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American Morning

Blackwater Immunity; Beach House Inferno; Oil Record; Extreme Weather

Aired October 30, 2007 - 06:00   ET


KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR: Free pass. Reports of a deal this morning that protects Blackwater guards from prosecution.
Frantic moments.


CALLER: A man is screaming -- jumped out of the window. The house is totally engulfed in flames.


CHETRY: 911 calls from the beach house inferno and survivors in their own, dramatic words.


FREDERICK "TRIP" WYLIE, FIRE SURVIVOR: The only option, you know, you really had is to, you know, jump out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just heard pounding and someone saying, get out, get out, there's a fire.


CHETRY: Plus deadly track. Will Tropical Storm Noel turn toward Florida? On this AMERICAN MORNING.

So you see the pictures. You really get the enormity of that storm. We thought we were almost in the clear with hurricane season almost over.

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN ANCHOR: An awful lot of people suffering this late in the season. Incredible.

CHETRY: Well, welcome, by the way. It's Tuesday, October 30th. Thanks for being with us. I'm Kiran Chetry.

ROBERTS: And good morning to you. I'm John Roberts.

The Iraqi government accuses them of killing civilians in cold blood, but now it's possible that no one can touch them. Sources say the State Department granted immunity to bodyguards working for Blackwater security. Our State Department correspondent Zain Verjee is up early in Washington this morning with breaking details. Zain, those contractors are being offered what's called limited use immunity. What exactly does that mean?

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that basically means that they were promised that they will not be criminally charged for anything that they said, as long as their statements were actually true. And State Department investigator from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security offered it to the Blackwater guards even though, John, they don't have the power or the authority to make decisions like that. That sort of thing is usually done in consultation with federal prosecutors.

Now officials familiar with the matter told CNN that what this does is really complicate the efforts to bring criminal charges to the case. One U.S. government official said that this doesn't mean though that charges can never be brought against them. An FBI team, as you know, has been investigating the September 16th shootings where 17 Iraqis were killed. Blackwater says it came under hostile fire. And the Iraqi governments has said that that was premeditated murder.

One of the problems with the immunity deal is that the FBI may not be able to use any of the information or the statements that diplomatic security got from actually interviewing the Blackwater guards. They and the civilian contractors are in a bit of a legal twilight zone because, on the one hand, they're immune from Iraqi law and they can't be tried, on the other hand, in U.S. military courts.


ROBERTS: So it raises a couple of questions, Zain. If they weren't authorized to grant immunity, is it legally binding? And were State Department officials in Washington in the dark about all of it?

VERJEE: Well, the State Department, when we asked them about that, had no official comment. But a senior State Department official says that it wasn't something that was sanctioned by the senior management in Washington, meaning Secretary Rice. Secretary Rice has sent a team to investigate over all security practices in Iraq. They got back and concluded basically that there was no legal basis to hold contractors accountable under U.S. law and they recommended that change.


ROBERTS: Well, I'm sure this will come up at the briefing today.


ROBERTS: Zain Verjee for us this morning in Washington. Thanks, Zain, we'll check back in with you as more information comes in as well.

Now let's go over to Kiran.

CHETRY: Thanks, John. Numb, confused, and heartbroken. Those are the words being used to describe the emotions of family members and friends after an inferno killed seven college students inside of a North Carolina beach house. Now today 911 calls are being released and the investigation is underway as families prepare to bury their children.

Now last night hundreds of people gathered and lit candles at the University of South Carolina. Six of the victims went to college there. Another attended Clemson. Well now parents want to know why that home quickly went up in flames with more than a dozen young people inside. Our Alina Cho is at our national update desk with details.

And, Alina, do you have any word on whether or not alcohol was involved?

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, no definitive word, Kiran.

You know, what we can tell you is that a neighbor reports there was indeed partying going on into the night. And the ATF is among the agencies leading the investigation, which could be a sign that alcohol was involved.

Now this morning there are also reports that fire may have started on the back deck. And for the first time we're hearing those frantic 911 calls alerting authorities the house on North Carolina's coast was on fire.


DISPATCHER: 911. What is your emergency?

CALLER: Yes, I'm out on the beach. A man is screaming and jumped out the window. The house is totally engulfed in flames.

DISPATCHER: OK. We've got people on the way. Thank you.


CHO: Now the fire broke out early Sunday morning. The kids were there for a weekend getaway. It was supposed to be fun. Seven students died, but six miraculously survived. And one of them talked about what he did when he saw the flames.


FREDERICK "TRIP" WYLIE, FIRE SURVIVOR: I pulled the blinds off the windows and just kicked in the window. And, I mean, that was the only option you know you really had was to, you know, jump out.


CHO: Incredible.

Now the names of the victims still have not been officially released, but at least one of the families, we're told, is providing dental records for identification purposes. And as those families prepare to bury the victims, grief counselors are on hand for the students, both at Clemson and at the University of South Carolina. And, Kiran, this morning, we are hearing that that house, only a shell remains now, was owned by the family of one of the survivors.

CHETRY: Such a tragic story. Alina Cho for us in our newsroom. Thank you.


ROBERTS: Also new this morning, front and center on Capitol Hill today, the subject of toys and your children's safety. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will hold a news conference this afternoon on Democratic efforts to keep toys safe. This will follow a report released today on dangerous products and so-called toxic trade with countries like China.

Meantime, China is trying to fix its image around the world. The Chinese government says it has arrested close to 800 people over the last two months in what it calls a nationwide crackdown in the production and sale of tainted food, drugs, and agricultural products.

But according to new research, there are still a lot of toys with troubling levels of lead on store shelves. "Consumer Reports" magazine says for the past four months it has been testing lead levels in children's toys that are not on any federal recall list just to see if they're safe. A group says a blood pressure cuff in a Fisher Price medical kit is just one of many item that have "worrisome amounts of levels in them."

Millions of Chinese made today have been recalled this year and now the mayor of Palm Bay, Florida, wants his city to ban all products made in China. How would that work? We'll ask him when he joins us in the next hour of AMERICAN MORNING.

A major move in the death penalty could come out of the Supreme Court today. If the court stops a Mississippi execution scheduled for today, it could be a signal that lethal injection is considered cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution. Some states have been waiting for a ruling before deciding to go ahead with executions.

And operations are limited today at the U.S. embassy in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The embassy was closed on Monday after Azerbaijan's ministry of national security says it broke up what would have been a large-scale, horrifying attack by Islamic radicals.


SEAN MCCORMACK, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: There was some specific and credible threat information concerning the embassy and plans by militants to, in some way, do harm to the individuals in or around the U.S. embassy there.


ROBERTS: Britain also closed its embassy in Azerbaijan as a precaution.


CHETRY: Also new this morning, they're warning pilots not to fly over parts of Des Moines, Iowa. FAA concern about smoke from yesterday's massive explosion and fire at a chemical plant. They say the visibility is still very poor. Investigators say that fire started when a substance was being transported into a portable storage tank. Barrels and tanks then exploded. They sparked another fire at a nearby recycling center. One employee suffered slight burns and was treated at the scene. A firefighter was taken to a nearby hospital, treated for heat exhaustion.

And four D.C. firefighters critically hurt fighting a blaze at the rowhouse. They became trapped on the top floor of the burning home yesterday. Investigators say they think the fire was caused by some oily rags being stored next to propane canisters in the home next door. Doctors have now placed 37-year-old Sergeant Michael LaCore in a medically induced coma. He is the most critically injured of the four, with second and third degree burns over 30 percent of his body. His 30-year-old colleague, Firefighter Charlie Sheeb (ph), is in critical condition as well. Twenty-seven-year-old Doug Donnelly and 23-year-old Kenneth Humpheries are listed in serious condition.

Well, Discovery will remain in orbit for another day. NASA says that debris has jammed the solar panel system of the International Space Station and that it needs more inspection. This is a live look right now. The space agency says that the extra inspection will likely take place on Thursday and Friday and shuffle the plan for spacewalks this week. The solar panels create the electricity to run the station's computers, oxygen-making machines and other systems. Discovery is now expected to return to earth on November 7th.

Well, New York City eyeing a new plan that would crack down on plastic bags. Lawmakers want large stores to set up in-store recycling programs. Under the proposal, some 700 food stores, as well as large retailers, like Target and Home Depot, would have to collect used bags and provide a system for turning them over to a manufacturer or a third party recycling firm. Stores could be fined for not complying, but there is no penalty for consumers. San Francisco has already banned plastic bags from large grocery stores.


ROBERTS: Well, it keeps going up, up, up with no end in sight. Oil prices hit a new high, settling above $93 a barrel. Stephanie Elam in for Ali Velshi, who couldn't afford the gas to make it into work today. She's at the business update desk.

Good morning, Stephanie.

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's why I walk. Exactly, John.

So if we take a look at what happened with oil, $93.53 is where we settled yesterday. And we keep having record after record here. This one up $1.67 from Friday's close. Another all-time high.

Part of the reason here, Mexico's decision to cut back a fifth of their oil production because of a storm. That's basically 600,000 barrels of oil a day that we are looking at that they are not putting out. So that's affecting us.

Also, those tensions in the Middle East and the weakening dollar. All of that factoring into oil prices today.

We were all looking at gasoline over the last two weeks, up about 10 cents if you factor it all the way down there. We're looking at oil prices overnight. In Asia they are slightly weaker. So we will see if they can have a little bit of a drop off today but we'll keep our eyes on it.

John, back to you.

ROBERTS: Can't imagine what the price of gasoline is going to be next spring.

ELAM: I know.

ROBERTS: Stephanie Elam for us this morning. Stephanie, thanks.

CNN is your hurricane headquarters, which sounds a little odd considering it's October 30th, but Rob Marciano here tracking Noel for us.

Good morning, Rob.


Well, hurricane season goes all the way through November and this thing may very well become a hurricane before it's all done. It has reemerged now into the -- well just south of the Bahamas, just north of the eastern tip of Cuba. And it has winds of 60 miles an hour. So getting stronger as it now reorganizes itself over pretty toasty waters out that way. And it will continue its northward movement.

But the problem is, the last 12 to 24 hours it kind of has gone west. So it's beginning to bring the state of Florida into play and its -- they're already feeling somewhat of the effects in the way of some heavy winds and big-time surf.

Let's go to the track and show you what's going with that. The National Hurricane Center thinks it's going to be moving to the west over the next 12 hours. So the track has shifted a little bit. The cone of uncertainty does bring the eastern tip of Florida into play. But then it is expected to recurve. It will become a hurricane likely briefly, maybe for a 12-hour period, and hopefully maintain that track out to sea as it does so.

So winds are going to be a big issue with this as it continues to move this way. That high you see there will make sure that it doesn't make its way completely into the United States, but it will bring some heavy duty winds and rain and waves to Florida. And they've already been battered with that. Big breakers. I'm sure the surfers are out there, Kiran, enjoying some of the surf on the eastern coast of Florida.

Back over to you.

CHETRY: All right. Still doing that even at the end of October.

MARCIANO: That's what they do.

CHETRY: Thanks, Rob.


CHETRY: Well, Boston's planning a big bash today for the world champion Red Sox. David Ortiz and company came home to a hero's welcome on Monday. World War II era amphibious duck boats will carry the team from Fenway to city hall today, just like they did when the Sox reversed the curse back in 2004.

And soon she'll be tall enough to field the green monster. The New England Zoo named its baby giraffe Sox. How about that one? After the Boston series win. There you go. Very cute, by the way.

Yankee fans can still yell, take 'em out, Joe. Only it won't be Joe Torre next season. The Yankees have offered the manager's job to Joe Girardi. Girardi won three World Series in four years as Yankees catcher back in the late 1990s. He was also named manager of the year back in 2006 with the Florida Marlins before he got fired. As for his mentor, well, there are reports that Joe Torre, who grew up in the shadows of Ebbets Field, may head to Hollywood to manage the Dodgers.

ROBERTS: The Supreme Court will take on the case of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. That tops your "Quick Hits" now. The high court will decide whether Exxon Mobil should pay $2.5 billion to the victims of the 1989 spill. The accident ruined much of the Alaskan coastline and killed hundreds of thousands of animals.

A moment of silence debate is anything but quiet in the state of Illinois. A federal judge in Chicago has refused to stop a school district from observing the daily practice. One parent has filed a lawsuit claiming the law unconstitutionally brings prayer into a public school classroom.

Criticizing the plan and the man. Lou Dobbs has a message for New York's governor who's planning to offer licenses to illegal immigrants. Today the governor is here live to fire back. Stay tuned for that.

And Vice President Dick Cheney's latest hunting trip firing up some controversy. We'll show you what has Reverend Al Sharpton outraged. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


CHETRY: Some of the best shots of the morning we need to show you know.

A determined thief in Indiana steals an ATM machine. All of it caught on surveillance tape. There you see him wrestling with the machine. Happened at a convenience store south of Indianapolis. He wrestles with it, smashes it with a crowbar, eventually throws it out the door. There you see it. Well, police say an accomplice was out side waiting and the two got away.

A suspected shoplifter in such a hurry to make a getaway that she apparently left her baby behind. It happened inside of a TJ Maxx in Hartsdale, New York. There's a mug shot of the woman. Police say that she realized she was caught in the act, panicked and took off. She left her baby behind in the stroller, along with her purse and cell phone. Police are still looking for the woman. The child has been placed in protective custody.

And the largest dam in Iraq is in danger of collapsing and flooding the city with a trillion gallon wave of water. That's according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If the dam were to collapse, the corps feels it could kill as many as 500,000 people and flood Mosul, as well as parts of Baghdad.


ROBERTS: A vice presidential hunting trip is making news again. Vice President Dick Cheney spent about eight hours yesterday at the exclusive Cove (ph) Valley Rod and Gun Club north of New York City. That's where a "New York Daily News" photographer captured this picture. It shows the confederate flag hanging on a door there in the upper right hand corner of this garage that's open. The garage is on the property. The Reverend Al Sharpton is calling it an insult, asking Cheney to distance himself from the hunting grounds. The club had no comment.

Before anyone knew anything about the flag flap, the late night jokesters were having fun with the fact that the vice president was on another hunting trip. Take a look.


DAVID LETTERMAN, "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": The vice president, Dick Cheney, is pheasant hunting in New York today. New York state. Upstate New York today. Yes. And the hunt went pretty well. Dick drove back to the hotel with a hunting buddy tied to his fender.

JAY LENO, "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO": The vice president, Dick Cheney, went out hunting again today, today. I didn't know it was lawyer season. Is it lawyer season? No, actually, Dick Cheney said he was in upstate New York to hunt peasants -- pheasants. I'm sorry. Pheasants.

LETTERMAN: You know, we made a lot of jokes about Dick Cheney and hunting and shooting his buddies in the face, but he really is a great sportsman. I mean, before he shoots the pheasant, he makes it dig its own grave.


ROBERTS: No humans were hurt, though, in this hunting trip, as far as we know.

CHETRY: Right. You had to have know, though, that was going to be fodder for late night, right?

ROBERTS: Absolutely.

CHETRY: Could not resist it.

ROBERTS: Yes, but, you know, he goes ahead and does it. Nobody's going to stop him from doing what he wants to do.

CHETRY: That's right.

Well, it sparked a nationwide debate about immigration, about homeland security, civil liberties, and, of course, illegal immigration. New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's plan to offer licenses for illegals. Well, as usual, Lou Dobbs pulled no punches with his criticism.


LOU DOBBS, CNN'S "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": I really don't care any more about what this governor, this arrogant abuser of his office, and the just absolute disdain with which he holds both the truth and the citizens of the state of New York. This man is sitting here putting together a three-tier system in which he's going to give voter registration privileges to people he knows are illegal?


CHETRY: Well, Governor Spitzer will be here to respond. He's going to explain that plan, talk about a lot of the controversy surrounding it. It's live at 8:15 Eastern Time only here on AMERICAN MORNING.

ROBERTS: Nineteen minutes now after the hour.

Pope Benedict XVI is urging catholic pharmacists not to fill prescriptions that have what he calls immoral purposes. At a conference of catholic pharmacists in the Vatican, the pope told participants to use conscientious objection when it comes to dispensing drugs for abortion or euthanasia. Several states already allow pharmacists to refuse health care for religious or moral reasons.

Pinpointing when AIDS entered the United States. Biologists at the University of Arizona say it was probably 1969. A single infected immigrant from Haiti brought the disease to a big city like Miami or New York, according to the researchers. Then it spread across the country and around the world. They say that AIDS began in central Africa about 1930 and came to Haiti around 1966. Is Jay Leno having second thoughts about giving up "The Tonight Show?" NBC says it doesn't matter either way. The latest on what could be a new late night battle coming up.

And gossiping, surfing the net, mass e-mails. What ticks you off at work? A new survey looks at office pet peeves. See how yours stack up when "AMERICAN MORNING returns.


ROBERTS: Welcome back to most news in the morning.

Britney Spears tops your "Quick Hits" now, but not for any of the usual reasons. Her new album drops today. It's called "Blackout." Believe it or not, it's getting pretty decent reviews so far. The question is, are they decent enough to bury all of Spears' recent bad press? Our Lola Ogunnaike talks about that later on this hour.

One set of charges down, one to go for Kid Rock. It turns out that the singer will not face a judge for his fight with Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee. That happened at the MTV Awards two months ago. Rock is still in trouble for getting into a fight, though, outside of an Atlanta Waffle House. That was just a few weeks back.

And Jay Leno may be having second thoughts about stepping down from "The Tonight Show," but NBC says it isn't. Network executives say a planned switch in 2009 is still a go with Leno leaving and Conan O'Brien taking over "The Tonight Show." An "L.A. Times" report earlier this month said Leno was having reservations about giving up the show.

CHETRY: In that clip of both of them, it looks like they're both out of hair gel. The hair's like hanging in his face.

ROBERTS: They both do have unusual hair.

CHETRY: They have unusual heads, in fact. Both hilarious, though.

Well, do you hate office gossip, or are you one that does the gossiping? Well, when it comes to what irritates most office employees, there is a laundry list and gossiping is one of them. There's a brand new market research poll that say that colleagues who spend their day gossiping top the list of office pet peeves. Up next, people who do nothing but surf the net and send out mass e-mails. Number three, messy colleagues. Those who wear too much perfume or cologne to work, number four. And people who use speakerphone or talk too loudly or talk to loud when they're on the phone.

There you go. Well, we wanted to ask you what you think. What is your biggest pet peeve in the office? Cast your vote, We'll have the first tally of the votes coming up in the next half hour.

ROBERTS: And a look now at a story coming up in our next half hour that you just can't miss. Should parents send their kids to preschool? There's a real school of thought that people believe that this really sets up the child for a lifetime of learning, but you've got to go to the right school as well.

CHETRY: Well, does it make them smarter and should taxpayers foot the bill for preschool? Our Brianna Keilar looks into both sides of the debate when AMERICAN MORNING comes right back.


ROBERTS: Welcome back to AMERICAN MORNING and thanks for joining us on this Tuesday, the 30th of October. I'm John Roberts

CHETRY: And I'm Kiran Chetry.

New this morning.

A possible pass for Blackwater security. Sources tell us the State Department granted immunity to bodyguards in connection with the deaths of 17 Iraqi citizens. That immunity deal has reportedly delayed a criminal inquiry into the September 16th incidents and could undermine efforts to prosecute any security contractors for their role in the incident that has infuriated the Iraqi government. The State Department would not confirm the deal. It only said that senior officials did not sign off on anything.

ROBERTS: Remembering the seven college students who died in Sunday's deadly beach house inferno. Last night hundreds of people gathered and lit candles at the University of South Carolina. Six of the victims went to college there. Another attended Clemson. Fire investigators are now on the scene trying to figure out why flames quickly spread with more than a dozen people inside. A 911 call was released from a neighbor who knew that people were in grave danger inside.


DISPATCHER: Brunswick County 911.

CALLER: Hey, there's some kind of structure fire on Ocean Isle Beach.

DISPATCHER: Yes, sir. We've got help on the way. Is it in the Scotland, Scotland?

CALLER: OK. Yes, I'm out in the ocean and we saw just saw it.

DISPATCHER: OK. OK, sir. Thank you. We've got help on the way. Bye-bye.


ROBERTS: A neighbor also says that there was partying going on into the night. There are also reports that the fire may have started on the back deck, but the point of ignition hasn't yet been determined.

The FEMA official behind a fake news conference is now out of a job. His new job. Pat Philbin was FEMA's external affairs director. He was supposed to start a new job yesterday working for the director of national intelligence, but that office has decided to drop him. Last Tuesday, FEMA called a news conference which featured no actual members of the press, just FEMA employees asking questions. Philbin says he accepts responsibility for what was a major mistake.

The head of FEMA agrees. David Paulison wrote a memo yesterday, calling the incident quote "an egregious decision." He says further disciplinary action may still be necessary.


ROBERTS: Well, we're getting a look this morning inside an alleged sweat shop in India where authorities say children as young as 10 years old were seen making clothing for the GAP. CNN has obtained these photos. The facility in New Delhi was raided, and police say that they found children working under grueling conditions for little or no pay. We talked to the president of the GAP on Monday on AMERICAN MORNING. She told us that the GAP stopped ordering from the shop as soon as it found out about the allegations. The GAP saying that none of the products made at the illegal sweat shop will be sold in stores.

Supporters of the state children health insurance program are scrambling to save it this morning. Senators are working to make changes to the bill before a possible vote today. The house passed it last week, but if no changes are made, it will likely get vetoed by President Bush. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says that money shouldn't be the problem.


NANCY PELOSI, HOUSE SPEAKER: The annual cost of insuring 10 million children in America is 40 days spent in Iraq. 40 days in Iraq, 10 million children insured in America in one year. So, we certainly can afford to do this.


CHETRY: The bill would expand the state children's health insurance program by $35 billion over five years.

Well, 31 past the hour now. Our Rob Marciano in the house today taking a look at weather for us across the country. Hey, Rob.


ROBERTS: Signs this morning that there was some progress in Iraq. October could become the second straight month of declines in U.S. military and Iraqi civilian deaths. This even after a series of bombings yesterday that killed 35 people. Our Nic Robertson joins us now live from Baghdad. Nic, the big question this morning, is this beginning to look like a trend? NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Commander of Multinational Forces here in Baghdad, General Ray Odierno said that there is momentum in the right direction, but this is not irreversible momentum. So although, the deaths are down, this is the lowest death toll this month of U.S. troops since March last year. For Iraqi Security Forces, the lowest death toll since February last year roadside bombs down 60 percent. The Iraqi death toll, civilian casualties and death down 80 percent across the country -- it is not irreversible.

And the real concern among Iraqi politicians is if they don't make the compromises in the government, those significant points of reconciliation, like getting more Sunni police on the job here, then this lull in fighting just won't last, John.

ROBERTS: What's responsible for this drop? Is it a sign of progress that the surge is working, or is it, as some people have suggested, that a function of the fact that so many of these neighborhoods which were ethnically and religiously mixed are now completely segregated. There's less people fighting each other?

ROBERTSON: John, it's all of the above. It depends where you are in Iraq and what the specific issues there were. But it is a sign of progress because the numbers are looking better. Can it be maintained? But the reasons behind it, yes, and the surge part of it, putting more troops out there, bringing greater security to neighborhoods in Baghdad. Building barricades between neighborhoods, perhaps cementing that ethnic division, sectarian division both making people safer.

The Iraqi Militia belonging to Muqtada al-Sadr going on a ceasefire. That making a big difference to it. Changing sightings by the U.S., doing deals with tribal sheikhs, working with militias to bring security to neighborhoods. So, it's a whole host of things. But, again, the message from Iraqi politicians here is it won't be sustained if there isn't political compromise.


ROBERTS: And let's see if this increase in security will bring about some political progress as well. Our Nic Robertson for us this morning from Baghdad. Nic, thanks.


CHETRY: Well, there's a secret to success start in preschool? And if so, should taxpayers foot the bill? The fight or the debate over PRE-K coming up.

Also, it's Britney's latest move. Her new album comes out today. We're going to hear what critics say about it, ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


CHETRY: And welcome back to the most news in the morning. We have some shots for you to show you this morning. A chemical cloud in the skies of Minnesota after a train derailed. It was carrying hydrochloric acid, derailed, and a tanker ruptured. It sent a vapor cloud into the air yesterday. Actually, closed schools in Clara City. Hundreds of residents were given the all clear late yesterday to return home.

Tidal surges in Volusia County, Florida. It's all because of tropical storm Noel. As well as another weather system causing strong winds and pounding waves in the area. Things could get worse for Florida as Noel progresses and Noel already causing major problems in Haiti. Here are some pictures you can see. Residents trying to get across a flooded river. This is in Southern Haiti, carrying children as they try to make their way across the elevated waters. Noel was expected to drop as much as 20 inches of rain on Haiti as well as the Dominican Republic.


ROBERTS: 39 minutes after the hour. The Republicans want Romney. That tops your "Political Ticker" this Tuesday morning. A new poll of Iowa Republicans is putting Mitt Romney more than 20 points ahead of his closest rival. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the GOP frontrunner comes in at number two. Romney's frontrunner status in Iowa is very different from his standings in national surveys, where he averages around 12 percent in the most recent polls.

Leaving the house but going for the White House. Representative Tom Tancredo says he'll retire from the House at the end of his term but continue with his bid for the GOP presidential nomination. He says he's leaving the House because he wants to spend more time with his five grandchildren, which may cause you to ask, well, does he really think he can become president?

Trick or treat? The Associated Press is asking which of the presidential contenders would make the scariest costume. Hillary Clinton slashes her way to the top. Second goes to Rudy Giuliani. And thank goodness, you still got time to run out and get your mask.

And you-tubing Florida style. We've confirmed it. All of the republican candidates have signed up for CNN's next big youtube debate. It will be the Wednesday after thanksgiving in St. Petersburg, Florida. The CNN political team will choose the most creative and compelling videos. And if yours is one of them, you may get a chance to fly to Florida to watch the debate live and offer your reactions afterwards. So, grab a camera and get rolling.

And you can find all the day's political news around the clock at

CHETRY: Should taxpayers put the bill for preschool? Some say that Pre-K is a building block for a more successful student and eventually a more successful adult. Critics say it's actually an expensive investment that hasn't even proven to pay off. CNN's Brianna Keilar visited schools in West Virginia, where they're banking on it. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)


BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is Ritenhouse's (ph) Preschool class at Peterson Central Elementary School provides the type of education some parents dish out thousands of dollars for each year. But, unlike many other areas across the nation, here in Lewis County, West Virginia, it's free to all families. This seems like a very stimulating environment.


KEILAR: It's very different.


KEILAR: Tell us what's going on here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is an entirely hands-on approach to learning. The children are investigating, they're exploring.

KEILAR: Four year olds pack rice into different sized containers, exercising their spatial ability, and they add salt to fresh water to make eggs float. An early introduction to scientific principles. Kids learn how to relate to each other and to get a jump start on learning in Pre-K. But advocates for making Pre-K available for all kids also tout lifelong benefits. David Kirp, the author of "The Sandbox Investment", says the proof is in the research.

DAVID KIRP, PROFESSOR, U.C. BERKELEY: Kids went to a preschool and (INAUDIBLE) Michigan. A group of poor black kids, who 40 years down the road, or less likely to be in jail, less likely to have been on welfare, more like graduated from high school and earning 25 percent more than those and the only difference between the two groups is one went to preschool and the other didn't.

KEILAR: There are skeptics, however, like Doug Besharov, a professor at the University of Maryland.

DOUG BESHAROV, PROFESSOR AT THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND: If they were stronger research evidence that that was the way to go, I would say great. But the evidence is really weak. It's quite old and it doesn't apply to 21st century America.

KEILAR: But school officials in Lewis County say they're seeing results.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One, two, three.

KEILAR: Since preschool became universally available here, 14 percent fewer students have enrolled in special education classes. Drop county education officials attribute in part to free preschool. Brianna Keilar, CNN, Weston, West Virginia.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ROBERTS: Well, there was a website to help parents find a good preschool. Head to and click on the families link.

CHETRY: And still ahead, tracking lions in West Virginia. An African lion spotted there supposedly. Now state officials are trying to catch him with raw chicken to see if he really exists.

Also, Britney's new album is out today. And the question is, will it land with a thud or light up the charts? If her single is any indication, she's doing much better in the music scene than she is in real life. Lola Ogunnaike takes a look ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


ROBERTS: 46 minutes now after the hour. And if you're just joining us, here's a look at what's making headlines this morning.

Investigators are focusing on the back of a North Carolina beach house, narrowing down where the fire started that killed seven college students on Sunday. They do not know the cause but don't suspect foul play. Today officials can confirm the names of the college students killed.

A government deal is going to make it very difficult to charge Blackwater guards suspected in the deaths of Iraqi civilians last month in Baghdad. The State Department gave them immunity in exchange for their statements. A Senior State Department official tells CNN, the immunity deal was not sanctioned by senior management.

The family of a superbug victim is suing. They say, a Brooklyn, New York Hospital could have prevented 12-year-old Omar Rivera's death. They claim doctors knew that the boy was already being treated for skin lesions but sent him home with just an over-the-counter allergy medication.

Another witness turning against O.J. Simpson. Michael McClinton is now the third co-defendant to make a plea deal. Prosecutors say Simpson was involved in an armed robbery at a Las Vegas Casino. Simpson says, he was trying to get back memorabilia stolen from him. That's the headlines. Now, let's go back over to Kiran.

CHETRY: John, thanks.

Well, Britney Spears' new album hits stores today. There are signs that the album could actually be a career booster despite some of her more recent meltdowns. AMERICAN MORNING's Lola Ogunnaike is here with more. I saw a couple of reviews and people like it. The critics like it.

LOLA OGUNNAIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know what, it seems like that this is the only thing that she's done right this year. You know, "Entertainment Weekly" gave it a B-plus. "People" gave it three stars. It's been well received. And you know what, the first single has done remarkably well. "Gimme More", people want more apparently.

CHETRY: It's actually been her best single since, what, "Oops, I did it again"?

OGUNNAIKE: Exactly. And you know, this album, it looks like it could take Bruce Springsteen out. He is number one right now. But this could do well. Look at the stats though. She's got a great career track record. Four number one albums. She's sold more than 80 million albums worldwide, Kiran. So, this is the girl who's got numbers on her side. And this could work to her advantage. One wonders, that you know, if this elaborate publicity campaign of sorts has worked to her favor. Crazy or crazy like a fox, we don't know.

CHETRY: A lot of people said that, you know, the reason she was so successful in the past is because of her handlers. I mean, because of the machine around her. And this time, she's got some great producers working on that album in the studio. I mean, does that translator, or does it need to translate to live shows or concerts?

OGUNNAIKE: She's never been known for her voice. She's always been known for two things, choreography and great production. We saw the VMA performance, and not great choreography. But come back with the album, great production. She's teamed up with Nate "Danja" Hills and he's Timberlake's protege. And he has given her a lot of high jams in addition to "Gimme More". There's another song "Toy Soldier" on there, that's got this vibing, pumping beat that is just made for the club. Wisely, she stays away from the ballads. There are very few slow songs on here, which is smart. This is an album that's made for the party. And maybe she was doing research. Maybe, that's the reason she's been out. She's been researching, Kiran.

CHETRY: So, is all of her high profile problems, her custody battle, the appearance that she's not doing enough to try to get her kids, you know, situated properly -- is all of that going to affect record sales? Or do people just not care about the personal lives of stars?

OGUNNAIKE: You know what, in a weird sort of way, all of these bad publicity has helped keep her in the limelight. There's not a day that goes by that people are not talking about her. So, it's actually been sort of the most elaborate PR campaign that she could have orchestrated without actually orchestrating it. She just managed to be a mess-up in the public eye. People keep talking about her, and it's generated a lot of interest. People want to see how this album is going to do, and I think people are going to go out and buy it. I think people are going to flock to go get it. And the fact that she hasn't gotten awful reviews in any way whatsoever means that it could possibly be number one. We'll see next week.

CHETRY: Well, that would be a total reversal of fortune of late. Lola Ogunnaike, great to see you as always. Thanks.


ROBERTS: Coming up to nine minutes to the top of the hour. A whole lot of packages tops your "Quick Hits". Fed-Ex says, it is poised to break its all-time volume record this holiday season. About 11.3 million packages are expected to move through the Fed-Ex networks on the December 17th. That's compared to about 7 million on an average day.

Just what time is it? That's what some people were left asking on Sunday. Daylight savings time usually ends the last weekend in October. But a push this year to the first weekend of November has confused both people and computers. Some PCs, cell phones and electronics, some cable TV systems automatically shifted over the weekend leaving a lot of folks literally behind the times.

A fire that destroyed two homes, rescue workers comes out with a lifeless cat in his arms. Wait until you see what he did to bring the kitty back.

And flu shots. Should you get one? Can they really give you the flu? Separating fact from fiction that's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


CHETRY: Well, some people in West Virginia are swearing that there is a full grown, 250 to 300-pound African lion roaming the woods in their state. State officials are now armed with raw chicken and a video camera to see if it's really the case. At least two people have reported seeing this lion this month at the foot of Cold Knob Mountain. Officials left 20 pounds of raw chicken for the lion. The chicken was eaten, but it doesn't necessarily prove that the lion ate it because they did not catch him on camera. So, stay tuned. If we see that lion in West Virginia, we'll bring it to you.

Well, one down, eight to go. An EMT being hailed as a hero for reviving a lifeless cat. It happened after rescue teams saved the cat from a fire that destroyed two homes in Lansford, Pennsylvania. And the whole thing was caught on tape. There you see right now, he ran out with the cat in his arms. Put the cat on the ground, started rubbing his belly and giving him mouth to mouth. No one was injured in that fire, and this kitty cat did survive. John, you and I learned the way that you do give mouth to mouth. We learned that from a guy that gave mouth to dog or mouth to snot. You actually close their mouth and breathe in through their nose.

ROBERTS: Through the nose, yes, and that was that police officer who saved his canine buddy after he choked on a ball.

CHETRY: Right, he did. He was able to do that. He said, he learned how to do it because he gave CPR to a sheep when he grew up on a farm. So, those are the types of things that come in handy.

ROBERTS: You had to bring that back up, didn't you?

CHETRY: Well, I mean, it's a pretty amazing story.

ROBERTS: Just wanted to see me dissolve into a puddle of laughter this morning.

CHETRY: Sorry, sorry.

ROBERTS: Well, its fall, which means that it's open enrollment season. Quickly changing topics. Stephanie Elam here "Minding Your Business" this morning.

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm giggling. What have you done? That's pretty funny. I'm sorry. There's a lot of saliva on that cat. Did you notice that? But anyway...

CHETRY: He's OK, though. He's alive.

ELAM: That's special.

All right, let's talk a little bit here about open enrollment time. A lot of us are looking at that. This is the time of the year when you can go and look at your benefits and make sure that you have everything in there that you want. Well, employers are getting a little tough. Not everyone is taking a look at this time of year and doing what they're supposed to. Reevaluating, reaping, all those things, so some people are just getting their coverage dropped completely because they're not taking a look at their benefits.

So, let's take a look at some of the main things that companies are targeting. First off, dependent coverage. They're going to audit that. Make sure that your dependents are eligible. That's one thing they're going to be looking at. Also, spouses. Someone to show that the companies can get or actually, that the spouses can get better coverage or the same coverage from a different company. If so, they may not offer them coverage.

They're also giving credits for some people who waive coverage. They're also taking a look at different kinds of accounts such as health savings accounts and health flexible spending accounts to see if they're really beneficial. And fitness benefits, some of the companies shutting down their on-site gyms and no longer offering subsidized gym memberships. Also, smoking cessation is a big one. A lot of companies are actually helping out there. So, it's all the time to take a look and make sure that everything you are looking for is actually there because it could change.

CHETRY: OK, speaking of offices, your biggest office pet peeve, if you had to pick?

ELAM: Messiness all over.

CHETRY: All right, I get it (INAUDIBLE).

ELAM: This is not really my side, though. But, you know, when your office and stuff is on your side, and like the cascades on your deck.

CHETRY: So, you like your co-workers to be neat?

ELAM: I am neat. I think that's nice to be neat to your officemate. Luckily, I have a good officemate.

CHETRY: She's glad it's not Kiran. Because, we asked a bunch of people. They say they hate office gossip, by the way. That, when it comes to what really irritates people the most about other employees, it's actually gossip among other things. But we asked people with our quick vote. Here's a look, real quick.

The office pet peeves, gossiping number one. This is from a brand new market research poll. Number two, people who surf the internet all day. They say they feel like it is not fair sending out mass e-mails instead of working. Being messy, there you go, Stephanie. Number three, people don't like that. And also, if you wear too much perfume or cologne, that annoys other people in the office. And if you talk on the phone too loud, you talk on your speakerphone, or you're just loud in general. So, we wanted to ask you with our quick vote question, what do you think?

What is your biggest pet peeve in the office? Right now, the latest numbers that we have, we have 39 percent - oh, here you go 41 percent saying it's gossiping they don't like. Followed by the phone being too loud and being messy. I guess, a lot of people may be, they don't care if you surf the net because you're doing it quietly.

ROBERTS: Well, yes, and you're probably doing it too. You know, only 3 percent of people said that that's their biggest pet peeve.

CHETRY: All right, we're going to continue to tally your votes throughout the morning. So, go ahead and weigh in. We'd like to know what bothers you about work.

ROBERTS: Messiness obviously is Stephanie's pet peeve.

Our story coming up in the next half hour that you just can't miss. Flu season just around the corner. So, who needs to get a flu vaccine?

CHETRY: Yes, one of those things that is confusing. Who should get it, and can you actually get the flu from a flu shot? Well, they say, one group is actually skipping out on vaccines and it could be the difference between life and death. So, we'll tell you about that. We'll clear up some of this with Elizabeth Cohen. The next hour of AMERICAN MORNING starts right now.

Prosecution protection. Reports that Blackwater guards in a deadly shooting might get a free pass. How they got it and what it means.

The rush to rescue.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're trapped in the house.


CHETRY: 911 calls and dramatic stories.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Only option you really had was to, you know, jump out. (END VIDEO CLIP)

CHETRY: How survivors escaped a burning beach house.

Plus rising up against the red storm. A mayor's plan to ban anything and everything made in it China, on this AMERICAN MORNING. Is that even possible? Could you do it?