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THE SITUATION ROOM

Italian Cruise Crash; Jon Huntsman Drops Out, Endorses Romney; Survivor Stories From Cruise Ship Crash; GOP Rivals Step up Attacks on Mitt Romney; Arab League Monitors Cheered, Attacked in Syria

Aired January 16, 2012 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S THE SITUATION ROOM: Alright. Lisa, thank you.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM. Happening now, a frantic search for survivors and answers after the shocking and deadly cruise ship crash. In a report you'll see only here on CNN, our Brian Todd simulates what possibly happened on impact and why.

Plus, Arab league monitors welcomed by a plotting plans of anti- government protesters in Syria. Our Nic Robertson was there exclusively when desperate pleas for help suddenly erupted into violence.

And some tea party activists slam the Republican presidential front- runner Mitt Romney with vicious new attacks in South Carolina. Can he win them over with only five days to go?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Breaking news, political headlines, and Jeanne Moos, all straight ahead.

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But first to the horrifying crash of a luxury cruise liner off Italy reminiscent of the titanic disaster, a look at these unbelievable pictures. You can see rescuers propelling down part of the ship, rolled almost completely on its side. The search for survivors has now resumed after the vessel shifted temporarily suspending operations. Italian officials have just confirmed at least 29 people are missing, four crew members and 25 passengers, including this American couple from Minnesota. Another six people are confirmed dead.

The ship, carrying thousands of passengers was traveling from Rome to cities including Marseille, Barcelona, when it slammed into rocks Friday night and almost immediately began taking on water.

We're covering the shocking story from every angle. Our own Brian Todd is at a simulator in Florida with a look at what was likely happening on the boat just as it ran aground. It's a report you'll see only here on CNN.

But first -- here's our senior international correspondent, Dan Rivers with details on the investigation. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAN RIVERS, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over) With an opened gash running the length of her port side, the Costa Concordia looks like it's been gutted by a giant fisherman's blade. The cruise liner is lying for lonely on the shore of Isola del Giglio, dwarfing the town behind it.

We were taken on a tour of the wreck by a local diver, Aldo Baffigi and shown a reef he thinks the Costa hits. One he swears is on every chart.

ALDO BAFFIGI, LOCAL DIVER: Over here, which is not on the chart.

RIVERS: Every rock here is on the chart?

BAFFIGI: Every one. Every one. That's why I think should be all the possibilities should be only that one.

RIVERS: He's planning to dive to see if there are traces of paint on the reef from the ship's hull. But the ship's captain, who could face criminal charges, insists he wasn't too close.

FRANCESCO SHETTINO, COSTA CONCORDIA'S CAPTAIN (through translator): The nautical chart was marked just as water and some 100 to 150 meters from the rocks and we were about 300 meters from the shore, more or less. We shouldn't have had this contact.

RIVERS: But officials running the rescue operation disagree, suggesting that the ship came too close, as the crew wanted to wave to friends ashore.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We know that the ship was close to the island.

RIVERS: It was to close?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

RIVERS: As the frantic search for survivors goes on behind me a picture is emerging of the chaos on board the Costa Concordia as panic spread through the passengers who were desperately trying to scramble ashore.

The ship's U.S. owner, Carnival Corporation, says it's still trying to figure out what led to the accident. This was what it was like in the dark, cold, chaos as passengers fled the Costa Concordia in life jackets, battling against gravity to get out.

FRANCESA SINATRA, CRUISE SHIP SURVIVOR (through translator): The lifeboats were not upside down. They were actually slanted and that made it hard to get on them because of that.

RIVERS: These photos were taken by American passengers Amanda and Brandon Warrick as they tried to escape.

BRANDON WARRICK, CRUISE SHIP SURVIVOR: We were one of the last ones to escape. Pretty much the chaos happened for everybody to get on the lifeboats fist and we - I mean, more or less, we just didn't get there early enough for whatever. It was so crowded and there was no room for us and, yes we just ended up waiting the last, maybe, few people. We were just holding on to the railing trying not to fall.

RIVERS: Korean honeymooners, Han and Jung Kideok, were rescued after more than 24 hours trapped aboard.

JUNG KIDEOK, CRUISE SHIP SURVIVOR (through translator): At first we were very scared and as time went by our fear grew and grew. We lived with the hope of being able to survive this ugly thing and above all, with the strength of being near the one you loved. We did not get hurt.

RIVERS: Even though the search and rescue operation is not over already it's clear this accident will result in litigation and criminal prosecutions. The death toll remains uncertain with passengers still missing. Now, everyone is wondering how on earth this massive ship came so close to this treacherous shore and how much more bodies will be recovered from the wreck of the Costa Concordia.

Dan Rivers, CNN, Isola del Giglio, Italy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: So, how could such a catastrophic accident actually happen? CNN's Tom Foreman has been studying this taking a closer look. What are you seeing, Tom?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, there really are a lot of different ways of approaching that question. How did this massive ship, much, much bigger I may point out than the titanic, is longer than the titanic, is well over twice the weight of the titanic and had about twice as many people on board. How could such a massive ship get into trouble and there's a lot of theories floating around.

Let's start looking at what happened. It had taken off and it only had been going for a few hours when it struck the rock. This comes up with question number one, why did it get here? We're hearing from the captain the notion of maybe they were getting readings that said they were fine. Some people say they should have been much further out from its normal course, quite a distance away.

One key question people are asking, Wolf, is why did the power go off on the ship almost as soon as this happened? Why were they plunged into darkness? The reason some people are asking that is they are saying that does this somehow relate to some underlying electrical problem that maybe was there before the collision that maybe affected the equipment that led to the collision because a big ship like this shouldn't be losing all of its power, even after a collision like that.

Then let's move on. Why did the ship start tilting so quickly? Again, these ships are equipped with many water-tight compartments in here. The water-tight compartments are designed so as it moves along, it has a way of keeping itself safe. So if one floods in here, another one keeps it afloat and on and on it goes. The question is, why did that the not work in this case and finally, why did it tip further when they got to shore and why did they have to suddenly have an evacuation so suddenly, Wolf. That's the real question.

Bottom line is after you look at all that, you look at the damage that was done, you can see that there's one last question to look at which is, why was the evacuation so difficult? The simple truth is, with a big ship like this, the international maritime organization says that the ship itself, when possible, should be the rescue vessel If it can get to port, if it can bring everyone in, that's the safest thing because they've determined that actually, evacuating something this big is the most dangerous part because you have people in all these different levels, Wolf.

And look at what was happening. The top level, by the time this ship got to where it is today. Had this much water on it. As you move down through all these different decks you see more and more water gathering so by the time you get this these compartments you have a lot.

And think about it. First night out, 10:00, 10:30 in the evening, many, many people would be in this area where you have a casino, you have a theater, you have many, many restaurants and those now are almost completely under water.

So, Wolf, people are looking at a lot of different theories as to what happened. All we know for sure is the result.

BLITZER: We know, Tom, it was way too close to the shoreline. The captain should have never allowed that ship that close to the shoreline. It should have been much further out.

Tom foreman, thank you very much. Brian Todd is getting a very good sense of what it's like to be aboard a ship when horrible things like this occur. This is a report you'll see only here on CNN. Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in the wake of the Costa Concordia accident a lot of questions are being asked about the training of captains and crew aboard the vessels. We came here to a top training center here in Florida where they put the captains and crew through the passes of just about everything from lifeboat evacuation to crowd control, emergency management and every possible scenario of navigation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There you go.

TODD: The vessel's pitching drastically. Water is coming over the bow. You can feel your stress levels and your launch rising. One of the scenarios captains and crews are put through at the American maritime officer union training facility called the Star Center. They trained thousands of officers here including several cruise ship captains. With Captain Larry Reimer we go inside the 360, a high tech simulator. CAPTAIN LARRY REIMER, AMERICAN MARITIME OFFICERS UNION; You have to constantly keep in your mind what type of weight you're dealing with, what type of momentum you're dealing with and the fact that behind you here you have thousands of passengers.

TODD: Every aspect of navigation is covered. Steering, depth measurement, speed, how to read maps and radar, where every potential obstacle is. They can recreate every major port in the world.

REIMER: We're coming into New York Harbor now. You've got Governor's island over here on the right.

TODD: They don't have a re-creation of the coastline of Giglio, Italy, but they can come close. The trainers here have also created a place called Generica, this is a generic country or city that you come into that has just about every type of characteristic to challenge you for a maritime navigation. Over here you have kind of a type coastline with a village. We've got to go underneath this bridge here to get to a channel to get to the port city over here to the right. You can tell we're under way over here. You've also got to navigate past some rocky coastline over here. So as we do all of that, I'm going to take the con as they say. I'm going to take the controls and Captain Reimer here is going to take me through the process. The slightest turn can cause a top-heavy cruise ship to pitch dangerously.

REIMER: OK. Not too much. She'll steady right up on you here.

TODD: I eventually run the ship aground.

REIMER: OK. That's it. We're aground. Let's stop engines. Pull the checklist for grounding.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Captain we have a grounding checklist.

REIMER: I'll run the general alarm.

TODD: They run checks to see if the ship's taking in water. Send a "may day" call and never, ever, is the captain to leave the bridge of the vessel until everyone else is off the ship. Reimer said they teach captains how to deal with stress.

REIMER: What happens with stress is you get what they called tunnel vision. And you lose the whole picture of what's going on, OK? The only way to deal with that, take that stress off of you, to open up you're awareness of what's going on, is to take some of the stress off of you and to give it to other members of the team.

TODD: Reimer says the most common mistake captains make is trying to do everything themselves. Outside we're showing how they train crew members to evacuate everyone on to lifeboats.

SNORRE KAUSLAND, AMERICAN MARITIME OFFICERS' UNION: We pull that. That lowers the boat.

Snorre Kausland who teaches crisis in crowd management says all crew members from cooks to housekeepers to entertainers, each have a task in an emergency to muster passengers at specific places. Get them organized.

KAUSLAND: You have a whole lot of people on board that are not mariners and have absolutely no training in safety matters and those are, of course, the passengers. So the regulations say we need to find some way to, you know, inform the passengers of what an emergency signal is, how to use a life jacket, and, also, what to do when they hear an emergency signal.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: The trainers here say despite the cost of Concordia accident and the perceptions emanating from that, that the cruise ship is still incredibly safe. They say hundreds of thousands of people are on the high seas on these cries ships every day and accidents are extremely rare and captains and crew, the vast majority of the captains and crew on board these vessels are very, very well trained - Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, thank you. We have more on this rebel disaster. That's coming up with including some incredible stories of survival.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were helping the staff more than they were helping us. They were not in control.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We're going to tell you why one couple was forced to take matter into their own hands.

Plus, with Jon Huntsman now out of the presidential race, just how much has really changed?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JON HUNTSMAN (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Today, I am suspending my campaign for the presidency. I believe it is now time for our party to united around the candidate best equipped to defeat Barack Obama. Despite our differences, and the space between us on some of the issues, I believe that candidate is Governor Mitt Romney.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That's the now former Republican presidential candidate, Jon Huntsman announcing the end of his bid for the White House earlier today. And throwing his support behind the frontrunner of the race, Mitt Romney, the candidate he says he believes can beat President Obama.

According to our latest CNN poll, most Republicans agree with him, more than half. 55 percent now say Romney is the best chance of defeating President Obama this coming November. But Huntsman wasn't always a Mitt Romney fan often calling him just the opposite on the campaign trail. Listen to this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUNTSMAN: It's become abundantly clear over the last couple of days, what differentiates Governor Romney and me. I will always put my country first. It seems that Governor Romney believes in putting politics first. My problem is really a political issue. And that is when you have a candidate who talks about enjoyment of firing people. Who talks about pink slips, who makes comments that seem to be so detached from the problems that Americans are facing today, that makes you pretty much unelectable.

None of the endorsements that Romney has picked up have meant a thing in terms of how the people respond. Because the people are looking for a new generation of leadership. They're looking for a new approach to problem-solving in this country.

I think it's important to note as they say in China - (speaking Chinese). He doesn't quite understand the situation.

He was 47th overall in job creation. I think most importantly, while we were number one in job creation in our state so I think that is worth looking at and scrutinizing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Alright, let's dig a little deeper with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger and our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash.

Gloria, will Huntsman's endorsement of Romney make a little, not much, big difference? What is going to happen?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I think little. I think it's the margins look, when you're polling sort of a four percent; it's hard to say you're going to have a huge impact. But Mitt Romney is going to take every single vote he can get and I think what the moderates in the party and the more establishment Republicans, that seem to be attracted, to Huntsman's campaign, those people now might move over to Mitt Romney. He would be the most likely beneficiary. But, let's just say Mitt Romney is not counting on that support to win South Carolina.

BLITZER: The Huntsman family, the Romney family, prominent Mormon families but what kind of personal relationship do these two guys have?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know it's interesting, not much. They are actually -- this is a fun fact. They share -- they are distant cousins. They share a great, great, great grandfather. But the two of them, they actually didn't meet until they were both governors. They are bit really nothing much more than acquaintances.

There was some talk that there was a feud between them because back when Mitt Romney was chosen to head the Olympics in Salt Lake, Jon Huntsman was up for the job so there was some reports that there was some hard feelings between them but I talked to Mary Kay Huntsman about this and Jon Huntsman when we were in New Hampshire and they said, you know, he doesn't really know him that well.

BLITZER: Rick Santorum got a major endorsement, Gloria, from some evangelical leaders at the weekend. How big of a deal is this?

BORGER: Well, it helps him and it certainly helps him in a couple of ways. First of all, the campaign reports that they've had a 50 percent increase in online fundraising. I don't have a number on that. Since evangelicals sort of coalesced around the Santorum campaign.

And also with, you know, 60 percent Republicans registered Republicans being evangelicals, this will certainly help. I will argue though that it come way too late. That if this endorsement had come a month or so ago, don't you think it would have made much more of an impact than it will now? And also evangelical votes are split. I mean, you still have Newt Gingrich in the rate and you still have Rick Perry in the race and so --

BASH: And they were trying to do it behind the scenes. You know, Michele Bachmann stepped out she admitted, they came to her and asked her to get out because we want to coalesce on somebody. But they didn't do it publicly obviously until later.

BORGER: And don't forget, in 2008, John McCain was able to win the primary in South Carolina. Not because he was the favorite of the evangelicals as you know because you covered him, but because Huckabee and Fred Thompson split the evangelical vote. And that could happen here.

BLITZER: If Romney wins big in South Carolina and then goes on to win big in Florida, I could see some of the other Republican candidates dropping out but I see Ron Paul staying in for the long run.

You covered Ron Paul. What do you think?

BASH: I think you should expect that. In fact, we just have a report that he does what he calls "money bombs." to raised money. He raised $1.3 million over the weekend, and that exceeded what they wanted to do.

Look. He, himself, has made it very clear. He wants to stay in this, Wolf, through the Republican convention. He wants to gobble up as many delegates as he can until then and use the delegates for leverage for his issues he pushes and has been pushes for three decades like dealing with the Federal Reserve and beyond.

One thing I thought was very interesting in our poll and I think Gloria touched on this in the last hour. It's not that he's virtually tied with Barack Obama. It's with independent voters also. He virtually splits that with President Obama. That's something that his campaign has been pushing big-time, reminding the Republicans that no matter if he gets the nomination or not, that they still need him and his ilk if they want to win. BLITZER: Yes. But the risk he runs if he stays in too long and overly antagonizing the Republican establishment, potentially, that could hurt his son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. If he's thinking 2016, 2020 of seeking the Republican presidential -- its one thing he has to worry about but I agree. I think he'll stay in for a while.

BORGER: And it will be interesting to see what happens at the convention. Does he take it to the convention? Does he get a big speaking role at the Republican convention? All kinds of things can happen between now and then.

BLITZER: You're right, still to come. Thanks guys.

Be sure to tune in to CNN Thursday night for our southern Republican presidential debate where candidates square off days before the South Carolina primary. Our debate this Thursday night, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, only here on CNN.

Syria, a country in turmoil.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Soldiers cheer the president. And this, an unprovoked attack on the monitors. As they drive out, they leave behind a city under siege.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: CNN Nic Robertson takes us down an exclusive look inside one city in Syria on the edge. Stand by. We are going there.

Also, back to Italy in the aftermath of the Costa Concordia disaster. Who is to blame?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: With the rescue efforts of the partially-sunken Costa Concordia underway, the captain of Italian cruise ship will appear before a judge tomorrow. CNN's senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance, has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The sheer terror of passengers abandoning their sinking ship as the stricken cruise liner tilts in the darkness, this crammed lifeboat crashes against its side. Investigators are asking how this catastrophe at sea could have happened.

It looks like the set of a disaster movie. An ocean liner with more than 4,000 passengers and crew impaled on the Italian coast. Why this enormous vessel was in shallow waters so close to land remains unclear. One theory, the campaign was attempting to salute the island as it passed.

PIER LUIGI FOSCHI, CHAIRMAN, CEO, COSTA: We believe it has been a human error here on the captain. He did not follow the authorized route which is used by Costa ships very frequently. There is probably more than 100 times in one year.

CHANCE: Under arrest, the captain denies any wrongdoing but charts of the area obtained by CNN and which he says he consulted, clearly show rocks where the Costa Concordia went to ground.

At the moment, experts appear to agree that human error was a significant contributing factor to that maritime disaster. Costa, the company that operates the cruise liner says that its captain deviated from his course and he's to blame. But the company also has four other ships virtually identical to the Concordia. They will want to know for sure that they are safe. And sea worthy. And maritime experts say technical failure, even on these modern high-tech vessels, can't be ruled out.

COMMODORE ANGUS MENZIES, HONORABLE COMPANY OF MASTER MARINERS: The ship may have suffered some catastrophic electrical power failure, where you lost some of her navigation lighting and other ship systems that may have been uncontrollable until the shop got power back on, if she did.

CHANCE: The chaos and panic must have been terrifying as passengers and crew scrambled overboard. Many passengers complained there was no safety drill before the ship set sail adding to the confusion. And raising questions about how safe these fast ocean-going liners really are.

Matthew chance, CNN, London.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our Alexandra Steele. She is mapping the ship's route.

Alexandra, the captain has been accused of making major blunders, major mistakes. What do we know about that?

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, Wolf. I'm going to show you the Mediterranean and where some pivotal decisions as you say, Wolf, were made.

So, here's the big picture. This is the Mediterranean ocean. Of course, here's Rome, Italy. This yellow line delineates where the cruise was going. It was headed on a 1700-mile seven-day journey, again, 4200 people aboard this behemoth ship, about the size of three football fields.

SO here, about an hour and a half northwest of Rome, the shift begins. Mind you, Friday night, its night one, three hours into the journey. Now, this yellow line shows you where it was supposed to go. Look what happens though. See where this red line picks up? This yellow line is called kind of the shell, the fit of the ship land where it is supposed to be, it's about four and a half miles away from this island, Giglio, where it was supposed to be, right. So, it's four and a half miles away from that. This cruiser and the captain decided to take this left hand turn. It heads closer to the island, gets now about a hundred yard away from this island.

Now, what happen here and you heard Matthew just talked about this. There could have been this bravado, this wow factor he was trying to show off, perhaps, getting as close as he possibly could to the island. So he gets as close as he possibly can, he's riding along, things seem fine.

They strike this rock. Again, the passengers have been on the ship about three hours. There's a magic show going on. There's a meal happening as well.

It strikes the ship. There's a loud noise. Things crash all over. The lights flash. People are told it's fine.

The ship continues to move after it hits this rock, and then as it continues to move, perhaps at this point it begins taking in water. And it begins listing a little bit.

So at this point the captain decides -- again, another pivotal decision -- decides to take this left-hand turn. Now go potentially into the port. Now, the ship is to massive, it's too big for the port, but potentially he was thinking about being closer to the land and the possibility of evacuations, and being closer to that.

So those are just a few of the decisions that may have been made.

Want to show you some interesting pictures and give you a little perspective on the massiveness of this.

Look. This is this cruise liner. This is a Boeing 747. Look how small. It dwarfs, right, in comparison to this behemoth, the Statue of Liberty?

So, just to show you how huge it is -- and also, I kind of want to show you what else we're seeing in terms of what it looks like at night and some really scary images. Look at this.

This is the bow of the boat at night. All of this orange are these life jackets and life preservers people are wearing. And you only can imagine the fear.

And this is the rock that was hit. And look at here, people coming down off this rope and how scary, Wolf, this really must have been.

BLITZER: Wow. Excellent explanation, Alexandra. Obviously, this pilot made a major, major blunder in going that close to the shoreline when he's supposed to be much further, about four miles away, as you said.

STEELE: Oh, absolutely.

BLITZER: All right, Alexandra. Thanks very much.

Amid this horrific disaster, also some incredible stories of survival. Our Mary Snow is working this part of the story -- Mary. MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: To underscore how much confusion there was, there were passengers who had no idea at first how much danger they faced. One told CNN she thought the ship was making a turn and she went to bed. But then came panic.

Several passengers told CNN there were moments when they didn't think they would survive.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): Amateur video captured this scene aboard the Costa Concordia Friday night. Despite what passengers were being told, Brandon Warrick of Boston, on board with his two siblings, describes massive panic.

BRANDON WARRICK, CRUISE SHIP CRASH SURVIVOR: It was just battling to get on the lifeboats and nobody followed any procedure. The crew was yelling for people to wait their turn. And pretty much, it was a giant, every man for himself to get on to the lifeboats, the first ones before they were even lowered.

SNOW: And once aboard, in pitch-black darkness, there were terrifying moments.

NANCY LOFARO, CRUISE SHIP CRASH SURVIVOR: At one point we were being lowered, and we went sliding off to one side, and everybody fell onto one side of the lifeboat, and then we went slamming into the ship. This happened a few times over about 30 seconds. And then, finally, we were lowered to the water level. And from there, it took a while.

Even though we're so close, I think the photographs and video show what close proximity we were to shore. It took about 30 minutes for us to get to shore. The lifeboats were hitting into each other. It was just chaos.

SNOW: For some, lifeboats were not an option. With none left, Mark Plath, of Little Rock, Arkansas, along with his wife and in-laws, had to make a quick decision as they waited on the lower side of the ship.

MARK PLATH, CRUISE SHIP CRASH SURVIVOR: We were helping the staff more than they were helping us. They weren't in control. There were very few people that knew what was going on in our area.

Only one person, and he was shouting, "Don't jump!" But the boat was turning so fast, that if we wouldn't have, we would have died.

JUSTIN BAINES, CRUISE SHIP CRASH SURVIVOR: Hit the cold water, and our life jackets have a little light on them. And when you turn it on, it gets wet and starts to flash. And so all you could see a lot of flashing lights in the pitch black. And everyone was just swimming.

There were some people that were really freaking out, grabbing hold of other people. Everyone was just trying to keep everyone calm. But eventually, you know, I guess 150 people that jumped in the water, 200 people finally swam and got on to the island. (END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: Amazing how calm they are in retelling these harrowing tales.

The two men you just heard from Little Rock told CNN they estimate they swam about 300 feet before climbing on to rocks on shore. And then they say no one came to their aid. After about two hours, they say someone from town walked them to a highway, and after that, cars picked them up and took them to different locations -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a chaotic scene. Wow. All right. Thanks, Mary.

Mary Snow reporting.

With the field narrowing and the stakes getting higher, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich takes jabs at the front-runner, Mitt Romney.

And later, our own Nic Robertson gets an exclusive look inside a Syrian town under siege.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The crowd has gone absolutely wild now that monitors have arrived, even carrying them on their shoulders here. They are treating the monitors as if they are gods that have been sent here to save them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The clock is ticking and the battle for South Carolina is certainly on. And with the first Republican contest in the South now only five days away, the candidates are turning up the heat on the front-runner, Mitt Romney.

Let's go to the scene. CNN's Jim Acosta is standing by.

Jim, what's the latest?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Mitt Romney got some good news today in that Jon Huntsman is out of this race. But Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are more than filling in for his absence.

They are going right after Mitt Romney on this issue of electability. The Romney forces like to say that the former Massachusetts governor is the most electable when it comes to a head-to-head match-up with Barack Obama.

Listen to what Newt Gingrich and Santorum have to say about that argument to South Carolina voters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They can't come out and say here's why you should be for him, so they chant, "He's electable! He's electable!"

These are the same people who got us beat in '96. They're the same people who got us beat in '08.

(APPLAUSE)

GINGRICH: You know, ask yourself a simple question. Why would you want to nominate the guy who lost to the guy who lost to Obama?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I hear it all the time, "We're tired of you folks compromising." We're tired of compromise. We're tired of everybody going to Washington saying they're going to do something and doing something else.

We want people who are going to stand for their convictions. We want people who have the courage to go out and do what's right because it's right.

Well, now the challenge is to you. Are you going to compromise? Are you going to vote for somebody who can win, or are you going to vote for someone who is the right person for America?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: But if the question for Republicans this election year, Wolf, is who is the most electable in a fight against Barack Obama, the Romney forces could look no further than our latest CNN/ORC poll. If you look at the numbers, it's pretty dramatic.

Mitt Romney at this point beating Barack Obama in a head-to-head match-up, although statistically they're really tied. The same can be said for Ron Paul. A very surprising finding here, that Ron Paul, also statistically tied with the president in a head-to-head match-up.

But Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, the numbers are very different. Newt Gingrich trailing the president by nine points in this new CNN/ORC poll, and Rick Santorum by seven points. That is not good.

And getting back to that endorsement from Jon Huntsman for Mitt Romney earlier today, that happened after Jon Huntsman got out of this race. One endorsement Mitt Romney did not pick up today, that is from Jim DeMint, the South Carolina senator and Tea Party godfather. He is very influential in conservative circles.

He endorsed Mitt Romney back in 2008, but alas, Mitt Romney will not have this endorsement, at least not before the South Carolina primary. He's stilling neutral for now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Rick Santorum -- one slight correction -- trailing by six points instead of seven points. But those are fascinating numbers.

Jim Acosta reporting for us. Thanks very, very much.

And this important note to our viewers. Don't forget to tune into CNN Saturday night, 7:00 p.m. Eastern, for full coverage of the South Carolina primary.

And don't miss my interviews with the candidates. I'll speak tomorrow with Governor Rick Perry and Wednesday with Newt Gingrich.

In Syria, Arab League monitors enter a suburb of Damascus to a mob of people on the brink of desperation. CNN's Nic Robertson is on the scene for us. He's a courageous journalist. He shares what happens.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Lisa Sylvester is monitoring some of the other top stories in THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Lisa, what else is going on?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

Police arrested 23-year-old Itzcoatl Ocampo on Friday in connection with the stabbing deaths of four homeless men. And now his father is speaking out, revealing that he himself is homeless. Refugio Ocampo tells local news media he's lived in his truck since losing his home back in 2008. He also says his son was a Marine in Iraq and the experience "killed the person he was."

A conservative group is launching an ad campaign linking President Obama to the failed green energy company Solyndra. Americans for Prosperity says it is spending $6 million to run TV spots in Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia and Iowa. Solyndra failed after receiving $535 million in federal loan guarantees in 2009. The ad accuses Mr. Obama of securing the guarantees for political purposes.

And Pakistan's prime minister says he will appear before the country's supreme court on Thursday. The court issued a notice for a contempt hearing for the Pakistani leader's refusal to open thousands of corruption cases against politicians and bureaucrats. The prime minister did push back in a televised speech today, saying the army and judiciary branch must protect democracy. If convicted, he could lose his post -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Lisa, thank you.

Desperate cries for help in Syria suddenly erupting into bitter chaos. Our own Nic Robertson coming up. He's got a CNN exclusive from the scene.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: More carnage in Syria, where activists say at least 13 people have been killed today alone. In one Damascus suburb, an opposition group says at least 20 people were wounded by the Syrian army.

CNN Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson joined Arab League monitors there and got an exclusive, sometimes heart-stopping, look at this town on the front line.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROBERTSON (voice-over): On the road to Zabadani, it feels like we're entering a war. We see only army check posts, then this, civilians, the first we meet.

(on camera): What these people down here have just told us is that they're fleeing, they're running away. They haven't got any possessions with them. They don't have a car either. They're just getting out of town as fast as they can.

(voice-over): Further on, at the front line, more people fleeing. We cross to the anti-government side, follow Arab League monitors through twisting streets into the town center. Little can prepare them or us for the welcome we receive: thousands of anti-Assad protesters.

(on camera): The crowd have gone absolutely wild now. The monitors have arrived, even carrying them on their soldiers there. They're treating the monitors as if they are gods who have been sent here to save them.

(voice-over): Bitter anger against the government is everywhere.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In Zabadani every day, every morning --

ROBERTSON (on camera): Shooting.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Shooting.

ROBERTSON (voice-over): "Two or three people have been killed," she says, "more than 60 wounded." And now, for the last three days, she adds, "Water, electricity and phones have been cut off."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are striking anything in the streets, killing people. We don't need this regime! Can you understand me? They are killing us!

ROBERTSON: Inside the nearby mosque, Arab League monitors use the calm to take down more details. This man tells us he was shot going out to get bread, has lost a finger. His brother, he says, killed.

In this mountain town close to the border with Lebanon, military defectors now with the Free Syrian Army say they have 70 lightly-armed fighters. We don't see them, but the monitors do.

After more than an hour, as the monitors inch their vehicles through the crowds, more and more press forward. They don't want the monitors from the Arab League to go, telling them soldiers will use their tanks to fire on the town as soon as they leave.

In apparent desperation, the crowd turns on the monitors, beats their car, begins to throw rocks, forcing them to drive a dangerous road towards front-line troops not expecting them. Gunshots fired. Monitors stop, wave their orange jacket to show who they are.

Half a mile, 800 meters ahead, the road is blocked. It is the Syrian government front line. We are forced to stop. It is not a safe place to be.

(on camera): The monitors are trying to shout out to the soldiers on the other side of the front line there to clear the road, to clear the barricade. It's clearly a road that's not often used now. The soldiers over there seem to be very nervous.

(voice-over): They won't let the monitors cross. As we wait, soldiers bring out one of their dead, say he's just been shot.

They shout at the camera, "Film! Film! Is this the freedom you want? Is this what the world wants? Is this the Syria you are looking for?"

Around us the soldiers are edgy, occasional shouts ring out.

Finally, after an hour and a half in the danger zone, a digger is brought forward, two soldiers riding shotgun. They begin clearing the barricade.

Gunfire erupts. Not clear who is shooting. Soldiers run for cover.

The monitors race for safety, past plenty of armored vehicles and heavy machine guns. Twenty seconds later, they stop at the front-line army base. Soldiers cheer the president, then this, an unprovoked attack on the monitors.

(CHANTING)

ROBERTSON: As they drive out, they leave behind a city under siege.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Zabadani, Syria.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Nic Robertson, literally risking his life to bring us that report, all of these reports over these past few days. Want to thank him; Khalil Abdullah (ph), his CNN photographer; Tommy Evans (ph), his CNN producer. All three of them doing amazing work to bring us the news from Syria.

We've waited for months to get in. They are finally in, and they're doing a heroic job bringing us these stories.

Jeanne Moos is coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Rate your rat? CNN's Jeanne Moos explains.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When you see a New Yorker looking down the tracks, it's not always a train he's looking for.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I saw a huge one.

MOOS: Next time, don't just gawk at it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Take a picture of a rat in the subway.

MOOS: The Rate My Rat contest has been extended. The Transit Workers Union asked commuters to submit their nastiest rat photo to RatFreeSubway.com. The contest Web site features videos shot in the subway like "Rat Drags Pizza" --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It ain't going to fit in your hole (ph).

MOOS: And "Rat Picnic" even has a soundtrack.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (singing): Picnic time for teddy bears

MOOS: In the rat gallery, you can vote on the photos submitted by commuters -- handsome, cute, plain, ugly, and the coveted beastly.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Wow, that's ugly.

MOOS: Ratty is an understatement to describe this one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hit by a train or perhaps made contact with a third rail.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my gosh. And still moving.

MOOS: At the opposite end of the scale, it's the beer-swigging party rat.

(on camera): Miller Lite.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's a cute one.

MOOS (voice-over): Who cares about the Golden Globes? New York has the golden rat.

Leading the rat pack, this guy nosing around a slit in a garbage bag is ahead in the voting.

The winning photographer gets to ride the rails free for a month. But hey, rats always get a free ride. Remember the sleeping passenger who woke up to a rat crawling on him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

MOOS: Conductor Scott Harris (ph) describes how a train operator snacking in the crew room was bitten by a rat. SCOTT HARRIS (ph), TRAIN CONDUCTOR: Went to bite the food and it actually bit him.

MOOS: The union is pushing the contest because it's negotiating with management and wants the Transit Authority to hire more cleaners.

Sometimes the subway can feel like a rat race to nowhere.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All you people over there, there's no service. You sitting on the bench, you're going to be there until 5:00 in the morning.

MOOS: At least the rats provide entertainment. This visitor from Chicago joked about spotting her very first subway rat the other night.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I finally feel like I've arrived.

MOOS: How big was it? Who needs to exaggerate in a city where we once saw a rat about to get squished in the middle of 9th Avenue when a good Samaritan ran out and rescued it.

Who says New Yorker's don't give a rat's (EXPLETIVE DELETED)? It turns out the rescuer was from Boston.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: That's it for me. Thanks for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The news continues next on CNN.