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Press Conference Sheds New Light on Plane Crash in Chicago; Plame Retires

Aired December 09, 2005 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's 5:00 p.m. here in Washington. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM where news and information from around the world arrive at one place at the same time.
Happening now it's 4:00 p.m. in Chicago. We are standing by for a news conference on yesterday's runaway plane crash in Chicago that killed a 6-year-old boy. The National Transportation Safety Board will have an update on the investigation. We are going bring it to you live. But one official warns those hoping for quick answers, that quote, often are pointing out that "often the first guess is not the correct one."

For 20 years she worked in the shadows as a clandestine spy as the CIA, that is until a very public outing blew her cover. Now the most famous spy in America is ending her career. What might Valerie Plame do next?

And it's supposed to be a peaceful season of cheer and goodwill. But depending on what you call it, it's an all-out war. How do you celebrate Christmas without actually saying Christmas? 'Tis the season to debate it. But is it political correctness gone haywire?

I am Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Right now, Chicago's Midway Airport is once again open, but passengers taking off and landing are likely seeing a disturbing sight from their windows, the wreckage of a Southwest airplane that crashed in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Federal officials are now investigating what caused the plane to skid off the runway and smash into a barrier and killing six-year-old boy and hurting 13 other people. CNN's Brian Todd is joining us now from Chicago with the latest. Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, almost a full day after the incident occurred, it is still an incredible scene to look at. We're going to ask our cameraman Bruce Fine (ph) to zero in on the plane right now. He is going to go in and you will see the nose cone just touching the street. You will see the plane still covered in snow.

This is the corner of 55th Street and Central Avenue here in Chicago. This is on the northwest corner of the airport. The plane skidded to a stop there, just before it hit a light poll. They are going to remove this plane probably tomorrow or Sunday. Now, very recently we spoke to a passenger on that plane who had a pretty dramatic description of the final moments before the plane came to a stop and then when it did stop.


MIKE ABATE, SOUTHWEST PASSENGER: You just sit back and look at the other passengers around you and you kind of pat yourself a little bit and say we're all in one piece. And then, you know, we actually had enough time that everybody jumped on their cell phones to call their loved ones to say would just lived through, you know, a pretty scary moment.


TODD: Now, as for the investigation, the NTSB is still looking at a number of factors in this crash, one of them was visibility. A Southwest Airline official says that there was a quarter to a half mile of visibility through heavy snow when the plane landed.

Another factor there, looking at runway conditions. They say that the runway was salted throughout the day but they don't know the last time the runway was salted before the plane came to a crash, and one passenger described the runway as being covered with snow. They say you couldn't tell the difference between the grass and the runway. That's another condition they are looking at.

The length of the runway is also an important factor. This is a 6,500-foot runway, one of the shorter runways in the country. It has no overrun protection or very little. That's another factor that they're going to be looking at.

Wolf, some of those answers we hope to get soon. There's going to be an NTSB briefing in just a few moments -- I know that CNN is going to bring that live -- but the NTSB saying it could be up to a year before they have the final results of this investigation.

BLITZER: Brian, what were the circumstances surrounding the death of that little 6-year-old boy?

TODD: Reading some witness accounts -- and we're getting other witness accounts coming in -- just horrific descriptions from a tow truck driver who came upon the scene, saying that some of the family members in that car came screaming out. Others who were trapped inside were screaming for help. The father of this young boy said after impact, he turned around and saw the plane's still kind of turbine whizzing right next to their car.

The boy identified as 6-year-old Joshua Woods of Leroy, Indiana. He has two younger brothers who were in the car with him and his parents in the car with him. They were all injured, as well, two out of those four were seriously injured. And we don't know -- we don't have an update on their condition at the moment. But clearly something that that family is still in shock over.

BLITZER: A lot of us are in shock, Brian. Thank you very much, Brian Todd, we will stand by, because we will be getting back to you. And to our viewers, remember we are standing by for an update on the investigation from Chicago. You are looking at a live picture now. The news conference that we are standing by for from the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board. We will go there as soon as Ellen Engleman Connors of the NTSB shows up and updates us on what's going on.

The storm that dumped all that snow in Chicago has moved on, leaving a blanket of white in its wake. Up to 10 inches fell around the Windy City. New York City, meanwhile, got about six inches, while some areas Upstate saw an entire foot of snow and it's still coming down in parts of New England, but the snowfall is expected to end there soon as well. Let's hope it does.

Double duty for President Bush today, raising money for a Senate candidate in Minnesota and standing firm against calls for a timetable to bring home troops in Iraq. He told the audience at a fundraiser in Minneapolis that a deadline for withdrawal would cause more harm than good.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's a debate raging in Washington, DC. There are some arguing for a fixed timetable of withdrawal. I think it's the wrong policy, and so does Mark Kennedy. A fixed timetable of withdrawal would embolden the enemy, would confuse the Iraqis, and would send the wrong signal to our young men and women in uniform.


BLITZER: Meanwhile the Pentagon has made a major decision on the kind of capability it wants to maintain.

Let's bring in our senior correspondent, Jaime McIntyre. He's got details. Jamie?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you remember well from your days as a Pentagon correspondent, the two-war strategy has been the bedrock of the U.S. military for decades. That is the stated ability to fight and win two major wars at once -- a war, say, in Iraq like what's going on now and at the same time, one in North Korea where the United States is poised to repel any invasion from the north.

But the two-war strategy has always been somewhat of a myth. The U.S. has never been able to have all the resources to fight a war, say, the size of Iraq at the same time. And so they've been refining the strategy over the years. In 2001, the Bush administration changed to say they would fight two major wars at once, but while they swiftly defeated one foe they would be able effect regime change in another theater of conflict as they have done in Iraq.

Now they are looking at it all again, trying to refine it, factor in the lessons from Iraq and try to figure out how they need to tweak it so it will tell them what kind of military they need. And they are sticking with the overall strategy -- that is being able to fight two wars at once but one a little bit more intense than the other. What they are trying to figure out is how they factor all these other operations like Afghanistan, which isn't quite a major war or peacekeeping in Bosnia or Haiti. So they're tweaking the policy but they are keeping the overall strategy, which actually isn't a strategy, it's more of a force-sizing construct, it's a mission statement of what they want to be able to do and that will tell them how big the military has to be. Wolf.

BLITZER: Jaime McIntyre thanks very much. Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon.

Meanwhile in Iraq a deadline nears, as do hopes for a peaceful resolution. An insurgent group is threatening to kill four Christian peace activists within hours if their demands are not met. The group says they will execute the American, the Briton and two Canadian hostages tomorrow. Today Sunni Arab clerics pleaded for their release. The kidnappers want jailed Islamic Army fighters to be freed and for compensation to be paid for families Iraq's hard-hit Anbar province.

Turning now to another grim deadline, this one in California. The governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger bears the heavy burden of whether to let a convicted death row inmate live on or die. CNN's Chris Lawrence is joining us now live with more on what the governor had to say today. Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we are all just waiting to hear what Governor Schwarzenegger's decision will be. He's going to release that in a written email when he does come to a decision.

Earlier today he said he was up to about midnight last night and that he's been reading and studying all the materials, but that the decision will be a difficult one. If he does grant clemency, prosecutors and some of the victims' relatives will say a killer received the kind of mercy that he never gave his victims. If he allows Williams to be executed, thousands of Williams' supporters will say the state killed an innocent man.


GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, (R) CALIFORNIA: And when it comes to the other decision coming up very soon, the Tookie Williams thing, you just have to have an open mind case by case and look at that, and then make up your mind. That's really what they do. But they are very heavy responsibilities.


LAWRENCE: Yeah -- heavy responsibilities indeed. Williams was convicted of four murders back in the late 1970s. He has been on death row for some time now. But his supporters say that he has redeemed himself in prison, that he has written children's books urging kids to get out of gangs. That he has tried to dedicate his life to peace and therefore should be spared on that basis. They are also making the argument that the trial itself was flawed, some of the evidence was flawed, and that Williams did not commit these crimes. Williams never admitted to it. But prosecutors are standing firm in saying there's nothing wrong with the trial and Williams deserves to be execute.

BLITZER: Chris Lawrence, thanks very much. We are standing by for that email from the governor with word whether Stanley Tookie Williams lives or dies. We are standing by for a news conference in Chicago, the NTSB getting ready to brief all of us on the plane crash at Midway Airport last night. We'll go there as soon as it starts. Jack Cafferty is off today. He will be back on Monday.

Up ahead, she, her job, and the exposure of both have touched off a federal investigation that continues to this very day. The CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson spending her last day at the office over at Langley, the CIA headquarters.

Hurricane Katrina sent a powerful message about catastrophe and the state of U.S. readiness. Did it come through loud and clear?

And he's 16, bright, and bilingual. So how did that get him suspended from school? We'll tell you what happened when we return. All of that coming up in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Welcome back. CNN's "Security Watch" and concern over how prepared we are for the next disaster whether manmade or natural. CNN's Jeanne Meserve from our Americas bureau is joining us with the results of a new survey. Jeanne?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it's hard to imagine any more brutal real-life illustrations of why citizens should prepare themselves for disaster that hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But Americans apparently did not get the message.

In a poll conducted by the American Red Cross and Council for Excellence in Government, 38 percent of those questioned said the hurricanes had not motivated them to prepare at all. And though we saw desperate family members unable to find one another, more people reported having a family communications plan before the hurricanes than afterwards -- 31 percent before, 36 percent after (ph). Before the storms, 37 percent of those polled said they didn't know how to prepare. After the storms, that number went up to 44 percent.


PATRICIA MCGINNIS, COUNCIL FOR EXCELLENCE IN GOVERNMENT: The number one reason people don't prepare is because they think it won't ever happen to me or my family. So this sense of optimism is translating into not taking seriously what's required to prepare yourself and your family for a disaster of any sort.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MESERVE: Many of those most severely impacted by Katrina were poor and black, but the survey found the most significant variable in personal preparedness was geography. The poll indicates people are most prepared in the South, least prepared in the Midwest. Clearly, Wolf, a long way to go.

BLITZER: All right, Jeanne. Thank you very much. Jeanne Meserve reporting for us. How prepared would you be if a natural disaster hit your hometown? In the event of an emergency, the Department of Homeland Security has assembled online resources. How good, though, are they? Our Internet reporter Jacki Schechner has been looking into that. Jacki?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is what you get for a nuclear blast in the state of Missouri, Wolf -- not very complicated or useful if you look at it. But what you can do for your state in particular is go to, this is the Web site for the Department of Homeland Security. It has got a map that is interactive. You touch on it, pulls up your state.

Some of the stuff that we found useful was in Iowa, for example. They have a 75-page document on preparedness having to deal specifically in some cases with the agriculture infrastructure of all things. They are really on the money there in terms of what they need.

From California -- we are seeing this from a lot of the sites by states -- as to what to do with your family and how to prepare your family. Do you have a downloadable worksheet? And what you can do with this is prepare a phone number of somebody to contact, they suggest somebody out of state because in case of emergency, often the long distance numbers will be more useful to you than local state numbers.

And finally from here in Washington, DC, in case you are here with your family and something should happen they actually have what's available in the area by monument. You can see where you might be visiting and it will show the local police stations, the fire stations and your best evacuation route. Wolf?

BLITZER: Thank you very much. Jacki Schechner with good information. And to our viewers, stay tuned to CNN day and night for the most reliable news about your security.

Coming up -- talking in class is one thing, but this student learned speaking Spanish at lunch can get you suspended. What's going on?

And a tree by another name is what? That's the big question in the Christmas versus holiday debate.

You are in THE SITUATION ROOM. And remember, we are standing by for a news conference from Chicago, the latest on that plane crash from Midway Airport. We will go there live. The NTSB ready to answer questions. Once it starts, we will be there. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Here's a look at some of the "Hot Shots" coming in from our friends at the Associated Press, pictures likely to be in your hometown newspapers tomorrow. In Baghdad, an Iraqi army unit secures a downtown neighborhood after a shootout between an army patrol and an unidentified gunman wounded two civilians.

Here in Washington, it's the last day of work for the agency operative at the center of the CIA leak investigation. Valerie Plame Wilson is seen here leaving her home earlier this morning. We will get more in just a moment on this story.

In London, crowds clamoring to catch a final ride on the double- decker bus. The iconic Routemaster buses are being retired after a half a century of service.

And take a look at this, professional wrestling in Kabul, Afghanistan. Thousands of U.S. soldiers gathered at Bagram Air Base to catch 18 wrestlers entertain the troops far from home. Those are some of today's AP "Hot Shots" - pictures often worth a thousand words.

As we've been reporting, a central figure in CIA leak saga is calling it quits. This is Valerie Plame Wilson's last day on the job over at the CIA.

Our national security correspondent David Ensor is joining us now live with more on that. David?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Wolf neither her husband nor the CIA are commenting, but friends confirm that Valerie Plame Wilson has resigned and will not be working at the agency after today.


ENSOR (voice-over): Though this was Valerie Plame Wilson's last day on the job at the CIA, she will leave the payroll in January after using up accumulated leave time, friends say, ending her 20-year career. Her cover was blown in a newspaper column more than two years ago, and the long-time undercover officer found herself the most famous spy in America. Her CIA colleagues could no longer afford to be seen with her in public.

JAMES MARCINKOWSKI, FRIEND, FORMER CIA OFFICER: She can't even go out after work for a beer with those people any more, because since everyone knows her by association, her friends in the agency will have their own cover put at risk should they be seen out in public with her now.

ENSOR: Her cover was blown by administration officials trying to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a critic of the Iraq War who has said their pressure cooker life since then has included telephone threats. MELISSA MAHLE, FRIEND, FORMER CIA OFFICER: I think she has done an admirable job with the stress and coming to terms what it all means, the whole package of it. She's fairly philosophical. That doesn't mean she's not angry.

ENSOR: While in the CIA, Valerie Wilson had a number of glamorous assignments. Posing as an energy consultant, she spent some time tracking shadowy arms dealers, marketing weapons of mass destruction. Back at home she has five-year-old twins and friends say right now they are her focus.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And so will she write a book? I hope she does. And I hope she makes tons of money because I think she deserves it.


ENSOR: If she does write a book as a former CIA officer, she will have to put it through the agency's vetting process, no secrets allowed. And we may have to wait to hear from her at all, Wolf. On interviews, her husband said no time soon.

BLITZER: David, thank you very much. David Ensor reporting for us.

What kind of impact has revealing Valerie Plame's identity had on other CIA officers and their operations? A former CIA officer, Larry Johnson, he will be joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM during our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour.

Zain Verjee is off today. Fredricka Whitfield filling in, joining us now from the CNN Center in Atlanta with a closer look at other stories making news. Hi, Fred.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, Wolf. A school official in Kansas has issued an apology to a high schooler suspended for speaking Spanish in school. Sixteen year old Zach Rubio's principal sent him home for two days after learning he spoke Spanish in the hallway and the cafeteria last month. The bilingual boy's father complained. And when the superintendent got wind of the suspension, he apologized and reversed it. The district there has no rules against speaking Spanish in school.

A possible strike by 38,000 public transit workers threatens to strand millions of New Yorkers. The workers' contract runs out in a matter of days. Union leaders say a strike has not been ruled out even though it is illegal under state law. Mayor Bloomberg's office says a shut down would cost the city millions of dollars a day.

The New Jersey Senate is moving to crack down with more than a slap on the wrist for people who talk and drive. Yesterday, lawmakers unanimously approved a bill making the practice a primary offense. You could be pulled over just for talking on a cell phone while driving. The New Jersey State Assembly must pass a similar bill before it can be signed into law, which will have a lot of folks thinking, Wolf, after they hang up the phone, was it really worth it? BLITZER: All right. Fair question. Thanks very much, Fred, for that. Coming up, we are standing by for that news conference in Chicago -- the NTSB getting ready to brief reporters on that plane crash at Midway Airport last night. We'll go there live once it starts.

And what is it a holiday card or a Christmas card? The great seasonal debate raging on. Is this entire debate appropriate?

Also ahead, where is Osama bin Laden? Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr getting some new insights on that. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: More now on our top story, that Southwest Airlines jet that skidded off the runway at Chicago's Midway Airport. The accident killed a young boy who was riding with his family past the airport when their car was crushed under the plane's nose. The National Transportation Safety Board is interviewing the pilot and air traffic controllers, among others. They are looking at factors including weather and plane maintenance. Officials say nothing is being ruled out. They will focus on all aspects and they add it could take more than a year to complete their probe.

We are standing by for a news conference from the NTSB in Chicago. We will go there live once it begins. But let's get some more on this accident and the investigation. As we await the start of that news conference, we are joined by Peter Goelz, the former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board. Peter, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: It looks pretty simple to most of us just watching. It was snowing badly. There was probably ice and snow on the runway. The plane came in under pretty snowy, miserable conditions...

GOELZ: Right.

BLITZER: ... and -- and, simply, there was not enough runway there once it started to skid.

GOELZ: Well, they are going to check and see where the pilot put the plane down.

This is a 6,500-foot runway. He probably wanted to get that plane down at no more than 5,000 feet. If he dropped it down a little more than that, he might not have had enough runway. A couple of planes had landed before, just before, and they had reported that the runway was fair, in terms of its stopping power, for the first two- thirds of the runway. The last third of the runway, they were reporting that it was very -- that it was -- it was not good.

BLITZER: So, why would they let the plane land under less than good conditions?

GOELZ: Well, they have standards. And apparently, they had tested the runway. They had met the minimum safety standards. Had he put -- it may be, had he put the plane down at 5,500 feet, he might have had plenty of room.

BLITZER: Who makes that decision, whether the airport should be open and -- and let these pilots bring a plane in, a jetliner, as in this particular case, or tell the pilot, you know what, it's not good here; go to O'Hare or a bigger airport with a longer runway?

GOELZ: Well, the airport administration is responsible, the people who run the airport, for plowing and for testing to see what -- exactly what stopping ability is on the runway. Pilots who land beforehand are required to report in how -- how was it.

BLITZER: I have landed at Midway on many occasions.

GOELZ: Right.

BLITZER: And I am sure you have as well.


BLITZER: This is an airport that was built in the '20s, or '30s.

GOELZ: That's right.

BLITZER: And it has -- it has got neighborhoods all around it. It's not, you know, like a Dulles Airport, way outside of Washington, D.C., or a new Denver or -- or Dallas airport, which are way out of town. There are a lot of these airports in these cities, really, these older airports, that don't have the runway, plus the buffer zone beyond the runway, that are really as secure as possible.

GOELZ: That is one of the real challenges of our -- of our air system right now. We are using these old airports. They are more heavily congested. There is not an overrun area. In this case, there was less than 100 feet of overrun area.

BLITZER: That means where the runway ends. And a...

GOELZ: That's right.

BLITZER: ... and a house, a neighborhood starts, basically.

GOELZ: And -- and you can have these things called arrester beds that will stop an overrun, but you really need 500 or 650 feet of arrester bed to stop a plane.

BLITZER: These air -- old airports in these cities, they were built for propeller planes, much smaller planes than the -- the jetliners that exist right now.

GOELZ: That's correct. And the problem is, they are not building a lot of new runways. There's community opposition, noise opposition.

BLITZER: Well, there's no room at Midway to -- to expand.


GOELZ: And -- and -- and the debate over a new runway -- a new airport for Chicago has been one of the most contentious political battles in recent history.

BLITZER: So, what's the answer? Just shut down these old airports?

GOELZ: Well, I think -- I think there's going to be some consideration given that maybe they got to think about closing that highway out there and putting an arrester bed in, so that there are overrun areas.

We saw it in Toronto as well. You really -- if you are going to use these older airports, you have got to make sure they are going to be safe.

BLITZER: All right, Peter. Stand by, because we are going to keep you here while we await the start of this news conference out in Chicago at Midway Airport, the NTSB getting ready to brief reporters. We have been hearing that for some time. We will go back to Chicago once that news conference starts.

In the meantime, there's other news we are following in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We are following the situation in Iraq. Our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson, is embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq right now. He will be joining us live with a sense of what's happening on the ground right now.

And over seven feet tall, weighing 325 pounds, he might just scare criminals into surrendering. That would be Shaquille O'Neal. Now he will be chasing down opponents and using an arsenal of weapons both on basketball courts, as well as in the streets of Miami. We will tell you what is going on with Shaq.


BLITZER: Ellen Engleman Conners of the NTSB briefing reporters on the plane crash in Chicago.


ELLEN ENGLEMAN CONNERS, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD: This meeting is one where the parties and their representatives come together. The NTSB, as I have mentioned, operates under a party system, where the -- the folks who can participate and give us qualified technical support in the investigation are brought in.

We anticipate that we're going to be on scene here, with this lead team, probably for about five or six days of intensive work, and then some may stay longer, will continuing to be interviewing, researching, data collection, fact gathering, et cetera, for some time.

This entire process will probably take a year. It may take a little bit less. It may take more. But we will be very thorough in the investigation. The parties have been identified as follows: Southwest Airlines, Southwest Pilots Association, Southwest mechanics, Southwest flight attendants, Boeing, GE Engines, the Dispatchers Union, the City of Chicago Airport, the FAA, and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

I'm going to -- I mentioned earlier the core areas we're looking at. I'm going to remind you of those and share a little bit of what they're working on now.

Weather is one of the working groups that we have, and they're going to be focusing on the following, radar data, forecast data, and satellite data information. Our operations group will begin interviewing the pilots tomorrow and also the initial witness interview that we have identified.

Other crew members who have flown with this pilot team will also be interviewed later. Power plants -- we will be looking at the engine development. And we will talk about that in a minute.

Structures -- we're going to try to recover the airport to the -- excuse me -- recover the airplane to the airport, in other words, get it back on to airport property tomorrow. Aircraft performance, that's one of the larger issues.

Survival factors -- we will be working with the flight attendants, the airport personnel and the emergency responders. The CVR group is being formed. And we have pristine data from both the CVR and FDR, the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder. And I am going to give you a summary of that data in just a few minutes.

The structures group today surveyed the running -- the runway environment and have been able to pretty much place everything in object from relationship to one to another, i.e., the plane, the perimeter, the cars, the airplane, the debris, et cetera, and so forth.

The strike marks from the vertical posts on the airplane have been identified and marked. We are beginning the mapping process tomorrow. That is putting everything in its appropriate place. All the luggage has been inventoried by Southwest airplanes -- Airlines -- and the police. Each piece has been tagged and marked as to its placement within the vessel. And each will be individually weighed tomorrow. And that helps us with the whole issue of weight and center of gravity issues.

The airplane has been successfully secured and is now safe. The tires were deflated. There were some issues of making sure that it was safe to be able to be looking at and working in. And, so, that's been secured and safe. Again, we hope to move the airplane back to the airport tomorrow into one of the hangars, the ATA hangar. And we anticipate that will be mid to late tomorrow morning, mid to late morning tomorrow. OK?

The way we are going to do that is, there is going to be a sling put under the forward fuselage or the nose of the plane. Basically, the plane will be pulled back into the airport property and go to the ATA hangar. The loose debris is being removed. And we hope it will be possible to open both streets by Sunday, if not before. We also hope that we can release the runway by Sunday, if not before, so that the airport can be back in service at both runways.

On the power plant -- and those are the engines -- there's no fire damage. The engines are both still intact and attached. Photo documentation has been taking place today and will continue through tomorrow. And, also, we are physically identifying any pieces that may have come off of the engines themselves -- in other words, in identifying any parts that are not there or are found elsewhere.

The air traffic control group begins its work tonight. Systems has done a cursory review of the flight deck and the wing area. This is looking at things, such as where the flaps were, etcetera and so forth. Operations will commence tomorrow.

Survival factors, preliminary data has been gathered. Interviews with the flight attendants will occur tomorrow. And we are also documenting the cabin condition tomorrow.

On weather, National Weather Service data is being culled together, and regional forecast official data is being brought. We will also be interviewing the dispatcher tomorrow.

So, that's the progress of today, with some plans tomorrow. Now, right now, I am going to release to you initial data from the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder. I am not going to offer speculation or analysis. We will provide you some basic facts about this, but we will not go into speculation or analysis.

On the CVR, the airplane had been in a normal hold position. The approach was normal with normal conversations. The crew did not mention problems with the airplane. The tower provided that the wind was 090 degrees at nine knots. The airport was landing on Runway 31 Center.

Air traffic control reported runway braking to be fair on most of the runway and poor at the end. Flight data recording information was, as our folks said, pristine and excellent. Touchdown was normal. There was a slight bounce. There was a seven- to eight-knot tailwind. There was 32 seconds from touchdown until the aircraft hit the fence.

The FDR indicates that touch was at air speed of about 124 knots. That translates to approximately 143 miles per hour. But the ground speed was about 132 knots, or 152 miles per hour. The FDR indicates that impact with the fence was at about 40 knots. That's all the factual information I have for you. I will do my best to answer questions about what I just provided, and if you have any. QUESTION: Just to clarify, you said 152 miles an hour at impact with the fence?



QUESTION: You did not?



QUESTION: ... you clarify that...


ENGLEMAN CONNERS: Sure. I gave you some numbers. Let me try and -- the FDR, the flight data recorder, indicates that the touchdown speed, that the air speed at touchdown of the plane was about 124 knots, which is approximately, or equivalent of 143 miles per hour. But the ground speed -- in other words, the aircraft has one speed when it touches down. The ground speed, then, was about 132 knots, or equivalent of 152 miles per hour. The impact speed at the fence was about 40 knots.

QUESTION: And what would -- how would that translate into miles per hour?

ENGLEMAN CONNERS: I will get back with you on that. I have to do some arithmetic.



QUESTION: Where was the touchdown?


QUESTION: How far along the runway?

ENGLEMAN CONNERS: Yes. We are unable to identify, by physical identification, the touchdown because of the continuing snow. However, given the FDR data, we will be able to calculate that backwards. And that's simply a question of running the data and doing that. So, we didn't -- we can't say X marks the spot physically, but we will be able to interpret this data and do it through a simulation.

QUESTION: And you can that in fairly short order...


ENGLEMAN CONNERS: I personally cannot, but the NTSB can.




BLITZER: ... Engleman Conners of the NTSB briefing reporters on preliminary information gathered from last night's crash of a Southwest -- western -- flight from Baltimore to Chicago's Midway airline -- Chicago's Midway Airport.

Peter Goelz, former managing director of the NTSB, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM with us.

What stands out from this preliminary information that she is giving, especially from the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder?

GOELZ: Well, I think there's two things. One is, it was a perfectly normal landing. There was no -- nothing, apparently, unusual, in terms of the crew's discussions with each other. They were putting the plane down. There was nothing unusual. The plane seemed to have performed as designed.

The question now is -- it seemed like it might have been going a little -- on the ground speed, 152 knots; 152 miles an hour is a little fast. So, they may have misread the tailwind, pushing them a little quicker. Where they came down on the runway is going to be the critical question.

BLITZER: Why would it be that, at the end of this runway -- it's about, what, 6,500 feet, this runway?

GOELZ: Right.

BLITZER: Why would it be at the end, the -- the conditions were worse than at the beginning part of the runway?

GOELZ: Well, it could have been -- it could be a simple thing -- a simple thing as the planes that had landed before that had landed closer to the 6,000-foot level marker and just gotten off the runway before the last 2,000 feet.

BLITZER: So, it might have been more snowy or more icy at...


GOELZ: That's right.

BLITZER: Well, wouldn't they send trucks out there to salt it...


BLITZER: ... in a condition like this?

GOELZ: Well, that's one of the things they are going to look at. Should -- should they have been paying more attention? If they had reports from previous planes, saying, listen, the last third or the last quarter of the runway is poor, maybe they should have got some people out there sooner.

BLITZER: And -- and I didn't -- I heard about what -- what you said about what the pilots were saying, that everything seemed to be smooth and normal and regular. But there was no -- do -- will they have -- I'm sure they will have, on their recorders, what the -- what the controllers, the air traffic controllers, were telling them about conditions at Midway?

GOELZ: Right.

The -- the controllers gave them -- they say, well, it's -- you know, wind at nine knots. They are going to tell them what condition the -- the runway was in.

BLITZER: It didn't look -- it didn't sound as if there was a debate going on, should we land; should we not land?

GOELZ: No. I think there was never a debate. The question was, we're going in.

BLITZER: And that was that.

GOELZ: And everything -- and everything appears to be within the margin of -- of safety.

BLITZER: And is it normal to take a year to determine what was the cause of this accident?

GOELZ: I think, on this case, you are going to get a pretty good picture of it pretty quickly.

BLITZER: Peter Goelz, thanks very much.

GOELZ: Thank you.

BLITZER: Peter Goelz, the former managing director of the NTSB, helping us better understand what has happened, thank you very much.

GOELZ: Thank you.

BLITZER: We are going to take a quick break -- much more of the THE SITUATION ROOM right after this.

We are going to go live to Iraq. Our Nic Robertson is embedded with U.S. troops on the scene right now in Iraq. We will get an eyewitness account of what is going on, on this day. And we are also going to get the latest on the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Stay with us. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Iraq's national election scheduled for next Thursday. CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson will be covering those elections for us. He's embedded, meanwhile, with U.S. troops right now in Ramadi. He is joining us live via videophone.

It's one thing to hear politicians, Nic, here in Washington talking about what is happening in Iraq. You are seeing it on a day- to-day basis. What do you -- what -- what's your immediate impression from this latest venture out with U.S. troops?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Ramadi is probably one of the toughest cities that I have visited here for some time, Wolf. It is, perhaps, the most deadliest for U.S. troops at the moment. There are a lot of insurgents focusing on this town to try and disrupt the elections coming up. And there are a lot of operations to stabilize the town in advance of the operations.

Just in the last couple of hours, standing here, we have heard a lot of controlled -- very loud explosions coming from Ramadi. A few minutes ago, I heard one the pilot-less drone surveillance aircraft flying overhead. We just heard a large convoy going by. There's still a lot of activity, even this time of night -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How worried, how secure are U.S. military personnel in Ramadi, even in a perimeter area, a base, where you are right now?

ROBERTSON: You -- you know, Wolf, they are making huge strides here in cutting down the insurgency in Ramadi.

There was a base in this city that was -- that was taking mortar rounds on a regular basis. They put operations into one part of the city to defeat that. They didn't have any more -- they haven't received any mortar rounds for six weeks at that base. It is safer than it was.

The insurgents' strongest weapon is the roadside bombs. There are still a lot of roadside bombs out there. There are more patrols in the town, more posts in the town to cover the roads that the insurgents like to bomb. But they find little places, where nobody can see them, to put those bombs out. Wolf.

BLITZER: The argument that we have heard from some analysts is that the areas like Ramadi or Fallujah, they can be secure for a short period of time, after the U.S. goes in with heavy firepower, but, once the U.S. and coalition forces were to leave, it would be back to the status quo ante. Is that a fair argument that we have -- we have heard?

ROBERTSON: It's certainly a fear of the conditions right now. But just in the last week-and-a-half here, Wolf, U.S. commanders have had some groundbreaking meetings with the top sheiks from the Al Anbar region, this western part of Iraq, the top sheiks, the religious clerics, all of whom influence their society.

Now, it's the first time they have been able to sit down and have these face-to-face big meetings, where everything is on the table; it's all up for discussion. Security is on the top of the agenda. If those meetings continue to go well, the agreements that will be hammered out there, we are told, are the sorts of agreements that are going to allow more security forces to be stood up here and allow the U.S. to pull back, without there being chaos following on.

However, we are told that could take from a year, to two years, up to three years. Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson reporting for us. He is embedded with U.S. troops in Ramadi, doing an excellent job, a very courageous journalist. Not every day we get to see a Western reporter embedded with U.S. troops in Ramadi, arguably one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq right now .

Meanwhile it's a question that many have been asking now for years: Where is Osama bin Laden? Even more so, is he dead or alive?

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr posed that question to military commanders. Listen to this.


LIEUTENANT GENERAL KARL EIKENBERRY, COMMANDING GENERAL, AFGHANISTAN COMBINED FORCES COMMAND: Our working assumption is, Barbara, that he is alive today. I will not speculate on his location.


BLITZER: My next guest has written extensively on Osama bin Laden about parts of his life, even where Osama bin Laden went to school.

Steve Coll's article recently appeared in "The New Yorker." He's joining us now live here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks very much for joining us, Steve.

STEVE COLL, STAFF WRITER, "THE NEW YORKER": Hey, Wolf. Glad to be with you.

BLITZER: You have no reason to believe he's dead?

COLL: No, although it's been a long while since we have heard from him.

BLITZER: It's actually been more than a year. I believe the last time we heard from him was on the eve of the U.S. presidential election, a year ago.

COLL: That's right. Well, actually, a month later, in December, late December, there was an audiotape attributed to him. But just about a year, it's been. And there have been periods in the past where he's gone silent for as long as this, but not for much longer than this.

BLITZER: So, what -- what should we make of this silence for a year?

COLL: Well, I think he has gone silent when he has been concerned about his security, when he has been moving around, and when he has had other people saying what needs to be said, in his view.

Ayman al-Zawahri, his deputy, has spoken several times during the last six months, speaking about Iraq and -- and attacking the United States.

BLITZER: How comes he feels so confident, Ayman al-Zawahri, to go out and speak in these videotapes? Another one that -- it's sort of an expanded version of something he released a few months back, just released this week, complete with subtitles, a very fancy kind of production.

COLL: Well, perhaps, when they are -- when they are both caught or killed, we will -- we will learn about their relationship to one another while they were in hiding. But right now, it's kind of hard to guess which one gets access to the production studio when and why.

BLITZER: Listen to this other exchange, this other comment that Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, the commander of combined forces in Afghanistan, said. Listen to this.


EIKENBERRY: It's important for the American people, and it's important for the international community, and it's important for Afghanistan, in terms of bringing that man to justice. And our forces will not rest until he is either found and captured or killed.


BLITZER: A lot of experts believe he is hiding out someplace in those tribal areas of Pakistan. Is -- is that -- is that the information that you -- you have come up with as well?

COLL: That's been the working assumption for a couple of years. And I think there's -- there's data to support the assumption. But it's like saying somebody is hiding in Alaska, and everybody in Alaska is hostile to the searchers. It's an enormous area. It's very underdeveloped. And he has a long history in that region and, presumably, lots of contacts.

BLITZER: Is it the assumption that he is together with Zawahri or that they are sort of spread out?

COLL: Well, obviously, nobody knows for sure. But the assumption has been that they operate separately, but that they maintain some indirect communication with one another. BLITZER: So, he's still at large, Ayman al-Zawahri still at large, Mohammad -- Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader, still at large.

Here's a quote I picked up from the "L.A. Times" the other day. Pat Lang, a former DIA intelligence analyst, said this: "This is a movement, a large-scale phenomenon. If you killed Osama bin Laden, you wouldn't stop the movement. We are going to have to deal with these people for a long time."

If the U.S. or its allies were to capture or kill Osama bin Laden tomorrow, would it make much of a difference?

COLL: Well, it would matter less than it would have five or six years ago. But I think it still would matter.

Osama bin Laden is the undisputed leader of al Qaeda. Yes, al Qaeda is a more dispersed movement, less hierarchical than it was. But his words still matter. His leadership still matters. And the evidence for that, for instance, is Zarqawi's decision in Iraq to affiliate himself with bin Laden's leadership and with his ideas.

BLITZER: You have a fascinating article entitled "Young Osama" in the December 12 issue of "The New Yorker." You quote one of -- I guess somebody -- one of his teachers, as saying, he was "a nice fellow, a good student. There were no problems with him. He was a quiet lad. I suppose silent waters run deep."

Give us a gist of Osama as a youngster.

COLL: What is interesting about his high school experience is the young age at which he was recruited into Muslim Brotherhood- influenced radical circles by a Syrian physical education teacher at his elite private high school in Saudi Arabia. He was invited into an after-school study group with other boys at -- really, at about age 14 and indoctrinated in -- with some of the ideas of violent jihad.

It's actually not an unusual phenomenon in -- in the Gulf region to have young boys at that age pulled into these networks. But we never knew that -- that he had been recruited at -- at such an early age.

BLITZER: We have got to leave it there -- a fascinating article. Steve Coll, thanks very much for joining us.

COLL: Wolf, thanks for having me.

And we are in THE SITUATION ROOM every weekday afternoon, 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern. We are back at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, just one hour from now.

Being an NBA superstar might be enough for some people, but not necessarily for Shaquille O'Neal. He's got a new dream job. That's one hour from now in THE SITUATION ROOM. We will tell you what is going on.

Until then, I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

LOU DOBBS TONIGHT starting right now. Lou is in New York. Lou?

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Wolf.