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Cruise Ship Runs Aground Off Coast of Alaska; U.S. Soldiers Missing in Iraq; Florida Wildfires

Aired May 14, 2007 - 09:00   ET


I'm T.J. Holmes, sitting in today for Tony Harris.

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everybody. I'm Heidi Collins.

Watch events come into the NEWSROOM live on Monday, May 14th.

Here's what's on the rundown.

Four thousand 4,000 U.S. troops on the hunt today. Three soldiers missing in Iraq. The search focusing on an al Qaeda stronghold south of Baghdad.

HOLMES: Also, after a lull, strong winds threatening to whip up a Florida wildfire today. Live to the front lines of this battle with nature.

COLLINS: A 91-year-old World War II veteran takes repeated blows on camera. Now a young Detroit man faces charges.

Savage beating, in the NEWSROOM.

Cruise ship in trouble. Right now, passengers and crew are abandoning ship off the coast of Alaska. The ship ran aground and is now listing badly. The Coast Guard is responding.

The ship is the Empress of the North. There were 281 passengers and crew on board. It is unknown at this point, anyway, what caused the incident.

Here now the latest from the Coast Guard.


COMMANDER JEFF CARTER, U.S. COAST GUARD: We got word that 281 passengers and crew aboard the 360-foot U.S.-flagged cruise ship Empress of the North are abandoning ship via lifeboats after the ship ran aground 50 nautical miles from Juneau, Alaska, near Icy Strait and Chatham Strait. The cruise ship is taking on water. There's three- foot seas, 15-knot winds, and there's some rain coming down.

We have a response going on. We have got assets en route.

(END VIDEO CLIP) COLLINS: CNN's Barbara Starr is joining us now from the Pentagon.

Barbara, I do understand that -- is it NORAD who's watching over what's happening here with this ship?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, actually, Heidi, indeed the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs is watching this very carefully. The military command center keeping an eye on it. But at this point, what officials told us just a few moments ago, is they do believe the Coast Guard has this well in hand.

There are really only Coast Guard assets nearby. The military normally does not operate in that area of Alaska.

There is a Coast Guard tug, a Coast Guard barge on scene, or at least very close by. We are told that barge has the capacity to take some 200 people on board. So that should go a long way towards helping this situation. There are also Coast Guard helicopters in the air, we are told.

Nonetheless, the military keeping an eye on it. And what they can tell us is there is a good Samaritan situation unfolding here in those cold waters off Alaska right now.

Some 40 good Samaritan boats, small fishing boats, small vessels. People in the area seeing this distress situation going on, have taken to the water, and are trying to help get people from that cruise ship to safety. Very early reports, Heidi, but they are certainly hoping at this point for a very safe outcome for this situation -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Well, yes. It certainly isn't something you expect when you get on a ship like that.

Quickly, Barbara, before we let you go, good Samaritan is probably obvious with the term there, but people just taking out their own private vessels to help out in this situation any way that they can.

STARR: That's right. As we understand it, this area of Alaska, like so many areas along the coast, is a fishing area. There's lots of small boats, small fishermen, perhaps small commercial-type fishing vessels. And quite an active, as you would expect, maritime community along the coast of Alaska.

So, if radios are monitored and they see these distress signals going out, that apparently is why these people are taking to the water with their boats, trying to lend a hand to fellow travelers on the sea in distress.


STARR: Very early reports, however, Heidi. So we will have to see how all of this unfolds.

COLLINS: All right. CNN's Barbara Starr coming to us from the Pentagon.

Also want to let everybody know, just to get an update on this, we have reached out to Coast Guard, and we're going to try and bring the very latest from their perspective to you just as soon as we can.

HOLMES: And rob Marciano in the weather center helping us out with this story as well.


HOLMES: And we'll turn to Iraq now. And unfolding this hour in Iraq, coalition troops carrying out a massive manhunt. They're scouring cars and homes for three U.S. soldiers that vanished after a deadly ambush.

CNN's Hugh Riminton explains.


HUGH RIMINTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Searching against the clock, against a terrible foe. If the three missing U.S. soldiers are alive, as long as they're alive analysts say the a al Qaeda-based Islamic State of Iraq holds a powerful card.

PETER NEUMANN, KING'S COLLEGE: If they have the strategic audacity to pursue this over a number of weeks, make demands that divide the international community, then this could be bringing America to its knees.

RIMINTON: Four thousand U.S. troops with Iraqi army backup continue to search around Mahmoudiyah, in a Sunni insurgent stronghold long known as the Triangle of Death. The U.S. military says its commanders are "intimately focused," and every asset is engaged on finding the soldiers and getting them back.

MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, SPOKESMAN, MULTINATIONAL FORCE, IRAQ: You know, in the United States military, we have a thing called the Soldier's Creed, and it says, "I will never leave a fallen comrade."

RIMINTON: People who have studied Iraq hostage-taking say the al Qaeda style is to view their captives as assets, to keep while their useful, and to kill once the desired effect has been achieved.

NEUMANN: Al Qaeda, of all the various insurgent groups in Iraq, they are probably the most fanatical. And it is very unlikely that they can be bought off with money or they can be persuaded to compromise on other terms.

RIMINTON: The best hope is that the soldiers' location is found soon, and in the raid that follows luck is running their way.


HOLMES: And our Hugh Riminton joins us now live in Baghdad. Tell us as much as you can and the very latest on this search. And also, what kind of terrain are they having to deal with in looking for these three?

RIMINTON: Yes. Well, they're going through -- this is farmland country. It's intersected with canals. It's an irrigated area.

They've got a lot of little roads, little farm roads. The main roads quite frequently get bombed down this area.

You see date palm collections, also reeds that are quite high. So, places where you could hide bits and pieces, but very difficult to hide large groups of people.

The likelihood that they're going to be found out in the open now pretty unlikely, now that the search is into its third day. Intelligence will become more and more important in terms of trying to locate where these three soldiers have been taken right now -- T.J.

HOLMES: And Hugh, is the U.S. military working on the assumption that those reports out there unconfirmed about who might be holding them -- is the U.S. working on that assumption that, yes, in fact, this group that claims to have them does have them?

RIMINTON: Well, the U.S. military spokesman says that it seems quite possible that this would be a true claim. This is from a group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq. In fact, it's a bit of a front group for al Qaeda.

And al Qaeda, this group, through its Web sites, has tended to be reasonably credible, believe it or not, in the past. When they say they've done things, generally they have done these things. So, at the moment, they'll be working on the assumption that it's an al Qaeda-linked group that has these men, and that certainly makes it grim for them.

They can't negotiate with these guys. There's been no luck or currency out of that. The best hope is to find them, and then somehow to recover them. And that would be fraught with peril, as you can imagine -- T.J.

HOLMES: Hugh Riminton for us in Baghdad with the very latest.

Hugh, thank you so much.

Meanwhile, U.S. soldiers shot. This time we're talking about in a different region here. The Pakistani army says militants opened fire today on a convoy near the Afghan border, and at least three U.S. soldiers and three Pakistani soldiers were wounded. We'll have more details as soon as they become available to us here.

COLLINS: Firefighters in north Florida now likely to face an even stiffer test today. Strong winds expected to fan a stubborn wildfire, making their job a whole lot tougher.

CNN's John Zarrella is in Lake City. John, tell us a little bit more about what it's like this morning.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Heidi, we don't have the smoke that we had for the past three days, which is certainly good, certainly for motorists. But, you know, the issue we have, of course, is the winds have picked up here today, and that is definitely going to be a problem. I talked to forestry officials, and they said they are very nervous that the fire might jump the line.

You can see we've got the Osceola Fire Department here, the dozens of fire departments from all over the state of Florida which have converged here. And what their job is really structure protection.

They don't actually go in and fight the fire. That's up to forestry with the heavy equipment. These guys do structure protection.

They're spraying water on houses, an area called Deep Creek out there with a lot of houses in it that could be in the path of the fire. They go out there and clear brush. That's what they do.

But today firefighters say is absolutely pivotal. It will be a hard day for these guys, and it's going to be a hard day for the firefighters on the line because of the winds, the high winds kicking up. And the question is, will those fire lines hold?


ZARRELLA, (voice over): A race against changing weather conditions. Bulldozers move in, cutting new fire lines and widening existing ones. Flames are just a few feet away. Division supervisor Jamie Rittenhouse (ph) plots his next move.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just go in there. You know, cut -- box it in. Whatever. Try to make your way through the flame. Give it some room now in case the wind shifts, OK?

ZARRELLA: The strain of the struggle shows on firefighters' faces. It has already been a long day, knocking down hot spot fires as the wind picks up. Fanning the flames.

The idea to keep it from jumping into that next stand of timber, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Yes. Because then that means we lose everything that we've worked hard on the last couple of days.

ZARRELLA: All this that you worked on is...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is gone if it jumps over there and we can't catch the spot.

ZARRELLA: After two days of relative calm, the winds are gusting again. Will the fire lines hold? The question for firefighters like Julian Priest (ph) is always the same, have we done enough?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're widening lines as fast as we can widen lines.

ZARRELLA: Rain would help. A lot of it. Sunday, it was the prayer of the day in Lake City.


ZARRELLA: That prayer wasn't answered here yesterday. The front moved through. There were rain showers off to the west and the south, but they did not get the rain over the fire area, so that's a problem.

What they're hoping to do today, now that the skies are clearing, is to be able to get the helicopters up. They've got three of them that can carry water -- 400 to 1,000-gallon buckets of water, and that's what they will use if they start to see this fire spreading.

And today again, Heidi, can't emphasize enough, they tell us they've got their fingers crossed, they're nervous, but this is going to be a pivotal day -- Heidi.

COLLINS: Yes. And obviously, John, when we hear about the air assaults that are usually involved in fires of this magnitude, you have to look at the winds to know whether or not these aircraft are going to be able to fly, helicopter or otherwise.

When will they make that call? How long can they wait for the winds to die down?

ZARRELLA: Well, they're not waiting for the winds to die down. They're going to be able to get helicopters up in this wind.

They were waiting for the skies to clear. So, it looks like they've got a pretty good opportunity. It's a little overcast, but we can see blue sky today, which is about the first time we've seen blue sky since I've been here last Friday.

So, it looks like they're telling us they're going to be able to get those helicopters up, certainly by the early afternoon hours. Between 1:00 and 4:00 is the peak fire time, they tell us. No matter where in the country you're fighting fires, that's the time the fires are the most active because the humidity is down, the winds pick up, and the temperatures warm up.


ZARRELLA: So that's the time that they really have to concentrate and worry about this fire spreading.

COLLINS: All right. Well, we know you'll be watching it for us.

John Zarrella for us.

Thanks so much, John. HOLMES: A transatlantic auto marriage headed for divorce. German car maker DaimlerChrysler selling Chrysler to private American investors.

Well, what could this mean for car buyers?

CNN's Ali Velshi live at Chrysler's U.S. headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

Ali, we all know that when you buy a new car, man, it depreciates quickly. But apparently an auto company really depreciates. They did not get their money back in this thing.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Unbelievable. Not at all.

This is about a two-thirds discount from what Daimler paid for Chrysler about nine years ago. But you know, some divorces, you know, it's one of those things, if you divorce young enough, you go out and have a good life. And that might be what this is all about.

DaimlerChrysler, you know, their shareholders were saying get rid of this, man. This is not working for you. And Chrysler, you know, their argument is that they can be more nimble now by not being a publicly owned company.

Publicly owned companies, as you know, have to report to their shareholders every three months. The shareholders are not liking what they're seeing. And the U.S. auto industry is mired in enough problems that quarter to quarter is going to be where you're going to see the difference.

Now, this morning, Dieter Zetsche, who is the boss of DaimlerChrysler -- you know, you'll know him as Dr. Z. from the commercials -- he was talking about how three months ago they said, all right, we're going to sell this thing, we're going to take bids, and we're going to do -- we're going to get the best deal we can.

Here's what he said a couple hours ago at the press conference in Germany.


DIETER ZETSCHE, CEO, DAIMLERCHRYSLER: Today, exactly (INAUDIBLE) after opening up all options, we are here to announce (INAUDIBLE).


VELSHI: I didn't hear that very clearly. It sounded like something that was in German, but I think you get the picture, T.J.

So, they're selling 80 percent of Chrysler for $7.5 billion, so that probably makes it worth about $10 billion in all. And we'll see where it's going.

The president and CEO, Tom LaSorda, he's staying. The United Auto Workers is supporting this deal because they figure it's the best deal that they can get. So, it might be making the best of a bad situation. But the interesting thing here is that for a deteriorating auto industry based out of Detroit, Chrysler is coming back home -- T.J.

HOLMES: I'm glad it wasn't just us who didn't understand...

VELSHI: Was that German?

HOLMES: It was German and English in there, but they were kind of jumbled, you couldn't make it out. But essentially, he said...

VELSHI: All right. Well, we want you the whole -- we want to give our viewers the whole picture.

HOLMES: OK. We'll do that.

Well, man, tell me, before we let you go, are we going to see any difference here in the quality of vehicles? Are consumers going to notice anything? And will this benefit consumers in any way?

VELSHI: Yes. Really, fundamentally, the car companies, the U.S.-branded car companies, have not succeeded as well as they could have, as well as Toyota or Honda or those other companies because they're not buying the cars that Americans want to buy. They're not building the cars Americans want to buy.

Chrysler has had some successes. They're the king of the minivan. I don't think you have got one of those, T.J.


VELSHI: They've done this Chrysler 300 car which is stylish, needs a bit of an update. They've done some good things with small SUVs. They're too heavy in the truck department. And, you know, with $3.06 a gallon gas, they've got to move into another area.

So, there's some sense that they know what they have to do and that this company may be able to do it. So, the consumer might see a better selection of cars, and that's just going to raise the competition level for U.S. cars in general.

HOLMES: And that would be a good thing.

Ali Velshi for us.

VELSHI: That would be a good thing.

HOLMES: And you are right, sir, not a minivan guy. But maybe I'll get there one day.

Thank you so much, man. We'll see you.

COLLINS: Cruise ship in peril. Passengers abandoning ship in the cold waters off the coast of Alaska. The very latest on this developing story coming up right here in the NEWSROOM. HOLMES: Also, teachers stage a mock gun attack. You heard that right. They staged a mock gun attack during a school field trip. Parents, as you can imagine, not too pleased.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kids running beneath the tables scared, shaking, crying.


HOLMES: Real-life lesson or just a cruel hoax? You can hear from both sides here in the NEWSROOM.

COLLINS: A landmark stand on immigration. Voters in one Texas town put landlords on notice. Will action on the local level translate to national reform?

We'll talk about it coming up right here in the NEWSROOM.


COLLINS: Want to make sure we keep you updated on the story we've been following this morning.

In Alaska, apparently there is a smaller passenger ship -- you see it there -- not the typical cruise ship that we see that carries many, many more people, but there are 281 passengers aboard the Empress of the North, and apparently it ran aground off the southeastern coast of Alaska. This is all according to the U.S. Coast Guard, who we have heard from here at CNN, telling us that there are about 40 to 50 good Samaritan boats, people that own their own, you know, private vessels, going out to see if they can then help in any way. But the folks are having to get off of the boat because it is taking on water. And they want to make sure that everybody is safe.

So, we are continuing to follow this. And also hearing that Northern Command out of Colorado Springs is monitoring the situation. But they say the Coast Guard has it handled, so we will continue to follow it for you and bring you any developments as they come.

HOLMES: Frightened students, outraged parents. Some sixth- graders in Tennessee still upset after teachers staged a fake gun attack.

It happened off campus during a school trip. Teachers say it's a prank. Parents don't think it's funny.

Catharyn Campbell of our affiliate station WSMV reports.


CATHARYN CAMPBELL, REPORTER, WSMV (voice over): It was a big trip for the sixth grade class from Scales Elementary, a week-long stay at Fall Creek Falls State Park. But on the last night, students say a teacher told them a gunman was on loose in the park. They say assistant principal Don Bartch even told them to get low and take cover.

SHAY NAYLOR, 6TH GRADE STUDENT: Him and the assistant principal, Mr. Bartch, sat down and were looking at the window, and there was a van there, and it had the lights flickering on and off and the horn beeping.

CAMPBELL: Shay Naylor said someone then started banging on the windows. She says finally teachers admitted it was a prank. Naylor says her classmates had mixed reactions.

NAYLOR: About 20 of us -- 20 of them were crying, and there were seven more laughing about it.

CAMPBELL: Lon Nuell, a school board member for 11 years, says the trip is a tradition and teachers have been known to pull pranks.

LON NUELL, SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER: Ghost stories are standard, and you scare the kids out of their wits.

CAMPBELL: But with school shootings an all-too-common occurrence, he says this situation crossed the line.

NUELL: But this was, you know, very unfortunate timing. If the timing would ever be good to do this sort of thing, this was not it.

CAMPBELL: But school board members feel they've only heard one side of the story. Now they're interested in what teachers have to say.

PATRICK MCCARTHY, SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER: And there's some differences in stories. So first of all, that has to be resolved to figure out what really happened.

CAMPBELL (on camera): Board members tell me the director of schools is scheduled to meet with the assistant principal and the teachers. They say disciplinary action could range anywhere from a written reprimand to losing their jobs.

I'm Catharyn Campbell for CNN.


COLLINS: Graphic video now that we just want to warn you may be a little too disturbing for some people to watch. A 91-year-old man attacked. What the victim is saying now about the man accused in this beating.

We'll tell you the story coming up in the NEWSROOM.

HOLMES: That is ridiculous.

Also, this story here, a sad one. A deadly Mother's Day crash. A flower stand becomes a scene of devastation. Questions and heartbreak.

We'll get into those in the NEWSROOM. COLLINS: Once dubbed America's dirty bomber, today on trial for plotting jihad overseas. The latest on Jose Padilla and the case surrounding him coming up in the NEWSROOM.


HOLMES: We are following a story this morning of a cruise ship in trouble. Right now, passengers and crew are abandoning ship off the coast of Alaska.

The ship ran aground and is now listing badly. The Coast Guard is responding to this. Also, smaller fishing boats on the scene to help out.

The ship is the Empress of the North. There were about 281 passengers and crew on board, not yet known exactly what caused this incident.

Here now the latest from the Coast Guard.



We got word that 281 passengers and crew aboard the 360-foot U.S.-flagged cruise ship Empress of the North are abandoning the ship after the ship ran aground 50 nautical miles from Juneau, Alaska, near Icy strait and Chatham Strait. The cruise ship is taking on water. There's three-foot seas, 15-knot winds, and there's some rain coming down.

We do have a response going on. We have assets in route.


HOLMES: We are tracking the current rescue efforts. We're going to keep an eye on this story throughout the morning. Hope to speak to the Coast Guard again shortly. We'll certainly keep you updated.

COLLINS: And we did hear that Coast Guard representative talk a little bit about the weather and the situations surrounding this area.

Want to go ahead and bring in Rob Marciano for a moment and talk more about that.


COLLINS: In fact, Rob, we do have someone from the Coast Guard on the line right now to talk a little bit more about this and give us an update.

Commander Kevin Sareault, I believe, is with us now.

Could you tell us exactly the question that Rob, our meteorologist, was asking, how close this boat is to the shore at this point? CMDR. KEVIN SAREAULT, U.S. COAST GUARD: Good morning, ma'am.

To my knowledge, it's about -- the closest point of land is approximately a little over five miles from the ship's location.


So they're still quite a ways out. And, therefore, as we talk -- when we talk about the rescue having to certainly get people in lifeboats or on other vessels of some type and get them to the safety of the shore.

SAREAULT: Yes, ma'am.

You're -- you're actually -- I'm from the Coast Guard Air Station Sitko Alaska, which is about 70 miles to the south of the scene.

COLLINS: Um-hmm.

SAREAULT: We launched two aircraft this morning, two H60 helicopters, shortly after the call -- we were notified of the incident.

They have since -- our aircraft are on scene currently. But all the passengers are being, to my knowledge, transferred to vessels that are on scene. And that transfer is still ongoing.

T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: And, sir, Mr. Sareault, T.J. Holmes here.

We understand the ship is taking on water.

What is your understanding of how quickly it's taking on water and how big of a threat is this to go down and are you kind of racing against the clock to get the people off or do you really have as much time as you need, almost, here?

SAREAULT: I really don't know as far as the -- some of that information I'm not aware of. But, to my knowledge, the transfer is going in an orderly fashion.

LEMON: How far along is it, do you understand, as well? Have you got pretty much got everybody off?

SAREAULT: I don't have a number for you. Again, my j I'm about 70 miles south. My assets are on scene. I do not have a number for you at this time.

HOLMES: Exactly how are your assets helping out?

I think you said you sent a couple of aircraft in that direction.

How are you helping out?

SAREAULT: We sent two j as soon as we were notified, we launched our ready aircraft. We have one aircraft on alert 7/24. We recalled a second crew -- this happened around 2:00 in the morning Alaska time -- and launched a second aircraft.

In a situation like this, there's a lot of uncertainty to start with. So our aircraft went at best speed to the location. While they were en route, good Samaritan vessels arrived, as well, and they were able to assist. And so it was safer for people to be transferred from boat to boat and faster than it would be to, say, hoist people off.

LEMON: All right.

Well, we're keeping an eye on it. It sounds like -- hopefully there's been some -- there has been pretty good indication so far that maybe everybody is going to get off OK, certainly with the good Samaritans helping out in that area, and maybe not too far from shore, as well.

All good things, so hopefully this will work out.

But Kevin Sareault from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Sir, we appreciate your time and the update.

LEMON: Well, also racing the clock, coalition forces scramble to find three missing U.S. soldiers.

Are they in the hands of Al Qaeda?

A closer look at that coming up in THE NEWSROOM.

COLLINS: Once dubbed America's dirty bomber, today on trial for plotting Jihad overseas. The latest on the Jose Padilla case, coming up in THE NEWSROOM.

LEMON: Also, winds expected to kick up in North Florida. Another tough day for fire crews here in THE NEWSROOM.


COLLINS: And the big business headline -- DaimlerChrysler no longer going to be DaimlerChrysler. They've agreed to sell the Chrysler unit for just a tiny fraction of what they paid nine years ago, though, so we'll follow that story for you, as well, right here in THE NEWSROOM.


LEMON: We are keeping an eye on this breaking story, again, off the coast of Alaska, where a cruise ship is taking on water. And right now, some 280 passengers and crew trying to get off that boat. You're taking a look at it there. And, again, this is the location.

But we understand that it did run -- it did run aground in some pretty shallow water and also started taking on water. So now the rescue mission is on.

We understand a lot of good Samaritan boats, if you will, a lot of local folks -- certainly a boating community around there -- heard the distress call and made boats, made their vessels available. So that's certainly helping in this -- in this rescue.

No word on any injuries or anything like that, or anybody in the water. Certainly cold weather conditions and very cold water. It would be very dangerous if anybody went into the water. But right now we don't understand that that is the case right now. And it seems like this may be a situation that they may be able to get under control. We'll, maybe get more details about how it happened, but the issue right now is certainly getting everybody off safely. And it looks like that is well underway. But, still, a breaking story we're keeping a close eye on.

COLLINS: U.S. soldiers missing in Iraq and possibly in the hands of Al Qaeda. A terror group says it is holding the soldiers -- the troops captured in an ambush.

The Islamic State in Iraq offered no proof for its claim. Four other Americans and an Iraqi translator were killed in the attack. Thousands of coalition forces are scouring hostile land now south of Baghdad. The area an insurgent stronghold known as the Triangle of Death.

LEMON: Opening statements today in the trial of terror suspect Jose Padilla.

CNN's Susan Candiotti covering the trial for us in Miami.


SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Those spectacular allegations that Padilla intended to set off radioactive bombs inside the U.S. are gone.

The government is now focusing on a conspiracy to kill outside the U.S. a charge that could still put Padilla and two others away for life.

(voice-over): America first came to know Brooklyn-born Jose Padilla as the man who the government said planned to set off radioactive bombs in the U.S.

But that's no longer part of the government's case.

GUY LEWIS, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: This case is for all the marbles.

CANDIOTTI: The Bush administration touted his 2002 arrest as a huge get in the war on terror. Padilla was held as an enemy combatant in a Navy brig for more than three years, nearly all that time in solitary confinement without access to lawyers.

He claims he was drugged and tortured during interrogations. The government denies it.

Then, late last year, the government shifted gears. Padilla was moved to Miami. He was charged in a civilian court, not with plotting to set off bombs, but planning with others a violent Jihad overseas. In pretrial hearings, a judge described the government's indictment as light on facts.

A former U.S. attorney in Miami suggests the strongest evidence against Padilla could be his alleged fingerprints and signature in 2000 on a sort of Al Qaeda application obtained by the CIA.

LEWIS: And the defense, Susan, is going to come back and say look it, that doesn't mean he read it. That doesn't mean he actually even adopted anything in it. We don't know how he touched it or, indeed, I would suggest to you they're going to argue conspiracy theories.

CANDIOTTI: Padilla's mother has been in court exchanging smiles and waves with her son. A Muslim convert, he's a long way from dreams of playing professional baseball.

ESTELA ORTEGA LEBRON, MOTHER OF JOSE PADILLA: And I know that he's a good son and I know he's not evil.

CANDIOTTI (on camera): The jury deciding Padilla's fate is sharply varied. It includes an executive of a software company and even a busboy. The trial could last up to four months.

Susan Candiotti, CNN, Miami.


LEMON: Wind-whipped flames the big concern today in North Florida, where firefighters are battling some major wildfires. The biggest blaze -- or has burned more than 100,000 acres. And today, just what firefighters don't need -- higher winds are in the forecast. The heavy smoke also a serious problem.

Sections of two major highways, Interstates 10 and 75, have been shut down at various times. That smoke also making the sky hazy as far south as Miami, more than 300 miles away.

There's also a big wildfire still burning in South Georgia and in the northern part of the state, as well. This fire, called the Bugaboo scrub fire, has charred more than 13,0000 acres. It was sparked by a lightning strike.

Now, to the north, other fires also burning. One of them has scorched up to 500 acres of forest land.


Really rotten conditions for that. So very dry.

Rob Marciano joining us now to talk about that very thing.

They were really hoping for some rain, at least over the weekend -- Rob.

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes, well, this has been a cumulative thing, really, since the beginning of winter, which is the dry season for Florida. But it's also a season where we typically get a fair amount of rain across the rest of the Southeast. But everybody has been dry month after month after month. And now, you know, a few sparks have flown and that's what we got.


COLLINS: Now, a really upsetting story to share with you. A 91- year-old World War II veteran beaten without mercy.

He has advice for the man throwing the blows.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To turn his life around. Go to school. Learn a trade. Get a job and work for his living, not steal it.


COLLINS: Outrage in Detroit. We'll tell you the story coming up in THE NEWSROOM.

LEMON: Also, divorce for an auto marriage that some say was made in heaven -- DaimlerChrysler selling off the Chrysler.

What it means for consumers, ahead in THE NEWSROOM.


COLLINS: We quickly want to remind you about the story that we are following this morning out of Alaska. And this ship here, known as the Empress of the North, that has apparently run aground about five miles from shore in some shallow waters.

And right now, the 281 passengers are in the process of taken off of that vessel because, of course, we are learning now that it's taking on some water.

We're not sure how much or how quickly, but, obviously, the waters near this area are very, very cold and certainly, we wanted to make sure that those people are taken to safety just as quickly as possible.

We understand the Coast Guard certainly handling this rescue -- and that is what they're calling it -- and, also, 40 to 50 good Samaritan boats are joining in and doing what they can in order to get people off of the Empress of the North and safely to shore.

So we'll continue to follow it for you.

LEMON: Mailing bills today?

You need to budge net a couple of extra pennies. It's going to cost you a little more today for a first class stamp. It's now $0.41. That's up a couple of pennies, of course.

Also, the new forever stamp is also available. It will remain good regardless of future rate hikes -- hence the name "forever." the Postal Service says letters dropped in mailboxes yesterday should have the new stamp. If not, they will get there anyway, but just this time. So don't try that again.

Three vehicles top the insurance industry's new list of safe -- the 2007 Acura MDX SUV, the 2008 Mercury Sable and the 2008 Ford Taurus. They scored highest in combined tests of frontal, side and rear impacts.

The top safety pick awards go to vehicles that score highest and have electronic stability controls.

COLLINS: Paying up at the pump.

So, where is your money going?

Well, we've got the answer coming up in a reality check ahead for you in THE NEWSROOM.

LEMON: Also, bonuses for births -- Japanese companies make families an offer they just cannot refuse.

And, oh, baby.

That's coming up in THE NEWSROOM.


LEMON: We are continuing to follow that story of the cruise ship off the coast of Alaska that is right now, we understand, taking on water and in the process of getting some 280 passengers and crew off that ship after it started taking on water.

We do have Dan Miller now, the spokesperson for the Majestic America Cruise Lines, which operates this Empress of the North ship that is taking on water and where this rescue is taking place.

Sir, thank you for your time.

Give us the best update you have -- and understanding -- about what is happening right now with that ship and those passengers.


Well, the best update is that she's no longer taking on water and that our guests are being transferred to other vessels at this time. She only took on water for a short period of time before that -- the flow was stopped and the pumps engaged to -- to start pumping the water out.

But we have transferred, right now, about 90 passengers onto three separate local vessels, who are taking guests back to Juneau. And we are working with the Alaska State Ferries, which has dispatched one of its ships to the Empress and will transfer all of the remaining passengers to the ferry, again, for transport back to Juneau. The ship has stabilized and is operating under its own power, so we will be able to take her on her own power back to Juneau, where we can assess any damage at that time.

LEMON: So you still have passengers on the ship, but you certainly feel comfortable that's there's no danger to those passengers right now?

But they are still going to be taken off.

Am I hearing you right?

MILLER: That's correct.

We're working with the Coast Guard. They're directing all the logistics efforts. And they're very comfortable with the plan that's in place and are on scene to help with -- with any logistics necessary.

LEMON: Are you all not comfortable, though, with leaving those passengers on the ship?

You said it can go on its own power, but you're not comfortable that it's in good enough shape or there's some kind of risk to those passengers if they stayed on?

MILLER: No. Not at all. It's just a safety issue. We want to get them to shore as -- as quickly as possible, because she is going to be operating at a slower speed and we'd much rather make sure all our guests are comfortable and safe and back onshore as soon as possible.

LEMON: And, sir, I assume this -- this ship had made this route before. It wasn't a maiden voyage or anything here.

So was the ship where it was supposed to be, from your understanding?

I assume, again, it made this trip before.

So is it usually in this area?

MILLER: Yes. It's on a seven day round trip cruise from Juneau back to Juneau. This was -- it departed on Saturday. And so it was just in day two of its -- of its voyage. And it makes this trip about 20 times over the course of the summer.

So we'll, at a later time, investigate what -- what caused the accident, as soon as we get all of our guests and crew taken care of.

LEMON: All right.

Well, Dan Miller spokesperson for Majestic America Cruise Lines, which operates the Empress of the North.

The good news, the headline certainly that, yes, the ship no longer taking on water. It doesn't appear to be a threat right now to any of the passengers, many of them who still remain on board. But some 90 have been taken off. But it looks like the situation is being taken care of.

Sir, thank you so much for your time.

COLLINS: American troops missing in Iraq. Now their comrades try to find three of their own, ahead in THE NEWSROOM.

And winds expected to kick up in North Florida. Another tough day for fire crews in THE NEWSROOM.