Return to Transcripts main page

The Situation Room

Death Toll Rises Above 3,400 After Devastating Earthquake; New Intel On Downed Chinese Spy Balloon Amid Rising Tensions; Biden Last- Minute Preps For State Of The Union Speech Tomorrow; Ukraine: Embattled City Of Bakhmut Is An "Unwinnable Fortress"; Feds: Two Arrested In Racially Motivated Plot To Attack Power Grid. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired February 06, 2023 - 18:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, mass destruction and more than 3,400 people dead after a powerful earthquake and dozens of aftershocks, scenes being likened to Armageddon. Stand by for new reporting on the catastrophes in Turkey and Syria as rescuers search for survivors and the death toll keeps rising and rising.

Also tonight, U.S. officials reveal new information on the size, capabilities and value of the downed Chinese spy balloon. The FBI now analyzing the first pieces recovered from the Atlantic amid rising U.S./China tensions.

And as President Biden faces new international emergencies, he's also engaged in last-minute preparations for his state of the union address. We'll tell you what the president just said about his prime time speech to Congress and the nation a little over 24 hours from now.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States, and around the world, I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Let's get right to the unfolding earthquake disasters in Turkey and Syria and its truly devastating toll. CNN's Jomana Karadsheh is covering it all for us. She's in Istanbul. Jomana, this was one of the most powerful quakes to hit the region in a century.

JOMANA KARADSHEH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And one of the biggest disaster in the history of this country, according to the Turkish president, Wolf. The epicenter of the earthquake in the southern province of Kahramanmaras, but it's this massive earthquake zone spread across ten provinces in Southern Turkey with a population in the millions, and then you've got also areas impacted across the border in Syria, in government-controlled areas as well as the rebel-held northwest of the country that has been hit really hard.

More than 3,400 people confirmed killed in both countries so far, thousands more injured. But the fear right now is that the casualty figures are going to significantly rise in the comings hours and days with thousands presumed to be under the rubble, thousands of destroyed buildings across this massive earthquake zone.


KARADSHEH (voice over): Flattened in seconds, moments later, two aftershocks. A Turkish T.V. crew reporting live during the makings of an apocalyptic scene, the reporter grabbing a young girl as the rubble and smoke settles around them. Rescue efforts beginning immediately.

In southern Turkey, a young man trapped, desperation in his eyes, then in the pre-dawn darkness, a moment of joy. Pulled from the wreckage, this was a residential building full of families asleep in their homes when the massive earthquake struck.

IHSAN CENTINTAS, RESIDENT OF DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY: I was sleeping when my wife suddenly woke me up. The quake was very severe, very scary. It took almost two minutes until the shaking stopped.

KARADSHEH: As the hours go by, more rescues, hospitals also begin to overflow. Reported dust going up by the hundreds each hour, millions impacted.

In Syria, a father cries over his baby's limp body, many children among the killed and injured. It's unclear just how many are still trapped and how many have lost their lives.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are 12 families and no one managed to get out. They are all inside here.

KARADSHEH: The White Helmets have done this before, heroes of the Syrian civil war now pulling people out from under a very different disaster. So many in rebel-held Northern Syria had very little yesterday. Many had already lost everything, displaced and reeling from years of war.

MAJED NASSARI, RESIDENT OF JINDAYRIS, SYRIA: It's a disaster, all the floors crumbled into ruins, we need a month, maybe even three months to recover our dead.

KARADSHEH: A winter storm hitting the region only exacerbating the dire situation and slowing rescue efforts.

In Turkey, too, foreign help will be needed.


World leaders already pledging and deploying rescue teams. The search and rescue will stretch on for days, hope remaining as long as possible.


KARADSHEH (on camera): And, Wolf, search and rescue operations are continuing, but it's dark, nighttime, as you can imagine, slowing down the efforts that are underway, and then they've got so many challenges they're facing. The weather conditions, it's freezing, it's snowing. They're facing blocked roads. You've also got low visibility as well. And, of course, as you mentioned, the aftershocks, one after the other, more than 140, according to Turkish officials, really powerful ones also impacting the search and rescue effort that is underway.

And as Turkey is beginning to receive the international aid and support that it has requested, we are hearing from Syrians urging the international community to act fast and to do more to provide them with the support they need. This is a population that has gone through so much, and has absolutely nothing to deal with yet another devastating humanitarian crisis, Wolf.

BLITZER: So heartbreaking, indeed. Jomana Karadsheh in Istanbul, Turkey, for us, thank you very much.

Let's get some more on this earthquake disaster with a top official from the International Rescue Committee, Bob Kitchen. He's standing by, also with us, CNN's Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who has reported from the scene of major earthquakes in Haiti, Japan and Nepal.

Bob, let me start with you. What are you hearing first of all from your teams on the ground there about the level of devastation, and the ongoing rescue efforts?

BOB KITCHEN, VICE PRESIDENT, EMERGENCIES AND HUMANITARIAN ACTION INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE: Well, the IRC has a thousand staff across Syria, many of which are based in the northwest and northeast of the country. We've spent the last 18 hours trying to get in contact with our staff as they themselves have lost their homes and lost their families. So, we're now in the process of helping them find shelter in mosques and schools. And then tomorrow morning we'll pivot to focus on getting our programs back up and running to provide aid to the many hundreds of thousands of people who have been impacted by this terrible earthquake.

BLITZER: And we're certainly grateful for all that they are doing. Sanjay, this earthquake hit, as we know, around 4:00 in the morning local time, with people sleeping in their homes. What are the chances of survival as the desperate searches now continue?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's really an awful situation, Wolf, as you might predict. I mean, first of all, just that it happened at night, it's hard to know how much maybe that was some benefit as people weren't aggregated in large public places, but this is obviously a very challenging situation.

One of the things, that was just mentioned in the report was just the conditions on the ground. If you look at the temperatures over there, this is going to be a significant concern as you think about these search and rescue missions that Bob is referring to.

I just pulled some of these temperatures in the region, for example, in Harim, it's around 38 degrees, Darkush around 44 degrees, Kafar around 42 degrees. So, it's really cold. To give you context, Haiti, it was in the 80s. Nepal, it was in the 50s. So, you're getting into these subfreezing temperatures, and that's going to be obviously a huge concern. Hospital capacity, the White Helmets, who I've spent time with, they take care of people in really tough situations, typically military situations. Some of that will overlap into what's happening here, but you have to have the hospital capacity. It's tough to communicate in these situations. As Jomana was mentioning, roads may be closed, and simply getting from point A to point B can be a real challenge as well.

BLITZER: And there's the added issue of aftershocks, which could continue as well.

Bob, this region has already been devastated by more than a decade of serious civil war, as you know well. These are refugees and internally displaced people impacted by this disaster. How does that complicate what's going on?

KITCHEN: Well, we've got just over 15 million people in urgent need of aid in Syria before today. More than half of them are in the northeast and west of the country. We've got an appeal for all of the aid effort in Syria, less than half, 50 percent funded. So, this is a time where it was already very bad, very complex.

Turkey extends welcome to more than 3 million refugees at the moment, the largest refugee population hosted in the world, which we're very appreciative of. And that situation for the refugees where they have been renting apartments has just got complex again, and now on the move trying to find a warm, safe place to start their life over again.

And what we know of the displaced in Northwestern Syria is many of them have been displaced 20 times already through the 12 years of war that they've had to endure. So, this is really a very serious situation that compounds what they have already had to live through.


BLITZER: Sanjay, how do the first responders who were there on the ground coordinate with the thousands and thousands of -- many of them very injured survivors?

GUPTA: That's a big challenge, Wolf. Again, it goes without saying, but if you think about this, you have to be boots on the ground here. You might not be able to communicate effectively, even a few blocks away.

Sometimes your cell signals and wireless signals, all of that, it may be nonexistent, and you're trying to get, again, from point A to point B, trying to figure out, you have supplies over here, a group of people may need the supplies just a few blocks away. But just simply that coordination can be challenging.

We saw that in Haiti. That was a real problem, where they were getting a lot of supplies that were coming into the ports but it took quite a bit of time before it actually got to the people who needed it most. And, again, that was in a situation where it was terrible obviously but the weather conditions weren't as prohibitive as what we're seeing there on the ground now. BLITZER: Yes, awful situation. Sanjay Gupta, thank you very much. Bob Kitchen, thanks to you, thanks to all of your teams that are working desperately to save lives.

And to find out -- this is to our viewers, to find out how you can help earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria, go to, and impact your world.

Just ahead, we're learning new information right now about the Chinese spy balloon and the intelligence gathering operation now underway as officials comb through the wreckage.



BLITZER: Officials are revealing new information tonight about the Chinese spy balloon shot down just off the Carolina coast over the weekend. This as the U.S. Intelligence Community gets a first look at pieces of the balloon's wreckage.

CNN National Security Correspondent Kylie Atwood has our report.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, my God, they shot it down.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Tonight, new details emerging about the Chinese spy balloon that was shot out of the sky by a missile.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: See the smoke coming from it?

ATWOOD: Its pieces now being recovered at sea and analyzed by the FBI. The debris field off the coast of South Carolina is greater than 15 football fields by 15 football fields.

JAKE SULLIVAN, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: It will take some time, and people, all of us, including myself will have to be patient as we do the recovery and do the exploitation.

ATWOOD: A top U.S. general revealing new insight into the balloon's size and capabilities.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Up to 200 feet tall for the actual balloon. The payload itself, I would categorize that as a jet airliner type of size, probably weighed, you know, in excess of a couple thousand pounds.

ATWOOD: White House officials say the balloon was equipped with a rudder, allowing some maneuverability in the jet stream. China claiming it was a weather balloon taken off course, responded calling the shoot down an overreaction. Furious critiques quickly emerged from Biden's political rivals.

SEN. TOM COTTON (R-AR): The president was paralyzed for an entire week by a balloon. We should have shot this balloon down over the Aleutian Islands. We should have never allowed it to transit the entire Continental United States.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX): I think this entire episode telegraphed weakness to Xi and the Chinese government.

JOE BIDEN, U.S. PRESIDENT: We made it clear to China what we're going to do. They understand our position. We're not going to back off. We did the right thing, and it's not about a question of weaken or strengthen, it's just the reality.

ATWOOD: Biden officials said there have been at least three past instances of Chinese spy balloons crossing into the U.S. airspace. A top U.S. general said today that the threats were not detected in real-time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We did not detect those threats. And that's a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.

ATWOOD: Which might explain why former Trump officials said they were unaware of the incursions. The administration explained that Biden had ordered additional assets to detect Chinese spying efforts.

SULLIVAN: We were also able to go back and look at the historical patterns, and that led us to come to understand that during the Trump administration, as you said, there were multiple instances where the surveillance balloons traversed American airspace and American territory.


ATWOOD (on camera): Now, when it comes to that rescheduled trip to Beijing for the secretary of state, Blinken, there was no new data on the table. A senior Administration official tells me that neither the U.S. nor China have proposed a due date. So, it seems like that's not going to happen anytime soon, but, of course, we'll continue to watch.

And when it comes for what Chinese officials knew about this and when in terms of if President Xi knew this balloon was going to be going over the U.S. while Blinken was planning for this trip or if the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knew as they were talking to the State Department about the trip, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said today that the U.S. is still assessing that and trying to figure out what they knew when.

BLITZER: All right, Kiley, thank you very much, Kylie Atwood at the State Department for us.

Let's take a closer look at the intelligence value officials hope to glean from this balloon. Our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto is joining us right now. He's working his sources.

Jim, by allowing the spy balloon to fly for several days over the United States, was it essentially allowed to complete its mission?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: In short, the Pentagon says no. I spoke to Pentagon officials multiple times over the weekend. First, on the balloon surveillance capability, they say it had a limited surveillance capability and they said they were able to mitigate that via jamming technology.

The U.S. military has extensive jamming capabilities, and they say they utilize those capabilities to block, in effect, the balloon from being able to gather intelligence as it traversed the continental United States. That's a plausible statement.

The U.S. has advanced jamming capabilities. Those capabilities designed to be able to mitigate threats from supersonic aircraft, including supersonic aircraft, this, of course, a slow moving balloon. So, it is plausible that the U.S. used those technologies and that they would have had effect on the surveillance capabilities of an asset like this one.

BLITZER: As you know, China called this an overreaction on the U.S. side.


Do you think there will be retaliation from China?

SCIUTTO: Well, this is an open question here. The Chinese Defense Ministry responded quickly this weekend to protests, issuing what they called a solemn protest to this, but also saying in terms it seemed to be something of a veiled threat that U.S. aircraft, surveillance aircraft cross into Chinese airspace that China would have the right, in effect, to respond in similar means.

Now, I went to the Pentagon following those comments from the Chinese Defense Ministry to ask what their response was, and the Pentagon said two things in effect. One, we do not fly -- the U.S. does not fly into Chinese air space, but, two, that U.S. surveillance flights will continue.

This is the statement from General Patrick Ryder, Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, he's a spokesman for the Pentagon. He said, let's be clear, the PRC surveillance balloon was in U.S. territorial airspace, a violation of our sovereignty. We do not conduct such operations in Chinese airspace, so there is no similar situation. The United States will continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere international law allows, noting that they, of course, take the safety and security of service members seriously.

Now, we should be clear, Wolf, the U.S. does fly a lot of air assets both crewed and uncrewed around Chinese airspace, the Global Hawk among them, the P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft, which I was on in 2015, over the South China Sea when it was warned away by the Chinese Navy. The danger now is that those encounters become more tense and the worry is that someone misreads the intent of those surveillance aircraft or claims that they went into Chinese airspace. That is what we should be watching closely going forward. It's a tense time in the relationship between these two superpowers.

BLITZER: Yes. Very tense indeed and potentially could get more tense in the days, weeks, months and years to come. I did find it intriguing today that the White House stressed the fact that Secretary of State Blinken's visit to China was postponed, not canceled.

SCIUTTO: Exactly.

BLITZER: Their words indeed. All right, Jim Sciutto, thank you very much.

Let's discuss all of this and more with Republican Congressman Chris Stewart of Utah. He's a key member of the House Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.

I know you've said that President Biden should have shot the balloon down the moment it entered U.S. airspace. The Pentagon said the payload attached to the balloon weighed thousands of pounds with an expected debris field of some 15 football fields by 15 football fields. Knowing what you know now, do you still think it should have been shot down immediately as soon as it entered the U.S.?

REP. CHRIS STEWART (R-UT): Yes, Wolf, I think it should have been shot down previous to entering the U.S. and maybe I wasn't clear on that or I am misremembering it. But as you indicated, we have been tracking this thing for days. We tracked it along the Aleutian Islands, and it was apparent, it was very clear the track it would take over Canada and eventually the U.S., and we should have taken action at that point. We could have done so and done so very safely.

And, Wolf, a couple of things that your reporters have said that I would like to comment on, if I could, number one, they say that they were able to jam this. Well, we don't know that at all. We don't know the capabilities of the surveillance and we don't know whether it was data linked with satellites and other things that we just don't have the capability to jam.

So, it was very clear it was coming to the U.S., it was very clear it was an ISR threat, and in my opinion, we should have taken action before rather than let it loiter over our mainland and including very sensitive military sites for three or four days.

BLITZER: But a U.S. general says, says publicly that the delay in shooting down the balloon will be, and I'm quoting now, well worth its value in intelligence collected against China. Is there an advantage to that?

STEWART: Well, I don't think that his point is without merit. There perhaps was some intelligence value that we were able to gather as we monitored this balloon. But I think the larger point isn't some intelligence that was valuable to us, and I doubt, by the way, that it was a breakthrough in any way. The larger point is the politically precarious situation we find ourselves in.

Again, in your reporting before, the question was did President Xi know about this balloon? Look, I don't know this from intelligence, but common sense very clearly indicates, of course, he knew. This was a very provocative act on China's part. They knew that we would know this balloon was there. They knew that it was during the very time that Secretary Blinken was going to be in China. That wasn't just a coincident. They clearly could have launched it at another time. I think they were making a very bold political statement.

And to compare that with some minimal surveillance or other intelligence we may have received, I just think it's a terrible tradeoff. We should have never allowed, either militarily or from an intelligence point of view, but more importantly from a political point of view, we should have never allowed this balloon to enter our airspace and remain there as long as it did.


BLITZER: Congressman Chris Stewart, thanks so much for joining us.

STEWART: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, President Biden is gearing up for his highly anticipated state of the union address tomorrow night. We'll have new details on the case he'll make to the American people. Stay with us. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Tonight, President Biden is offering some hints about his state of the union address on this, the eve of one of the most important speeches this year that he will deliver.


Let's go to our Chief White House Correspondent, Phil Mattingly right now. So, Phil, what are you hearing? What is the president saying?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, the president was holed up with top advisers at Camp David, about four or five hours longer than he expected to be as they worked through this really critical prime time address.

But what White House advisers say, is the president is certainly going to tackle key themes you've heard from him over the course of the last several weeks, themes on the economy, very clear progress, though acknowledging more work to do, foreign policy as well. Not a central focus on the Chinese balloon that we've watched over the course of the last weeks but a broader point about the inflection point he views between the U.S. and China in terms of competition.

As for what the president wanted to telegraph, this is what he said.


BIDEN: Yes, I want to talk to the American people and let them know the state of affairs, what's going on, what I'm looking forward to working on from this point on, what we've done and just have a conversation with the American people.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MATTINGLY: You know, Wolf, that's a critical conversation because when you talk to White House officials, they are optimistic about the path ahead, especially with the economy, their legislative agenda, much of which they enacted in the first two years,

I want to pull up a poll that came out over the weekend from ABC News and The Washington Post that showed more than 60 percent of Americans, 62 percent say they don't believe Biden has accomplished much or little of nothing at this point compared to just 36 percent that think a great deal has been accomplished.

And why that's critical is this moment in time, a primetime address, significant audience to listen to the president roll out all of the details of what he accomplished if the first two years and what that means going forward. But there will also be a key focus on the individual who will be sitting behind him. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, for the first time, a Republican, the House majority, sitting behind the president while he's in office. And there's one critical fight that they certainly will have key differences on, as Speaker McCarthy laid out earlier tonight. Take a listen.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): Now, President Biden wants Congress to raise the debt limit yet again without a single, sensible change to how government spends your hard-earned money, none. Does that sound responsible to you?


MATTINGLY: Now, Wolf, to give you a sense about how the White House was viewing those remarks from the speaker, there's actually a prebuttal statement and a lengthy one at that, reiterating the fact that President Biden has no intent to negotiate over the debt ceiling, something he will lay out in detail, again, during that state of the union address.

However, it will include a component of what White House officials call his unity element of his agenda, where he talks about where he can work across the aisle with Republicans. It's something he's focused on in his first two years, will in the year ahead, but on issues like the debt limit, certain things like entitlements like social security and Medicare. There will be no negotiation and White House has made clear they're willing to have battle when it comes to those issues specifically, Wolf.

BLITZER: Phil Mattingly reporting from the White House, thanks very much.

I want to bring in CNN's Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash, the anchor of CNN State of the Union, and CNN's Audie Cornish, the host of The Assignment with Audie Cornish, the podcast. Guys, thanks very much for joining us.

Dana, let's talk about this very important speech, the state of the union address before the House and the Senate tomorrow night. Millions of Americans will be watching, and it comes as he's gearing up to announce his re-election bid right now. So, what are the stakes for him right now?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: They're very, very high because this is one of those moments, those annual moments where he has such a huge audience. The fact that he has such a steep hill to climb with explaining to Americans basics about what he has done over the past two years is kind of stunning. The poll that Phil just used saying that 62 percent of Americans think that he is not accomplished very much. Another data point in this ABC News poll is that a third of adults say Biden has not made a lot of progress with good jobs in their communities.

There are a lot of things that you could question when it comes to the economy over the past couple of years since he has been in office, job growth is not one of them. And so those are sort of head scratchers, when it comes to what the American people see as what he has done and how much work he has to do to explain that. Never mind the elephant in the room, which is the fact that he's got to show that he's got the stamina.

AUDIE CORNISH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Though it shows there's been so much effective messaging by Republicans against the Biden administration that that message has penetrated this perception that somehow he is insufficient one way or another.

I think the thing I'm going to be looking for is how he tries to mitigate that message, right, what he focuses on in the speech and then how he tries to set up the debt ceiling fight. Charles Schumer in the Senate has said, you know, the side that provokes a showdown, they're the ones who get blamed. And I think there's a little bit of an effort on the Democratic side to have the Republicans be the one to choose brinkmanship and for the public to see it that way.

BASH: Which is really interesting because what Kevin McCarthy, the new Republican speaker, is setting up, he has set up from last week at the White House to his speech tonight on the debt ceiling is he's trying to portray himself as the reasonable one.



BASH: All I want to do is sit down and negotiate and the president won't negotiate over something as simple as cutting spending. There's no place in the federal government to cut spending in order to pay for our debts. So, the brinksmanship is a perfect way to put it the way that they are trying to posture ahead of this.

CORNISH: Because the takeaway from the last time around is Republicans were hurt by some of those debt ceiling fights. The public did see it as something that was their fault. And they are trying to avoid that fate this time around.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting because this whole issue of the debt ceiling, it's a complicated issue. The new speaker will be sitting right behind him as he delivers this speech and we're going to be anxious to see how he reacts as well.

BASH: That's right. It is going to be, I mean, over the -- well, I guess the path last year was the one and only actual state of the union address, and you had the two women behind the president, and both members of his own party, and now you're going to see Kevin McCarthy there for the first time.

And you know what, the optics, yes there is theater, of course there's always these theater, but they do matter. Because you have that kind of posturing that they were just talking about in the debt ceiling, that is playing out across the board on issues that both parties either care about and want to push or care about and want to stop from the other party, and you're going to see that play out.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, I'm wondering if the new speaker will react to the speech that Biden delivers tomorrow night the way the former speaker, Nancy Pelosi, reacted when Trump delivered his speech. And we all remember what she did with the advanced copy that she had. I didn't mean this.

CORNISH: I mean, if you can think back to when former President Obama gave his speech, and someone called out you lie in the middle of it, there's been a degradation of behavior on the part of lawmakers inside the room for the last couple of years, and it sort of undermined, I think, the seriousness or the importance of the speech. And it will be interesting to see how Republicans behave after they felt that their president was treated poorly. What will this look like for Joe Biden?

BLITZER: Audie, thank you very much. Dana, thanks to you as well. We'll all be watching tomorrow night.

And stay with CNN for complete live coverage of President Biden's state of the union address and in-depth analysis. It all begins tomorrow night 8:00 P.M. Eastern.

And just ahead, we'll go live to the scene of a fiery train derailment in Ohio where officials are trying to prevent a truly catastrophic explosion of very dangerous chemicals.



BLITZER: Right now, officials say a controlled release of very hazardous chemicals is underway at the site of a fiery train derailment near the Ohio/Pennsylvania border.

CNN National Correspondent Jason Carroll is joining us live from the scene. He has got an update for us. So, what are you seeing on the ground, Jason?

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT; Well, Wolf, first of all, I just have to tell you that witnessing what this controlled release look like was absolutely incredible and frightening as well. We were standing about a mile and a half away from the site of the explosion, again, controlled explosion. It started at 4:38 P.M. About that time, that's when we heard the first initial loud boom and then saw this incredible amount of smoke start to grow from the ground.

But as ominous as it looked, we then got a statement shortly thereafter from the train company in charge of this controlled release, Norfolk Southern. They released a statement saying that the controlled breach was successful and that, quote, some of the material that burned off was consistent with the models that they had put out.

Now, a little earlier this afternoon, they gave us a walk through, Wolf, of exactly what had happened here. So, basically they had a team of experts that went in. They planted explosive devices on five of these derailed cars. That created holes inside the cars and then that toxic material was able to seep out. They lit that toxic material on fire, which, of course, created that huge controlled plume of smoke. Ohio's governor was here at the scene. He talked a little bit more just about how deadly the plume is.


GOV. MIKE DEWINE (R-OH): The controlled release of the toxic chemicals also has the potential to be deadly if inhaled. Those in the red area, those in the red area are facing grave danger of death if they are still in that area. Those living in the orange area are at risk of severe injury, severe injury including skin burns and serious lung damage.


CARROLL: Wolf, this is why they needed people to evacuate the area. And, once again, this was a controlled release simply because they did not want these trains to explode on their own. If they had, the situation would have been, as they say, catastrophic. You would have had shrapnel over a one-mile area, in addition to an even larger plume of deadly, toxic smoke. Wolf?

BLITZER: So, Jason, what are you hearing? How long could this community actually be affected by this?

CARROLL: Yes. Well, you know, you have the EPA, they're out here. They are monitoring the air quality. And that's the question that a lot of folks are asking, because, remember, they were telling folks you needed to get out of the area for the reasons there that the governor had outlined.

And, again, when you talk about the area of evacuation, this is an area that was one mile in one direction, two miles in another direction that took parts of both Pennsylvania and Ohio. But in terms of how long these residents are going to have to stay away, still waiting to hear the answers on that one, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, well, good luck to the folks there. Jason Carroll, thank you very, very much.


Coming up, we'll go live to Ukraine where forces are locked into a relentless battle against Russia in a key city with a very, very treacherous terrain.


BLITZER: Tonight, Ukraine is digging into its battle against Russia in Bakhmut, even as a top commander says the city has become, quote, an unwinnable fortress.

CNN's senior international correspondent Sam Kiley is following the fighting in the east and south for us. He's joining us from Zaporizhzhia right now.

Sam, give us the latest from the frontlines of this war.

SAM KILEY, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, today, we're, first of all, in Bakhmut, Wolf, where as we've been saying for some weeks now, the situation is becoming evermore violent, evermore critical. The Russian forces have been able to penetrate to the east and parts of the south of the town.


But this is a town that's on a hill. And it has to be approached across open grounds. It's been extremely slow going and very, very costly to the Russians.

I've been speaking to foreign fighters, foreign volunteers there, as well as Ukrainians, and they're saying they are still killing a very large number of Russian troops, but the results are a debate going on within the Ukrainian armed forces about the extent to which we want to bother to continue to hold onto that particular location, given that they've got strength and depth and can withdraw to pre-prepared positions and arguably trap the Russians.

The problem is if the Russians do manage to get into the town, that town itself then becomes a defensive position for them. It becomes harder for the Ukrainians to dislodge them. And all of this coming, Wolf, as there's increasing volume of talk, particularly on the Ukrainian side of a potential Russian spring offensive and a lot of debate going on there about where that may strike, Wolf.

BURNETT: What more, Sam, are you learning about Ukrainian troops training with now Western-supplied battle thanks?

KILEY: Well, the train training program's already underway to train Ukrainians in the United Kingdom on the Challenger II tanks. Very modern, very sophisticated piece of equipment. The less sophisticated, but much more numerous Leopard two thanks, the training program has now already started, also getting underway in Germany.

Now, that is a very important tank, because it is one of the most numerous donation, because it is one of the most numerous tanks in the wider NATO armory. The training on the Abrams tanks that the United States are also donating is somewhere off, because they've got to source those vehicles. But the idea is that the people that are getting that training will get the training on American tanks and then be able to operate with the ones given to Ukraine later on. But they're not the strategic weapons that Zelenskyy, the president

here is asking for. He wants long range missiles. He wants jets, because there have been reports, and take them with a pinch of salt, Wolf, because they come from Ukrainian intelligence. They are suggesting a significant mobilization, perhaps, within Russian territory, perhaps a new wave of mobilizations. But certainly there are reports of troop buildups along a very long front here in the south, as well as the east -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Sam, thank you very much. Sam Kiley reporting.

We'll have more news just ahead, including details of a disturbing plot by a neo-Nazi leader and a Maryland woman to allegedly attack Baltimore's power grid.



BLITZER: Federal authorities are exposing what they say was a racially motivated plot to, quote, completely destroy the city of Baltimore by attacking its power grid.

Brian Todd is working the story for us.

Brian, tell us more about this alleged plot and the two suspects who have now been arrested?

Wolf, this is a neo-Nazi man and a woman he was in the relationship with. An FBI agent on the case says they were not just talking. They were taking steps to carry out their threat of attacking energy facilities.


TODD (voice-over): A chilling neo-Nazi-led plot to attack a major power grid revealed today by authorities in Maryland. They've charged Brandon Russell and Sarah Clendaniel with conspiracy to damage energy facilities surrounding the city of Baltimore.

EREK BARRON, U.S. ATTORNEY FOR MARYLAND: Clendaniel and Russell conspired and took steps to shoot multiple electrical stations in the Baltimore area, aiming to, quote, completely destroy this whole city.

TODD: Court documents say Russell and Clendaniel were in a relationship and corresponded while they were being held in separate prisons. Russell was in jail for possessing bomb making materials. Clendaniel was imprisoned for robbing a convenience store with a large butcher knife.

TOM SOBOCINSKI, FBI SPECIAL AGENT IN CHARGE, BALTIMORE: They had extremist views, and in order to further those views, they hoped that conducting this violent act was going to bring light to them.

TODD: Prosecutors say Brandon Russell founded a neo-Nazi group called the Atomwaffen Division. ILANA KRILL, PROGRAM ON EXTREMISM, THE GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY:

It's one of many domestic extremist groups that focus on neo-Nazi, neo-Fascist principles in order to sow chaos.

TODD: According to court documents, Brandon Russell led a neo-Nazi group in 2017, which planned to attack infrastructure targets in Florida, including a nuclear power plant. More than 100 reports of suspicious activity, vandalism, sabotage, and physical attacks on power facilities were respected in the U.S. in 2022.

Of these, experts warned an increasing number are attempts by domestic violent extremists.

Why target places like this? What does it do for their ideology?

KRILL: White supremacists have targeted the energy sector, because it's so vital to all critical infrastructure systems in order to cause the downfall of society as we know it and eventually build it back up in a more neo-Nazi, fascist society.

TODD: As one white supremacist manifesto puts it, quote, when the lights don't come on, hell breaks loose, making conditions desirable for our race to take back what is ours.

BRIAN HARRELL, FORMER DHS ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR INFRASTRUCTURE PROTECTION: They are intents on destroying critical infrastructure, specifically energy infrastructure across the United States. They are talking kind of behind the scenes within these dark web portals and chat rooms and they're somewhat organized.

TODD: The strategy? Attack the least protected, weakest links, trying to cause a domino effect.

HARRELL: When you remove one substation, but maybe it's multiple substations, you have this collapsing effect on the system.


TODD (on camera): This defendant, Sarah Clendaniel, according to court documents, told a confidential informant that she expected to die of a kidney disease within a few months and wanted to, quote, accomplish something worthwhile before her death.

CNN has been unable to reach the defendants or their lawyers for comments on these charges -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us, Brian, thank you very, very much.

And to our viewers, thanks very much for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM. You can always follow me on Twitter and Instagram @WolfBlitzer. You can always tweet the show @CNNSitRoom.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.