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NTSB: Train Was going 100+ MPH When It Crashed; North Korean Defense Chief Executed; Interview with Ben Rhodes; One Survivor of Amtrak Derailment Speaks Out. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired May 13, 2015 - 17:00   ET


[17:00:23] WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR: Happening now, double the speed limit. An Amtrak passenger train was going more than 100 miles an hour when it derailed, killing at least seven people and injuring 200 others. Federal investigators are about to hold a briefing. We'll bring it to you live.

Disastrous mess. Philadelphia's mayor says he's never seen anything like it. The crash halts all traffic on a crucial rail corridor with a ripple effect on travel throughout the northeast.

Unbelievable. North Korea's dictator adds to his long list of victims. His defense chief is reportedly executed by anti-aircraft guns for dozing off in front of Kim Jong-un.

And ISIS leader killed? Iraq's military says the terror group's No. 2 man has died in a coalition airstrike. I'll ask the president's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, about that and more.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news, federal investigators now say an Amtrak passenger train was apparently going more than 100 miles an hour when it hit a curve rated at half that speed in Philadelphia. All seven cars left the tracks. One was almost obliterated. At least seven people are dead. Some 200 others were injured.

Rail traffic is shut down on a crucial transportation corridor. And there are urgent new questions about what went wrong in this crash and about the nation's rail safety.

Our correspondents, analysts and guests, they're all standing by for full coverage.

Let's begin with CNN's Brian Todd. He's on the scene for us in Philadelphia -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this commute on the Amtrak regional could not have been more routine when, in an instant, there was carnage. And you can see some of that behind me, several yards behind me, over my right shoulder. There's the tail end, one of the last cars on the train, pitched to a 45-degree angle off the tracks as investigators continue to comb through that. Tonight, we're learning more about what caused the accident.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Keep talking. Keep talking. Keep talking.

TODD: And, Wolf, what we are learning, actually, is that the train, according to a source briefed on the investigation, could have been traveling at about 100 miles an hour in a 50-mile-an-hour zone. It was approaching a curve at the time of the derailment. As you mentioned, all the people injured there and some of them we've spoken to recently, we just interviewed a woman and her son who were in one of those last cars. They were from New Jersey. They were returning to New Jersey.

Her son pulled several people out of one of those last cars. And they were just describing scenes of absolute carnage. We're expecting an NTSB briefing soon.

Now, what we're told is that the engineer has given a statement to investigators. That came from -- that information came from investigators and from Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. And we're also told that some other people who were involved in the operation of the train have been talking to investigators.

What we're not knowing exactly right now is what they've been saying there, wolf. And that's what we know at the moment. Again, the NTSB is scheduled to brief at any moment.

BLITZER: You've got some information -- new information on at least two people who are still unaccounted for. Is that right, Brian?

TODD: That's right. We've learned that a man named Robert Gildersleeve -- He's an executive of a chemical company in Minneapolis -- he is now listed as missing. His family has filed a missing persons report with the Philadelphia Police Department. The last we saw of him, according to a family member, was when his wife dropped him off at the Baltimore train station last night. That was according to family. That was the last time he was seen.

We now -- we now have more information on the other passenger. Rachel Jacobs is her name. She was the daughter of a Michigan state -- a former Michigan state senator. She is still listed as missing.

And now we have, again, Wolf, a little bit more information about what may have caused this accident.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a major event down here. We have people on the track.

TODD (voice-over): Screeching noises, electrical flashes, then pandemonium.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Got a report of a train derailment. Also a person screaming. TODD: Investigators now believe Amtrak Northeast regional train 188 may have been traveling at twice the speed limit when it derailed in a Philadelphia neighborhood at 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

JANNA D'AMBRISI, PASSENGER, AMTRAK TRAIN: I was thrown against the girl next to me against the window. And people from the other side of the aisle started falling on top of us.

TODD: Searching for answers in the aftermath, today officials recovered the train's data recorder, the so-called black box. And CNN has learned investigators are seriously considering whether excessive speed could have caused the accident.

The Amtrak train is believed to have been traveling in excess of 100 miles per hour as it approached a turn where the speed limit was 50, according to a source briefed by investigators.

[17:05:06] One passenger tells CNN, the train did appear to pick up speed right before the jolt.

D'AMBRISI: It felt like we sped up a little bit at first, as if we were almost going around a curve.

TODD: National Transportation Safety Board investigators will also study the condition of the track, and the train, how the signals operated, and, quote, "human performance."

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter told reporters the train's engineer survived and has talked to investigators.

MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER, PHILADELPHIA: The engineer was injured, received medical care, was then interviewed by the Philadelphia Police Department.


TODD: And we spoke to two other people who were on the train. A woman named Joan Helfman (ph) and her son, Max. Joan Helfman (ph) was hit by flying luggage. She suffered a concussion and some fractured ribs. Her son, Max, got her out of the train as this train started to fill with smoke. They fit through just an eight-inch opening in the train that they could find. And then Max went in and pulled several other passengers out. He says he's no hero. He says that designation is reserved for the first responders. Wolf, and as you can see, some investigators still on the scene behind me.

BLITZER: We're standing by for an update, Brian, from the National Transportation Safety Board. They're now the lead investigation -- the lead investigatory team on the scene right now. Momentarily, we expect to hear from the NTSB. We'll have live coverage of that coming up there. You see the microphones, the reporters. They're all getting ready to ask questions and await the latest information.

Officials do confirm that seven deaths did occur in the Amtrak derailment. At least -- at least 200 passengers are injured with several of them in critical condition. CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is joining us now. She's outside one of the six

hospitals treating survivors of the wreck. What's the latest, Sunlen?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this is Temple University Hospital. This is the hospital closest to the crash site. Only about three miles away. So they took in the most patients overnight, 54 patients in all now.

And the latest update from this hospital is that half of those patients have been treated and now released. But eight here remain are in critical condition, fighting for their lives right now.

Now, I spoke a short time with the medical director of this hospital about the nature that he's seen of these injuries.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was surprised that there were as few head injuries as we saw and there were many, many patients that had rib fractures.

SERFATY: So what does that tell you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lots and lots of rib fractures. That there was a high-energy crash.


SERFATY: And the doctor tells me -- the doctor tells me that there are likely three major surgeries scheduled for tomorrow here at this hospital. And he expects likely about a half a dozen to be released tomorrow.

Now, we know there were, of course, some survivors that were not injured from this accident. And nearby, a lot of them gathered at the 30th Street train station here in Philadelphia, where they were greeted by the Red Cross. The Red Cross tells me many of those survivors were too scared to get on another train, that they will remain here in Philadelphia until the emotions get back to them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. We'll get back to you, Sunlen. I know you're getting more information. A U.S. Naval Academy midshipman and an employee of the Associated Press are among the seven people dead in the Amtrak derailment. Searchers still are trying to account for missing passengers, including a tech company CEO.

Let's go back to Philadelphia. CNN's Kate Bolduan is on the scene for us. Kate, what else are you picking up?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Wolf, I want to just point out, if you can see over my shoulder, I do want to talk about the seven confirmed dead. But we are waiting for this NTSB press conference right now. As you can see, NTSB officials, they are walking towards us right now. The press conference cameras, if you will. We have another camera. It is right over my left shoulder. They're going to be walking up to address the media right now, Wolf. I think we should probably take a break and listen in.

BLITZER: All right. This is a board member from the NTSB leading the investigation. So you're right, let's listen in. We'll get the latest.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good afternoon. You'll be briefed today by board member Robert L. Sumwalt, spelled S-U-M-W-A-L-T.

ROBERT L. SUMWALT, NTSB BOARD MEMBER: Well, good evening. My name is Robert Sumwalt, and I'm a board member with the National Transportation Safety Board.

NTSB, as many of you know, is an independent federal agency. We're charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, to determine the probable cause and then issue safety recommendations to try and keep these accidents from happening again.

Before I go any further, I would like to offer our sincere condolences for the loss of lives and the injuries that people have sustained, and our thoughts and prayers are truly with them.

[17:10:05] NTSB investigators began arriving here in Philadelphia between 4 and 5 this morning. And the majority of the go team was in place here in Philadelphia by about 9:30 this morning.

Upon arrival here on the scene, we coordinated with the local officials, the first responders, and then we conducted a pretty thorough walkthrough of the accident site to be able to get an idea of what we're dealing with, sort of the lay of the land.

At noon, we held an organizational meeting, where we established our investigative protocols and parties to the investigation. The investigator in charge is Mike Flanagan. Mike has over 40 years of railroad experience. And he has more than 15 years of accident investigation experience with the NTSB.

He is leading a multi-disciplinary team of accident investigators that will be looking into the track, the signals -- and I'm talking about the train control signal system -- the operations of the train, the mechanical condition of the train, to include the brake system, recorders, survival factors and emergency response.

In addition to our investigative team, we have experts from the NTSB's Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance. They are here to help facilitate the needs of the victims and their families.

Here's the factual information that we presently have. Last evening, Amtrak 188, an Amtrak northeast regional train, departed Philadelphia's 30th Street Station at 9:10 p.m. bound for New York City's Penn -- Penn Station. The train consisted of one locomotive and seven passenger cars. And according to Amtrak, there were 238 passengers and a crew of five, for a total of 243 occupants of the train.

At approximately 9:21 p.m., while traveling through a left-hand turn, the entire train derailed. Just moments before the derailment, the train was placed into

engineer-induced braking. And this means that the engineer applied full emergency -- a full emergency brake application. Maximum authorized speed through this curve was 50 miles per hour. When the engineer-induced brake application was applied, the train was traveling at approximately 106 miles per hour. Three seconds later, when the data to the recorders terminated, the train speed was 102 miles per hour. I will indicate that these are preliminary figures of speed, subject to further validation. But we're pretty close on that.

That's our first look at it. It's a pretty complex thing. You don't just press a button, and it spits out a speed. We have to measure the wheel speed and then put that into a formula. But we're pretty confident that the train was traveling pretty close to those speeds, within one mile -- one or two miles per hour.

The train had recorders. It had forward-facing video cameras. And it had an event data recorder. Both of these recorders are being sent to our laboratory for analysis at Washington, D.C. We did get these initial speeds that we just provided you with from an initial download of the event recorder.

We've released the track back to Amtrak, and they will begin rebuilding it very soon. The locomotive and all but two of the train passenger cars are currently being moved to a secure location where a detailed examination and documentation can occur.

Throughout the next few days, the investigators will work on scene to thoroughly document the accident site and gather factual information. We will be doing a more detailed documentation of the rail cars and the scene. We plan to interview the train crew and other personnel. We would like to interview passengers of the train. We will be conducting a site distance test. We'll be testing the signal system, the train control signals. We'll be testing the braking system and a detailed analysis instead of the cursory analysis that I mentioned earlier of the recorders -- we'll be doing a very detailed download and analysis of those recorders.

Our mission is to find out not only what happened but why it happened so that we can prevent it from happening again. That's really what we're here for, to learn from these things so that we can keep them from happening again.

I suspect that our investigators will be here in Philadelphia on scene for about a week. I want to emphasize that we're not here on scene to determine the cause of the accident while we're on scene. We're not going to speculate. Our purpose for being here, I like to describe it that we are here to collect perishable evidence, which is that information that will go away with the passage of time. That's really what we're here to do, is collect that information that will go away with the passage of time. We can go back and do the analysis later. But we have to capture those data very carefully now.

I feel like -- for just arriving on scene this morning, I feel like the preliminary information that we have is robust. But we still have a lot to get. I know that you have a lot of questions. We have a lot of questions.

And our commitment to you is that we are, as we are discovering factual information, we will be releasing it. I would be looking for a press conference about this time tomorrow to tell you what we've learned tomorrow. And that's the way it works. Our investigators are out in the field doing their jobs during the day. And they report back to me so I can report to you.

I would encourage you to follow us on Twitter. Our Twitter handle is @NTSB. As I wrap it up, I'd like to thank the first responders for all of their efforts. They've been out here through the night, through the early morning and all day trying to secure this area. We want to thank them for their hard efforts.

Now, I will call for questions -- I'm going to call for questions. What I'd like for you to do is raise your hand. I will call on you. And once I call on you, please state your name and your outlet. Let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Have you had a chance to talk to the engineer (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

Sumwalt: Have we talked to the engineer? The answer to that is no. But we plan to. This person has gone through a very traumatic event. And we want to give him an opportunity to convalesce for a day or so before we interview him. But that's certainly a high priority for us, to interview the train crew right here.

TOM COSTELLO, NBC NEWS: Tom Costello with NBC News. You talked about the 106 miles per hour being the speed. How long did it take him to get up to 106? In other words, had he been progressively getting faster and faster? Do you have a time line for that?

And also, were there any whistles or bells going off warning him in the cab that he was... ?

SUMWALT: So the question is, how -- at what point did the train reach 106 miles per hour? Our initial examination of the data, we have not gone back that far because it is a very detailed analysis of reading those data. We wanted to find out the speed so we could report those to you. We will be coming up with the time line. That's one of the things we will do. But we don't have those exact figures at this point.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any alarms? Any alarms?

SUMWALT: Any alarms in the cab of the locomotive? And we will discover that information. We should through the cockpit data -- I'm sorry, from the cab event recorders. Yes, sir, right here.

CHRIS O'DONNELL, FOX 29: Are you confident -- Chris O'Connell from FOX 29. Are you confident that all the fatalities have been accounted for? You say most of the rail cars have been removed. There are, say, one or two left. Do you know if there are any more fatalities?

SUMWALT: The question is do I know if there's any more fatalities, and the information concerning the fatalities. I don't want to sound bureaucratic. We are here to investigate the accident, and that's our lane. The release of the information on the injuries and fatalities, that is the domain of the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management. So they would have that information, and so that's the answer to that.

[17:20:17] ROSEMARY CONNORS: Rosemary Connors. You mentioned he applied the pull braking system when this accident happened. Was that enough to bring this speed under a level (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

SUMWALT: Well, the question is, the engineer applied the -- put the train into emergency braking a few seconds before, moments before the derailment. And in the next three seconds, three or four seconds, the speed of the train had only decreased to 102. So we know it takes a long time and distance to decelerate a train.

CONNORS: How long would it typically take to try to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) after he applied the brakes?

SUMWALT: How long would it take to get the speed down below 100 -- below the track speed of 50 miles an hour? Well, he was already in the curve at that point. You're supposed to enter the curve at 50 miles an hour.

We'll take a question right here.


SUMWALT: The question is, is the black box, the event data recorder, is that at Amtrak? Is that what your question is?


SUMWALT: Yes. We took it to -- that's the question. We took the event recorder to Amtrak's facilities, because they have the equipment locally to download it. So we took it there for the preliminary look. But now we're taking it to our own labs in Washington, D.C.

Question right here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How many event recorders are there?

SUMWALT: How many event recorders are there? There are one -- there's one event recorder. And that's in the locomotive. In addition to the event recorder, there is a forward-facing camera.

Right here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was the train equipped with any sort of system that could have or should have slowed a train that was going too fast prior to the curve?

SUMWALT: Was the train equipped with any type of device that could have or should have slowed it down to keep it within its limits? And Amtrak throughout a good bit of the Northeastern Corridor has a system called advanced civil speed enforcement. That's called ACSE. ACSE is installed throughout most of the Northeast Corridor for Amtrak. However, it is not installed for this area where the accident

occurred, where the derailment occurred. That type of a system, we call it a positive train control system. That type of system is designed to enforce the civil speed to keep the train below its maximum speed.

And so we have called for positive train control for many, many years. It's on our most wanted list. Congress has mandated that it be installed by the end of this year. So we are very keen on positive train control. Based on what we know right now, we feel that had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred.

Right here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or any emergency alert set-up?

SUMWALT: Is this train equipped with a dead-man switch? Some trains have it. Some don't. Oftentime in place of the dead-man switch, they have an alerter. So if there's no activity from the engineer within a certain period of time, an oral and visual alerter will -- will activate in the cab of the locomotive. And then if an engineer makes a throttle move under something, that will deactivate...


SUMWALT: We want to know exactly what was in that car.

All right. Let me call on you. I'm going to take a question right here.


SUMWALT: Well, when was the last time the rail was inspected, post -- before accident and post-accident? The rail geometry car went across the track yesterday. And as far as our thorough examination of the track, you've got to understand, there's been a lot of activity out there right now. The cars have been piled up out there.

So our real thorough examination of the car -- of the track will begin after those cars are thoroughly removed. And I expect we'll be out there documenting that tomorrow.

Question right here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There were some (UNINTELLIGIBLE) tanks nearby. Do you know if they were filled with fuel? (UNINTELLIGIBLE) precaution so close to those tanks?

SUMWALT: So there are some rail tank cars that were very close to the point of derailment. Were they empty? I'm told -- I won't to further verify this, I'm told they were not full at the time of the accident.

Question right here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Do we know how long this engineer has been with Amtrak?

SUMWALT: Do we do know how long the engineer had operated this route and how long he had been with Amtrak? That's the type of information -- I don't consider that perishable evidence. That's data that we can get two weeks from now.

What we're trying to do right now is get out there and measure everything that won't be here in two weeks. So to answer your question, we don't know. I can't tell you right now, because I don't know how long he had been there. But that's information we will get. So we want to interview him. We want to review his training records, his employment records. That's standard.

Question right here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When did the train start moving faster than the speed limit?

SUMWALT: So the question is, when did the train start moving faster than the speed limit? We did not -- we have not gone back far enough in the data to see when that occurred. We're saying that the speed limit through the curve is 50 miles an hour.

However, right before the curve, the speed limit is 80. So 80-mile- an-hour speed limit and then to enter the turn, enter the curve, the engineer is supposed to slow the train to 50. But we will be putting together a time line. We've got good data from the event recorders. And our priority was just to get an idea of what the speed was at the derailment.

Question here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would speed alone have caused this crash?

SUMWALT: Could the speed alone have caused this crash? And that's certainly analysis. That's exactly what we want to find out, is why did this train derail? Question right here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the BBC. In your initial assessment, were there any obvious mechanical, signal problems, anything on the track that stuck out to you...

SUMWALT: Are there any obvious mechanical or signal difficulties that we found? And we have not -- again, we just basically got here. We -- a lot of the emergency response has been going on till about 2. So we haven't been able to get that very thorough, up close and personal view of the track. We will be downloading the signals to look at those. We will be doing a brake test of the train. We will be doing a site distance test.

There's a lot of work that needs to be done that will be done. And we will be letting you know periodically how we're going.

Again, look for another press briefing tomorrow. And that's it. I want to thank you for your time. We'll see you tomorrow.


BLITZER: So there he is, Robert Sumwalt, a board member from the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, briefing us on what was going on.

The key points he's making, though, going into this curve, the train is supposed to be going 50 miles per hour. But it was going 106 miles per hour. The brakes went on. Three seconds later, it went down to 102 miles per hour. Way too -- way too fast. But that's when the system basically crashed. Joining us now is the president of the National Safety Council, the former chair of the NTSB, Deborah Hersman. Deborah, thanks very much for joining us. I assume you heard Robert Sumwalt explain what was going on. What does this say to you? What's your immediate analysis?

DEBORAH HERSMAN, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL SAFETY COUNCIL: You know, time and time again, we've seen situations where things can be prevented. And I think looking at this situation, hearing the 106-mile-per-hour speed going into a 50-mile-per-hour curve really says to us, this is absolutely preventable. And we need to consider technologies like positive train control.

What possibly, other than human error, could result in the train going 106 miles an hour into that curve as opposed to 50 miles per hour?

HERSMAN: Well, you know, it is really early in the investigation. It's not just about ruling things in. But it's also about ruling things out. They have got to test all of the systems, the displays, things like the speedometer, to make sure everything is working as designed so that that locomotive engineer had all of the information and tools to make the right decisions and inputs.

BLITZER: Deborah, I want you to stand by.

I also want to bring in Peter Goelz. He's the former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, and he's also a CNN aviation analyst. But he knows a lot about ground transportation, including train disasters, as occurred in Philadelphia.

What's your immediate reaction when you heard Robert Sumwalt, and I assume you know Robert Sumwalt from your years at the NTSB. What's your reaction to what he said?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, I was shocked, as I think Deborah was, that this accident occurred, because as she mentioned, it has happened before. And there's -- there's two things that are going to happen right away. One is, is they're going to look at the engineer very carefully. They're going to pull his cell phone records to see if he was distracted or on his cell.

[17:30:14] They're going to look at his activities, the 72 hours beforehand. And they're going to look carefully at his past record.

And of course, this reiterates another concern. Not only positive train control, which as we know, the NTSB has been pushing for years. Today the Congress cut an appropriation for positive train control on the very day after this tragedy. And the Congress is really going to have to address these kinds of infrastructure issues.

But another interesting point is why only forward-facing cameras? Why not a camera facing into the cabin? The NTSB has discussed that, as well. But engineer groups have opposed it. We need to know what happened in this event, and we need all the tools in the tool chest.

BLITZER: We don't know what happened inside the -- with the engineer in this particular case. But if there were a camera, the notion that perhaps falling asleep, which has happened in other train disasters, could be either ruled out or ruled in, right?

GOELZ: Correct. We would know whether he was distracted, whether he was dozing off. We'd know what he was doing -- doing. And there is no reason not to have cabin cameras in this day and age.

BLITZER: Just like there should be cabin cameras in the cockpits of aircraft, as well. I know you've been a supporter of that over the years.

GOELZ: That's right.

BLITZER: Let's talk for a moment about what Sumwalt, the NTSB board member, mentioned and what you just mentioned, this positive train control. A lot of us aren't familiar with that.

But basically, from my understanding is, if that were in place, the train could not have been going into that curve at 106 miles per hour. It would have been automatically going in at, what, 50 miles per hour, which is what it was supposed to do, is that right?

GOELZ: That's correct. And the -- what's tragic is that there is a form of positive train control on much of the Northeast Corridor. But in this section -- and it could be because this is an intersection of a number of different rail lines.

At this intersection, they had not had it in place, even though there was a relatively sharp turn. And Deborah has been a proponent of positive train control across the country. And she'll be speaking out on it, I think, continuously after this accident.

BLITZER: The reason it wasn't there is, what, money? It costs a lot to put it into place, is that it?

GOELZ: It costs -- it costs billions. And one of the other challenges is we have multiple rail lines operating. It's not just a single national rail carrier. We have, you know, at least six major freight carriers. We have multiple short lines. We have multiple passenger lines. The integration of those systems has proven to be more challenging than first thought.

But we cannot stop. And the government needs to help. And the idea that they would cut not just appropriations for Amtrak this afternoon but also cut positive train control is really very, very disheartening.

BLITZER: We're going to have much more on this coming up. The breaking news we're following out of Philadelphia, seven people confirmed dead in this horrendous, horrendous train crash.

Stay with us, Peter. We've got a lot more breaking news to follow. We'll be right back.


[17:38:29] BLITZER: We'll have much more on the deadly Philadelphia train crash in just a new moments. But there's other important news that's breaking right now.

North Korea's dictator has apparently added to his long list of victims by having his defense chief killed publicly, ripped to pieces by a high-caliber weapon. Let's get the latest from our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott.

What are you learning, Elise?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, purges of top regime officials have become more frequent in North Korea as Kim Jong-un tries to hold onto power. But this latest one is being seen as a major shake-up. There were few people more entrenched in the Kim family inner circle than the defense minister.

With this execution, Kim is sending a clear and unmistakable and clear message that no one is safe.


LABOTT (voice-over): South Korean intelligence says one of Kim Jong- un's top military commanders was executed, shot by anti-aircraft guns as hundreds of North Korean elites watched.

Just weeks ago, Hyon Yong-chol was seen here, leading a North Korean delegation to a security conference in Moscow.

PROFESSOR CHARLES ARMSTRONG, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: This is a big deal. He was a survivor, someone that one would have thought would remain very high up in the regime.

LABOTT: Hyon was a Kim family loyalist who spent years working under Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, to become North Korea's second highest military officer. South Korean lawmakers who attended an intelligence briefing about his death tell CNN Hyon was accused of second-guessing Kim's orders, even dozing off during military events.

[17:40:03] And new satellite images from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea show what appears to be a public execution, also by anti-aircraft machine gunfire, sometime this past October. CNN cannot confirm the authenticity of either the images or the execution itself.

JEFF RATHKE, ACTING STATE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESMAN: Not in a position to confirm any of those specifics. But these disturbing reports, if they are true, describe another extremely brutal act by the North Korean regime.

LABOTT: It's not the first time the young North Korean leader eliminated rivals under his rule as he struggles to project power.

In 2013, Kim killed his own uncle, Chang Song-thaek, once a member of his inner circle, for treason.

A North Korean defector says Kim poisoned his aunt for complaining about her husband's execution.

South Korean intelligence believes Kim had 15 top regime officials killed this year alone. Charges a North Korean official dismissed as, quote, "malicious slander" in an interview with CNN's will Ripley.

Just this weekend, Kim backed out of Vladimir Putin's massive military parade to mark the end of World War II, which Russian officials say was for, quote, "internal reasons."

Could fear of being next prompt one of Kim's inner circle to kill him or stage a coup? Kim's firm grip on power makes that difficult but not impossible.

ARMSTRONG: It's a pretty risky proposition to be in the upper reaches of the regime there. When we see these sorts of very high-ranking people bumped off like this, there might be a group who feel that they're better off under a different leadership.


LABOTT: And experts say that fear of being assassinated could have been what kept Kim from traveling to Russia this weekend. Hyon's execution is the latest in a series of personnel shuffles plaguing the top levels of North Korea's military.

U.S. officials say that, while Kim does seem to be in control right now, these actions show this is not a leader confident in his position. He's still trying to establish himself in a very volatile political situation, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very important political, serious development in North Korea. Elise, thank you.

Let's get some more on this and other news that's happening right now. Joining us, the White House deputy national security adviser to the president, Ben Rhodes.

Ben, thanks very much for joining us. First of all, has the U.S. confirmed this execution in such a brutal manner of the North Korean defense minister?

BEN RHODES, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Well, Wolf, I wouldn't talk about our intelligence. But I would say we have no reason to doubt this report, which is also in line with past behavior that we've seen from Kim Jong-un. There has been a pattern of these types of executions of purges that does speak to a very volatile situation with the new North Korean leader.

BLITZER: Do you dispute also this notion that he was killed in this fashion with an anti-aircraft battery going and killing him in front of all of these people?

RHODES: Well, again, there have been reports of that technique being used in executions in North Korea. Obviously, it speaks to the truly barbaric nature of this regime.

And I think what you're seeing, Wolf, is that's raised concerns not just from the United States but from countries like China that has traditionally been close to North Korea. They've been concerned about what they've seen as a pattern of provocations out of the country. And that's why you see a consensus in the international community that there has to be a unified front against North Korean provocation.

BLITZER: Does it show that Kim Jong-un is weak or that he's strong?

RHODES: Well, Wolf, I don't think you would go through the measures of executing members of your family, high-ranking members of the regime if you felt confident in your position. Generally, I think that speaks to someone who's concerned about exerting control.

The fact of the matter is, though, there's a pattern of behavior inside the country that includes these types of executions and human rights abuses. There's a pattern of behavior outside the country that we're deeply concerned about that includes their nuclear program and their provocations.

That's why I think we need to be firmly aligned with our allies in the region like Japan and South Korea, with countries like China in having a unified front against that type of behavior.

BLITZER: Got a bunch of other issues I want to go through if we can. I know your time is limited. The Iraqi military now says a high-value target was killed in Iraq. Some reports saying it was an ISIS deputy, maybe the No. 2 leader in ISIS, Abu Alaa al-Afri. Is that true?

RHODES: Well, Wolf, we can't confirm that at this point. The fact of the matter is, there's been a steady effort to degrade ISIL inside of Iraq and the target leadership. But we want to pull the thread on those types of reports before we are able to independently confirm it.

BLITZER: There's another report that a coalition bomb -- I don't know, a U.S. bomb, another coalition warplane, hit a mosque. Is that true?

[17:45:04] RHODES: Well, Wolf, the Pentagon would have to speak to that. The fact of the matter is, we use incredibly precise weapons in our strikes inside of Iraq and in Syria. We take great care to avoid civilian casualties. And if we do have a civilian casualty incident, we investigate it and then we report it. So we'll be very transparent about any of those particular allegations. But, again, the Pentagon will speak to specific incidents.

BLITZER: We know that there's been a U.S. military helicopter helping in the humanitarian mission in Nepal that's been missing with six Marines, two Nepal soldiers on board. Have they found that helicopter? Do we know the fate of those Marines? RHODES: We don't, Wolf. The search is still on. We're working very

closely with the government in Nepal to try to locate the helicopter, determine exactly what happened. This speaks to the extraordinary things that our military does around the world to help bring relief to populations who have suffered gravely in natural disasters.

And right now our thoughts and prayers, of course, are with those who are close to the missing service members and we're going to do everything we can to determine where they are and what happened.

BLITZER: I know the president is meeting today and tomorrow at Camp David with leaders of six Sunni Arab Gulf states. Four of those states are being represented by their deputies, not the heads of state. How much of a problem is this? I know you've suggested the right group of people are around the table. But ideally, the leaders, including the king of Saudi Arabia, should have been there, right?

RHODES: No, I don't think so, Wolf. You follow the region very closely. You know, for instance, of course, that Mohammed bin Zayed, from the United Arab Emirates, always represents the UAE at these types of international meetings. The sultan of Oman has not been traveling regularly in recent years. So it's common that these countries are often represented by people at that deputy level.

And what we've said as it relates to Saudi Arabia and the other countries that are there, they're sending the right people, they're sending the people with the security portfolios, they're sending the people that we cooperate with on a regular basis, to have a discussion about our security cooperation, the situation in the region, the counter-ISIL campaign, Iran and the negotiations, that are ongoing on the nuclear issue.

So we believe that the right people are going to be here at the White House tonight for a dinner with the president and out at Camp David tomorrow for some important discussions.

BLITZER: And will the president have a formal news conference with the other leaders at the end of that session at Camp David tomorrow?

RHODES: Well, he'll certainly be appearing throughout the day with the other leaders. He'll have a press conference at the conclusion of the Camp David meetings. We'd expect there to be both a joint statement that could emerge from the discussions as well as, of course, the president having his own press conference.

BLITZER: Ben Rhodes, the deputy National Security Adviser to the president, thanks very much for joining us.

RHODES: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Good luck with those meetings. We know there's a lot, a lot at stake.

Coming up, we'll have much more on the breaking news, the investigation into that deadly Amtrak derailment. I'll speak live with someone who survived the horrific crash. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:51:49] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news, the investigation into what caused an Amtrak train to derail in Philadelphia. Just now the NTSB revealed the train was going 106 miles an hour before it entered a curve that was supposed to have a 50-mile-an-hour speed limit. The wreck left seven people dead, at least 200 injured, many of them still in critical condition.

One of the survivors is Caleb Bonham who's joining us now from Philadelphia.

Caleb, thanks very much for joining us. Glad you're OK. Take us inside the train at that moment when it derailed. What did it feel like inside?

CALEB BONHAM, AMTRAK DERAILMENT SURVIVOR: You know, there's been quite a few accounts of what different people have experienced inside this train. It really depends on what your train of thought was before the train derailed. And in my situation, it was, you know, I was between closing my eyes, relaxing, listening to music on my iPod. And all of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, I went from one side of the train to the other side. It was out of control. And it was very sudden.

BLITZER: Did you think the train was traveling too fast?

BONHAM: You know, that never occurred to me while I was on the train. You know, I was sitting there, minding my own business, sort of just in my own little world. And several accounts that I've read did have people indicating that they felt the train was going really fast. That there was the possibility since the train was previously delayed in Washington that they were trying to make up a little bit of time.

You know, but there are heavy fines that are imposed on conductors that speed. And so the likelihood of that occurring was -- it not very high. I didn't feel like it was out of control. Now to hear that that train was traveling at approximately 106 miles per hour on a turn that speed limit was 50 miles per hour is absolutely jaw- dropping, especially from somebody that saw the true damage of the toll, that that accident took on passengers inside the train. It is very concerning that that is what the findings are starting to come out with.

BLITZER: And when you were thrown around, I take it you were injured in the crash, is that right?

BONHAM: Yes. So I hit my head really hard. You know, was thrown around. To the best of my recollection, it was -- it was pretty quick and it went black pretty quick. I went from one side of the train to the other side like that. And there was quite a few other people that did so. To my -- if I recall correctly, there was somebody sitting in the seat next to me. And the seat where I ended up, there was nobody in. And I don't know where he went.

And so yes, there was a lot of people that were injured. There was a lot of people that were -- that had, like, head injuries and from the reports that I have read briefly today, there wasn't a whole lot of major head injuries, which is a wonderful blessing, but, you know, we were in the very back car. So I'm afraid to ask what the injuries were in cars that were ahead of mine.

BLITZER: And very quickly, were you conscious the whole time?

BONHAM: I believe I was. I do recall what happened. And I felt like I was in control of myself at all times. I didn't ever feel dizzy. I got a nice little golf ball sized bump right up here and some bruising elsewhere. But besides that, you know, I'm very blessed to be able to walk away from this accident when many people are unable to. And my thoughts and prayers go out to all the family members that are grieving right now because they've lost somebody they love.

[17:55:19] BLITZER: Well said. And we're with you. Thanks so much for joining us. Good luck. Appreciate it very, very much Caleb Bonham.

BONHAM: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, we're going to have much more on the deadly train derailment. That's coming up right at the top of the hour.