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Senator McCain's Daring Trip to Syria; Chaos in Iraq; U.K. Erupts in Protests Over Soldier's Slaying; Feds Investigate Near Collision in Air

Aired May 27, 2013 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, Senator John McCain goes inside a war zone, becoming the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Syria's front lines since the civil war began.

What this daring trip could mean for the United States. We have details.

Plus, mayhem in Iraq -- 11 -- yes, 11 car bombings, dozens killed, new signs that the nation that cost so much in American life and treasure is now falling apart.

And panic on board a cruise ship, as fire breaks out, sending thousands of passengers fleeing to safety.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


We begin with today's startling news of Senator John McCain's daring visit to a war zone.

CNN has confirmed the senator was inside Syria today. That makes him the highest ranking elected official from the United States to go there since the civil war started two years ago.

Senator McCain met with leaders of the rebellion against Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. They're pleading for more help, including weapons, from the United States.

And Nick Paton Walsh is joining us from Beirut right now -- Nick, what do we know about Senator McCain's trip to Syria?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It seems to have been reasonably brief, crossing over from the Turkish southern city of Kilis, heading, it seems, about a kilometer inside Syria, through the Babasalama Crossing (ph). Now, I've been through that myself. It's mostly refugees on the other side of the border and quite a distance until you get to the first major heavily bombarded city of Azaz.

He appears to have met the heads of the Supreme Military Council. That's the governing body of the Free Syrian Army, General Salem Idris. They clearly spoke. He had meetings with other activists from the other cities around Syria, too. But one of the main NGOs that took him in there, the Syrian Emergency Task Force, declared that part of the purpose of this was to show that it's possible to get inside Syria, that it's not too dangerous, that it's not overrun by extremists.

Of course, this visit putting clear pressure, though, on the Obama administration -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How significant is it for a major United States senator to show up with the rebels in Syria?

PATON WALSH: Well, it gives the people he met a degree of credibility. It gives the idea that perhaps there's a rebel held area in the north that can be dealt with on a diplomatic level. It gives that idea some credibility, too.

But above all, we're talking about the exact choice of a senior U.S. politician to go there, Senator McCain having been the most outspoken advocate of a no-fly zone, of strikes to disable the Syrian regime's air force, of greater assistance to the rebels militarily, stopping short of U.S. boots on the ground. But recently, in "Time Magazine," he was quite clear, he now believes that the costs of inaction outweigh the costs of action. Although many analysts do say the ideal window for a swift and decisive U.S. intervention is long behind us, now this war is dragging into much more of a regional conflict, the U.S. can only get more mired in war.

BLITZER: The rebels with whom Senator McCain met today, what kind of relationship do they have with those al Qaeda-oriented rebels, who are also trying to get rid of Bashar Al-Assad, in Damascus?

PATON WALSH: Well, certainly, General Idris is considered one of the more moderate parts of the Free Syrian Army. And what we refer to as the Free Syrian Army, for the most part, is not really that hard core radical fringe, like Jabhat al-Nusra, the most frequently referred to al Qaeda affiliate that's part of rebel ranks. Of course, everyone has to deal with each other at some point. And the Free Syrian Army, in many ways, has shown gratitude toward the al-Nusra Front for their military prowess on the battlefield.

But, of course, relations increasingly strained over time, increasing fracturing amongst the ranks of Syrian rebels. And I think really what Idris from meeting Senator McCain is a clear dose of credibility. And whilst the civilian part of the Syrian opposition is busy squabbling in Istanbul about whether they'll attend these key peace talks in Geneva, Senator McCain is actually meeting the military leaders on the ground -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with the foreign minister of Russia, Sergei Lavrov. Apparently, they're trying to do something, as well. I don't know if they achieved much.

What are you hearing?

PATON WALSH: Very little, to be truthful. This was penned onto the end of satic -- sorry -- Secretary of State Kerry's trip around the world, obviously vital, it seems, to him, to have met again with Sergei Lavrov. They clearly have a good rapport, certainly better than Lavrov's was with Hillary Clinton, Kerry's predecessor.

But the key issue is going to be can they get their respective parties to come to the table in Geneva. The Russians appear to have got the Damascus regime, quote, "in principle," to attend. Both sides saying that. The difficulty is can John Kerry get the opposition to speak with a unified voice and to come to the table?

We're already hearing very fractured messages, part of the opposition saying they would, in principle, attend; about a third of it saying they're not interested and others talking in shades of gray.

Real fears that unless you get both these sides together at the table and agreeing to actually talk, you have even less of a chance of anything discussed there translating to action on the ground. The clock really ticking here, Wolf. John Kerry making it clear that unless they see some sort of political transition from what you may see in Geneva, at some point next month, if this conference goes ahead, the U.S. will have little choice but to up its aid to rebels significantly -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nick Paton Walsh joining us from Beirut.

Nick, thanks very much.

And later, we'll speak live with Mouaz Mustafa. He's a spokesman for the Syrian rebels. He was with Senator McCain throughout those several hours inside Syria today. We'll speak with him live. That's coming up later here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Meanwhile, we're also watching an alarming increase in violence in another part of the Middle East, not very far away from Syria. Eleven -- 11 car bombs detonated in and around Baghdad today, killing 51 people, wounding at least 160. Sectarian violence has been on the upswing in Iraq over the past several weeks. At least 300 people have been killed this month alone and today's targets included a number of Shiite Muslim neighborhoods.

While most Iraqis are Shiites, Saddam Hussein and his followers were Sunni. Over the last decade, almost 4,500 Americans gave their lives to free Iraq from Saddam Hussein. But on this Memorial Day, Iraq clearly seems to be sliding back into civil war and chaos.

Joining us now is our national security analyst, Fran Townsend.

She was President Bush's homeland security adviser. She's a member of the CIA's External Advisory Board -- Fran, you look at what's going on in Iraq right now, you look at the sacrifice the U.S. made in blood and treasure over a decade, but Iraq right now seems to be unraveling.

What's your assessment?

FRANCES TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Wolf, as you rightly mention, this has been going on over several weeks. Today is only the most tragic and largest example. Look, I think what you're seeing is a very aggressive Iran. We know Iran is very active in Syria. They've been known to be active in Afghanistan. And certainly, they've been exerting their influence and their it power inside the borders of Iraq.

It is as you noted, a Shiite population and it's a Shiite government. But remember, Wolf, you know, during the Bush administration, we faced this same sort of unraveling of civilian strife, Sunni on Shia violence. And what we look to are our allies in the region, the Saudis, the Jordanians. We look to our Sunni Arab allies to try and exert their influence on tribes there.

But this is very difficult, Wolf. It's made especially difficult now that there's no U.S. presence there. We were unable to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, and so we had -- we withdrew very precipitously. And it -- this vacuum that was created was bound to cause the sort of fracturing where minority populations, like the Sunnis, felt very vulnerable.

BLITZER: So is there anything the U.S. can or should do now or do we just simply forget about Iraq?

TOWNSEND: Wolf, we can't forget about Iraq. We obviously have regional interests there. And we will continue to engage the Iraqi government.

But more than anything, I think what you'll find is that this administration, like the prior administration, is going to have to look to its -- its Arab allies in the region to kind of exert their influence, both on tribes and then work diplomatically to try and engage the Iraqi government.

BLITZER: This was all -- some analysts clearly predicted that the unraveling of Iraq would take place. And here's the question -- right now, the U.S. is getting ready, over the next 18 months, to withdraw the remaining 60,000 troops it has in Afghanistan.

What's to say that the disaster that's happening in Iraq right now doesn't also happen in Afghanistan at the end of 2014, when all U.S. troops are supposed to be out of there?

TOWNSEND: Well, Wolf, you're raising exactly the right question. Of course, Pakistan will continue to have its own interests in how Afghanistan unfolds, the Iranians, the Taliban. And this fragile Afghani government and Afghani security force will have a lot of pressure on it.

What it underscores, Wolf, is getting right the bilateral security agreement between Afghanistan and the United States, making sure we don't make the mistakes in Afghanistan that were made in Iraq when we failed to get a Status of Forces Agreement that permitted us to keep a small force there that could continue to do training, advising and assisting of Afghan security forces.

BLITZER: Well, do you really think it's going to make any difference, long-term, if the U.S. pulls out now from Afghanistan, or if it pulls out 18 months from now, and obviously, many more American lives will be lost and maybe another $100 billion, if not more will be spent?

TOWNSEND: What's important, Wolf, is how you do -- how you handle the withdrawal. I think that President Obama has rightly said this is not going to be sort of walking off a cliff.

But the thing that could change that, the sort of deliberate and planned withdrawal, is if you can't get the Status of Forces Agreement -- by the way, Americans should not only be concerned about that, the Afghan people and Afghan commanders are concerned about that.

What you need is a very well planned, deliberate and staged withdrawal that leaves behind a small residual force on which, for example, in Afghanistan, provides close air support, which the Afghan forces will not have absent American assistance.

BLITZER: Fran Townsend, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Authorities in the United Kingdom have made a tenth arrest in last week's gruesome terror attack, the knifing death of a British soldier. Four people are still in custody, including two suspected attackers, one of whom was seen covered in blood only moments after the slaying.

Meantime, the country is exploding in protests amid fear of an all-out backlash against Muslims.

CNN's Atika Shubert is joining us now from London with more -- Atika, what do we know about this latest arrest and what it means for this case?

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not that much. What we know is that it's a 50-year-old man. He was arrested on the street by armed officers. He didn't put up a struggle, but he was brought in. And like the other arrests, he was brought in on suspicion of conspiracy to murder.

Now, the other arrests were mostly young men between the ages of 21 to 28, but we don't know how they're all connected. We don't know if they're relatives, if they're friends, in what way they're acquaintances. We just don't know at this point.

What we do know is that the two main suspects, Michael Adebalojo and Michael Adebowale, remain under police guard in separate hospitals. They were both shot and seriously wounded. And it's our understanding that police have not yet been able to fully question them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The attack clearly has resulted in some pretty violent protests in London.

Who are these demonstrators targeting?

SHUBERT: Yes, I mean this is a group called the English Defense League. And they are pretty anti-Muslim, frankly. They've come out in force today in front of Downing Street, which, of course, is the prime minister's office. And there were about a thousand of them today. And it got pretty rowdy. Glass bottles were thrown.

They showed up alongside their opponents, United Against Fascists.

And what they were basically saying was protesting the Woolich attack, saying that Islam was responsible for it.

Now the Muslim Council of Britain has condemned the attack, has come out very strongly and urged people not to be incited to violence. Unfortunately, in the case of the EDL, that does not seem to be working. There's some -- some good news, however. In some other places, for example, in York, we are hearing that one EDL protest actually ended up with tea -- with people in the mosque coming out sharing tea and biscuits for them -- with them. So it does seem that while there is anger, maybe those tensions are starting to come down just a little bit -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we'll see what happens.

Atika, thanks very much.

Meanwhile, there's some tension, clearly, in London.

When we come back, a frightening close call -- a military helicopter, a passenger plane and a dangerous collision course over the skies of DC.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They had a helicopter right there off the pace (ph) for 3-3 and we nearly collided with them.



BLITZER: Airline safety officials are investigating a pretty scary close call as planes jam the sky this Memorial Day. Here's a look at every plane in the sky right now. The near-collision happened in air space over Reagan National Airport just outside Washington, D.C. as the busy holiday weekend was just beginning. Our Brian Todd is joining us now from Reagan National. What happened, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this happened not far from where I'm standing. You know, this suite behind me, the tarmac at Reagan National Airport, the Potomac River and points sweeping further north of here. This is an area where a lot of helicopter traffic mixes in with near-constant jet traffic. And recently, they didn't mix so well.


TODD (voice-over): Just how close did a regional passenger plane come to hitting a military helicopter in the skies over Washington? Listen to the plane's pilot on air traffic controllers audiotape minutes after the incident.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They had a helicopter right there, and we nearly collided with it.

TODD: The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the close call which occurred this past Friday afternoon. A U.S. Airways flight operated by republic airlines with 73 people on board was approaching Reagan National Airport from the south toward runway 33. A military helicopter based at nearby Andrews Air Force Base was in the air, flying toward the incoming plane.

At one point, the two aircraft were at the same altitude about 400 feet off the ground. Air traffic controllers warned that the chopper pilot going by the handle Muscle nine at least three times.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mussel 9, make a right 360. There's an Embraer jet on two-mile final for runway 3-3 reporting in sight. Mussel 9, you have that traffic in sight, for runway 3-3? Mussel 9, maintain visual separation from that traffic and pass behind that traffic.

TODD: After the republic air's collision avoidance system sounded, the passenger jet circled around and landed safely a few minutes later. The helicopter also landed safely.

(on-camera) At their closest point, the plane and the helicopter came within 940 feet of each other at the same altitude. Not far from where it happened, I'm standing a football field length away from our camera. 940 feet is more than three times the distance from me to the camera.

Steve Wallace, former director of the FAA's office of investigations is with me right now next to our camera. Steve, 940 feet to the layperson seems like plenty of space. Is it plenty of space?

STEVE WALLACE, FORMER FAA INVESTIGATOR: Well, it's natural in these situations to focus on the distance between the aircraft. What's really more important is whether the situation is being actively controlled by the air traffic control in conjunction with the pilot. That was clearly the case here.

TODD (voice-over): But military, police, and other helicopters are constantly flying over the Potomac River, the same general air space as commercial jets approaching and taking off from Reagan National.

(on-camera) Is this too crowded? Are there too many helicopters flying over this river or near it for it to be safe?

WALLACE: I don't think it's too crowded. It requires precise procedures consistently followed and that's what we have.


TODD: Wallace says another key factor here is whether the plane's pilot and the helicopter pilot had visual contact with each other. Did they see each other? An FAA spokeswoman says the two pilots had each other in sight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, how strict are the rules about where those helicopters can fly? TODD: Well, Steve Wallace says, as many of us know here, that this is some of the most restricted air space in the United States, in the Reagan National Airport area and that way toward the capital, toward Washington. And, he said there are clearly defined routes that separate where helicopters and planes can fly.

And despite the heavy traffic, you know, with both types of machinery, chopper pilots -- you can see them all the time flying very close to the river, pretty close to the tree line -- and the planes coming fairly close, despite that proximity, he says, they do a pretty good job staying away from each other job the vast majority of the time.

BLITZER: Yes, let's hope. All right. Thanks very much, Brian. More frightening moments on board.

An Alaska Airlines flight from Anchorage to Portland, Oregon today after a passenger allegedly tried to open the plane's emergency door just ten minutes before landing. An airline spokesperson says Alexander Michael Herrera (ph) was restrained and later taken into police custody once the plane landed. Emergency doors on planes have locks that prevent them from being opened in flight.

And it's not just planes there having problems right now. Look at these horrifying images showing a burned-out royal Caribbean cruise ship that was bound for the Bahamas. A fire broke out overnight sending thousands of guests fleeing to decks with life jackets. One passenger was captured this video of the commotion on board. She told us she thought there was a chance she may never see daylight again.

The fire was put out after about two hours, and the ship is now docked at nearby port for evaluation where you can see the company's CEO surveying the damage. The NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, is joining the investigation into the cause of the fire. We're told two guests were treated for fainting, but authorities confirm there are no other injuries.

Coming up, a Mormon mom coming home from a funeral arrested in Mexico. Her family says this is a horrible, horrible mistake. They're about to join us live to explain.

And later, rescuers work against the clock trying to save a newborn wedged in a sewer pipe. You'll see it right here in the SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: All right. Brianna Keilar is monitoring some of the other top stories here in the SITUATION ROOM. Brianna is here. Let's start with that bridge collapse. The clean-up is going on. What's the latest?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Still going on, Wolf. Crews have pulled a big rig out of the Skagit River. They're hoping to pull a car, a pick-up truck, and steel debris from the water before the day is over. This part of Interstate-5 collapsed on Thursday after a tractor trailer hauling an oversized load hit part of the bridge. No one was killed, but this is causing detour headaches for thousands of drivers. And transportation officials hope to have a temporary replacement bridge up by mid-June.

A hijacker so home sick that he's willing to risk prison to come back to the U.S. William Potts (ph) forced a plane to Cuba almost 30 years ago, and he served a 15-year prison sentence on the island. Now, he wants to rejoin his family in the states, even though he'd likely face trial and more prison time here.

Potts says U.S. officials won't respond to him, and the U.S. attorney's office in Miami won't say why.

Well, no, they can't fly, but one penguin at SeaWorld in Orlando took a flying leap out of its tank and ended up just waddling around there in front of park guests. SeaWorld officials say the birds are getting used to a new home, and this one probably misjudged the wall when he was swimming around in the water. A handler ran over and tossed him back in. He's cute.



BLITZER: Beautiful.

KEILAR: Adorable.

BLITZER: All right. Brianna is going to be with us. Brianna, thanks very much. Congratulations. Understood you delivered a beautiful commencement address at your alma mater University of California at Berkeley.

KEILAR: I did.

BLITZER: And, everybody was very, very happy. Good for you.

KEILAR: Thank you. Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Excellent.

When we come back, a trip home to Arizona from a funeral in Mexico ends in a horror for a U.S. woman now jailed on drug charges, she says, are falls. I'll speak with her family live. That's coming up.

Plus, grief gives way to rage in the killing of a Kentucky police officer. Some now believe he may have been targeted. We'll have the latest on the investigation. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Happening now, a U.S. woman jailed on drug charges in Mexico, we'll hear from her family who say it's a false accusation.

Also, you know him as Lieutenant Dan in the movie "Forest Gump" actor Gary Sinise talks about how that role changed his life. Plus, a newborn caught in a sewer pipe. You're going to see the amazing rescue. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A U.S. woman is caught in a legal nightmare playing out on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border right now. The Mexicans say she tried to smuggle marijuana into the United States. But, as Rebecca Thomas of CNN Phoenix affiliate KPHO reports, the woman's family insists she's been falsely accused and the whole thing is a setup.


REBECCA THOMAS, KPHO REPORTER: Mexican soldiers took Anna Soto's mother (INAUDIBLE) into custody Wednesday. She and her husband Gary, both U.S. citizens, were on their way back to Arizona after attending her aunt's funeral. The charter bus they were on was stopped at a military checkpoint near Hermesio (ph), and everyone ordered off. After several hours, soldiers told them marijuana had been found under the woman's seat.

ANNA SOTO, DAUGHTER OF WOMAN HELD IN MEXICO: I know there's people out there saying, asking, did she really do it, are you sure? You know, and it hurts, you know, to see that. If you would have known my mom, if you just would have met her, you would know she had nothing to do with it.

THOMAS: The woman's husband says an attorney originally told them guilty or not, they could pay off a judge $5,000. But after scraping the money together, Gary was told it was too late. She was moved to a prison in Nogalas. He was finally able to see her face to face Saturday morning, the day of her one-year anniversary.

GARY MALDONADO, HUSBAND: (INAUDIBLE) She just kind of started jumping up and down and gave me a big hug and we just cried.

THOMAS: Both have signed documents they hope state an accurate account of what happened. Gary has also retained Mexican attorneys in an effort to free his wife.

MALDONADO: I just love her to death. She's amazing.


BLITZER: A report from Rebecca Thomas of our affiliate KPHO. Two members of Jenier (ph) Maldonado's family are joining us from Phoenix. Her daughter Anna Soto whom we just saw in that report, along with her brother-in-law Brandon Klippel. Thank you to both of you for coming Anna, first to you. You think your mother -- you insist your mother is innocent. Obviously you know your mother well. Tell us why.

SOTO: She's a person with strong morals, would never do anything like that against the law anywhere, you know. Her home country or here. She's just an amazing woman. She would never take that chance to be away from her family. So that's why I know.

BLITZEr: You visited your mom in prison on Saturday. What did she tell you? How did she seem? SOTO: You know, all I can say is she's a strong woman, and when I saw her she just smiled like she's always smiled before. And I broke down in tears, but she just told me that she was going to get out, for me to be strong, that she was innocent. She wanted to tell my brothers and sisters that she loved them very much and she wanted me to thank everyone that has been helping her. She just seemed very strong. We cried a little bit. I cried more than her. I don't know how she's doing, you know, better than I expected.

BLITZER: Brandon, your sister-in-law was due in court today. What happened? Any update on her legal status in the case?

BRANDON KLIPPEL, BROTHER-IN-LAW OF WOMAN ARRESTED IN MEXICO: She wasn't actually able to meet with the judge today. What happened instead is she was brought to a small room where there's a metal mesh that divides her from the other people in the room. She met with the judge's assistant, the state attorney and her attorney.

Her husband wasn't allowed to enter into the room because they're stating he's a witness so he's not going to be allowed to be part of these proceedings. At this point, they've said that tomorrow a trial will take place at 10:00. At that point, the judge will then make a decision by 6:00 in the evening. He is able to grant a 72-hour extension if she requests it.

We're worried that she may not know she's the one that needs to request it. If they don't extend the 72 hours, then he'll make the decision whether she can go free tomorrow or whether she'll be transported to a prison in south Mexico to wait for five or six months until her case is officially heard.

BLITZER: Does she have a lawyer?

KLIPPEL: They do. They retained an attorney there, who is a local person in Nogalas, but we're hoping that works out. If not, we're working on getting her an attorney who might be more familiar with that kind of law.

BLITZER: Brandon, do you think there's any chance she can get a fair trial in Mexico?

KLIPPEL: I don't know if she can get a fair trial. We're learning that the Mexican judicial system is so different than ours. You know, the last image I had, I saw her yesterday in the prison, and they gave us visiting hours. We were supposed to have a few hours to visit with her, and they told us because she's not an official inmate, just being held there, we only had ten minutes. She was at a wire window with her fingertips up through the holes touching her son's hand with one and touching her husband's hand with the other just saying, I don't know how this happened to me, I never did anything illegal in my life, and why has this happened. But in the same breath she knows God will bless her and she'll be home with her family. We hope she will have a fair trial.

BLITZER: What's your worst fear, Anna? SOTO: Never to see my mother again. That's my worst fear. I just want her home. I just want to be able to hold her, tell her how much I love and miss her. That's my biggest fear, never to see her again.

BLITZER: If they're watching you now, the Mexican authorities now, Anna, what would you say to them?

SOTO: That she's innocent. She is an honest, good woman, a Christian woman that would never do anything to harm her own country, jeopardize her freedom.

BLITZER: Let's hope for the best. We did get a statement, by the way, from Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. I know he's trying to help your mom. He put out a statement saying through a spokesperson, "Senator Flake is personally monitoring the situation and he has had multiple conversations with the deputy Mexican ambassador this weekend. We're going to put in a call as well to the Mexican ambassador here in Washington and see what we can learn."

Thanks to both of you very much for joining us. Good luck. Good luck, Anna, to your mom and Brandon, good luck to your sister-in-law. We hope this turns out good and we hope it turns out well in the next -- and very, very soon. Thanks very much.

SOTO: Thank you.

KLIPPEL: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, the story of a policeman trying to do a good deed. It turns outs he was walking into a death trap.

The actor you know as Lieutenant Dan. We'll talk about how that one role nearly 20 years ago changed his life and touched so many U.S. veterans. An interview you'll want to see, especially on this Memorial Day.




BLITZER: A somber moment, President Obama laying a wreath at the Tomb Of The Unknowns and observing a moment of silence this Memorial Day in honor of all the American service members who, in his words, are willing to lay down their lives for the freedoms this country enjoys.

Another holiday tradition here in Washington, D.C., the National Memorial Day Concert which, for the eighth consecutive year, was co- hosted by Emmy award-winner actor Gary Sinise, a longtime supporter and advocate for the country's veterans.

Gary Sinise is here in THE SITUATION ROOM on a special Memorial Day. Thanks very much for coming in.

GARY SINISE, ACTOR: Thank you. BLITZER: Tell us about your involvement with veterans. All of us remember "Forest Gump," the role you played, a significant role, back in '94 when that film came out. But you've had an amazing involvement with veterans over the years. Explain how this evolved.

SINISE: Well, there are several reasons, I think, starting with my family on both my wife's side of the family, and my side. I've got veterans. Her side of the family, the Vietnam veterans, her two brothers, her sister's husband served in Vietnam and was in for 22 years. And my side of the family, World War II, Korea, World War I. So that's a big connection there.

And then my involvement with being in veterans goes back to the 1980's. We all remember how shameful they were treated when they came home from the war. It was a very difficult period for us, and they paid a price. So having them in my family, having several friends who served in Vietnam after we started deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan and having been involved with the Dav, the Disabled American Veterans, since playing one in "Forest Gump" in the 90's. I knew there was a role for me to play currently in supporting our active duty service members and trying to make sure that they knew we were grateful for what they are doing. If they go off to war, they're going to come home, and we'll show our appreciation.

BLITZER: All of us remember Lieutenant Dan Taylor, the role you played in "Forest Gump." And when you go into a hospital and meet with wounded warriors, to this day they refer to the film.

SINISE: Well, I -- yes. I realized very early on when I started visiting the hospitals, the first hospital I visited, military hospital, was Landstuhl over in Germany. And I realized as soon as I walked in and started visiting our troops overseas they were all -- most of them didn't even know what my real name was. They just recognized me from the movie, Lieutenant Dan.

And it was an automatic ice breaker. They started talking to me about the movie, and I could -- you know, they felt like I could relate to what they were going through because I played that part in a movie. And so very early on I realized that that particular character was just going to be a part of my life in a way because I'm very devoted to our military, very devoted to making sure our veterans know we appreciate what they do. And if, you know, they want to talk about Lieutenant Dan, that's fine with me.

BLITZER: On this Memorial Day, what's the biggest challenge facing veterans in the country today?

SINISE: Well, there are multiple challenges. Multiple challenges. Obviously we have a terrible post-traumatic stress issue. There are way too many suicides going on right now. You've seen the statistics about that. We're trying to address that. I'm involved with different initiatives on that front.

Jobs, obviously, is an important part of that. I'm involved with some great initiatives there. The get skills to work program with GE. GE has brought together a great coalition of manufacturers, educators, military nonprofits, all coming together to address the manufacturing sector of our economy by taking skills that people learn in the military and kind of retooling them through training to apply to the manufacturing sector.

We have 600,000 jobs that are available in the manufacturing industry, yet we can't necessarily fill those jobs with qualified workers.

BLITZER: So what's your message to a vet right now who's struggling to find a job?

SINISE: Go to That's one. I mean, there are different initiatives, the one that I'm involved in right now and that I think is very, very good and growing every day is Get Skills to Work. If you go to, you can find out how the program works. If you're interested in manufacturing and using what you've learned in the military, obviously we have one of the greatest militaries -- the greatest military and trained and advanced military the world has ever seen, we're going to have qualified people there.

They can use what they've learned in the military and apply it to the manufacturing sector, you know, and use what they've learned in the military to give back to our economy.

BLITZER: Excellent advice. Hey, Gary. Thanks very much for coming in. Thanks for all the work that you're doing. We deeply appreciate it. One quick plug. I know you're going to be out near Chicago, Ravinia Festival, June 13th, you're going to be performing there?

SINISE: That's right. I take my band all over the world. It's the Lieutenant Dan Band, I just went with that name, named the band after the character because the military is calling me that all the time. And I actually worked at Ravinia and Highland Park, Illinois, when I was a kid. And now I'm going to be playing there on June 13th. Tickets are available. And I hope a lot of people -- I hope the hometown crowd comes out and sees it.

BLITZER: I'm sure they will. They're very proud of you out in Highland Park in Chicago, indeed all over the country.

Hey, Gary, thanks very much.

SINISE: My pleasure. Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, the mystery behind a deadly ambush. Was a killer looking for any target or a specific policeman?

And in our next hour, a sports cruise ship and vacations cut short. You're going to hear from passengers who lived through the latest cruise nightmare.


BLITZER: Let's go to Kentucky where an off-duty police officer is dead, shot during what appears to be a cold-bloodied ambush. Right now, police are trying to track down the killer and they're promising, quote, "It's an eye for an eye." CNN's Alina Machado was covering this mystery for us.

What do we know, Alina?

ALINA MACHADO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, a reward of at least $6,000 is now being offered in this case. Police say they have no solid leads so far, but they are confident they will find the killer.


MACHADO (voice-over): Fuelled by anger and grief, the police chief in Bardstown, Kentucky, is vowing revenge.

CHIEF RICK MCCUBBIN, BARDSTOWN, KENTUCKY POLICE: I can assure you we won't give up on this person until we have him either in custody or on the front side of one of our weapons.

MACHADO: Authorities say Bardstown Police Officer Jason Ellis was driving home from work early Saturday morning when he stopped to clear debris from a freeway exit ramp and was ambushed. Police say someone was hiding nearby and opened fire with a shotgun, killing the 33-year- old, seven-year police veteran.

TROOPER NORMAN CHAFFINS, KENTUCKY STATE POLICE: He was a distance away and it was obviously -- obvious that he was laying in wait for someone to pick up that debris. And you know, as reported earlier, you know, Officer Ellis never had a chance.

MACHADO: The officer's weapon was still in his holster when he was found. Other drivers stopped and called for help, but it was too late.

Ellis leaves behind a wife and two young boys. His church honored his life during Sunday services.

REV. BRENT SNOOK, FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH, GLEN ESTE, KENTUCKY: When you know a guy like Jason, who is just a great man and a wonderful guy, you just don't expect this to happen.

MACHADO: Police say it is not clear if the shooter targeted Officer Ellis or intended to shoot whoever stopped. Residents of this area 40 miles south of Louisville, already on edge, are being told to remain vigilant.

CHAFFINS: We've got a dead police officer, and if a gunman is willing to shoot an armed police officer in a -- in a marked state -- in a marked cruiser, then, you know, they are capable of killing anyone. And these people are a danger to the public.

MACHADO: And in front of the police station, a memorial of balloons and stuffed animals sits in tribute to a fellow officer gone too soon.


MACHADO: There will be a candlelight vigil at the police department tonight. The officer's funeral is planned for later this week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Alina, thank you. Alina Machado reporting from us.

When we come back, an unbelievable rescue mission. A baby, yes, a baby stuck in a pipe. The desperate race to save the child. We'll have details.

And later, Senator John McCain sneaks into Syria today. We're going to talk to the man who helped get him in.


BLITZER: An unbelievable rescue attempt with an extraordinary outcome. Rescuers in China pulling a newborn from a tiny sewage pipe.

Here's CNN's Hala Gorani.


HALA GORANI, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The dramatic rescue began after cries from a fourth floor apartment toilet. Alarmed neighbors saw a tiny foot and called the fire department. Unable to pull the baby out, rescuers went to the floor below and sawed away the entire section of sewer pipe. But still, the baby remained wedged inside.

So sewer section and baby were taken to the local hospital where firefighters and surgeons working together carefully began removing the pipe, piece by piece. An hour later, success. A newborn baby rescued, the afterbirth still attached.

Chinese media said he's a baby boy now in stable condition. Police say they are looking for the parents. They say no one has yet come forward to claim the child.

Hala Gorani, CNN.


BLITZER: That baby reportedly was just two-days-old, the pipe only said to be about four inches in diameter.

Happening now, a holiday cruise disrupted by fire. Passengers describe their panicked scramble to safety.

Senator John McCain's secret trip to Syria. What it says about U.S. support for the rebels. I'll talk to a Syrian official who helped plan that trip.

And anti-Muslim anger surges after the gruesome meat cleaver attack on a British soldier. Are there similarities to the Boston bombing?