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THE SITUATION ROOM

Gun Rights Fight; Remembering Newtown Victims; Interview With Congressman Chris Murphy

Aired December 18, 2012 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: A lot of tough conversations here in Newtown, Connecticut, today, many of these conversations so, so painful, as so many students who went back to school, faced their fears after the shooting massacre.

We're learning gruesome new details about the way the shooter, Adam Lanza, and his mother, Nancy, died. She was in her pajamas when he killed her. And in the wake of this tragedy, a fierce new push for gun control from a club no one wanted to join.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM MAUSER, FATHER: I'm the father of Daniel Mauser, who was killed in the massacre in Columbine High School.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our daughter, Jessica Redfield Ghawi, was killed in Aurora on July 20 of this year.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Newtown, Connecticut. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

Right now, police are working around the clock to solve the mystery of why the 20-year-old Adam Lanza gunned down 20 students and six educators in this small town. We're learning about details from the investigation.

Our national correspondent, Deborah Feyerick, has more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FEYERICK (voice-over): Police investigators returned to the home of the gunman Tuesday. Investigators are having a hard time retrieving data from a badly damaged computer found inside the house, according to a law enforcement source, because the hard drive was shattered.

Not only does it appear Adam Lanza tried to erase his digital foot steps, he shot the only witness who could have fully explained what was going on inside him. His mother Nancy shot four times in the head as she slept in her bed, likely early Friday, the autopsy shows.

Under the terms of her 2009 divorce agreement, she was the one responsible for paying her son's psychiatric or psychological expenses, plus costs of any prescription medications not covered by insurance. The medical examiner is waiting for results of toxicology tests performed on Adam Lanza to see whether he was on any medications or drugs that may have potentially added to the rampage.

The medical examiner also working with investigators to determine if Lanza was correctly diagnosed with Asperger's or whether anything else was at play. A family friend, who had worked on the Lanza home, tells CNN, Nancy Lanza had pushed hard to mainstream her son, mixing him in with other students, apparently unsuccessfully.

(on camera): The friend says while he was in the home earlier this year, he did see Adam Lanza, but Lanza refused to engage in any sort of conversation or even make eye contact. It appears that there's no record of Adam Lanza from 2009 on. That was the last time he was registered in any sort of class.

The last sighting, a couple of months ago, back at a shooting range where his mom took him, because he didn't want to leave him alone -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Deborah Feyerick, thanks very much. A very small step back to normal today. Most of the Newtown students, they returned to school for the first time since the massacre with police standing guard.

Kate Bolduan is here watching what's going on.

You have some new information about this return to school?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Return to school for the Sandy Hook Elementary School students. In a letter to both family and staff, the school superintendent said that they will not be returning to class until after the holiday, in January.

There had been some questions this week on when they would. In that letter, the school superintendent, Janet Robinson, wrote this in part, Wolf. She wrote, "We need to tend to our teachers' and students' needs to feel comfortable after this trauma in this new place."

Now, meantime, some 50, 75 people have been working around the clock in this new building, it's about six miles away, it's Chalk Hill Middle School. They're converting entitle Sandy Hook Elementary School. And we have a picture to show our viewers what they're doing and the progress they're making.

They're replicating the Sandy Hook classrooms down to the desks that the students had at Sandy Hook, even down to the crayon boxes and the materials they had in the desks at the time. And we're showing that picture to really show the progress that they are making. We spoke with a fire marshal, Wolf, today and the update that he's given, Monroe, the town, will be ready to hand over the building to Newtown officials later this week. And of course, when students do return to this new building to start back, the new Sandy Hook, is what we can call it, they can rest assured this will be one of the most secured schools in the state, at the very least, I'm told, because they will have police both inside and out.

BLITZER: And it's only, what, about seven miles away from here?

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: It's a short distance. It's a school that had been closed last year, due to declining enrollment in that town. People call it a godsend that they had this building really ready to go and they're just upgrading things that they need to get ready for an elementary school.

BLITZER: And we're talking nearly 600 kids, grades kindergarten through fourth grade, who had attended the Sandy Hook...

BOLDUAN: And it's absolutely fine. This facility, I believe they told me it fits 700 students in this facility. They can easily fit in the elementary school students. As soon as they get -- the fire marshal signs off on the new security systems, the new door locks, fire alarms, sprinklers, that sort of thing, Wolf.

BLITZER: Good information. We wish all these kids only the best and their parents as well.

Now let's see how that first day back at school went for a lot of these students here in Newtown, Connecticut.

CNN's Mary Snow has been covering this part of the story for us.

Mary, update our viewers.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And, you know, Wolf, in talking about the efforts to open that new school for the Sandy Hook students, we have been seeing trucks moving those supplies coming in and out of this main street.

But there are about 5,500 students in this school district. And today the district opened its doors, schools opened their doors for the first time since Friday's tragedy.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW (voice-over): School buses rolling once again as Newtown struggles to resume a sense of normalcy, but it is anything but normal. Funerals were held nearby. Police presence were stepped up. Cameras fixed on this grease stricken town. In the midst of it, some parents welcomed getting back to a routine in the classroom.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's exactly what the kids need after such a, you know, terrible tragedy. A lot of them do know what's going on and they need somewhere, you know, to get their thoughts back to the fun stuff. SNOW: But it also meant that kids from other schools who had been shielded from what happened would now return and potentially hear about the grim events that had transpired at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

AARON COX, FATHER: When I picked my daughter up from school on Friday, that the first words out of her mouth were, "Pa, why are you picking me up, we're having such a great day." And I need to thank the teachers and the staff for doing their best to shield my child from what happened.

SNOW: Before returning to class, schools encouraged parents to talk with their kids about Friday's horrific shootings, saying the staff can't control what children hear from others.

WENDY DAVENSON, GRIEF COUNSELOR: When a crisis likes this happens --

SNOW: Wendy Davenson is a grief counselor in Newtown, who's been advising parents on how to talk to their kids.

DAVENSON: -- children don't need details. All they need to know is a fact, that a bad thing happened, people were killed and we are making our schools very safe and this doesn't happen very, very often and we are working that it never will happen again.

SNOW: And to prepare for students returning, the district met with school staff, from bus drivers to teachers, on Monday. A crisis intervention expert spoke to them. Among the things he cautioned about, the dangers of getting too emotional in front of children, something Davenson says can be overwhelming for the kids.

DAVENSON: That's terrifying for children, because we are supposed to be the strength for them. We provide security and safety and predictability. And if the teachers fall apart, that's going to scare them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SNOW: And, Wolf, as you can imagine, the counselors are on hand for students, staff, and also parents -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Mary, thanks very much, Mary Snow reporting.

BOLDUAN: Thank you, Mary.

Still ahead, the White House is getting specific for the first time about the president's promise to do something about gun violence. Also, a loving tribute to a substitute teacher who died doing what she loved. Lauren Rousseau's boyfriend shares his memories.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: After this horrible tragedy, calls for changes to gun control laws, they are certainly growing louder and louder. And until just a few hours ago, the National Rifle Association had been largely silent since Friday morning.

But in a statement this afternoon, the group now says this: "Out of respect for the families and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer, and a full investigation of the facts before commenting. The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."

That statement from the NRA and they say they will have a full- scale news conference Friday.

BOLDUAN: The NRA will be holding a news conference on Friday, as Wolf says. And no doubt the staunchly anti-gun control group will try to make its voice heard by lawmakers.

Before last week's appalling violence here in Newtown, gun control was on almost really no one's agenda in Washington, but that might be changing at this point.

CNN's White House correspondent, Brianna Keilar, has been looking into this.

So, Brianna, we have heard talk of gun control measures before. What's different this time around?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The sense, Kate, is that this is different. President Obama has been criticized now for days by gun control advocates for being too vague about how he wants to tackle this problem. Now the White House is detailing some of the things that President Obama wants to do.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR (voice-over): Today, for the first time, the White House got specific on how the president will tackle gun violence.

(on camera): Is he right now actively considering measures, be it gun laws or mental health measures right now?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, he is actively supportive of, for example, Senator Feinstein's stated intent to revive a piece of legislation that would reinstate the assault weapons ban.

KEILAR (voice-over): The White House says the president would like to close the gun show loophole, ban high capacity ammunition clips and look at measures that address mental health. Critics have charged the president with failing to lead on gun violence even as Republican supporters of gun rights like Ohio Congressman Steve LaTourette say it's time to find a bipartisan solution.

REPRESENTATIVE STEVE LATOURETTE (R), OHIO: I think most Republicans are willing to have a very serious conversation about what this means and taking a second look at what the second amendment means in the 21st Century.

KEILAR (on camera): Did the president feel like he was behind? CARNEY: I think you're trying to turn this into a political theater thing. It's not how the president views it.

KEILAR (voice-over): But the president is appearing to act more aggressively on the issue. He called West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a pro-gun rights Democrat who once started his own campaign ad shooting the cap and trade bill pushed by Obama.

He now says it's time to act on gun violence. The president met with members of his cabinet, Monday afternoon, Vice President Joe Biden, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and Attorney General Eric Holder.

A demonstration of the comprehensive approach the president wants to take in combating the problem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: Observers of this debate say President Obama could exert his executive authority and bypass Congress to go it alone on certain things like better sharing of information between federal, state, and local law enforcement on potentially illegal gun sales, things like restricting the sale of certain military-style weapons, Wolf. Of course, the assault weapons ban, that is something that he would need to cooperate with Congress on, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brianna Keilar over at the White House, thanks very much for that report.

By the way, a Connecticut congressman who was just elected to the United States Senate is very emotional about this massacre in his district. That's understandable. He's standing by to talk with us. We will speak with him when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Connecticut's congressional delegation has sponsored a vigil, a vigil for the victims here in Newtown, Connecticut.

Also, Democratic Representative Chris Murphy went to the floor of the House of Representatives to give an emotional speech, thanking his colleagues for their support and praising the people of Newtown.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. CHRIS MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: The closeness of Newtown makes it hurt more, but the closeness of Newtown will also make us heal as well.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Congressman Murphy is joining us from Washington right now. And he will be leaving the House next year to take up his new job as a U.S. senator from Connecticut.

And as you just told us, senator-elect, you will also be heading back here to Connecticut very soon to grieve with many folks here. Thanks for taking the time to be with us.

MURPHY: Well, thanks for being there.

BOLDUAN: Go ahead.

BLITZER: How do you think your community here, and I know your congressional district represents the people here in Newtown, how do you think they're holding up?

MURPHY: Well, listen, I think there's been a blankness to the faces of a lot of people in Newtown. You have seen it. People are just trying to understand this.

That being said, you know, there's so many resources that have come to town, whether it be grief counselors or people to help get the students back to school. I mean, people do feel a sense of love coming from Connecticut, coming from their community and from the whole nation, and I hope they felt a little bit of that last night when the House of Representatives stopped to honor the victims.

But this is going to be a very long process. I was at the first funeral of so many on Monday, and the little twin sister of Noah Pozner hadn't quite grasped yet that she had lost her brother. And you imagine that over the coming weeks and months, there are going to be people who finally start to realize this hurt.

Even when the TV cameras leave Newtown, we're going to need a lot of help and a lot of support to help people who are going to be grieving over a very long time.

BLITZER: I know you are being briefed on the investigation. Do you have a better sense of why this shooter, this killer, went to the Sandy Hook Elementary School?

MURPHY: I don't.

I'm learning at the same time that everyone else is. And I think a lot of people in Sandy Hook are asking those questions of why. And some people have asked the state police, well, why are you spending so much time on the motive if you already know who the killer is? You're not preparing for a trial.

But people want to get as much information here as they can. They're not going to get answers to all of these whys, but if we can get a little bit better view into this motive, I think it will allow people to rest a little bit easier having all that information at their fingertips, if it exists.

BOLDUAN: I want to read you a letter that one of your constituents sent to you, as well as to Senator Blumenthal. He's also the neighbor of the shooting victim Anne Marie Murphy.

In part, he wrote this to you in the letter. He said: "The people of your state have been assaulted and murdered. We demand that you take leadership in pursuing new gun control legislation. Be the leader that this country is sorely lacking. Have the courage to stand up for those kids that were murdered."

What do you say to him? What has this tragedy -- how has this tragedy changed your views?

MURPHY: Well, I say to him this, that my priorities as Connecticut's next U.S. senator changed on Friday.

I am now going to spend my time as Connecticut's newest U.S. senator leading the fight to combat gun violence. I'm going to be standing with Dianne Feinstein and with Joe Manchin and with Mark Warner to pass an assault weapons ban. I'm going to be leading a conversation about how we combat the rising culture of violence in this country.

You know, my tenure as a United States senator from Connecticut changed on Friday and I'm going to answer that call. Right now, I'm spending most of my time with my constituents in Newtown grieving. But I am going to be a leader to make sure that the memories of those 26 people do not go on in vain, that they have a senator and that they have people in Washington who are going to make sure that we do everything within our power to make sure that this doesn't befall any other community anywhere else in this country.

BLITZER: You know, there have been a few Republican governors, Bob McDonnell of Virginia, for example, Congressman, who floated the idea that school officials, perhaps, should be armed, and not just police officers who may be at schools, but school officials. Is that a good idea?

MURPHY: It's a ridiculous notion.

The fact is that Newtown did everything right. They had prepared for emergency drills. They executed them with perfection. They had a security system that frankly wasn't going to hold up against someone with that kind of weaponry.

Our focus should be on keeping these kind of dangerous assault weapons out of his hands, making sure that nobody can walk in with 30 rounds in a clip and trying to prevent the tragedy in the first place. The answer is not to arm America and arm America's schools.

The answer is to try to get the guns out of the hands of people who would do this kind of violence. We have got to look in a totally different direction than where some of these people are trying to point out.

BLITZER: Congressman Murphy, thanks so much for joining us. Good luck. This is going to be a tough assignment for you. It's going to be a tough assignment for everyone here. I think I speak for all of us. We have been thoroughly impressed by the people in Newtown. They could not be warmer and more welcoming and they have been excellent at dealing with this -- the enormity of this crisis.

Congressman, soon to be senator, thanks very much.

MURPHY: Thank you very much. BOLDUAN: Still ahead, as Newtown buries some of its children, a glimpse at the hard road ahead from parents who lost sons and daughters in other mass killings.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LONNIE PHILLIPS, FATHER: Just going to a friend's wedding and watching her dance with her father, there's no way to stop the tears.

SANDY PHILLIPS, MOTHER: To know that what we're never going to have those simple joys, ever again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The tragedy here in Newtown hits painfully close to home for so many families scarred by other mass shootings.

Some of them went to Washington today to try to help push for new gun laws.

Lisa Sylvester is picking up this part of the story -- Lisa.

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, these families, they all have a message. They have been through hell and they want gun violence to stop. One dad who lost his son in Columbine wore the very shoes his son was wearing that day. Others brought pictures of their loved ones and they all have their own deeply heartbreaking stories.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MAUSER: I'm the father of Daniel Mauser, who was killed in the massacre in Columbine High School.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My sister Reema Samaha was a freshman at Virginia Tech. She followed me there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our daughter, Jessica Redfield Ghawi, was killed in Aurora on July 20 of this year.

SYLVESTER (voice-over): A club no one wanted to join, each one directly touched by gun violence, Columbine, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Tucson. Peter Read's daughter was a freshman at Virginia Tech.

PETER READ, FATHER: God forgive us as a country if it takes a literal slaughter of innocents in a holy season to wake us up.

SYLVESTER: The slaying of 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds in Newtown, Connecticut, has been described as a game-changer in the debate over gun control. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence invited families to Washington to press Congress to renew the ban on assault weapons and pass other gun control measures.

DAN GROSS, BRADY CAMPAIGN TO PREVENT GUN VIOLENCE: The only place that this is a contentious political debate is in that building behind us. And there's a disconnect between what the American public wants on this issue and what our elected officials are doing about it.

SYLVESTER: The National Rifle Association put out a statement saying -- quote -- "We were shocked, saddened and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown. Out of respect for the families and as a matter of common decency, we have given time for mourning, prayer, and a full investigation of the facts before commenting. The NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."

Friday morning, Andre Nikitchyuk put his young son, who he calls Bear, on the school bus, headed to Sandy Hook Elementary School.

ANDRE NIKITCHYUK, FATHER: He was a classroom helper. He was sent from his classroom to turn in attendance sheets to the principal's office, he and another little kid. Together, they went into hallway, and when they were nearing the principal, the principal's office, they heard gunshots. Ms. Clements, which we will ever be thankful for and will never be enough, she pulled them in her own classroom and barricaded the door.

SYLVESTER: His son survived, but 20 other children did not.

NIKITCHYUK: Why our politicians are not doing something about this problem? I think they are too deep in their partisan B.S.

SYLVESTER: Jessica Ghawi died in the Aurora movie theater shooting. Her parents say they feel a pain that is beyond words.

L. PHILLIPS: Just going to her friend's wedding and watching her dance with her father, there's no way to stop the tears.

S. PHILLIPS: To know that what we're never going to have those simple joys, ever again.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SYLVESTER: And those stories are so incredibly heartbreaking.

A number of conservatives in Congress have also said, you know, maybe it's time we take a look at this issue again. The National Rifle Association has been lying low for the most part since this incident, but the NRA announced today that it will have a news conference on Friday -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Lisa, for that report.

So today, Connecticut's governor signed a proclamation declaring this coming Friday a day of mourning in the state. He's requesting that residents statewide participant in a moment of silence at 9:30 a.m. That's about the same time that Adam Lanza showed up at the school and started shooting.

Today, I spoke with a man who's become the public face of the investigation, of the Sandy Hook school shooting. The Connecticut State Police lieutenant, Paul Vance.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Lieutenant Vance, in your 39-year career, how do you prepare for the enormity of a tragedy like this?

LT. PAUL VANCE, CONNECTICUT STATE POLICE: Training. Training. Constant, constant training. Things you hope you never will have to use. Just like the sidearm that I wear, you hope you'll never have to use it. You have to train, you have to prepare. Because when you get to a scene or a situation, even a scene of this magnitude, you have to act. And there's no time.

BLITZER: Because you have emerged as the chief spokesman. You're telling not only people here, but all over the world, what's going on. It must take a toll on you.

VANCE: I does. But our training prepares us to work through those issues. To go through something like this is devastating. It's truly devastating, because we're only human. And we think about the families, we think about these children, we think about the people who lost their lives. We think about the teachers that protected their children. And then all those things you process, but you have to shove it aside and move forward and do what you're trained to do.

BLITZER: And you met with these families, of these 26 victims, 20 kids, six educators. That must be one of the most difficult things you've ever done in your life.

VANCE: I was -- I was part of it, but quite frankly, the people that were assigned to work with them, the one on ones, if you will, the interviewers that had to interview people, those are very, very hard jobs, are very hard things to do. There are so many people that played such a major role in this whole situation, that it's really spread out amongst many.

BLITZER: Was there -- I know the whole thing has been painful. It's been painful for all of us who have been here. I can only imagine what the families are going through. Was there one moment that stands out in your mind that you'll never forget the rest of your life?

VANCE: I think the crime scene itself is something that has made an indelible mark in all of our minds. If you were tasked with that responsibility of going into that crime scene, it's something that we will never be able to erase.

BLITZER: You mean, when you walked into that Sandy Hook Elementary School and you saw the bodies of little kids on the floor?

VANCE: That's right, yes.

BLITZER: How do you -- how can you even -- that must be so shocking. That must be so traumatic.

VANCE: It's an indelible mark. It's never going to go away.

BLITZER: You never saw anything like that before in your life? VANCE: No.

BLITZER: I mean, you've been to a lot of crime scenes.

VANCE: Oh, yes.

BLITZER: This was the most horrific?

VANCE: Definitely.

BLITZER: By far?

VANCE: Definitely.

BLITZER: So let's look ahead now. We want to make sure this doesn't happen again. It will happen again. You know that. I know that. What can we do to reduce the chances of this happening again?

VANCE: Well, I think everyone's looked at this scene, this situation. We've always prepared, even when we were younger, for fire drills. We prepared for emergencies within the school. I think -- I think that's a constant thing that we're always going to do in our educational system. And review, re-review, look at it, see how we can make sure to continue to make our most precious children as safe as we can make them.

We have to. We worked through 9/11 and we continued and life went on. We -- I don't want to simplify anything, but we've got to work through this.

BLITZER: Do we need a national commission to take a look at school safety?

VANCE: That's above me. That's above me. I know that on a local level, I'm sure our town leaders, our state leaders are all going to continuously look at school safety to ensure that our children are safe.

BLITZER: Lieutenant Vance, let me thank you for what you and all the men and women of the Connecticut State Police have done. You've been a source of real strength to all of us, as journalists and as Americans, as citizens, in learning what's going on. You've done an outstanding job.

VANCE: Thank you very much. Appreciate that.

BLITZER: Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BOLDUAN: He has been very strong and very much the face, throughout this entire ordeal.

BLITZER: I spent some quality time over at the Connecticut State Police headquarters about 40 minutes or so from here. A very, very decent guy. BOLDUAN: Yes. A very, very good guy.

Stand by for more of -- much more of our coverage on the Connecticut shooting, as well as some of the other top stories today, including a reporter's hostage ordeal in Syria. NBC's Richard Engle is sharing his story.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A team of NBC News journalists is finally safe and free after being held by kidnappers in Syria. Ivan Watson has the latest details from Turkey.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

IVAN WATSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Wolf, the looks on the NBC News team say it all. The looks of relief, smiles, and exhaustion, as well, after a harrowing five-day ordeal inside Syria, after being kidnapped by men on a roadside, a gang of men with guns, just about ten minutes' drive into Syrian territory last week.

Take a listen to what NBC News foreign correspondent Richard Engle says about how they were treated during this time in captivity.

RICHARD ENGLE, NBC NEWS FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: They took us to a series of safe houses and interrogation places, and they kept us blindfolded, bound. We weren't physically beaten or tortured. It was a lot of psychological torture. Threats of being killed. They made us choose which one of us would be shot first. And when we refused, there were mock shootings. They pretended to shoot Gazi (ph) several times. And when you are bind folded -- and then they fire the gun up in the air, it can be very traumatic experience.

WATSON: Wolf, Richard Engle says that he was being held by a pro-government Shibiha (ph) Militia, made up of men that he and his other captives identified as Shiite Muslims who threatened to kill the Sunni Muslim majority in that part of Syria. They were also threatening to exchange the NBC News team for captive Iranian and Lebanese citizens believed to be in the custody of Syrian rebels.

The only way that the NBC News team escaped was after their captors ran into a Syrian rebel checkpoint late Monday night. A gun battle ensued. Two of the kidnappers were killed, and the Syrian rebels rescued the NBC News team.

They are out, safe and sound, unharmed. But there are many more people who are still missing inside Syria, Wolf. There's been a plague of kidnapping and hostage taking there. There are no less than 21 journalists and 18 other citizen journalists currently missing, according to the organization Reporters Without Borders. Many ordinary Syrians being held for ransom as law and order continues to break down in that war-torn country -- Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Ivan Watson, thanks very much. And it underscores, Kate, just how dangerous these assignments are. You know, so happy that these NBC journalists got out.

BOLDUAN: So, so thankful that they got out, Wolf. You're absolutely right.

Other stories we are watching today. On Capitol Hill, a deal could be taking shape to avoid the fiscal cliff, now just two weeks away. Our Lisa Sylvester is here with that and more of today's top stories.

Hey there, Lisa.

SYLVESTER: Hi, there, Wolf and Kate.

Well, as Americans edge ever closer to huge tax hikes and deep automatic spending cuts, both sides are offering compromises today. House speaker John Boehner proposed a short-term plan, higher tax rates on millionaires, but the White House and Democratic leaders say that doesn't go far enough. President Obama is standing firm on higher rates for people earning more than $250,000 a year.

And the woman who had an affair with former CIA director David Petraeus will not face federal cyber-stalking charges. Paula Broadwell was under investigation for sending allegedly harassing, anonymous e-mails to Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, a friend of Petraeus and his wife. In November, Petraeus resigned as CIA director after revealing his affair. Sources tell CNN, though, that Broadwell could still face charges for possessing classified material.

And the photo-sharing Web site Instagram is warning users that starting next year, it may sell photos to other companies and keep all of the cash. The change in the terms of use explains users won't be compensated in any way. Users cannot opt out of the new provisions, and the only way to avoid them is to delete your Instagram account altogether.

And there is good news at the gas pump, and it may be getting even better. The average price of regular self-serve gasoline in the U.S. is now $3.24 a gallon. The price has fallen every day for almost a month, and experts say it could soon fall even further to levels not seen in two years. Analysts credit in part better fuel economy and more telecommuting -- Kate and Wolf.

BOLDUAN: Thanks so much, Lisa.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

BOLDUAN: At CNN, we're very concerned about respecting the privacy of people who lost loved ones here in Newtown and are very, very concerned about that. But some relatives and friends are eager to speak out and to talk, to make sure the world knows who these victims were and why they were so loved.

CNN's Erin Burnett is joining us now with a little preview of what you have coming up in the next hour. What do you have, Erin? ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: There are some people who do want to talk. And as you well know, talk about this community and how it feels and how tight-knit it is and how they don't want it to become a name that becomes synonymous with a horrible act.

We're going to be talking with one dad who has four kids. A 4- year-old, actually, who's about to go to Sandy Hook next year, and he is dead set that that child is going to go to Sandy Hook. And it's pretty amazing.

He and his wife moved here from California. No. 1 reason, for the schools. He's going to join us to talk about that. His older sons was brothers with Jack Pinto's brother, and they were at that funeral yesterday. They're going to talk about that.

Vickie Soto was a teacher for one of his daughters, and she was a substitute a few years ago when his daughter was there, but so memorable, though, that her daughter still remembers her. And we'll be talking with them, and then also with the family who moved here from Newtown from Australia.

Reason No. 1, they thought it was the safest town in America. Reason No. 2, for schools. Their two boys just went back to school today, and their whole family will be with us at the top of the hour. So a special, special program coming up.

We've heard this many, many times, just how great the school system is here. And will continue to be, of course, after this. Erin Burnett.

BLITZER: You've been doing a great job with these personal stories, Erin. We're really looking forward to the next hour. Thanks so much for what you're doing.

BURNETT: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you, Erin.

BLITZER: A mother whose daughter died in her first-grade classroom describes meeting President Obama. What she shared with the president and what she says she prayed for with him. Anderson Cooper sat down with her. He'll join us live. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Certainly impossible to imagine the pain of some of these parents here in Newtown, Connecticut, are feeling right now. Facing the fact that they must bury their 6-year-old or 7-year-old child. Our own Anderson Cooper is here on the scene for us.

Anderson, you sat down with the family of Grace McDonnell and have more of that touching interview coming up. Share some of it with our viewers.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: You know, it was Lynn and Chris McDonnell. Their daughter, Grace, 7 years old, was killed on Friday. They have a son, Jack, who's 12 years old.

And they actually contacted us. They reached out to us the other day and asked us to come by their home and just spend some time with them and learn about Grace, and they wanted a lot of people to know about their amazing Grace. And so we're going to be bringing you that extensive interview tonight on "A.C. 360."

But I want to play you just a little bit of what they said. They talked about meeting President Obama the other night. And Grace was a prolific artist. She was -- for 7 years old, she was an incredibly talented artist. And she drew a picture of an owl, and they gave that picture to the president. And he said he would cherish it. And that really gave them -- gave them comfort, that the president would take time to learn about their daughter.

Here's more of what they had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LYNN MCDONNELL, MOTHER OF GRACE: It was a very private meeting, but when he walked in the room to greet us, it was just a dad. He's just a dad, coming in to meet a dad and a mom and a son. And we really felt that. We felt his support and it was really -- it was really special.

And we shared some special things about Grace with him and her art. Grace's dream was to live on the beach and be a painter. And so we offered him one of her paintings, which he said he would treasure. So that gave us great comfort, too.

But, really, just felt like a dad surrounding us and feeling our pain. And you know, when he walked in the room, I realized, he has to go to so many families today, and this is not the first time he's had to do this. So, I have to look at him and pray for him for strength.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: They, of course, weren't able to see Grace in the wake of the attack. They were advised not to view her. But when they went in to visit with her and the casket, the casket was all white, and it really brought home to them the reality of what was happening. And they brought crayons and Magic Markers, and Lynn and Chris and Jack drew all over the casket. And they wanted to color it all, in all the things that Grace loved. Peace signs and flip-flops, and reminders of Hawaii and other places they had visited.

And they said by the time they left the funeral home, the entire casket was colored, and that also has given them comfort. And Grace, they're going to be remembering Grace, a wake on Thursday, a funeral on Friday. But it's amazing how strong they are, and we'll be playing more of that interview tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: And they really reached out to you, Anderson, because they want the world to know how wonderful Grace was. They want to share that story with everyone. And it's not all that unusual, because a lot of times parents who lose someone in a situation like this, I remember at Virginia Tech, they want to speak out and express how much they loved their child.

COOPER: You know, it helps to talk. It helps to talk. It helps Lynn to talk and it helps Chris to talk, and even Jack, 12-year-old Jack, who obviously we didn't interview on camera, it helps him to talk about Grace.

And so even before we sat down for the interview, I spent a lot of time there just -- honestly just hugging and holding hands with them and just looking at all the pictures of Grace and hearing the stories about her. And -- and I think it really, it does help them to talk and to let other people know about their beautiful little girl.

BLITZER: Every one of these stories we cover, Anderson, is unique and distinctive. But I don't know about you, but for me, I've never really experienced anything like this, because these 20 kids were 6 and 7 years old, all of these. The teachers and them, it's been -- it's been so powerful, so awful for me. I'm sure it's been like that for you, as well.

COOPER: I feel privileged to be here. There's -- you know, I think there is an extraordinary sense of this community coming together, extraordinary support for these families that are facing the unimaginable.

And you know, it's not just, Wolf, you know, this past weekend and today and this week, when the funerals are going to be taking place. You know, a lot of this is, when the media leaves and when -- when the world's attention kind of moves on, life for people here has stopped. The world has stopped. And though the rest of the world may keep spinning, it will not keep spinning here in Newtown.

And I think for these families, that's going to be a particularly -- that's going to be another hurdle when the adrenaline kind of fades away, and they're left with just the day-to-day horror of the reality of their loved one not being with them.

BLITZER: See you in a little more than an hour from now, Anderson. Thanks so much for doing this. Thanks so much for what you've been doing.

A popular TV show pays tribute to the Newtown, Connecticut victims. This is something that is very, very moving. And we'll share it with you when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Young survivors of the school shooting are getting therapy and they are getting some comfort in a rather unusual way. Here's CNN's Gary Tuchman.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Nine Golden Retrievers on the march. Making their way into a recreation center in Newtown, Connecticut, for an emotional rescue, to help comfort the children who survived the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary and other children in town.

Therapeutic canines were sponsored and trained by Lutheran Church Charities, transported in a van for a 900-mile ride from Illinois.

(on camera) Let me give you a quick introduction to all the dogs here. This is Chewie (ph). This is Ruthie, Abby, Prince, Luther, Maggie, Hannah, Barney and Shammy (ph). These are the comfort dogs. What is a comfort dog?

TIM METZNER, LUTHERAN CHURCH CHARITIES: A comfort dog is one who brings comfort to other people. When they're suffering or hurting or bring happiness to people, helps people process their grief. They...

TUCHMAN: They're specially trained?

METZNER: They are specially trained. These are all trained service dogs. We don't use them with disabled, but we use that training, and then we train them additionally to work with all different age groups and people.

To some people -- we've seen this with children -- it brings a sense of calmness in a time of confusion for them, during this period. To some, it helps them process their grief. They'll start crying, and they'll hug the dog. And to some children, they'll come up sad, and they'll walk away happy.

TUCHMAN: Do you know that Luther is incapable of being mean. Luther is a friendly dog.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hayden (ph) loves dogs.

TUCHMAN: When does training begin to be a comfort dog?

METZNER: Five and a half weeks. We buy puppies at five and a half weeks and turn them upside down and how their temperament is, and from that point on, we...

TUCHMAN: Well, you turn them upside down. So if they are turned upside down and they flail, they can't be a comfort dog?

METZNER: Right. Our initial screening is, if they can be relaxed in that position, then we start the next process, which is a trainer that works with them one-on-one for the next eight months to a year.

TUCHMAN: And where else have your dogs been? What other disasters?

METZNER: Our dogs a month ago when Sandy hit, we were out in New York and New Jersey. We have been in Indiana with the floodings. We had dogs out in Joplin, Missouri.

Come here. This is Luther. He's a comfort dog. You can pet him. Says right here, "Please pet me."

TUCHMAN: How do you feel when you see a child come up to one of your dogs who's been in this kind of situation, and have a big smile on their face?

METZNER: Tears. They smile, I cry.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): And amid the continuing sadness here, there were a lot of smiles.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: What a story. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts in just a moment. But we leave you this hour with this very powerful musical tribute to the victims, tribute that aired on the NBC show "The Voice."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(MUSIC: LEONARD COHEN'S "HALLELUJAH")

(END VIDEO CLIP)