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9/11 Museum Opens in NYC; Eric Shinseki Testifies on V.A. Scandal; Wildfires Rage in Southern California

Aired May 15, 2014 - 12:30   ET


RACHEL NICHOLS, CNN HOST, "UNGUARDED": So you heard LeBron there talk about the fact that hey, he understands it's not going to be tomorrow. He's OK right now with the pace of this.

However, he made it clear he's not just ruling out a boycott entirely. If this gets bogged down in politics, Ashleigh, if this starts to look like it's running off the rails, the players may talk more seriously about taking some sort of action. But for right now, they're confident in the NBA.

And just one more thing to add to this, LeBron made it clear to me that all the Sterlings have got to go for them to stay on track. No Shelly Sterling, no Sterling children, they want them all gone.

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Oh, hey, and there are a bunch of basketball games being played right now. Rachel Nichols, thank you, great work. Nice exclusive. Reminder, by the way, you can hear more from Donald Sterling on "AC 360" tonight at 8:00 Eastern and Pacific.

Now I want to take you back to our top story, the dedication of the 9/11 memorial museum, the site that's filled with thousands upon thousands of artifacts and touching tributes.

And also inside, though you may not see it or know it, the remains of the unidentified victims. It is effectively a tomb, but it is also the center of some controversy. What rights do the families who actually are connected to the people who died have? Those remains that are unidentified and the people's voices behind them, the LEGAL VIEW on it, next.


BANFIELD: The national September 11th memorial and museum has a unique distinction.

Apart from the artifacts and all the photos and the films that you'll see if you visit here, you will also be walking through the same space as thousands of human remains, effectively a tomb with remains that haven't been identified yet.

The decision that was made to permanently house the remains at the repository here at the memorial site was not universally popular. Some people, victims' loved ones, believe that it is disrespectful to keep those remains there. Other family members thought it was exactly where they needed to be.

Paul Callan is our legal analyst. He joins me live to talk about this.

First of all, it is not very clear when you enter that museum that that is what is behind that blue wall, but it's almost like a forensic lab. The m.e. is controlling this. What do they expect they might be able to find out in the years to come?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: You know, technology is changing so quickly about how we identify the remains of the deceased. I mean, we can go back to archaeological sites and identify who was the pharaoh based on DNA evidence. So I think they're hopeful in the future they may be able to identify some people.

But the real controversy about this is, is this a worthy memorial for these -- for the remains of these people? Usually they're isolated and put in a separate cemetery as at Arlington or Gettysburg, and that's sort of the problem, I think, that families have.

BANFIELD: There's also something that you could, as a member of the public, visit for free, lay a flower, pay your respects.

You have to pay $24, not if you're a family member, not if you're a first responder or survivor. That's free always. But if you're a member of the public, you've got to pay if you want to do that, as well, and pay those respects.

In a way, the murder cases that you have worked on alone, the myriad different murder cases, does it not surprise you that in this day and age, with all of the CSI we have, we can't identify all of those remains? There are 40 percent of those who died behind us have not yet been identified.

CALLAN: It actually doesn't surprise me, because the television coverage of the technology makes it seem a lot more magic than it really is. It still remains very, very difficult.

And getting back to the controversy, you know, this was -- this idea of memorializing these ashes, and these are unknown victims of 9/11, had wide support from some of the 9/11 families as the appropriate place to be in the museum so that people can see and pay their respects when they visit the museum, so there's a controversy about it.

I looked historically into American controversies about burial sites. Gettysburg, 3,500 Union soldiers buried in shallow graves along with Confederates, there was a big controversy about where to inter the Confederates. Of course, now it's a sacred memorial. So we have to see how history will look back on this very, very important decision.

BANFIELD: And such a poignant memorial. If you're coming to New York City or if you live anywhere nearby, this is so worthy of a visit. This is the wall, by the way, in which -- I shouldn't say in which, but behind which those remains are being housed.

There is no indication of that, but many people just know that. All of those blue tiles represent the various colors of blue that the sky was that day, and there's one for every single member who -- or every single victim who died here, also in 1993.

I have to leave it there, only because I've got some other breaking news. And, Paul, thank you for coming down and sharing that, I think, critical information when it comes to that controversy, as well.

CALLAN: So nice to be with you today.

BANFIELD: Nice to be with you as well.

I have other quick news stories that I want to get up to speed for you now.

There is a man who many lawmakers have wanted to question for quite some time who's now finally appeared on Capitol Hill. You recognize him because he's Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki.

He is today answering questions about a scandal that CNN helped to bring to light, veterans waiting months for basic care at V.A. medical centers and workers there doctoring the books to make their waits appear much shorter.

Secretary Shinseki promised to send veterans affairs committee that he'd find out what went wrong.


ERIC SHINSEKI, VETERANS AFFAIRS SECRETARY: Any allegation, any adverse incident like this makes me as -- makes me mad as hell. I could use stronger language, sure, Mr. Chairman, but in deference to the committee, I won't.

But, at the same time, it also saddens me, because I understand that out of those adverse events, a veteran and a veteran's family is dealing in the aftermath, and I always try to put myself in their shoes.


BANFIELD: Well, it was just last week a House committee got tired of waiting for the secretary to answer its questions, and it decided to hit him with a subpoena. The secretary has four more days to respond to that subpoena.

Wildfires are raging in Southern California. I want you to take a look at your screen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my god! Oh, my gosh! Oh (inaudible)!


BANFIELD: We're going to take you there and give you a live report from the fire zone as this story continues to break. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BANFIELD: Nine wildfires are still raging in Southern California, and buildings like the one you're about to see just being reduced to rubble, all of this as firefighters are scrambling to try to save people's homes, save universities and even save a nuclear power plant.

Tens of thousands of people have been redirected and directed to evacuate, sometimes without time to even pick up anything from the home. And there's a dangerous mix of conditions at work, as well, record high temperatures, strong winds and land parched by drought.

Akiko Fujita is in San Diego right now. Tell me about the conditions, Akiko. Are they getting any better for the people who are on the ground there?

AKIKO FUJITA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, things are definitely improving, Ashleigh.

I can tell you, at least here in the city of Carlsbad, that those flames that engulfed these homes back here yesterday, well, now, that fire is 50 percent contained.

But it's a different story to the east of us in the city of San Marcos. That's where the big concern is right now, more than 700 acres burned there, just five percent containment. It's tough to imagine just what this place looked like right now. And we're seeing some of the homeowners come back to look at their home completely destroyed.

I want to introduce you to J.J. and Anya Bannasch because this right here behind you was your parents' home. Tell me what you thought when you came home to see this yesterday.

ANYA BANNASCH, PARENTS' HOME BURNED DOWN: We all just pretty much collapsed on the ground. It just seemed so surreal.

I felt like a bomb hit or something because everything's completely destroyed. It's just so sad.

FUJITA: And J.J., I know that just last week the two of you had your wedding reception here.

J.J. BANNASCH, IN-LAW'S HOME BURNED DOWN: We did. We had it in the backyard with about 50 people and just close family came over and -- so it was kind of a bittersweet place for us right now because it was such a happy time last week and then now we're dealing with this. So.

FUJITA: And tell me about your parents. They've lived here since 2006. This was their dream home.

A. BANNASCH: Yes. I mean, they worked so hard to get everything that they have and to get this house. And they were so happy when this house got built. And now it's just all destroyed. So, just need all the prayers, you know, that we can get for them.

FUJITA: I saw your family kind of just going through what's left of the debris here. You know, looking for the house number. I mean just anything that you -- really you can salvage at this point.

J. BANNASCH: Yes. I mean we came here trying to find something. I mean we were here yesterday and no one was home when it went up in flames and the dog was in the backyard and we rescued the dog after. He luckily hid in the backyard in a safe place and so we're -


FUJITA: Take me through what this looked like. We'll step back here. This was the entrance to the house?

A. BANNASCH: Yes, this was the entrance. And then the office on the right. And right here was a bedroom. And then we had in the back there's - there's the -- like the pool table, game room and then the dining room and -- it was just -- it was such a gorgeous house. So this is just so - it's just devastating to see.

FUJITA: And when you came back here yesterday, you said you just broke down. But you did find one thing that you were looking for, right?

A. BANNASCH: Yes, thank God. We - we were just praying that my brother's dog, Rocky, would be alive. Everybody was gone. They're in Poway (ph) and they're far away. So we finally came back. He actually -- they found him in the backyard underneath a bunch of -- what was it - it was like --

J. BANNASCH: He was kind of by the barbecue hiding underneath the chairs and a tarp and had a couple burn marks on his back, but he's - he's OK. He's at our house right now.

A. BANNASCH: He survived. Thank God.

J. BANNASCH: And so he's - he's doing good.

A. BANNASCH: That's all we were worried about. So, thank God we got him.

FUJITA: And then walk me through this whole (ph) house here because this was the entrance. I saw some pictures earlier.


FUJITA: This was the living room here. You've got the surfboard. Is that yours?

J. BANNASCH: No, this is --

A. BANNASCH: So this was the garage. Yes, that's my family. They all surf. And this is my brother's and my dad's surfboards. And that's -- we were kind of hoping that at least the red surfboard would be still good, but -- that's my dad's. Yes, but it's not. It's - it's cooked. So we'll have to get him a new one.

FUJITA: And what's the next step now? A. BANNASCH: Oh, gosh. I don't even know, like, where to start. Just as long as we're all together, that's all that counts to us right now. Family is the most important. We can all - we can eventually get stuff back.

FUJITA: Great. Thank you so much. I'm glad your entire family's safe.

And, Ashleigh, you know, a lot of people out here asking if this is what it looks like in May, what is it going to look like when the fire season really picks up in August and September?

ASHLEIGH BANFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: It's hard to even hear you say that, Akiko, that the fire season could pick up when we're looking at what we're seeing behind you. Please give our thoughts and prayers to those people and all of their neighbors as well. Just remarkable. Akiko Fujita joining us live with that incredible story. Ten thousand acres burned.

We're going it continue with our top story as well from right here at what was formerly known as Ground Zero. It is now a memorial museum. The 9/11 Memorial Museum. The artifacts inside. The gloves worn by workers in the rubble. A mangled firefighting truck. It's part of remembering the heroes that day and the compassion and the love that was shown in this tragedy. We're going to show you some of these incredible artifacts that are seven stories down at the bedrock below what you see on your screen.


BANFIELD: Now, 13 years ago, I was here when the twin towers came down. And I'm lucky to be here today, in fact. I remember emerging from a shelter that I had found right after the north tower fell. One of the first things I saw was thousands and thousands of sheets of paper amidst this moonscape.

I didn't know what the paper was until I actually picked it up and read from it and saw addresses of floors that were, you know, 80, 90, 100, 110 floors up. It was just the first of many things that people would find in the 13 years since that day. So many of them, 10,000 artifacts, are now on display in the museum behind me. I want you to see some remarkably poignant stories of just a couple of them right now.


FRANK SILECCHIA, CONSTRUCTION WORKER: My job to go there from the very beginning was to try and help just find one person alive. I found no one. Not one. But what I did find was a symbol to help the families. As the buildings had fallen, the debris was like an atomic bomb. Our job was to go in there and try and see if anybody was hurt or maybe we can save somebody.

And I was damaged at that point. But I looked at -- to my right, and there stood the cross. And that made me drop to my knees in tears. For a short time, it allowed me to become renewed, gave me hope. It's something that came from the debris, from the devastation. Evil destroyed that building, and faith arose out of it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The truck was the first thing that I saw. It was absolutely devastated. And it sort of was a sign of what happened to the company that the truck was unrepairable. It's like half the company. We lost the captain, a lieutenant and nine firemen right down to the proby. You know, losing your brothers, you know, your co- workers, I think about at least, you know, once or twice a day. That was a vehicle that carried the bravest men I knew. The damage that was done to that truck is nothing compared to what it's done, you know, in human loss. You know and you look at that truck, how strong it is, it's unbelievable how much damage it took.

DAVID BRINK, NYPD RET.: When we arrived there, the second plane had struck the tower before we were ready to go inside to start to evacuate the people. We were there for about approximately a half an hour, you know, getting 200 to 300 people out the north tower. And that's when the north tower started to collapse.

I was injured during the collapses. I was out of work for a week. And then I went back on the following Tuesday right down to the site. It was very difficult work. We were using our hands to move debris around. I was in need of a pair of gloves. And there were leather gloves that were donated there.

Once I put the gloves on, I noticed that somebody had written in black ink. It said "thank you" on them. It could have been from a firefighter in California. It could have been from a school kid in Indiana. I don't know. Just they were here in spirit. They were here with me. And they aided in the recovery effort. And that was their own little way of pitching in. And I, for one, appreciate that. Those simple words, "thank you," circled. It helped me get through that day and a lot of other days, too.


BANFIELD: I hope you'll get a chance at some point to visit the National September 11th Memorial and Museum. It opens in just six days to the public.

Thanks so much for watching us today. My colleague, Wolf Blitzer, starts right after this quick break.