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NTSB: No Problems with Train Brakes; Two Causes Behind Most Train Wrecks; Interview with Earl Weener; Obamacare Website Finally Fixed?; Will Obamacare Make Americans Healthier?; Biden's Sensitive Mission to Asia; American Detained in North Korea Coerced?; Syria's Front Lines; Trapped 100 Feet Underwater for Nearly Three Days

Aired December 2, 2013 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM": John, thanks very much. Happening now, breaking news, deadly speed. Investigators have just revealed that the train that crashed in New York City was traveling almost three times faster than it should have been but why? There's an urgent search for answers. We are going to talk to the person leading the investigation.

Coerced confession, an elderly American veteran detained in North Korea apologizing for alleged killings and crimes during the Korean war. Is this real or is it simply propaganda?

And underwater miracle -- a man spends two days trapped in a sunken boat and lives to tell about it.

How did he survive?

I'm Wolf Blitzer.


We're following breaking news in the investigation of that train derailment in New York that killed four people and injured dozens. The National Transportation Safety Board has just revealed the Metro North train was traveling at 82 miles an hour when it derailed. The speed limit for that stretch of track in that curve, 30 miles an hour.

We have new video of the wreck just in from the NTSB. And you can see the difficult operation underway at the crash site right now. Crews are working to turn upright the train cars that flipped and remove them, along with other cars that derailed. You can see from the air what a massive operation investigators are now facing.

CNN national correspondent, Jason Carroll, is in Yonkers, New York, where the NTSB has just briefed the news media -- Jason, tell our viewers what the investigators said.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, a lot of information coming out of this.

First, we should tell you that according to the data recorders that were recovered from the trains, first of all, the track seemed to check out OK. The signaling system seemed to be checking out, as well.

What is most disturbing to officials here is the speed at which the train was traveling, 82 miles an hour, going into that type curve. Also, the data recorder revealing that six seconds before the train came to a stop, the throttle was released. Five seconds before the train came to a stop, the brakes were applied -- simply not enough time to stop those trains from derailing.


EARL WEENER, NTSB BOARD MEMBER: The train was traveling at approximately 82 miles per hour as it went into a 30 mile an hour curve.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D), NEW YORK: Six seconds from 80 miles an hour to zero is amazingly fast -- troublingly, dangerously fast -- and shows that something -- something was very, very wrong.


CARROLL: And, Wolf, as you were saying, the speed should have been reduced to 30 miles an hour or so before heading into that tight curve. It is still too early to tell if this was mechanical error or if this was human error. The locomotive engineer, identified by the union as William Rockefeller, Jr.. Is a 20 year veteran. No disciplinary actions to speak of so far.

Once again, it could take months, though, before we have a final cause as to what caused these trains to derail -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jason Carroll with the latest from Yonkers, just outside New York.

Thank you.

This is the latest in a series of deadly train wrecks. And for some of the worst, investigators didn't have to probe very far to find the cause.

CNN's Tom Foreman is working this part of the story for us -- Tom, what are you finding out?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, early reports about possible causes for this train crash in the Bronx raised the specter of twin problems, as Jason alluded to there, which can combine to produce horrific results on railways -- human error and/or equipment failures.


FOREMAN (voice-over): This stunning video of a passenger train crash in Spain last summer becomes even more so when you hear what authorities have found. Spanish officials now indicate the train was racing at well over 100 miles an hour -- more than twice the posted limit. Seventy-nine people died when it flew off the tracks and 170 others were injured. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everyone was just covered in their own blood, and, occasionally, the blood of others. It was gruesome, to say the least.

FOREMAN: But Spanish authorities are also investigating whether the train company should have installed better safety systems to compensate for an engineer running too fast. After all, that same month in Canada, at least 42 people were killed when officials say a series of human errors sent a freight train full of oil barreling into a town, where it crashed and exploded.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Another big bang came out. And I see the balls of fire just at my back going all across the street from the Jianxu Farmacia (ph). And I started running, you know?

FOREMAN: On it goes. In Connecticut last May, a train derailed and collided with another, injuring more than 70 people.

In Washington, DC in 2009, a subway train plowed into another, killing nine people and injuring dozens.

And in California in 2008, a commuter carrier slammed into a freight train, killing 25 people and injuring more than 100.

And in all of these cases, either human error, equipment failure, or both, played a role.


FOREMAN: Here is what it all comes down to. In 2012, there were more than 1,400 train collisions and derailments in the United States -- some big, some rather small. And this does not count those involving cars or trucks, vehicles they might hit. This is just train accidents.

And the single biggest cause for these accidents is trouble with the rails.

But just behind that, more than 500 times, humans made mistakes. And that's what was to blame, Wolf.

So we'll have to see what happens with this accident, but certainly that's one of the things they must look at very carefully.

BLITZER: They certainly have to look at that.

Tom Foreman, thanks very much.

Let's get a little bit more now on this crash in New York City.

Joining us is Earl Weener of the National Transportation Safety Board.

He's leading this investigation.

Mr. Weener, thanks very much for coming in.

WEENER: Thank you. Good evening, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you.

You indicated that the train was going 82 miles an hour in this dangerous curve. It shouldn't have been going more than 30 miles an hour.

So the high speed was definitely the cause of this crash, right?

WEENER: Well, you know, this is preliminary information. We just read out the flight -- the event recorders today. But we had event recorders in the front of the train, as well as in the locomotive. And they both gave us consistent numbers.

BLITZER: Eighty-two miles an hour. So there's no way that curve could have handled a train coming 82 miles an hour.

So the question is, was there brake failure or was this human error?

Those are the two main sources that you're looking at in your investigation, right?

WEENER: Yes. We don't know whether it was human error or mechanical failure. That, of course, is the reason why we'll be continuing this investigation with a great deal of intensity. But that's what we want to find out.

BLITZER: But the brakes were working fine in all the previous stops. It started in Poughkeepsie and it was making its way down the Hudson River toward New York City. And the brakes worked fine, according to the data recorders, on all the previous stops, is that right?

WEENER: Well, we're going to look at that data more closely. But we -- yes, the train made nine stops and there was no reporting of any braking anomalies. So that will be looked at in great detail.

BLITZER: From the information that you have -- and we know this is preliminary in your investigation, but those data recorders do provide a wealth of information -- for how long was that train going at 80 or 82 miles an hour?

WEENER: We don't -- at the moment, I haven't gotten information on that. We do know that two minutes before the curve, the train was going at 60 miles per hour and had accelerated then, up to 82, prior to entering the curve.

BLITZER: So what --

WEENER: So it was under power.

BLITZER: You've already interviewed the engineer, correct?

WEENER: We have begun the interview process with the engineer. We have not completed that. That will probably take a couple of days yet. BLITZER: Could you share some of what the engineer is saying, why this train was apparently accelerating from 60 to 82 miles an hour going into this very dangerous curve?

WEENER: Well, we haven't finished the interviews with the other three crew members. So at this point, we're not releasing any of the interview information until all of the interviews have been conducted.

BLITZER: Is there any reason to believe those brakes might have been tampered with?

WEENER: At this point, there's no reason to believe that there was any sabotage, either in the brakes or in the equipment or in the trackage.

BLITZER: What are you learning from the surveillance video that you've obtained showing this crash?

WEENER: Well, the surveillance video came from a bridge nearby. But it's a small part of the image. So the video is not very high quality. We've sent it back to the laboratories in Washington, DC to see if the images can be enhanced.

BLITZER: Can you describe, though, in rough terms, what you have seen?

WEENER: I haven't personally seen the video, I've just had it described to me. So, I can't -- no, I can't say that I've seen it.

BLITZER: But you -- can you tell us how it was described to you?

WEENER: Well, what was described was that they saw some flashes as the train hit the third rail, which was powered at that time. So there was flashes followed by a cloud of dust.

But, again, it was a fairly small part of a large image. So the enhancement, hopefully, will give us the opportunity to see a little better.

BLITZER: I'm pretty amazed -- and I've said this often -- that in this day and age, there are no video cameras on these trains.

Why is that?

WEENER: Well, the NTSB has made recommendations -- that there are video cameras, generally, on forward facing locomotives. But we have had recommendations that -- the NTSB has said -- for inward facing video cameras, as well.

BLITZER: And why doesn't that happen?

WEENER: Well, not everything that the NTSB recommends does the industry do. So we keep emphasizing the need and hope that the need is recognized.

BLITZER: Because I spoke earlier in the day with Peter Goeltz. I don't know if you know him, formerly with the NTSB. He says the unions, they won't allow these cameras to take a look and see what the engineers are doing.

WEENER: There is some reluctance on the part of the engineers, labor organizations. That's correct.

BLITZER: Is there any way to get around that or do you -- is it just, you know, that the NTSB, they make a recommendation for video cameras, but they're not allowed to be used because the unions block it?

Is that what you're saying?

WEENER: The industry has to adopt our recommendations. The NTSB's recommendations are simply that, recommendations.

BLITZER: Did you check to see if the engineer in this particular case, the staff, had enough rest going into this early morning train ride?

WEENER: We don't have the work history at the moment. We will be developing what we call a 72-hour time line, so that we have a good understanding of what sort of activities preceded this accident. That's part of our normal investigation.

BLITZER: And they're not allowed to use cell phones or they can't start texting while they're conducting this train operation, is that right?

WEENER: Well, the cell phone has been -- we have -- the authorities have possession of the cell phone. The data in the cell phone is being analyzed. And the forensic data will be provided to us.

BLITZER: You don't have the answer --

WEENER: We don't have that at the moment.

BLITZER: -- you don't -- you don't have the results, if somebody was on the phone, someone was texting, during those critical seconds when this train derailed?

WEENER: Wolf, you have to realize, we've only been one full day on scene here. So we're gathering the information as fast as we can.

We have been working very hard to release the tracks back to Metro North, because we realize how critical this arterial is in terms of transportation in this region.

BLITZER: But with all due respect, Mr. Weener, I know you --

WEENER: The tracks were released back this afternoon.

BLITZER: Mr. Weener, with all due respect, I know you have a huge job there.

But how long does it take to take a look at someone's cell phone and see if that person was texting or talking on the phone during these critical seconds leading up to this derailment?

That shouldn't take very long to get that kind of information, right?

WEENER: It doesn't necessarily take very long to get one piece of information, but there's a lot of information that has to be gathered. And the focus up to this point has been to get the rail line back in operation again, because of the criticality in this part of the country, this city.

BLITZER: Another thing that often disturbs me, those four people who were killed, I think all of them were killed -- they were thrown out of their seats, thrown out of the train through the shattered glass and wound up outside. There's no seat belts on these trains. And I wonder if there are seat belts on cars, seat belts on planes, why aren't there seat belts on these trains?

WEENER: Well, we certainly have supported seat belts on automobiles, trucks and buses. Seat belts on trains has not really been an issue up to this point. We have not developed a position on it.

BLITZER: If there were seat belts, would those four people -- they would have had a chance of surviving this, right?

They wouldn't have been thrown out of those cars.

WEENER: The three people who -- three of the people who died, yes, were thrown out of the car. They certainly went under -- the cars underwent some pretty violent motions.

BLITZER: So are you recommending seat belts or does the NTSB not recommend seat belts?

WEENER: I would guess that one of the things we'll be looking at during the investigation would be what contribution seat belts might have made to the survivability. We do have a team that is focused on the survivability aspects.

BLITZER: When do you think -- this is my final question, Mr. Weener, and you've been generous with your time, I know you have a lot going on -- we'll get the results of your investigation on why this train was going 82 miles an hour, going into this very dangerous curve?

WEENER: Well, the investigation will go through several phases. We're at the fact gathering phase on scene. As soon as -- this will take a week to 10 days. Then the fact gathering moves to Washington, DC, followed by analysis of those facts.

We expect it will take a year or more before we have a probable cause and recommendations aimed at preventing this sort of accident again.

BLITZER: Mr. Weener, good luck to you and all your colleagues. We're counting on you to make our trains safe all across the country. Millions of people are depending on your recommendations.

We appreciate your joining us.

Thank you.

WEENER: Thank you.

BLITZER: Later this hour, survivors' emotional stories. We're going to hear from a doctor treating some of the injured who suffered life- changing injuries.

Also, did the White House meet its deadline to fix the Obamacare Web site?

Our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta is here to explain, though, how health insurance alone could make people actually even less healthy if they're not taking care of themselves.

And an American veteran of the Korean War apologizing from inside North Korea, where he's now being detained.

Was his confession of crimes coerced?

Stay with us.


BLITZER: After weeks in critical condition, the White House now says the troubled Obamacare website finally is working as it was intended to, but does that mean it is now fixed? Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. What are they saying about on this day, Jim?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, at times, it seemed like Cyber Monday for as the retooled Obamacare website saw a crush of online shoppers, but the website placed many of them in what seemed like a virtualwaiting room.


ACOSTA (voice-over): After a frantic effort to create a new and improved, the White House appeared to declare victory, sort of.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president believes that the site has been significantly improved. But the work is not done.

ACOSTA: Case in point, as a whopping 800,000 visitors are estimated to surge on to the site today, many found not an error message but a new queuing system that allows users to leave an e-mail address so they can be contacted later with a better time to log on.

(on-camera) So, is today sort of a Cyber Monday for Is that going to be acceptable if that's the norm for a lot of people for an extended period of time?

CARNEY: What I think is important to note is that the queuing system, the more sophisticated improved queuing system, is a feature designed to improve the user experience.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Obamacare enrollment assistant Eduardo Mantilla- Torres, who's working to sign people up in Virginia, said the site is still too slow.

MANTILLA-TORRES: Today, we thought it was going to be better, but we already encountered some issues at this location where the website was not working properly.

ACOSTA: Another problem, insurers say some of the enrollment files they're receiving from still contain missing or inaccurate information.

ROBERT ZIRKELBACH, AMERICA'S HEALTH INSURANCE PLANS: What we want to avoid is a situation where people think they're enrolled, but their application has not been processed and their coverage hasn't actually begun, and they don't find that out until they show up to the doctor's office.

ACOSTA: Republicans complained it will be hard to tell if Obamacare is ever fixed.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN, (R) TEXAS: It's about getting good information, and of course, it's harder when the administration decides to cover this up and mislead and to change the subject because they seem very good at doing it.


ACOSTA (on-camera): Now, as for those bad enrollment files that appear to be sending to the insurance companies, administration officials say they have fixed many of the bugs causing that problem but expect that issue and other issues to come up at the other Obamacare hearings that are scheduled up on Capitol Hill this week.

Wolf, House speaker, John Boehner, says there are four, count them, four more Obamacare hearings scheduled for this week -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll have coverage, of course, of all of those hearings. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta.

Even if all the problems plaguing Obamacare are eventually solved, there's still some research out there suggesting that having health insurance alone won't make Americans healthier and in fact, in some cases, could do the opposite.

Let's bring in our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who wrote a very provocative article on our website today, Sanjay, you say the real question with Obamacare is, will it make us healthier and you're a little bit skeptical. Explain what's going on.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, first of all, I think that should be the goal, you know, overarching this. If you look back on this period in our history 100 years from now and people say did the actions at this time make America a healthier place. I don't think there's evidence of that. Now, I'll preface by saying, Wolf, that I think insurance is a very important thing.

It's a good thing and I think access to that insurance which has been driving a lot of what we've been talking about is obviously very important. But there's not a lot of evidence to show that health insurance makes people healthier. There was this interesting study done in Oregon a few years ago, Wolf.

They had a group of people who recently went on Medicaid and they compared them to a group of people who were not on Medicaid, but very similar people, and they found that over time, the people who were on Medicaid did see their doctor more often, they did get more care, but when they started to actually measure things in terms of their health, they couldn't find a lot of evidence that they were, in fact, healthier than people who were uninsured.

So, it's not to say that you shouldn't have insurance, but it's to say that this idea of becoming healthier is probably much more dependent on us as individuals than a system that doles out health care insurance.

BLITZER: If we eat properly, exercise, take good care of ourselves. You even point out in the article, this is a real intriguing point, in some cases, you think health insurance could be counterproductive. Explain what you mean by that.

GUPTA: Well, this is something that is known by the economists as the moral hazard. And, it's a bit of an obscure concept, but it's this idea -- and there was a study done on men, for example, who recently got Medicare insurance but had not had insurance before that for some time, and they found that there were groups of men who recently became insured who became less likely to exercise, more likely to smoke, more likely to drink regularly.

It is not entirely clear why, but what the moral hazard -- the idea is that once someone has insurance, they may become a little bit more reckless with regard to the health promoting behaviors. Certainly, it doesn't happen to everybody. It seemed to happen to men more than women, but that is of concern.

But the larger issue that I was really trying to get at in this op-ed was if we are trying to make America a more healthy place in the future, health insurance alone is not going to get us there. So, we shouldn't think of that as sort of the end point by any means and forget the personal responsibility that we all have.

BLITZER: Very quickly, even if you just exercise, as you point out, 30 minutes a day, that could save your life.

GUPTA: If we have all Americans exercise 30 minutes a day, we can start -- I know you exercise, Wolf. I like to exercise. Every day, we do this, we can cut down heart attacks and strokes by a third in this country. A third. There is nothing else that we've been talking about that would come close to making that sort of impact. And all we're asking for is 30 minutes a day.

You know, we, doctors, tell patients to always eat right every time they leave the doctor's office. I think most people don't even know what that means exactly. Really sound nutritional counseling, not immediately giving out pills but rather thinking of food as medicine, these things make a difference, a difference that I think will last for a very long time.

BLITZER: On a totally unrelated matter, Sanjay, while I have you. You've seen these reports about a man who was taken off a U.S. Airways flight from Austin to Phoenix over concerns that he might have tuberculosis. How concerned should the other passengers on that flight be that they could be at risk for getting TB?

GUPTA: We've been following this story closely, Wolf. First of all, we should say that this passenger in question, it's not confirmed that he, in fact, had TB at all. There was an initial test that came back negative, but then another test that came back positive. Now, they're doing more confirmation tests. So, stay tuned on what happens with that.

But I think the risk to the other passengers appears to be pretty low for a couple of reasons. One is it appears this passenger was not coughing, as simple as that sounds. Actually coughing is the way that the bacteria gets into the air and other people could become infected. Also, the length of exposure. This was around a two-hour flight. Until you get into flights that are over four hours, for example, the concern is really quite low.

So, while there -- you know, obviously it's a frightening thing, we're hearing from people at the Centers for Disease Control that the other passengers really don't even need to be tested, because their risk is so low. Also, remember Andrew Speaker (ph), Wolf, from 2007, the man who got on a plane, flew internationally with tuberculosis?

We went back and followed up and there was no evidence any passengers got sick from that flight, either. So, again, the risk is low here, it seems.

BLITZER: Yes. Well, that's good to know. Sanjay, let me recommend once again,, an excellent article by our own Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Information you, all of our viewers, need to know. Thanks, Sanjay.

GUPTA: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: When we come back, the Vice President Joe Biden takes the world stage on a critical trip overseas. Will he deliver for the White House?

And a prominent Republican senator charges the Obama administration has quote, "taken lying to a new level." Did his comments go too far? Stay with us. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: The Vice President Joe Biden in Asia with stops in Japan, China and South Korea, all on his itinerary. But the trip comes at a very, very sensitive moment.

Let's talk about that and more with our chief political analyst, Gloria Borger, and our CNN political commentator, David Frum.

This is a very sensitive time. China now wanting to expand its -- air territory, if you will, making all sorts of threats. North Korea are holding two Americans right now. He's got a full plate ahead of him.

DAVID FRUM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He does. And the fact that the vice president has to do this personally is another demonstration of just how obsolete our Pacific security architecture is.

These countries have relationships with the United States. But there's not a coherent way to harmonize the interests -- the security interests of democratic allies, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, which has this semi -- strange semi-existence. It's like a hub and spoke system. The United States is the hub, these are all in the spokes, and the vice president of the United States has to fly over to coordinate it. That's not the way this kind of business should be done.

BLITZER: But the president, Gloria, you know the vice president, I know the vice president, he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 30 or 35 years, in the Senate. Foreign policy was his biggest issue. He knows these subjects. He's very experienced in them.


BLITZER: He would be a good emissary in trying to deal with the allies.

BORGER: I think so. And I think people tend to underestimate him this way. He does have the foreign policy experience. He's also very much a kind of one-on-one politician. What he's going over there to do is to defuse what is a toxic situation, and he's kind of the crisis manager. And we've seen him perform this role --

FRUM: I -- I wasn't saying this in a way that was disparaging and disrespectful of him.


FRUM: That in fact this should be handled at a lower pay grade. That yes, you may need the vice president to go talk to the Chinese but to integrate a response from South Korea and Japan with the United States, that should be something that happens on the phone every day --


FRUM: With lower level officials and it doesn't happen.

BORGER: But clearly it doesn't, and clearly this environment right now is very, very difficult.

BLITZER: Here's what the -- here's what he's trying to do. He's trying to send a signal, a powerful signal, the Obama administration, to China and North Korea. If you send a lower level person out there, that signal is going to be missed. The vice -- they understand when the vice president tells the Japanese, South Koreans, hey, this is what's going on and then he goes and meets with the Chinese --

BORGER: How about --

BLITZER: -- that has a much more powerful impact.

BORGER: How about flying the B52s over?

BLITZER: That sends --

BORGER: That sent a very strong signal as well. Right?

BLITZER: That sends a strong message. But you also want to send a strong message to North Korea right now.

FRUM: We need a Northwest Pacific treaty organization that has memberships including Taiwan that is able to act coherently as an alliance with the United States not having to be the point of contact every time. We need collective security, not --

BORGER: But don't forget --

FRUM: Not high level emissaries.

BORGER: This administration's foreign policy has been the pivot to Asia. This has been their, you know, number one priority until it wasn't, right?

FRUM: Right. And --

BORGER: And I think -- I think it behooves the vice president to go over there --

FRUM: Their so-called pivot to Asia, they're not doing institution building. Pivoting to Asia means it's the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union is not our biggest single foreign policy challenge. It is China. It's not as dangerous as the Soviet Union was. More ambiguous kind of situation but we need a security architecture.

BLITZER: All right.

FRUM: Build it. That's what the pivot to Asia should mean.

BORGER: And can I say, this is important --

FRUM: And they're not doing it.

BORGER: -- for the vice president as well because this vice president who may run for president one day. This role, this trip is going to be very important. We'll see how it turns out for him.

BLITZER: Let me put up on the screen a quote from Senator John Cornyn. He said something else in Jim Acosta's piece. This is what he said the other day. He said on a Google Hangout, "I think the current administration," meaning the Obama administration, "has taken lying to a new level." He was referring to Benghazi, Obamacare, all sorts of stuff, but should a high-ranking leader of the Republican -- of the Republican minority in the Senate, one of the leaders, be throwing around that word lying when he's talking about the president and his administration?

FRUM: Well, this is maybe why you shouldn't hang out on Google. I mean that --


This social -- people make mistakes in social media. I don't know that -- I don't know that every remark I've ever made in my life has been perfectly temperate so I'm never -- not going to complain if somebody else occasionally let one slip in any temperate remark.

BORGER: Well, but, you know, he is a leader in the Senate so you have the Senate leader Mitch McConnell who said his number one goal was to defeat President Obama, right?

FRUM: But that's not abusive. But --

BORGER: OK. Then you have Cornyn, who by the way is up for re- election, although he doesn't seem to have a serious Tea Party challenger, saying that the president is a liar. And you know, and you wonder why things don't get done in Congress. Well, here --

BLITZER: Usually they are a little bit more polite than using that word.


BORGER: Well, but --

FRUM: But you know, those Google machines, the typing goes in very fast and then -- it's there forever so let's hope that --

BORGER: What did he mean? What did he mean? Yes.

FRUM: Let's hope he means I shouldn't have said that, I'm sorry.

BLITZER: Misleading, maybe. Some other thing. That's what --

BORGER: Well, but --

BLITZER: All right. We'll leave it.

BORGER: He meant what he said, I think.

BLITZER: Gloria and David, guys, thanks.

FRUM: I get it.

BLITZER: Up next, an elderly American veteran supposedly confesses for crimes during the Korean War. Is he forced to make this apology by the North Koreans? Plus, CNN on the front lines right now in Syria's civil war. Our own CNN crew gets rare access to one of the most brutal conflicts on the planet right now.


BLITZER: New video surfacing of an 85-year-old American war veteran detained in North Korea, now apologizing for alleged crimes including killings during the Korean War.

It's all raising more important questions about whether the whole thing has been forced.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is getting new information. She's joining us now with details.

Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Swedish diplomats have visited this elderly veteran to bring him his heart medication, but of course his family wants him home.


MERRILL NEWMAN, AMERICAN DETAINED IN NORTH KOREA: -- killed three innocent operators.

STARR (voice-over): North Korean state media released video of detained American tourist, 85-year-old Merrill Newman reading a handwritten apology.

NEWMAN: And U.S. and western countries, there is misleading information and propaganda about DPRK.

STARR: Pyongyang saying Newman admits he's guilty of big crimes when he fought for the U.S. in the Korean War and now 60 years later, planning to try to meet up with anti-communist guerillas. But was Newman coerced in a confession?

VICTOR CHA, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: The two biggest signs are the imperfect English in the statement as it was read by an American. The second sign is all the language that praises the regime. I think both of these things are dead giveaways that it wasn't written by Merrill Newman.

STARR: Newman's case is especially concerning due to his age and because no one is sure what North Korea is up to.

CHA: The thing that's most disturbing is that they seem to have ratcheted up the situation by going after somebody who has no particular cause for being detained in North Korea and then holding him without explanation for over a month.

STARR: American Kenneth Bae also held for over a year by North Korea. His sister told CNN his convictions might have gotten him in trouble. TERRI CHUNG, SISTER OF KENNETH BAE: He is a man of faith and he is strong Christian. Because of his zeal, I think his wanting to help and share that I think might have been interpreted as having hostile intentions.

STARR: In the past, North Korea has released Americans after visits by prominent dignitaries. A propaganda victory in the eyes of the regime.

LAURA LING, JOURNALIST IMPRISONED IN NORTH KOREA: Thirty hours ago, Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea.

STARR: Journalist Laura Ling and Euna Lee spent 140 days in captivity after being charged with illegal entry. Former President Bill Clinton secured their release in 2009.


STARR: Now, U.S. officials and family members are being very careful, of course, Wolf, not to say anything that could jeopardize the situation of the Americans being held by the North Koreans -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's hope both of them are released soon. Thanks very much, Barbara.

Just ahead, rare access to the front lines of the battle for Damascus. CNN takes you to the heart of Syria's bloody civil war.

Plus, an interesting gift choice. What the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave to Pope Francis today.


BLITZER: Let's go to Syria where a bloody and brute at civil war rages on.

CNN's Fred Pleitgen got rare access on the front lines of that battle in the fight for control of the country's most critical city.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's a war of snipers in this Damascus suburb. We're on the front line with government forces in the south of Syria's capital. Soldiers say their mission is to stop rebels from advancing into the city's center.

It's pretty much every day they try to attack our positions, he says. It happens in the morning, the afternoon, the evening and at night. When we see them, we shoot.

Opposition fighters have occupied large parts of this district and are in the buildings only a few yards away.

This is what it looks like when the army notices movement on the other side. Soldiers gave us this video which they say shows them attacking rebels as they try to fortify one of their positions. This area is deeply scarred by the war and heavy clashes could be heard from neighboring districts where the Syrian army is on the offensive.

(On camera): As you can see, this area was pretty destroyed in the fighting. The front line has actually been static for quite a while now but as the government wins back more territory around here, rebel fighters are fleeing to the front line in this area, and there have been increased battles recently.

(Voice-over): It's all part of the battle for the outskirts of Damascus that will be key to the outcome of Syria's civil war. The Syrian army has won a lot of territory in recent weeks, but opposition forces, often led by Islamist brigades have also claimed gains in some suburbs. The commander in this district, who we can't identify, says there are a lot of foreign jihadists among the ranks of the opposition.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have fighters from foreign -- from other countries which are leaders, especially from countries like Libya, Chechnya, Afghan, Pakistani.

PLEITGEN: While parts of this area having totally destroyed. Life continues for some residence very close to the front line, but the commander says it could be a while before the military will regain the upper hand.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It could take some time, some time, you know, maybe weeks, maybe months. I can't give you correct time.

PLEITGEN: As the battle for the suburbs of Damascus rages, the soldiers here continue their mission to hold the line until they, too, the order to attack.

Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Damascus.


BLITZER: The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a visit to the Vatican today, meeting with Pope Francis. The two leaders discussed hope for a possible peace agreement in the Middle East. They also exchanged gifts. The prime minister presenting the Pope with a silver menorah and (INAUDIBLE) a book on the Spanish inquisition written by his father during the Spanish inquisition, Jews under duress and torture had to convert to Christianity in Spain or face expulsion in 1492.

The Pope, by the way, gave the prime minister a bronze sculpture of St. Paul. Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Israel in May.

Coming up, trapped 100 feet under water for nearly three days. Unbelievable video of the rescue is just surfacing.

Jeanne Moos will have that. That's coming up.

And at the top of the hour, "Survivor" stories from that deadly train crash in New York City.


BLITZER: Pulled to safety after getting trapped some 100 feet under water in a capsized boat for nearly three days.

The mesmerizing video and Jeanne Moos has the unbelievable details.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When this tugboat capsized in the ocean off the coast of Africa, it was thought a dozen men drowned. So imagine when a rescue diver searching the tug felt a hand.

(On camera): What was shocking, he thought that was a hand belonging to a corpse.


MOOS: And then the hand grabbed him. Watch the reaction of the diver and the supervisor on the surface.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's that? OK. All right. You found one, yes? He's alive. He's alive.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Keep him there. Keep him there.

MOOS (voice-over): For the diver.

CHAMBERLAIN: He said it was one of the most terrifying moments under water.

Just reassure him. Pat him on the shoulder.

MOOS: Diver met survivor, as the rescuer surfaced in an air pocket.


MOOS (on camera): Twenty-nine-year-old Harrison had been under water for 2 1/2 days. The survivor was in the toilet when the tug capsized. It went down really fast leaving him trapped in a four-square-foot air pocket.

(Voice-over): The tug came to a rest upside down 100 feet below the surface. It was pitch black. His skin was starting to peel.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How is that passage to bring him out? Is it OK?


MOOS (on camera): If you're wondering why the diver's voices sound high-pitched like the Chipmunks.

CHAMBERLAIN: That's because they're breathing a helium-oxygen mix.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You mustn't panic, hey? You must listen to me, all right?

MOOS (voice-over): They gave him a helmet, though he had no experience diving.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's your name?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Harrison. Harrison.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, and I'm going to bring you home, OK?


MOOS: It was even a moment of dark humor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is your rank?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm the cook. The cook.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're the cook?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One survived. Harrison?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. You're going to follow -- you're going to follow Nico (ph), OK?

CHAMBERLAIN: He was exceptionally calm. Exceptionally calm.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going now. Put Hut your head under water and breathe comfortably, OK?

MOOS: It took a little less than half an hour to get from the tugboat to the surface

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're doing very good.

MOOS: If the story sounds familiar, it's because the accident happened back in May, but only now has the video surfaced accompanied by what at first seems like incongruous music until you recognize it as the theme from "The Great Escape."

Harrison spent the next two days in a decompression chamber. He returned to Nigeria in good shape. And you can bet neither man will ever forget the handshake that left both shaken.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's alive, he's alive. MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.



BLITZER: Happening now. Train terror. New details on what may have caused the deadly derailment. And a survivor shares her harrowing story on the disastrous curve. The screeching metal and the injuries all around her.

Plus, fast and fatal. With new questions about the fiery car crash that killed the actor Paul Walker. Could it have been a scene out of the "Fast & Furious" movies he started?

And special delivery. Amazon unveils plans to air-drop orders right at your door using drones. So what could go wrong? Experts tell us, a lot.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.