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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Man Disappears into Sinkhole; California Wildfire Forces Evacuations; Countdown to Forced Spending Cuts; Interview with Congressman Randy Forbes of Virginia; One Era Ends, Another Yet To Begin; Interview with Cardinal Francis George

Aired March 1, 2013 - 08:00   ET

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


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: But the big question is when? Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago joins us live. He just got out of the meeting with the cardinal.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: It's Friday, March 1st. And STARTING POINT begins right now.

Good morning. Welcome, everybody.

Our team this morning, Howard Kurtz is with us. He's the host of CNN's "RELIABLE SOURCES", and the Washington bureau chief for "Newsweek/Daily Beast".

Lauren Ashburn is with us as well. She's a contributor to "The Daily Beast" and editor in chief of "The Daily Download."

New information on a terrifying situation. A man disappears into a sinkhole and apparently the sinkhole opened under his bedroom. Now, the fire marshal says they are presuming that man is dead. The home could come down any moment.

It happened about 50 miles east of Tampa, Florida. One brother frantically tried to save the other. But a first responder could only pull one of them out because the sinkhole keep growing and growing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LT. DONALD MORRIS, HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE: The mattress and bed. Everything was actually going down in the hole where the first person had gone and now the second person is in the hole trying to save the first and they are not being successful. So, he basically just reacted and did what he had to do to get that person out.

REPORTER: Did he say where the hole was?

MORRIS: It was deep enough the person he pulled out to safety was not able to fully extend their arms and even reach the top.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Ahead, we take you live to the scene for the latest on this story. Let's get right to Rob Munoz. He's with our affiliate WFTS. He's in the scene in Brandon, Florida. Rob, good morning to you. Brandon I know is just about, what, 15 miles away from Tampa. Talk to me a little bit about where they think the sinkhole started and just how big it is.

ROB MUNOZ, WFTS REPORTER: Well, they think the sinkhole started right underneath a bedroom in the house. Right now, they believe that hole is a hundred feet wide and 50 feet deep. Right now, though, I'm joined by Jeremy Bush (ph). He is the brother of Jeff Bush (ph), who fell into that sinkhole.

Jeremy, you -- your brother was in that room.

JEREMY BUSH, BROTHER: He was laying down in bed. We just got home from work. I have a second job. I went to work and came home at 10:00 and --

MUNOZ: What did you hear?

BUSH: Well, we left and came back. I knocked on his door and told him we wasn't working today so he said, OK, and everything. I went in my room. I heard a loud crash like a car coming through the house and I heard my brother screaming, so I ran back there and tried going inside his room but my old lady turned the light on and all I seen was this big hole, real big hole and all I seen was his mattress and basically that was it. That's all I seen.

MUNOZ: You tried jumping in after him?

BUSH: Yes, I jumped in the hole and was trying to dig him out. I couldn't find him! I thought I could hear him holler for me to help him.

MUNOZ: And that is the last you saw of him. Did you see any last part of him before --

BUSH: I didn't see any part of him when I went in there. All I seen was his bed. I told my father-in-law to grab a shovel so I could start digging. I started digging and started digging and started digging, and the cop showed up and pulled me out of the hole and told me the floor was still falling in.

MUNOZ: So you were still at risk as well and now your entire family is out here in support. Why are you guys out here in support?

BUSH: Just to keep closure, I guess. Make sure he's not dead and see if he is alive. I know in my heart, he's dead, but I just want to be here for him because I loved him because it was my brother, man!

MUNOZ: Jeremy, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

BUSH: Thank you.

MUNOZ: Yes, again, as you can tell, a very tense situation. A family here on standby. Again, just trying to pray for the best, but the latest news that we do have is that he is presumed to be dead at this time, 37-year-old Jeff Bush. For now, we're live here in Tampa.

Zoraida, back to you.

O'BRIEN: All right. So, Rob, this is Soledad. I just want to walk through what his brother, Jeff, as you mentioned is now presumed dead. But that was his brother Jeremy, who you were talking about. It was just honestly, it breaks your heart to watch it. Just what a horrible experience for him.

So he was saying that he heard a loud crash. He was in the bedroom next door and heard a loud crash and went back into his brother's room and when he tried to turn on the light to rescue his brother, all he could see was a big hole and the mattress sort of sucked into this hole. He said he grabbed a shovel to try to get his brother out but was unable to really reach him in any way, shape, or form.

And he told you that he thinks his brother is dead and that he loves him. And he is, obviously, very torn up about it. That's Jeremy Bush who you were talking to.

MUNOZ: Very harsh reality. Yes.

O'BRIEN: Oh, my goodness. How awful.

Let me ask you a question, Rob, and not sure you know the answer to this. Is this an area known for sinkholes? Or is this a complete shock in this area?

MUNOZ: Well, in this area specifically, we know in this town of Brandon that around the area, sinkholes have been known to exist. Throughout the entire coast of Florida on the Gulf Coast, we know aquifer kind of sit underneath the land and really when the water depletes beneath them, that's when the ground can kind of cave down.

We have been told not a lot of rain recently, meaning the sinkholes have a chance to form. But, again, we have seen this happen before where part of the homes have collapsed, but never seen where it's entirely confine in the interior of a home where just one room was just sucked under and threatening take the entire home and neighboring homes with it.

O'BRIEN: Right. I've never seen it either. I've seen it on streets and sort of cars being sucked under it a little bit or houses collapsing, but I've never seen where a bedroom -- basically sucks a human being in.

Rob Munoz with a riveting interview talking to Jeremy Bush, I guess, whose brother is now presumed dead in that sinkhole that his brother could not get out of.

Thank you, Rob. We appreciate that.

Oh, my gosh. That is terrible, that's terrible.

I want to bring in Jennifer Delgado because, you know, you heard Rob talked a little bit about the why behind sinkholes.

JENNIFER DELGADO, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Right.

O'BRIEN: You know, when I was in California, northern California, we see this occasional on the street and they weren't the massive ones but you'd have this sort of small and a car would fall in basically.

DELGADO: Absolutely. You know, you see these sinkholes popping us throughout various parts. We are talking in areas even in Mexico. But what we want to focus on more about the dynamics of a sinkhole.

And I want to point out to you, they are found under limestone and these pop up all the time across Florida. Of course, you're hearing about this, where this man was apparently in bed where this happened. Well, they pop out also where you see the ground water and it starts to dry up.

And our reporters, right, we haven't seen a lot of rainfall across the region over the last couple of days or really the last couple of weeks. So, we hope you kind of visualize this a bit more. Imagine, if you will -- this is the home the gentleman was sleeping in.

Now, here is the ground. And below it, we have these two different layers. Well, with Florida, we are talking about an environment that is built on limestone and with limestone when the water comes through, it allows basically this chemical weathering. The water gets very acidic with that rain water.

So, basically, the ground gives way and this is what you see. You see this cave forming and eventually things fall into it, potentially cars or people walking down the street.

As we talk more about these sinkholes, it's not just Florida that we are talking about. This pops up in Texas, as well as Pennsylvania, Missouri, Tennessee and Alabama. It also has to do with the bedrock and how that ground is compromised.

This area we are here talking about limestone -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Jennifer Delgado -- thanks, Jennifer. I appreciate that.

DELGADO: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: Also developing overnight, a wildfire burning dangerously close to homes in southern California, scorched 150 acres so far in Riverside County. That's near L.A. Authorities have issued voluntary evacuation orders. They say one structure so far is damaged and no injuries reported, though, and the cause of the fire is under investigation.

Other big story we are following this morning from our nation's capital, where not very much work is getting done apparently. Millions of Americans waiting anxiously for the ax to fall just 16 hours before we come to that deadline for mandatory spending cuts.

Once the president signs the orders and the cuts kick in, it will be a slow downward spiral, if you will. Initially, we are likely to see flight delays to airports, cuts to services, and hours at national parks, furloughs for nearly 800,000 civilian Defense Department workers.

In two hours, the president will meet with leaders from both parties. At this late hour, though, most people realistically think there is little hope for any kind of a deal.

I want to get right to our White House correspondent Bianna Keilar.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As President Obama meets at the White House today with Democratic and Republican congressional leaders, the Capitol will sit empty. Congress, the very people who voted for the $85 billion in forced spending cuts set to kick in at midnight, left town Thursday without finding a way to fix the problem.

And now, the finger-pointing --

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The Republican proposal is the worst of all worlds. It explicitly protects pork barrel projects and every single tax loophole that benefits the wealthy.

KEILAR: President Obama wants to avoid the forced budget cuts in part with tax increases. Republicans refuse.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We've done our work. They've not done theirs. The House shouldn't have to pass a third bill to replace the sequester before the Senate passes one.

KEILAR: But the Senate failed to pass two bills Thursday, one Democratic and one Republican. Both measures that were never expected to succeed. Making it almost certain that President Obama will be forced to sign an executive order today that officially puts the cuts into effect. It will impact everything from our military, Medicare, and education to food inspection and homeland security.

President Obama in a written statement accused Senate Republicans of voting, quote, "to let the entire burden of deficit reduction fall squarely on the middle class."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: That meeting between President Obama and congressional leads will take place here at the White House in the Oval Office at about 10:00 a.m. Eastern and sometime after that, President Obama will set in motion these forced spending cuts with the stroke of a pen. He is, Soledad, required to do that and we're told that he'll do so privately.

O'BRIEN: Brianna Keilar for us -- thanks, Brianna. Appreciate it.

Let's get right to Congressman Randy Forbes. He's a Republican from the state of Virginia. Nice to see you, Congressman. I've been following you on Twitter and you just tweeted that, "We must stop the sequestration from taking effect." And I tweeted back to you, how? Like, walk me through. We are talking about hours from.

Is there realistically any kind of sense that there's something that can be done now that would stop it from taking effect?

REP. RANDY FORBES (R), VIRGINIA: Well, Soledad, we can always mitigate it and we can mitigate it in quite an important fashion. Your reporter just mentioned that the House had gone home and the Senate had gone home, but members of the Armed Services Committee haven't. We're still here in Washington.

I encouraged our subcommittee chairman to stay here and make sure we are continuing to work. We have a bill that would stop sequestration, for example, from applying to defense. We think that as early as next week, we'll have a continuing resolution that will have anomalies that will mitigate a lot of the things that are in the sequestration.

But, Soledad, there's just way too much bravado up here, too much from White House, too much from Congress. We've got to calm people down and have them starting talking to each other, instead of at each other. That's challenge but we're going to stay here and try to do it.

O'BRIEN: Gosh, I would hope so.

All right. State of Virginia is going to be one of the hardest hit when they show the maps of job losses. Your state does not look particularly good, over 200,000 potentially would be affected.

And here specifically, some of the things that could happen -- 90,000 civilian Department of Defense furloughed, 3,530 fewer kids would be able to receive vaccines, $1,215,000 lost for meals for seniors.

So, the White House says it's going to happen. Do you have a sense of how soon those specific things? I mean, are you talking tomorrow? Are we talking six months in?

What does that look like for your state?

FORBES: Soledad, a lot of that will be up to the president. As you know, we're not just talking about those cuts coming from sequestration. It's because we place most of these cuts to national defense. And the administration has cut over $587 billion out of defense already in the last several years. Sequestration on top of that it will be very, very damming for the economy and also for national defense for the country.

It's important to remember also, Soledad, when you look at this, each with these cuts, you're talking about the president still having about $15 billion more to spend this year than he had last year. If this is going to cripple the country, we need to step back and say why weren't we planning a little bit better for this and why didn't we do some of this throughout the last year. O'BRIEN: I know you like to blame the president, I've heard you say, the president, the president, the president, a lot, and I get that. But when you look at who voted for the sequester you were strongly against the sequester, but 174 Democrats, I'm sorry, 174 Republicans in the House who voted for the sequester, 95 Democrats. The number of Republicans, your colleagues on your side of the aisle who supported this.

Did you know it was going to come to this? I mean, all of that time ago when the vote was taking place, did you sort of see this playing out this way?

FORBES: Well, Soledad, first of all, I haven't blamed just the president. I've blamed anybody who voted for this. I've actually talked to you before last year, as you remember. I led a campaign across the country called defending our defenders to go across the country and tell people a year ago and throughout last year that we were going to be right where we are today.

I voted against it. I fought against sequestration. I thought it was bad when the president proposed it. I think it's terrible that we've allowed it to get to this point, because not only do we see the cuts from the economic point of view, but, Soledad, we haven't really talked about the huge impact to national security that this sequestration is going to have on the country.

That's why I think we've got to continue to fight to see what we can do to either get rid of it or mitigate it, and we need to continue doing that starting today, not waiting six months from now.

O'BRIEN: Well, 17 hours if you're starting today. That's all you pretty much have in the rest of the day.

Congressman Randy Forbes, always nice to you.

FORBES: Thanks, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Republican from the state of Virginia, we appreciate it.

FORBES: Thanks.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT: we know the cardinals are meeting on Monday to starting figuring out when they are going to hold the conclave that will pick the next pope. Any idea on the timeline? We're going to chat with Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago who'll be joining us up next. He's just wrapped a meeting with those cardinals.

Then, it's a mystery shaking up in the prestigious world of show dogs. Was a prize-winning canine murdered?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. With those words, Pope Benedict XVI entered retirement. Who's going to replace him now? New information this morning that the cardinals will meet on Monday to talk about setting a date for the conclave that will pick the next pope. It signals the very beginning of a new era for the church.

And joining us this morning from Rome to talk about the process of electing a new pope is Cardinal Francis George. He's the archbishop of Chicago. Cardinal George, thank you for talking with us. Tell me a little bit about the meeting that happened today with the cardinals that you've just come out of.

CARDINAL FRANCIS GEORGE, ARCHBISHOP OF CHICAGO: The meeting that we had yesterday with the Holy Father was, of course, a farewell meeting, and it had the nostalgia already of a touch of sadness that you have at a farewell. What he said was quite beautiful about the church being the body of Christ no matter who happens to be the pope.

And that he pledges allegiance to the next pope, of course. We have private meetings now, to the extent that we meet at all during the weekend and the first formal meeting called the general congregation begins 9:30 a.m. on Monday Rome time.

O'BRIEN: Could the conclave start as early as Monday?

GEORGE: I believe you asked about the conclave?

O'BRIEN: Yes, sir.

GEORGE: We don't know when the conclave will begin. That will be settled sometime next week when the cardinals feel that they have had enough time to talk among themselves so that they can get a good sense of who might be the next pope. Those congregations are also important because it allows the men over 80 to have their say, even though they won't vote, they won't be in the conclave, but they have a lot of experience and wisdom to share before the conclave begins.

O'BRIEN: You were a part of the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI who's now departed and is the Pope Emeritus. What's that like being locked in a room with your fellow cardinals and being responsible to pick the next pope? What was that experience like for you and as you're about to face it again?

GEORGE: Well, thank you very much. I've been trying to recall it myself, because it has stayed with me. It's a very -- it's a very intense experience as you can imagine. It's a time of prayer and voting. People don't get up and give general, you know, vote for so and so. So, it's a very quiet time, and you have a chance to contemplate the creation of the world on the ceiling and the end of the world on the wall.

And, in between, in salvation history, we have a very important choice to make for the successor of Peter and the victor of Christ. The solemnity of the occasion is enforced by the place, itself, and also by the quiet prayer and discussion that goes on with the people right around you. It's primarily very intense. Everything else is blacked out, and everything is oriented towards that choice. It's the mystery of choice.

O'BRIEN: And you mean literally blocked out. There's a full floor, we understand, which means that nobody is -- it blocks any kind of signal so there's no laptops and no Blackberries, et cetera, et cetera. Final question for you, cardinal, if I may. Do you go into the conclave with an idea of who you want to elect as pope? If you, for example, wanted to be the next pope, would you run around and tell people like vote for me? How does that work?

(LAUGHTER)

GEORGE: Well, you know, last pope was done a good job so if they let (ph) a very elderly gentleman with uncertain health bad hearing sometimes, I guess, I'd be a candidate. People don't do that, of course. What you do do is you go to somebody who knows someone who's talked about, if you don't know him, and say what's he really like?

How is his health? But, most of all what is his stability and we assume he's a prayerful man, anchored in the faith and the love of the Lord, but how is his judgment? Can he govern? Does he have a universal heart, especially from the poor? Is he just a captive of his own place or his own culture? Those are very important questions and somebody who knows them, the answers will share with somebody else.

Do I go in with a candidate? Last time, I think, I had one or most two, because you have to choose somebody on the first ballot and is that first ballot that tells you who has support and who hasn't. Until then, you know who's talked about, you're talking about them on CNN and other great networks. And they're interesting conversations you're having. It helps us.

And I must say that the people you're talking about would be good candidates from what I've seen, so far. Eight years ago, I recall listening to the media and I thought they don't know who the candidates really are, some wild guesses going on. This time, somebody has done his or her homework and I think you're coming up with good names. So, it's very helpful to us. And we will sort it out, I hope, before we go in.

O'BRIEN: Oh, goodness. I certainly hope so. Cardinal Francis George is the archbishop of Chicago. Sir, thank you very much for talking with us. Sounds like he's not really interesting --

GEORGE: Thank you.

O'BRIEN: -- in the running for the papacy. Thank you, sir.

LAUREN ASHBURN, EDITOR IN CHIEF, DAILY DOWNLOAD: I have to ask how long is that going to last? I mean, in 12 -- what was it?

O'BRIEN: Seventy-one.

ASHBURN: It was two years?

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: You know, we were told yesterday that they started just feeding them water and bread to make them like make the decision. They were going into the third year of picking the pope. HOWARD KURTZ, HOST, CNN'S RELIABLE SOURCES: This is the television age. They got to get it done by the next Sunday. Talk shows (ph).

O'BRIEN: Still ahead on STARTING POINT this morning, a shocking death which is shaping up the world of the Westminster dog show. A new conspiracy theory, too, claiming that a prize dog was killed. We're looking into that up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning. Welcome back. I'm Christine Romans, "Minding Your Business" this morning.

Stock futures including a lower open here. That means the Dow pulling back even further from its record high. Yesterday, it got within 16 points of that mark. A data on manufacturing construction due out in the next hour that could influence trading today.

One thing the furloughs won't affect right away, your taxes. The IRS now says it will wait until the end of the tax season before it furloughs employees ensuring there are enough workers to process your tax returns and tax refunds. But then, workers will have to stay home without pay for five to seven days this year, and there's also a hiring freeze in place. That's all because of those automatic forced spending cuts.

Have no fear. Wonder Bread is here again. The all American classic will return to the grocery store near you after Flower Foods bought it from bankrupt Hostess brands for a total of $360 million. This deal included most other Hostess bread brands as well. Wonder bread, Twinkies, and other Hostess products have not been produced since November when the company filed for Chapter 11. Soledad --

(CROSSTALK)

ROMANS: The afterlife of Wonder Bread --

(LAUGHTER)

O'BRIEN: Why are you laughing? I love wonder bread. It's so good.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: No. It's not very necessarily healthy for you, but when I was pregnant, it's all I could have is Wonder Bread. I loved it. Thanks, Christine.

Trending online this morning, the mysterious death of a show dog that recently completed at the famous Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was sparking a lot of conspiracy theories. Cruz was prized winning Samoyed. He died four days after the Westminster show. His handler, at least, one of his owners say they suspect foul play.

They did not undergo -- undergo a necropsy, dog necropsy, which I guess is sort of like the autopsy after he died, but the vet who treated him said the symptoms were consistent with being poisoned by rat poison. His handler believes that maybe animal rights activists could be to blame. So, obviously much more investigation on this.

KURTZ: Really dog owners, nothing sacred (ph)?

ASHBURN: Well, it's awful. I mean, a lot of people just love their dogs. They watch this show. How horrible is it to actually have to try to kill a dog to win? What does that say about our culture?

O'BRIEN: I don't know that they're trying to kill the dog to win. It sounds like some the handlers believe that animal rights activist who are against the show may have been targeted -- that would make no sense. You kill a dog to make a point about not --

ASHBURN: Not if you're an animal rights person.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: The made for TV movie, the owner says there's a chance that the dog was deliberately poisoned. So --

O'BRIEN: Right. No, it's still very much up for investigation at this point, we don't know.

Still ahead this morning, it's almost impossible to imagine a sinkhole opening up beneath a home and swallowing a man who's in his bed. Up next, we'll hear from the man's brother who saw it all happened and tried to save his brother.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. New information on a terrifying situation that's happening near Tampa, Florida where a man has been swallowed up by a sinkhole that opened up right under his bedroom. It happened in Brandon, Florida. The man fell into the sinkhole from his bed. He's been identified as 37-year-old Jeff Bush, and we're told he is now presumed dead.

His brother told us that he tried in vain to save him. As you can imagine, he's distraught and devastated about that.