Matthew Chance, our very courageous journalist, our correspondent, is at the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli. He's been stuck there with other international journalists.

He's joining us now live from the Rixos Hotel.

Matthew, we're obviously very worried about you and our fellow journalists. What's going on at the hotel now?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's pretty calm here, Wolf, to be honest. There's not much fighting outside, we're not hearing many gunshots. I just heard a few a seconds ago.

Inside the hotel the mood is pretty tense. We've still got Gadhafi loyalists in the lobby. One of them shouted out to me because we're all sort of corralled ourselves in the upper kind of lobby of the hotel, the international journalists that are here.

He shouted out to me, "Hey, you! Are you happy now?" He's obviously referring to the fact that there's been all these advances by the rebels in various parts of Tripoli.

Our perspective on the conflict is very limited indeed, because we're not even looking out the windows at this point. The situation has been so bad for us here over the course of the past 48 hours or so.

A few high points. Yesterday, of course, we had a surprise visit from Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, the oldest son of Colonel Gadhafi.

He was meant to have been -- he was reported to have been captured by the rebels, but that obviously wasn't the case. He came over and showed his face, and so that was a real high point. And for a while, that lifted the spirits of the people who have essentially been put here to look after us downstairs. I'm talking about the Gadhafi gunmen.

But in general, we're feeling like, you know, we're in a pretty difficult situation, because we're not permitted to leave the hotel. We all want to get out of here, but we're not being permitted to do so. The Gadhafi loyalists downstairs saying they're keeping us here for our own protection -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Matthew, I understand, and correct me if I'm wrong, that a former U.S. District of Columbia delegate to Congress, Walter Fauntroy, is trapped in the hotel with you? Is that right?

CHANCE: Yes, Congressman Fauntroy has been trapped alongside all of us, he's actually sitting right next me now. And if you don't mind, Wolf, I'll pass the phone over to him because he's got a message, he wants to deliver it, and is it OK if I give him the phone right now?

BLITZER: Of course, please, let me speak to him because I know a lot of our viewers will remember Walter Fauntroy, well-known representative from the District of Columbia.

Walter Fauntroy, this is Wolf Blitzer -- do you hear me -- in Washington?

REV. WALTER EDWARD FAUNTROY, FORMER DC DELEGATE (via telephone): Yes, I can hear you.

BLITZER: Congressman, tell me what you're doing -- what have you been doing in Tripoli. Why are you at the Rixos Hotel?

FAUNTROY: As the Reverend Congressman Fauntroy 20 years in Congress, I had joined Dr. K.A. Paul here in an effort to work out a non-violent solution.

Right now, we are in a precarious situation with some of our friends from the media, because we fear that unless we are able to relocate that we may all be in danger.

As a minister who believes in the fervent effectual prayers of the righteous, I have joined with Dr. K.A. Paul, and on appeal of the people who know the will of the prayer to pray for us, and to pray for deliverance for not only us but the press corps with whom we have been quartered here in the effort to carry out our peace mission.

BLITZER: Congressman, you spent 20 years in the United States Congress as the delegate from the District of Columbia and I met you on several occasions, but I have to ask, how long have you been in Libya right now? It's a highly extraordinary situation for to you show up there. I know you wanted to do some good, but obviously, this is an amazing development.

FAUNTROY: Yes, it was. I came here over a week ago now, and have been working on a long-term effort to rally the genuine spiritual leaders of the world, to become, in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, for Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Desmond Tutu, a spiritual leader, and Nelson Mandela, a political leader, to work out a peace agreement.

We have come to a point where we're now in a precarious situation and we call upon people who know the work of prayer to pray for us and for the members of the press corps who need to actually be relocated I think in the interests of preserving our lives.

BLITZER: So, Congressman, how scared are you right now for your life?

FAUNTROY: Well, I'm not scared at all. I'm here on a mission, as I've been all of my life, to serve the lord, and I just believe in the word of prayer and make that appeal.

And Dr. K.A. Paul joins me in that appeal. He is one of the well-known evangelists from India and has assembled a group of political leaders as well as spiritual leaders from around the world who are working with us in an effort to affect a peaceful situation in the problem that confronts us right here, right now.

BLITZER: Well, we're praying for you, Walter Fauntroy, we're praying for Matthew Chance, all of our fellow journalists who are at the Rixos Hotel. We're going to check in with Matthew later. Good luck to you, appreciate your joining us here on CNN.

Let me get some quick reaction from the Libyan ambassador.

You just heard this former congressman -- you didn't hear him?

AUJALI: I was hearing something else.

BLITZER: Well, he's trapped with the journalists, Walter Fauntroy. I'll brief you after this commercial break. I'll tell you what he said, but it's obviously a very, very worrisome situation, Mr. Ambassador.

Thanks very much for joining us.

Ali Aujali is the Libyan ambassador to the United States. He broke with Gadhafi months ago.

The most impregnable fortress in Moammar Gadhafi's empire has now fallen to the Libyan rebels, but the one thing they didn't find in the compound was Gadhafi himself. We'll have the very latest on what U.S. officials believe where the suspect in this particular case, Gadhafi, where he might be holding up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: The other big story we're following here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the 5.8 earthquake. The epicenter, near Richmond, Virginia, but it's been felt all over the area, all the way from North Carolina up to New York and Michigan and beyond.

Certainly right here in the District of Columbia. The Washington Monument was built to stand the test of time. But guess what? Is it able to withstand an East Coast earthquake?

CNN's Jim Acosta is joining us now with more on this part of the story.

What are they saying about the Washington Monument and this 5.8 earthquake, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, right now, the U.S. Park Police say that the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Jefferson Memorial are all closed right now as a precaution because of safety concerns following this earthquake. And speaking of the Washington Monument, here is something you don't see every day.

Take a look at this video. This is video we shot just in the last hour or so of U.S. Park Police investigators inside a helicopter circling the top of the Washington Monument, doing an inspection of the structural integrity of the monument. They want to make sure that there isn't anything wrong with it.

The park police told us on the scene there that perhaps there might have been some damage to the Washington Monument. There might have been some falling mortar that came down after the earthquake occurred. And there are even a couple of reports, Wolf, that the monument was leaning. At this point, the park police say that does not appear to be the case, but they're checking just to make sure.

BLITZER: Because I had heard those reports that some people looked at it and thought it was tilting just a little bit. Could be an optical illusion, but the authorities are saying there's no evidence of that. Is that right?

ACOSTA: That's right. At this point, we can tell you after talking to a park police spokesman just in the last hour that they feel that the Washington Monument is standing tall and proud, in the words of that spokesman, and that there isn't any damage to the iconic structure at this point.

Here is a little bit of what he had to tell us earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SGT. DAVID SCHLOSSER, U.S. PARK POLICE SPOKESMAN: Well, I've heard reports that the Washington Monument is leaning. Clearly not so. It's standing tall and proud like it has for many, many years.

But we had some earlier reports that there may have been some mortar or even some stones that had come loose. And because of that, we're helping the Park Service do a good close-up assessment of the Washington Monument.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Now, in just the last few moments, I've been told, Wolf, that the U.S. Park Police has come out with a statement saying that the Washington Monument has been inspected and that their preliminary report at this point is that the building is structurally sound. So good news about the Washington Monument.

BLITZER: Stand by. We're going to get back to you as well.

Brian Todd, our correspondent, is heading towards the epicenter of the earthquake, outside of Richmond, Virginia. We'll be speaking live with him shortly.

The president, as you know, he's on vacation. He's keeping a very close eye on the developments as far as the earthquake in this part of the country is concerned, as well as the situation in Libya. He's on the phone, even on the golf course.

We'll check in with our correspondents when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama was in the midst of his working vacation in Martha's Vineyard when the earthquake hit the East Coast, the 5.8 earthquake.

Our White House correspondent Dan Lothian is with the president up in Massachusetts.

Dan, I know you felt that earthquake. Can we assume the president did, even as he was playing golf?

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We don't know yet if the president did feel it. But as you pointed out, we were on the ground floor of a hotel in a room that is a work area for reporters traveling with the president. Around 2:00 was when we felt the ground swaying, saw light fixtures sway as well.

About a half hour later was when one of our photographers, Peter Morris, got exclusive video of the president on the golf course taking a phone call. The White House won't confirm exactly what exactly what was said in that call, but 20 minutes after that was when the president convened a conference call with his top federal emergency response officials.

The White House saying that, at the time, he was told that their initial reports show there are no major infrastructure problems, but that the president wants to continue getting updates. He was also briefed on Hurricane Irene.

And Wolf, this also comes on the day when the president was receiving briefings on the latest developments in Libya -- Wolf.

BLITZER: So much for a slow August in Washington and beyond. LOTHIAN: That's right.

BLITZER: Dan, thanks very much.

Nothing disrupts business as usual for politicians as an earthquake, potentially. The Delaware senator Chris Coons was preparing to preside over the Senate when the tremors struck. In the end, the Senate session was held in a rather unusual place.

Our congressional correspondent, Kate Bolduan, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A small session of the U.S. Senate. Most people thought it was in recess, but what happened?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A very interesting day for all of us, including the Senate, I will tell you.

Well, the Capitol building, like many other buildings here in Washington, was immediately evacuated this afternoon. And as the earthquake hit, the Senate, as Wolf said, was preparing for a pro forma session. This is a brief meeting of the Senate during which no real business is conducted.

Well, Delaware Democratic Senator Chris Coons, he was on his way into the Capitol to preside over that session when the quake hit, and here is what he felt.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: I got off the train in Union Station, was walking over to begin my duties presiding in the Senate, when I felt the earthquake. I was actually parked just opposite Union Station.

I was initially concerned that it might be something far more serious than an earthquake. I actually was on the phone in the wind- up to an interview by telephone about the situation in Libya.

I learned it was an earthquake because the interviewer said, "We are getting reports, Senator, that there's just been an earthquake in Washington." I said, "Thank God," if it was only an earthquake, being somewhat relieved that it wasn't something more serious.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Now, Coons said he was relieved because, of course, we're leading up to the anniversary of September 11th.

Now, because of obvious concerns over structural damage, the Senate decided to hold the pro forma session not in the Senate, but in a building nearby that is ready and prepared for briefings in the event of an emergency, albeit under very unusual circumstances. The Senate gaveled in, and now, as it typically would, only about an hour late. Now, according to Capitol Police, structural engineers are still working to determine the soundness of all of the buildings in the Capitol complex. It was open to staff just a short time ago this afternoon so that they could go in quickly to grab their personal items, but were told to limit their time inside the Capitol to an absolute minimum, of course, Wolf. So we're still looking into that.

BLITZER: Yes. And for those political junkies who are interested, they have these pro forma sessions so the Senate is technically not in recess, so that President Obama can't have recess appointments. That's why they do this kind of technical ting. It's about a 20-or-30-second session.

BOLDUAN: It's about a -- this one was all of 22 seconds, according to the pool reporter inside. It has to do with the dispute between the House and the Senate. They wouldn't agree to adjourn because Republicans were concerned recess appointments.

BLITZER: All right.

BOLDUAN: Either way, they had it.

BLITZER: Senator Coons can get on that Amtrak, go back to Delaware --

BOLDUAN: That's right.

BLITZER: -- and go and relax a little bit now.

BOLDUAN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that.

We're following these two big stories, the earthquake here on the East Coast of the United States, also what's going on, I think we can call it a political earthquake in Libya right now. Much more of the breaking news coverage when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get right back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour, Wolf, is: What effect will the Tea Party election have on the 2012 elections?

Paul writes, "The Tea Party will continue to keep the debt topic alive, and they should. Unfortunately, I feel their candidates are there for only one purpose and see the world through expenditures only without considering other factors. Economics is a big, complicated system and often not as simplistic as the Tea Party would have you believe."

Jenny writes, "The Tea Party will split the extreme right off from the established GOP. It could lead to a third party, and chaos will reign." Bob in Pennsylvania, "We can only pray that more will join the Tea Party and elect more people who will try to stop Obama and get a Congress that will work to stop this madness."

David writes, "I think the Tea Party will have the desired effect. They will ensure Barack Obama's reelection."

David in Houston, "Jack said, 'And whether anyone likes it or not, the Tea Party seems to be the only group that gets it.' Jack has seriously lost his marbles if he honestly believes the Tea Party actually gets anything. Insanity indeed."

Geri in Missouri, on Facebook, writes, "Sorry, Democrats and Republicans. The Tea Party is here to stay. The reason our country is in this shape is because of both parties."

And Jason in New York, "In a dream sequence, I see Tea Party favorites Bachmann and Palin settling the GOP nomination once and for all with a serious pillow fight (sponsored by Fox News with Newt Gingrich as the referee). Winner take all. They should not and will not be taken lightly."

If you want to read more of this silliness, you can find it on my blog, CNN.com/caffertyfile, or you can go to our post on THE SITUATION ROOM'S Facebook page -- or not -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We will, Jack. Thank you.