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Rabbi and Congregant Describe Hostage Ordeal and Escape; Reports: Johnson Hoping to Save Job with New Policies; Freezing Weather Sweeps Through Much of the U.S.; Tonga in Urgent Need of Water and Food Following Tsunami; China Won't Sell Winter Olympics Tickets to General Public. Aired 4:30-5a ET

Aired January 18, 2022 - 04:30   ET



ISA SOARES, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM, everyone. I'm Isa Soares. If you're just joining us, let me bring you up to date with our top stories this hour.

Now executives from ten U.S. airlines are warning the rollout of 5G services on Wednesday, could lead -- and this is their word -- to catastrophic disruptions across major airports, impacting thousands of flights and millions of passengers. Verizon and CNN's parent company AT&T have not commented.

And in the coming hours, the U.S. Senate is set to vote on an important voting rights bill. President Biden had been pushing the legislation after 19 states passed restrictive voting laws. But it is expected to fail. We'll have much more on those two stories at the top of the hour.

Now, a rabbi and another man held hostage inside that Texas synagogue are describing their horrifying and terrifying ordeal and how they were able to escape. We'll also have new video showing the final moments of the standoff. CNN's Ed Lavandera has the story for you.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The final moments capturing three hostages escaping from the Beth Israel synagogue was captured by a photo journalist with CNN affiliate WFAA. The hostages race out a side door. The hostage taker briefly appears pointing his firearm in their direction. The FBI hostage rescue team surrounding the synagogue moves in. An explosive device detonates and gunfire rips through the air.

The man in the blue shirt escaping from the synagogue is Jeffrey Cohen, nearly 11 hours earlier, Cohen and Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker welcomed the stranger who held them hostage to the sabbath service.

JEFFREY COHEN, HOSTAGE AT COLLEYVILLE SYNAGOGUE: Right before the service began, and I got in, Rabbi Charlie pointed this guy out to me and I went over to say hello and to welcome him.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Rabbi Cytron-Walker says the hostage ordeal started shortly after the religious service started and was being live streamed to congregants.

RABBI CHARLIE CYTRON-WALKER, CONGREGATION BETH ISRAEL: It was during prayer, while we were praying, and my back was turned. We faced towards Jerusalem when we pray. Right before he revealed himself. But this was plenty of time in. I heard a click. And it could have been anything. It turned out that it was his gun.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): After the suspect pulled out a gun, Cohen says he was allowed to call his family.

COHEN: At one point the terrorist let us call our families. So, I remember making calls to my wife and my son. And basically, told them, there's a gunman here. He claims he has a bomb. Things don't look good right now. I love you and remember me.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Cohen says that after the first hour the suspect, 44-year-old Malik Faisal Akram became much more calm. And that's when the hostages started thinking strategically about where they should sit and to keep their eyes open for an opportunity to escape.

COHEN: His demeanor changed not too long after that and he became much calmer.


Maybe because he thought he was going to get what he wanted. And it changed from more attack to I'm going to die. I'm going to let these guys go, but I'm going to die here.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): But in the last hour, the suspect became agitated and threatening. The men deliberately moved themselves to an area with a direct line to a side exit of the synagogue.

COHEN: Up until that point we were very willing to wait for law enforcement to do their thing. At that point, we knew we had to get out. At one point he then said that I'm going to put a bullet in each of you. Get down on your knees. At which point I glared at him. I raised up in my seat kind of like I'm doing now. I may have shaken my head like that but I glared at him and I mouthed, no.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Cohen says the suspect then turned to pour himself a soda and that's the opening the rabbi needed.

CYTRON-WALKER: When I saw an opportunity, where he wasn't in a good position, I asked -- made sure that the two gentlemen who were still with me, that they were ready to go. The exit wasn't too far away. I told them to go. I threw a chair at the gunman and I headed for the door. And all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired.

COHEN: I want to make it clear two things, we were not released. We were not rescued. OK. We escaped. And we escaped because we kept presence of mind because we made plans, because we strategically moved people.

LAVANDERA: Two days after the hostage crisis, the congregation of Beth Israel came together for a special service. This is actually one of the first times this congregation has met in such large numbers during the COVID pandemic. They were brought together by this horrific ordeal.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, South Lake, Texas.


SOARES: Now British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reportedly hoping to save his premiership with a list of new policy announcements. They include a freeze on BBC licensing fees and ditching the controversial COVID passports. The Prime Minister backing calls for his resignations, of course, after a string of parties at 10 Downing Street while the rest of the country was under strict lockdown.

Let's bring in CNN's Salma Abdelaziz who is been on the story really from the first party, I think it's fair to say. Salma, and it seems he really can't shake off the "Partygate" scandal. Now we're hearing his former top adviser turned I think it's fair to say nemesis. Claims he, the Prime Minister, knew in advance about the Downing Street party here.

SALMA ABDELAZIZ, CNN REPORTER: Yes, Isa, and this is important. Yes, it is a former employee and there is some bad blood there. But Dominic Cummings, again the Prime Minister's top aide, alleging that the Prime Minister not only knew there was a party on May 20th of 2020, he was actually warned about it. He was told to cancel the event. He was told it broke the rules. And the Prime Minister brushed that aside and went ahead any ways.

That's important because this is the one and only event that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has admitted to attending. A bring your own booze event that the Prime Minister says he implicitly believed was a work function. You know that was the butt of many jokes last week in this country. And that's top aide saying I'm willing to go under oath and testify. The Prime Minister has lied to Parliament and lied to the country.

It continues to build this image, Isa, of essentially 10 Downing Street, partying it up during a pandemic. Allegations of parties now spanning from May of 2020 into the spring of last year. I am talking garden parties, bring your own booze parties, suitcases full of booze parties. I mean, the list goes on and on. And this is simply not how you expect a government to behave, Isa.

This is not the respect and dignity that the highest office should hold itself to, should conduct itself with, especially when there's a deadly virus killing people every day in this country. And the Prime Minister's troubles are not over. You have an

investigation now under way, being led by a senior civil servant. There's a lot there that could come back to bite the Prime Minister. And in the meanwhile, what's his strategy? It's a bit of a distraction here. Prime Minister Boris Johnson planning to roll out those populace policies that you've noted. He's planning to clear house, find some scapegoats and try here, really try, to be the man who can be responsible for cleaning this mess up. But I think to most people in the country, he's the man responsible for this mess -- Isa.

SOARES: We shall see whether these policies are able to destruct -- distract the public from what is happening, or what happened at 10 Downing Street. Salma, I know you'll stay on top of it. Salma Abdelaziz there. Thanks very much, Salma.


Coming up right here on the show, power knocked out, flights cancelled and schools closed as parts of the U.S. prepare for more winter weather. We'll have a live forecast for you coming up.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And by the end of the day, I'm hoping to have this big snowplow cleared up and be able to move on the street.



SOARES: Now millions of people across the U.S. spent part of their Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday really digging themselves out of the heavy snow -- as you can see there. A massive winter storm swept through the country, knocking out power for tens of thousands of customers. And unfortunately, it's not over yet.

Meteorologist Tyler Mauldin is with us. Good morning, Tyler. So, it's not over yet. Any sense as to when the situation may improve?

TYLER MAULDIN, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, I mean, there are a couple of systems, Isa, that we're watching for later on this week. So once this mess that we're dealing with right now improves, there's yet another system that will be coming in.

This is how much snow they were dealing with up in the northeast. And this is how much they were digging out of. You definitely need a shovel if you lived in Buffalo, New York, because we saw 21 inches of snowfall in Buffalo because of this system.

And then going into the mid-Atlantic, it's we also were dealing with feet of snowfall from Flat Rock, North Carolina, about 15.5 inches to Harpursville, Ohio, 22.5 inches of snow. That's the kind of snowfall totals we were dealing with.

But now, you can see it's fairly tranquil for today. So, conditions will be trying to improve over the next 24 hours here across the east. However, notice what's lurking up here across the Northern Plains going on into the Great Lakes, a clipper system. And that clipper system is going to bring them some winter mischief and then eventually there's more of that to come later on this week and is heading for the East Coast.

Notice what has pushed into the northeast in the wake of that winter storm.


We got some really cold temperatures out there right now. Not only right now here in the morning but come this afternoon, too. Some arctic air trying to creep in. Not confined down there to the south. To the north though, it's also down here to the south where we have freeze warnings and frost advisories in effect for portions of Florida and southern Georgia.

It is a really cold start to the southeast this morning on this Tuesday. Some of us waking up to temperatures in the teens and 20s and you got a little bit of wind out there and it's just really adding a little bit of a bite.

Notice that the temperatures are going to rebound in some areas. Case in point, Isa, Texas where temperatures are going to be about 20 degrees above average for this time of the year. But as I mentioned, Isa, we are looking at more in the way of winter storms to impact the U.S. later on this week.

SOARES: They are beautiful pictures, but please stay safe, everyone. Tyler Mauldin, appreciate it. Thank you, Tyler.


SOARES: Now, we are starting to get a better sense of the destruction from the volcanic disaster that we saw in Tonga. New images show the coastline nearly wiped out, at least two people have been killed following Saturday's enormous eruption and the tsunami that followed. The agency, Save the Children, says the tsunami destroyed at least 50 homes and damaged more than 100 others. Relief groups says the top priority is getting clean water and food to the island fears that volcanic ash likely contaminated supplies.

CNN's Blake Essig joins me now live from Tokyo. And Blake, as we look at these images out of Tonga, the first time we're seeing any images out of Tonga, it really shows the utter devastation, which of course, could hamper relief efforts here.

BLAKE ESSIG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely, Isa. And at this point what we know is that falling ash remains a huge problem for those living in Tonga. It's because of that ash that outside aid hasn't been able to arrive. And according to Australia's minister of defense, planes carrying aid can't land because ash has rendered runways unusable.

Now to illustrate that point, check out these before and after images looking down on Tonga's main island. Everything is seemingly covered in ash. And as a result, New Zealand has sent two Royal Navy ships to assist with the recovery but will likely take them about three days before they arrive.

Now, for those not familiar with Tonga, Tonga is made up of more than 170 islands and home to about 100,000 people. This remote island chain is located in the South Pacific, about 500 miles east of Fiji and nearly 1,500 miles away from New Zealand. Now with communication capabilities damaged as a result of Saturday's eruption, the island nation is essentially cut off from the rest of the world.

And the exact extent of the devastation remains unknown. All we have, as you said, those pictures from afar. But according to Save the Children, as you mentioned, we know at least 100 homes have been damaged and 50 completely destroyed. So far, only surveillance flights have been carried out by Australia and New Zealand and according to New Zealand's government, significant damage can be seen along the western coast of Tonga's main island.

And while help is still a few days away, aid workers in Tonga do have relief items available to help provide initial support to those in need with the primary focus right now on the potential water and food emergency caused by ash contamination -- Isa.

SOARES: Blake Essig for us there in Tokyo. Thanks very much, Blake.

And still to come right here on the show, China changes course on selling tickets for the Olympics. Why it's limiting access to the events. We'll explain.



SOARES: Now less than three weeks before the Beijing Winter Olympics there, China is tightening its COVID restrictions. Residents of mainland China who wanted to attend the games in person will have to watch them at home instead. The Olympic organizing committee announce they won't sell tickets to the general public after Beijing reported its first case of the Omicron variant over the weekend.

CNN's Kristie Lu Stout is monitoring all of this for us from Hong Kong. So, Kristie, if they're not sold to the public, who will they be given to or does that mean no one will be able to attend the games here?

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think people will be able to attend the games but you got to be connected apparently. Look, inciting what they're calling severe and complex COVID situation, the announcement was made that tickets to the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympic Games will not be sold to the general public but instead will be handed out and distributed by authorities.

But Olympic organizers did not specify exactly how that would be carried out. But this announcement comes just days after Beijing, the Chinese capital of the Olympic host city, confirmed and detected its very first locally transmitted case of the highly infectious Omicron variant. And of course, the zero COVID policy kicked in. An entire office building with people inside, sealed off and in lockdown because of this one case. Locally transmitted of Omicron.

And since that day, that happened on Saturday, there have been two additional cases of locally transmitted Omicron there in Beijing. As for the number of cases across the country, that's unclear. But if we have the map available, we'll show you the map, of Omicron cases across China. It is geographically spread out across the country. Look, the number of cases in China still pale in comparison to what you see every day coming out of the Western Europe and the United States. But locally transmitted cases of the variant haven't detected in the northeast, in Dalian, in the center of the country, in central Hunan Province, and Anyang, even across the border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen in the south.

Now, the winter Olympic games due to take place in Beijing very shortly will all take place in this closed loop system. And that means all the participants, including the volunteers and athletes must stay inside, not allowed to go out even if taking place during the Lunar New Year holiday. They must stay inside and undergo a daily COVID-19 test. Fully vaccinated participants and athletes welcome to come in. Those who are not vaccinated must undergo 21 days of quarantine -- Isa.


SOARES: Kristie Lu Stout, explaining it all for us. Thanks very much there, Kristie.

SOARES: Now we are learning new details about an encounter between two Chinese sports stars last month. Now on Monday, former NBA player Yao Ming discussed a visit he had with tennis star Peng Shuai -- as you can see there -- in December at a cross-country ski events. Have a listen.


YAO MING, FORMER NBA PLAYER (through translator): She was in pretty good condition that day. We were all chatting happily and asking a lot of questions about the sport since we weren't familiar with it.


SOARES: Now, Peng's wellbeing became a global concern in November -- if you remember -- when she accused a senior Chinese official of sexual assault. Then disappeared from public view. The accusations were quickly scrubbed from really Chinese media and social media, too. And Yao didn't address allegations on Monday as they remain a tabu subject in China.

Now, investigators say they have uncovered a prime suspect in the revealing of Ann Frank's hiding place to the Nazis, Jewish notary Arnold van den Bergh. The key piece of evidence came in the note to Frank's father alleging van den Bergh disclosed the hideout possibly in an effort to save his own family. The Frank family lived in secret in Amsterdam for nearly two years before the Nazi's found them in 1944. Frank's diary was published after her death in a concentration camp at the age of 15.

And be sure to tune in later today to CNN speaks with the author of the book that outlines the new details of this investigation. Rosemary Sullivan will join "NEW DAY" in the hours ahead. That's at 8:00 a.m. in New York, 1:00 p.m. if you're watching here in London.

And the picture you see here was shared by the late actress assistant to commemorate the special day. Her assistant remarked on Facebook how even White's final days she was beautiful and was as happy as ever. She was indeed.

And that does it for me here on CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Isa Soares in London. "EARLY START" with Christine Romans and Laura Jarrett is next. Stay in touch. Details on your screen. See you tomorrow, bye-bye.