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Russians Close To Encircling Bakhmut Amid Fears It May Fall Soon; Trump, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) Draw Sharp Contrasts For Potential 2024 Showdown; New Airline Scares Put U.S. Aviation Safety In The Spotlight; FBI Offers $50,000 Reward For Return Of Americans Kidnapped In Mexico And Arrest Of Those Involved. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired March 06, 2023 - 18:00   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, fighting rages in Eastern Ukraine as Russian forces are close to encircling Bakhmut. With the battered city at risk of falling, the U.S. is downplaying the strategic significance if Russia wins this round of the war.

Also tonight, Republicans are presented with the sharpest contrast yet between Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. We're breaking down dueling speeches by the former president and the current Florida governor as they gear up for a potential 2024 primary showdown.

And a series of new airline scares is raising serious questions about aviation safety here in the United States. From a bird strike that caused engine failure and smoke in the cabin to the wings of two commercial jets clipping on the runway, why are we seeing so many close calls?

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

We begin in the frontlines of Eastern Ukraine right now, where the battle for Bakhmut is growing more urgent by the hour. Russian fighters making gains as they move to surround the city.

CNN's Alex Marquardt is joining us live from the war zone right now. Alex, are the Russians on the verge of their first notable battlefield win in many months?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, they certainly may well be, Wolf. They are certainly getting closer, and we are starting to hear U.S. and Ukrainian officials start to downplay the potential of a Russian victory. But we are also hearing from President Zelenskyy saying they are not throwing in the towel. He met with top generals tonight. He says that they recommended that they continue to defend Bakhmut, that they reinforce, and he says that's what they're going to continue to do.

In the meantime, Wolf, we are seeing Russian forces led by the Wagner Mercenary Group. They continue to make progress. They have made advances in encircling the city to the north and to the south. As they are trying to encircle it, they are pushing in also from the east.

We saw a video released earlier today by Wagner that showed them in Eastern Bakhmut removing the Ukrainian flag from a Ukrainian monument, replacing it with a Wagner flag, not the Russian flag, and raising their guns. So, they are pushing into and around the city.

We have spent a lot of time around that city in recent days, Wolf, including on the main supply route going into Bakhmut. It has been attacked repeatedly. A bridge was blown out. There has been lots of Ukrainian military traffic. Evacuation groups are having a hard time getting people out. It is getting very, very hard for Ukrainian military forces to go in and out of that city, Wolf.

BLITZER: Also tonight, I understand, Alex, that there is outrage, understandable outrage in Ukraine right now, after the alleged execution of a Ukrainian POW. What more are you learning and hearing about this?

MARQUARDT: Well, profound fury across Ukraine, Wolf. This is a video that has spread widely of a Ukrainian soldier seemingly being killed by Russian soldiers. His name has not been released officially. We don't know the location, but Ukrainian officials say that this is more evidence of Russian war crimes.

Now, we are going to play this video. It has been edited, but we have to warn our viewers that they may find it disturbing. Take a look.

So, just horrific there, taking a drag on his cigarette, saying glory to Ukraine, and then being gunned down, seeing all kinds of responses on social media. Everyone is posting about it. I was looking at a Ukrainian colleague's Facebook page. That's all anyone is talking about. We have heard from Ukrainian officials. We've heard from President Zelenskyy, who is vowing to track down the murderers. President Zelenskyy also saying that Ukraine should respond to words in unity with glory to heroes, glory to Ukraine. Those are Ukraine's two main patriotic slogans. Wolf?

BLITZER: Alex Marquardt in Eastern Ukraine for us, in the war zone, stay safe, Alex. Thank you very much. We'll be back to you in just a moment.


Also tonight, a new sign that the United States may be moving closer to giving Ukraine the F-16 fighter jets President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been pleading for.

Let's go to our Pentagon Correspondent Oren Liebermann. What are you learning, Oren?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, two Ukrainian pilots are in the U.S., in Tucson, Arizona, right now going through an evaluation or an assessment of their flying abilities and their flying skills to find out how long it would take them to train on western modern fighter jets, such as F-16s, this according to three sources who were briefed on the matter. The two pilots have been here for a number of days. They're not going through any actual flying. This is in simulators, and those simulators are capable of simulating different U.S. fighter jets, including F- 16s. One U.S. military official called this a familiarization event with Ukrainian fighter pilots and U.S. fighter pilots.

Two other U.S. officials tell us that it's the 162nd Fighter Wing of the Arizona Air National Guard that's doing this sort of program or this exchange, if you will, this evaluation, and that's significant because the 162nd Fighter Wing is in charge of training U.S. allies on F-16s in particular. And that's why there is this focus again on F-16s that, as you rightly point out, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly requested.

Now, the Pentagon insists there is no shift in the position on F-16s. They're trying to portray this as something more along the lines of something routine, an exchange between a foreign partner and the United States. But, clearly, there is a signal here and Ukraine very much still interested in this. And even if they had a policy of the DOD said the F-16s are not the priority right now, Wolf, that door remains open.

BLITZER: It certainly seems to be the case. Oren Liebermann at the Pentagon, thank you very much.

Let's bring back Alex Marquardt. He's joining us once again from Eastern Ukraine along with our Military Analyst, retired Major General James Spider Marks and CNN Contributor on Russian Affairs Jill Dougherty.

General, based on what you're seeing right now, is there still hope for Ukraine to keep the Bakhmut area, and is defending the city a good use, from your opinion, of Ukrainian resources at this very, very sensitive point?

MAJ. GEN. JAMES SPIDER MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Wolf, two great questions. Certainly, the Ukrainians have the ability, if they wanted to secure Bakhmut, they could pour more resources in there to ensure that. But it goes to your second question, which is what is the strategic advantage? And, frankly, Bakhmut is not a strategic piece of key terrain for the Ukrainians. And it really kind of baffles why the Ukrainians have chosen this place, this location to engage with the Russians.

The Russians have all along indicated that they want to take this piece of terrain, again, for no particular advantage. But this is where you have these two titans that are engaging. My view is the Ukrainians at this point would be wise to give it up, although they have the advantage in terms of the losses. The Russians have incurred far greater losses than the Ukrainians, probably a ratio of 5-1.

But I think the Ukrainians would be wise to give it up, let the Russians move in, and then what you want to do, the Ukrainians should be able to attack a place where the enemy is not ready and where he is weakened right now. It might be a re-engagement in this area from a different angle. But I think the Ukrainians have chosen inappropriately to engage here. So, I don't think it's a strategic loss if they go.

BLITZER: You know, Jill, as you know, U.S. and Ukrainian officials, at least for now, they're downplaying the strategic importance of Bakhmut. But how big of a symbolic victory would this be for Putin and would Russia be able to maintain control?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR, RUSSIAN AFFAIRS: Well, I think domestically in Russia, for Putin, it would be important, because, after all, a lot of the territory that they took has been taken back by Ukraine. So, it would be a win for Putin, score points at home.

But I think that point you're making there about holding it is really the question. I mean, the Ukrainians are quite good at even if a place, let's say, is controlled by the Russians, Ukrainians are very good at going at supply lines and command and control. And so they could make life miserable for some of the Russians even if they did hold that.

But, Wolf, going back to that video, that Ukrainian soldier, I think it's really sad, and I've talked with a diplomatic source about this to see that the people who are being killed in Ukraine are some of the best and the brightest, and those big losses by the Russians are people who are oftentimes, you know, coming from prisons, taken into service.

BLITZER: You know, Alex, you're there on the ground for us. If Bakhmut falls, would this mark, from your perspective of what you're hearing, a significant shift in this war?


MARQUARDT: It doesn't look like for all the reasons the general is just listing that this would be a significant strategic win for the Russians, but as Jill was just saying, they would claim this as a symbolic victory.

But I have been speaking with soldiers, Wolf, who said that we've been fighting on this frontline, we've been fighting for Bakhmut for months. We have to hold on to it. We have spent so much. We've lost so many men, so much blood has been spilled, that this is something we need to win. They're afraid that Bakhmut could be used as a launching off-point for further endeavors by Russia deeper into Eastern Ukraine.

But Ukraine certainly downplaying this, already we heard from a top Zelenskyy aide saying they have achieved their goals 1,000 percent because of how much they have degraded the Russian military around Bakhmut. Wolf?

BLITZER: Alex Marquardt, Jill Dougherty, Spider Marks, guys, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, dueling speeches from former President Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis could be a preview of the fight for the GOP presidential nomination.

Plus, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia joins me in THE SITUATION ROOM. We have a lot to discuss. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are taking veiled swipes at one another as the race for the Republican presidential nomination heats up.


This as other potential GOP hopefuls edge closer to campaigns of their own.

CNN's Kristen Holmes has the latest.


KRISTEN HOLMES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis previewing a 2024 primary showdown.

DONALD TRUMP, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: For those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution. I am your retribution.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): So, in Florida, we say very clearly we will never, ever surrender to the woke mob. Our state is where woke goes to die.

HOLMES: In a grievance-laden speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump blasted the Republican establishment --

TRUMP: We are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove and Jeb Bush.

HOLMES: -- on his way to winning a resounding victory in the conference's unscientific straw poll, demonstrating the former president's enduring support with some of the party's base. While not naming DeSantis, Trump taking aim at his potential rival's past support for reforming entitlement programs.

TRUMP: We're not going back to people that want to destroy our great social security system, even some in our own party. I wonder who that might be.

DESANTIS: Hello, California.

HOLMES: Speaking at the Reagan Library in California, DeSantis seeming to jab at the tumult of the Trump White House years.

DESANTIS: In four years, you didn't see our administration leaking like a sieve. You didn't see a lot of drama or palace intrigue. What you saw was surgical precision, execution, day after day after day.

HOLMES: The dueling speeches foreshadowing an expected 2024 coalition, with both Trump and DeSantis set to visit Iowa in the next week. While Trump remains a clear front-runner, he is also facing fresh challenges, including ongoing investigations to his handling of documents and his role in the attack on the U.S. Capitol. The former president telling reporters this weekend he would not exit the race even if he is indicted.

This as the 2024 field takes shape with some hopefuls backing away, worried a crowded contest could benefit Trump.

FMR. GOV. LARRY HOGAN (R-MD): I didn't want to have a pileup of a bunch of people fighting.

The more of them you have, the last chance you have for somebody rising up.

HOLMES: But not all 2024 contenders sharing that view, including former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchison, who was weighing a bid.

FMR. GOV. ASA HUTCHINSON (R-AR): I actually think that more voices right now in opposition or providing an alternative to Donald Trump is the best thing and the right direction.


HOLMES (on camera): And, Wolf, we are still very early in this 2024 primary, and it's expected to be a fairly crowded Republican field. But I am told that Donald Trump and his team remain laser-focused on Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. They have been looking into his background, his wife's background. They've been watching old debate clips. They have essentially been talking to former allies, and not to mention that some of DeSantis' former staffers and advisers actually worked for Trump and for the Trump super PAC now. So, this is all setting up what's expected to be a very ugly and very personal battle between these two men.

BLITZER: It certainly will be lively. All right, Kristen Holmes, thank you very much.

Let's get some analysis from our Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash and CNN Political Analyst Maggie Haberman. Dana, what do these dueling speeches tell you about the clearly deepening divide inside the Republican Party and what this might mean for the 2024 election?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what's interesting about these two contenders, one, DeSantis, a potential contender, he hasn't formally announced, is that it doesn't seem as though those two really illustrate what is a deep divide. It's not as if they're totally taking from the same pool of voters, but similar.

What DeSantis is clearly trying to do is to appeal to Trump voters who are kind of done with the chaos, done with the legal troubles, done with all of the tumult that we saw over four years in the Trump years and definitely since then. So, the two of them are battling kind of for similar voters that happen to make up, at least right now, the large part of the Republican primary electorate.

And then you have the Asa Hutchinsons, the Chris Sununus, the Chris Christies, the other potentials who might have been kind of in a similar lane to Larry Hogan, and the question is -- and even Nikki Haley. The question is whether there is enough of an electorate there to support something that shows the divide.

BLITZER: You know, Maggie, it's interesting that Trump so far is avoiding criticizing DeSantis by name. Why is that, and should we expect the overt jabs to start flying soon?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I would say he's criticizing him by name when he calls him Ron DeSanctimonious or Ron DeSanctis, which we've seen him do on his social media feed, and he's been road testing other nicknames, although he claims otherwise falsely.


In general, I think that he is trying not to elevate him. I think he's trying not to put too much of a face on him, Wolf, because he is somebody, DeSantis, who not every Trump voter knows, who not everybody is familiar with. And I think that he wants to keep him, you know, sort of at a remove.

I expect that is going to change. And, remember, we are looking at a 90-day period where we're going to see a lot of Ron DeSantis because he's doing this book tour, or some of him anyway, and then we are going to know exactly how many other people are jumping into this field. So, a lot could change.

BLITZER: Dana, is anything including various legal issues, for example, going to slow the former president's momentum right now? He has said he would not leave the race even if he is indicted.

BASH: Well, if you define momentum as the support he has from voters, you know, TBD, it could. If you define momentum as his desire to run for president, there's no indication right now that the answer is yes, that his own personal momentum or his fervor for running isn't going to change.

In fact, Maggie can likely answer this better than I. But the more in trouble he is, the more likely he is to keep his political situation afloat because he believes it benefits him not only legally but politically, that the two actually oddly, only for someone like him would I say this, kind of help one another in his various quests.

BLITZER: Yes. Let me let Maggie weigh in on this point. Go ahead, Maggie.

HABERMAN: Sure. Look, I certainly think he's going to use, you know, the political -- excuse me, the legal cases that he may be facing in the coming months as a cudgel in his campaign. I don't know how successful that's going to be. There's, on the one hand, a real danger about it because we've already seen the effect that Donald Trump can have on his supporters with his words and his claims that he is being, quote/unquote, mistreated in some way or being, you know, denied his due or dealt with unfairly, and that was January 6th, 2021, at the Capitol.

On the other hand, we saw last year after the raid at Mar-a-Lago, after the FBI's search of his home and private club, Republicans rallied briefly, and then the more facts came out, it started to erode, the support for him. So, we'll see what happens.

BLITZER: We shall see indeed. All right, Maggie Haberman, Dana Bash, guys thank you very, very much.

Coming up, a new twist in a controversy dividing President Biden and fellow Democrats as the Washington, D.C. City Council withdraws a local crime bill just ahead of a U.S. Senate vote to block it. I'll get reaction from an influential Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin.



BLITZER: Here in Washington, D.C., a bill to update the city's criminal code was just withdrawn. The measure getting national attention in part because of the rift it caused between President Biden and some of his fellow Democrats.

CNN Congressional Correspondent Jessica Dean is up on Capitol Hill working the story for us. So, Jessica, where do things stand now on the D.C. crime bill?

JESSICA DEAN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just to give everyone kind of a state of play right now, remember, this crime bill had to come to the House and then the Senate to get approved. And in this case the House wanted to rescind this crime bill that Mayor Bowser here in D.C. had actually vetoed. It went back to the city council and they were able to override her veto.

So, then it was going to head to the Senate, where it became abundantly clear that a lot of Democrats plan to also vote to overturn this bill. They, remember, have been attacked by Republicans for being soft on crime. And it wasn't just all moderate Democrats. It became kind of a wide swath of Senate Democrats.

So, where things stand today is that now we know the D.C. City Council has withdrawn this bill. They say now that makes this just a messaging vote, but there're some questions about if that's actually right or what will happen when the Senate does vote on Wednesday.

And we heard from Majority Leader Chuck Schumer just a little bit ago. He said they do intend to vote on this bill on Wednesday and that they will go forward with this. And, again, the president, President Joe Biden, saying that he will not veto it. So, that would mean that this bill would be rescinded, and that it would override the D.C. City Council.

And there're a lot of questions too, I think, probably for people watching at home about what exactly this bill does. And just to give people a couple of notes on it, it would essentially eliminate mandatory sentences for some crimes. It would also reduce the sentences for things like robberies and carjacking. So, it also makes it easier to get a jury trial for some misdemeanors, and there's concerns that that could clog up the local judicial system. So, that's where things stand today. Again, the House Democrats, though, very upset about this, a lot of house Democrats, 173 of them voting against this, which is in favor of the crime bill, if that makes sense. And they were blindsided, they said, by the president saying he wouldn't support this, and also the D.C. City Council also saying they were blindsided. We've seen this intraparty fighting over the position on this. But, again, we do expect that vote on Wednesday. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Jessica Dean, thank you very much.

And joining me now, an influential member of the United States Senate, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Senator, thank you so much for joining us. And as we just heard, the D.C. City Council has withdrawn the crime bill, but the Senate is still set to vote on it this week.


Do you still intend to vote to reject it?

SEN. JOE MANCHIN (D-WV): Oh, absolutely. I was the first Democrat on the Senate side to just come out openly against that, and I've always said, Wolf, my test has been if I can go home and explain it, then I can vote for it. If I can't explain it, then I'll vote against it.

I can explain not allowing people anywhere in this country to commit violent crimes and walk away with reduced sentence or no sentence, whatsoever. It just -- basically what it does is just you're supporting people to continue making these crimes of carjacking, armed robbery, felonies, it's unbelievable. And crime is running rampant all over the country.

So, I had no problem at all thinking about is this the right thing. It was the right thing to say the City Council did wrong. I'm glad to hear they repealed that now, and hopefully people will take crime more seriously. And, basically, what is doing to the public, wherever you may leave, whether it's in West Virginia or here in D.C., you know, violent crime is a horrific thing to have to deal with and have people subjected to that. And you can't have these people walking away with no punishment, whatsoever.

BLITZER: So, what does this bill reveal to you, Senator, about the divisions in your own Democratic Party when it comes to fighting crime?

MANCHIN: Well, you know, if they can go home and explain what they're explaining, I think their people support that or either they're not talking to the people and representing them the way they need to be represented.

Nobody wants to face this crime wave that's going on across the country, Democrat or Republicans. And if they're just listening to political pundits and whether it be either party, being for and against something, then do your own thing. Don't pay attention to the party, from the leaderships or parties or anything else, we got to stick together and do this and that. The bottom line, this makes no sense. It makes no sense when a person carjacks or has an armed robbery, that you're going to reduce the minimum guidelines or basically just slap them on the wrist. That you think that's going to deter them? I don't think so. So, people should have enough guts to vote their own vote.

BLITZER: But very quickly, do you think the hundreds of thousands of people who live and work in the District of Columbia deserve the right to determine their own laws?

MANCHIN: Well, they determined they made a mistake and repealed it, so God Bless them. I'm glad to think that they've come to their sentences.

BLITZER: But do they have a right to determine what their laws should be without Congress interfering?

MANCHIN: Well, it's a whole different category here in D.C. The bottom line is the District of Columbia, the nation's capital is here, so it affects us all. So, basically, we are involved. And I think we will be. But for most instances, they do, do their own thing, and we don't intervene or interfere. But when you have something as egregious as this and do nothing, I think that was absolutely ridiculous thinking we were going to sit back and do nothing while you're allowing these violent criminals that are committing these horrible crimes walk free or reduced sentences with no punishment.

BLITZER: All right. Let's move on and talk about the debt limit while I have you, Senator. As you know, the debt limit fight will intensify this week as the president releases his own budget proposals. You're urging your party to work with Republicans on a debt limit plan. Are Democrats going to need to agree to spending cuts, and what specifically would you cut?

MANCHIN: Well, we're not talking about any cuts whatsoever or identifying cuts. What we're talking about, when we're talking about, can we all just agree that we've accumulated more debt in the last ten years than any time in history of our great country? How did it happen? How did it grow so rapidly, almost doubled in a period of ten years what we're spending annually? Something has to be done.

We have to recognize how did we add so much mandatory spending. How did we add so much discretionary spending? Why do we keep adding to it? Can we not see what happened? We know with the COVID, there had to be adjustments to keep us from falling into financial crisis as we were facing a health crisis, Wolf. But on the bottom line, it's over.

Can't we go back to more normal, if you will, and look at where all the additional expense and see if that can be removed? I just want to sit down and have a conversation. We have got to raise the debt ceiling. It should not be held hostage.

But if we can't talk about this out of control debt that we have right now, what it's doing to inflation, then God help us, because the trajectory right now from CBO, the Congressional Budget Office, is if we stay on the path we're on, then by 2050 -- and that's not too far from now -- by 2050, we'll have $120 trillion of debt. We'll be spending $5 trillion a year just on interest if we do nothing. So, that's not an option, not an option at all.

BLITZER: I know you were asked over the weekend, Senator, if you would endorse Joe Biden if he runs for re-election, and you said you wanted to see who all the players are and that you won't be making an announcement until the end of the year. That didn't sound like a yes to me. Why not?

MANCHIN: Well, basically, I think it's very clear. I'm not going to make a political decision for myself until the end of the year. There's so much work to be done now. You just mentioned --

BLITZER: Sorry to interrupt for a moment. So, you're thinking of challenging him for the Democratic presidential nomination?


MANCHIN: I'm basically saying that I will not make a political decision until the end of the year, any way and anything you want. I haven't taken anything off the table, I haven't put anything on the table. I'm concerned about my country. I have one year here still yet to do a job. We've got two years before the election, and in Marion County (ph), the only place I know starts two years in advance on election and just beats the living pulp out of people.

Let's do our work. Let's make sure that we address the debt we have. Let's make sure we address the crisis on the border. Let's make sure that the geopolitical unrest that we have, that we can help support our allies, and let's make sure that we have energy security. These are things we have to work on.

BLITZER: But very quickly, Senator, are you leaving the door open to a possible run for the Democratic presidential nomination?

MANCHIN: I'll make no decisions on anything until the end of the year. That's all I can say, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right.

MANCHIN: I'm not even thinking about politics. I'm thinking about doing my job.

BLITZER: Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, thanks as usual for joining us.

MANCHIN: Thank you, Wolf. Nice to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And just ahead, terrifying video captures a commercial airliner filling with smoke after a bird strike. We'll have details on the incident and a closer look at the recent string of aviation scares.

Plus, another Norfolk Southern train derails in Ohio. We'll have a live report from the scene of the crash.



BLITZER: Tonight, another terrifying incident aboard a commercial airliner is putting the spotlight on aviation safety after a string of near disasters.

Brian Todd is working the story for us. So, Brian, what are the experts saying about this very troubling trend?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, with the recent incidents of turbulence, experts say that could be a result of weather patterns in the winter and features of the jet stream. But there was another frightening incident just yesterday that was simply random bad luck.


TODD (voice over): Passengers scream. Smoke fills the cabin aboard a Southwestern Airlines flight from Havana to Ft. Lauderdale. Southwest says the plane experienced bird strikes shortly after takeoff yesterday. Smoke seen here coming out of one of the engines. The plane forced to return to Havana, where passengers had to evacuate.

CHRIS DEVLIN, PASSENGER ON SOUTHWEST AIRLINES FLIGHT: Some people were on the wing. Some people jumped down the slides.

JANET ABBOTT, PASSENGER ON SOUTHWEST AIRLINES FLIGHT: It was really hard to know how long we were going to survive trying to breathe on that.

TODD: The latest in a recent series of scares in the sky. On Friday, a private business jet traveling from New Hampshire to Northern Virginia experienced severe turbulence. A woman on board killed. The plane had to divert to Bradley International Airport in Connecticut.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Requesting medical assistance on the runway.

TODD: That came just a couple of days after a Lufthansa jumbo jet flying from Austin, Texas, to Frankfurt, Germany, experienced turbulence so serious that the plane had to divert to Washington Dulles Airport and seven people were taken to the hospital. Passengers said the plane fell at least 1,000 feet with one telling CNN it was, quote, like unexpectedly free falling for five seconds off the top of a roller coaster. Experts say in those harrowing moments, flight attendants are in serious danger.

PETER GOELZ, FORMER NTSB MANAGING DIRECTOR: The carts that they're moving can weigh in excess of 300 pounds, and you hit some clear-air turbulence, that cart hits the ceiling, you know, the roof of the aircraft, it can kill people.

TODD: And analysts have this warning for passengers.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: When you're sitting in your seat in an airliner or any aircraft, wear that seat belt because it is pretty unpredictable. TODD: In December, at least 25 people were injured, many of them taken to emergency rooms, after a Hawaiian Airlines flight encountered severe turbulence. Why so many incidents of turbulence recently?

GOELZ: It's winter. That's when clear-air turbulence in particular tends to rear up. But, secondly, scientists are looking at whether it's the change in the jet streams that are being brought about by climate change.

TODD: And more close calls on the ground. The wing of one United Airlines plane struck the tail of another as it was pushing back from the gate today at Boston Logan Airport. This incident and more runway incursions recently, experts say, are indications of an overloaded system.

O'BRIEN: With the limitations of concrete, the limitations of the runway and taxiways absolutely stressed to the max, it's actually a wonder these things don't happen more often.


TODD (on camera): And we have other new information, this one not related to weather but another frightening incident in the air today. According to authorities, a man traveling on a United Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Boston Logan Airport was arrested upon landing for attacking the flight crew.

He first tried to open one of the emergency doors, according to investigators, and then allegedly stabbed a member of the flight crew three times with a broken-off spoon. He faces multiple charges. He apparently told investigators, Wolf, that he had some kind of ideations that the flight crew were trying to kill him. Again, this not related to weather obviously but another very frightening incident in the skies. That happened just today.

BLITZER: Yes, scary stuff. Brian Todd, thank you very much.

Let's go to Ohio right now where yet another Norfolk Southern train derailment is raising very serious concerns about rail safety here in the United States.

CNN's Jason Carroll is joining us right now from Springfield, Ohio, with the latest. What more are we learning, Jason, about this latest train derailment in Ohio?

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, NTSB investigators are here on the ground at last check. They've been meeting with both state and local officials as well as train officials here on the ground trying to gather as much information as possible.

Here at the scene, I can tell you, you can look behind me, you can still see some of the railcars still on their side, NTSB investigators still in the process of gathering these cars, setting them right and moving them out of the area.

We can tell you that this is a derailment that occurred, again, on Saturday at about 5:00.


Cell phone camera video captured what happened in those moments as the cars started to careen off the tracks. Twenty-eight of 212 cars derailed. State officials say that there was no release of any chemicals due to that derailment. But, you know, this is something that people here in Ohio are paying close attention to, given this is the second derailment that has happened within a month. That people in East Palestine still recovering from what happened there. They are still in the process of trying to get their lives back together.

Some of them saying they still don't trust whether or not the air, the water, and the soil is safe. The cleanup efforts there are still under way in terms of what's happening here, now trying to determine the cause of this most recent derailment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yeah. Awful situation.

All right. Jason Carroll, thank you very much.

Just ahead, did a case of mistaken identity lead to the assault and kidnapping of four American citizens now missing in Mexico? We're going to tell you what we're learning from U.S. officials right after a quick break.



BLITZER: Right now, we're following the violent backlash against plans for a sweeping police training facility in Atlanta that opponents are calling Cop City.

CNN's Ryan Young reports on new arrests at the site and why authorities are pursuing terrorism charges.


RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight, at least 23 people are facing domestic terrorism charges after an attack at the site of a proposed police and fire training center in Atlanta.

CHIEF DARIN SCHIERBAUM, ATLANTA POLICE: This wasn't about a public safety training center. This was about anarchy. And this was about the attempt to destabilize.

YOUNG: Police surveillance video shows violent protesters dressed in black throwing rocks and bricks and setting construction vehicles on fire outside what opponents call cop city. Police say nearly all those arrested are from out of state, and now face felony charges.

KAMAU FRANKLIN, ACTIVIST: I think it was an overreaction to the destruction of property and I think this is the very reason why we don't want Cop City built.

SCHIERBAUM: When you throw Molotov cocktails, large rocks, a number of items at officers, your only intent is to harm.

YOUNG: Sunday night's violence unfolded why unorganized concert is being held, part of what organizers call a weeklong mass mobilization a protest against the center.

The introduction of the $90 million training facility has been controversial, blindsiding residents who say they were left out of the largely secretive development process. Police have launched at least two clearing operations at the site. One in January where a protester was shot and killed by police.

FRANKLIN: It is the police that have unleashed violence on Black and Brown communities that have led to the movement against police violence which actually led to Atlanta itself attempting to build this militarized police center.

YOUNG: Activists claim the facility will cultivate police militarization and brutality.

MATTHEW JOHNSON, ACTIVIST: If you need to know what they're going to use the police training facility for, they just showed you, right? And we're supposed to believe that somehow now they're going to start prioritizing de-escalation? And those circumstances are extremely questionable.

YOUNG: The location of the 85-acre training center is also the focus of an environmental fight, where forest defenders have set up camp. The city is committed to replace injuries and dedicating more than 200 acres as protected green space.

The mayor of Atlanta has defended the center and its mission.

MAYOR ANDRE DICKENS (D), ATLANTA: This training needs space, and that's exactly what this training center is going to offer.


YOUNG (on camera): Wolf, you can see some of the destruction that was left behind. The burned-out trailer, the burned-out equipment that was here, that's where some of these protesters were gathering and they gathered some of these rocks. Now, just in the last 30 minutes or so, we got new video from the Atlanta police department. We're going to show it to you. You can see en masse on thermal imaging as these protesters were gathering and walking towards some of these officers.

I've been talking to some of my sources at the police department who were here last night who were concerned about the fireworks that were being fired towards some of the officers' faces. They say this turned very violent very quickly.

And you see the numbers, these were people also carrying shields so they came prepared. And these are some of the folks who were arrested. We're told most of them from out of town.

BLITZER: Ryan Young reporting for us, thank you very much, Ryan. Coming up, we're going to tell you what we're learning about the

circumstances surrounding the kidnapping and the disappearance of four American citizens in Mexico.



BLITZER: Right now, four American citizens are missing in Mexico after being assaulted and kidnapped at gunpoint.

CNN security correspondent Josh Campbell is tracking the story for us. Josh, it appears these Americans may have been targeted by mistake.

What are you hearing from your sources?

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, Wolf, this appears to be a tragic, tragic case of mistaken identity. A source familiar with the investigation tells me that investigators believe this group of Americans were fired upon in Mexico by a cartel that mistook them for Haitian drug smugglers.

Now, as to why these Americans were in Mexico, a source tells me that they were there to obtain some type of medical procedure. That information was corroborated by the president of Mexico who said that he believed that they were there for medical purposes. Of course, it's not uncommon for Americans and Canadians to go down to Mexico for low- cost prescription drugs in order to obtain medical services.

So this is truly frightening to think that they were there and fired upon mistakenly. I want to walk you through this video that we have. This is graphic. This was according to a source in the aftermath of this incident. What you see is armed men loading people into the bed of this truck. CNN can't confirm that these individuals were in fact those Americans. But you can see just how frightening that is. A woman there being shoved into the back of the vehicle. There were people who were also didn't appear to be moving who were lifted and put into that vehicle as well.

At this hour, the FBI is working with Mexican authorities to try to find these Americans. At this point there is a $50,000 reward leading to their rescue and to the identification of their captors, Wolf.

BLITZER: I know, Josh, you worked numerous global kidnapping investigation when you served in the FBI. Is this truly a race against time to find these Americans?

CAMPBELL: It is just that. When you're working an investigation as an FBI agent, a kidnapping, the first question you ask yourself is are the attackers or the kidnappers prone to violence. We're past that. We know according to the FBI that the moment these Americans went into Mexico, they were fired upon by this cartel group. So, this is very frightening to know that these captors have already shown their willingness to inflict harm.

Of course, the question is, when it come down to money, you know, what type of negotiations will there be. But this is certainly frightening as they work to try to find these Americans, Wolf.

BLITZER: Certainly is. Josh Campbell, thank you very much.

And to our viewers, thanks for watching.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.