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Investigation Into Actor's Death Continues; New York Train Derails

Aired December 2, 2013 - 18:00   ET



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.

Federal authorities now confirm that a New York commuter train was going way too fast just before it hurtled around a very sharp curve and then flipped over. One official says he gulped when he heard the numbers. The train was barreling down the track at 82 miles an hour into a 30-mile-an-hour curve.

The question now, was human error or mechanical problem to blame for the crash that killed four people and injured dozens?

CNN's Rene Marsh is following the investigation for us. She's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

What's the latest?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: We now know the NTSB they have already started interviewing one of the engineers from that train. We also now know, based on preliminary data from the train's event recorders, we now know how fast this train was going, but we still don't know why.


MARSH (voice-over): Just one day into the investigation and a startling revelation.

EARL WEENER, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD MEMBER: This is preliminary information -- from the event recorders shows that the train was traveling at approximately 82 miles per hour as it went into a 30-mile-an-hour curve.

MARSH: Speed caused the crash, but why was it going so fast? Mechanical problem or human error? It's too early to tell. We do know 82 miles per hour is too fast for the approach which had a speed limit of 70. Power to the engine was not cut, and brakes did not apply until seconds before the train came to a stop, far too late.

WEENER: We are not aware of any problems or anomalies with the brakes.

MARSH: Engineer William Rockefeller told investigators he tried to brake, but the train didn't stop, according to a law enforcement official. He appeared coherent, another official said, but drug and alcohol tests were conducted.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Be advised we have multiple rescues in progress at this time.

MARSH: Monday, investigators continued examining the track, train cars and searching for video. Metro-North says this train did not have cameras on board. Sunday's derailment along the curve wasn't far from where this freight train derailed in July. The NTSB is investigating if there's a connection between the two, but New York's governor doesn't blame the turn.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO (D), NEW YORK: Trains negotiate the turn all day long, so it's not about the turn. Something else had to happen. We want to find out what it is.

MARSH: This May, two Metro-North trains collided. Damaged track caught on another train's camera may have caused the crash. Also in May, a Metro-North train struck and killed a track foreman.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We will be looking at precursor events, things that maybe were close calls prior to this that could have given Metro- North some indication this was an area they needed to pay attention to.

MARSH: The crash has heightened interest in positive train controls, high-tech systems using signals using GPS and Wi-Fi signals capable of detecting problems, slowing trains, even bringing them to a stop. Congress mandated the systems by the end of 2015.


MARSH: All right. So, Wolf, just last hour, when you were speaking to NTSB Board Member Weener, he told me something that he did not say in the press briefing, which was essentially that the train was going 60 miles per hour two minutes before the crash, also going 60 miles an hour before it approached that curve.

That shows that perhaps this train was accelerating instead of slowing down. As we know, the curve speed limit was 30 miles an hour.

BLITZER: Yes. So it's accelerating from 60 to 82 miles an hour and shouldn't have been going more than 30 miles an hour. Now they will figure out whether it was a mechanical problem or whether it was a human error. They haven't come to that conclusion yet. Rene, thanks very much.

At least 67 people were hurt in that train crash. An additional 47 -- excuse me -- four people as we have been reporting were killed. We have pictures we're showing of what's going on at the scene. We're learning more about the injuries, the harrowing stories.

Nic Robertson is on the scene for us. He's joining us.

CNN has the survivor -- the story of one of those survivors, a doctor who's been treating the victims.

Nic, tell us what are you seeing and learning.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what we have been learning talking to people is that really now they're beginning to relive, if you will, the trauma of the last 36 hours.

They're also counting their blessings, and at the same time searching for answers.


ROBERTSON (voice-over): Inside the train after the dust settled, Amanda Swanson took this picture.

AMANDA SWANSON, PASSENGER: I wound up going kind of up one side, and then just rode into where I was technically on the ceiling.

ROBERTSON: A day later, in the calm of CNN studios, she is still grappling with her luck on her way to work. She had been asleep.

SWANSON: I became aware of the screeching metal. I realized this is a train crash and this is happening right now.

ROBERTSON: She called the police before taking the picture, then began realizing the trauma around her.

SWANSON: I started listening, and looking around, and seeing people wobbling about. I could hearing moaning. I could other people assisting other passengers.

DR. DAVID LISTMAN, ST. BARNABAS HOSPITAL: The trauma bay was full.

ROBERTSON: In a hospital not far away, E.R. veteran Dr. David Listman's trauma was just beginning.

LISTMAN: The most critically injured patient and the one we think about the most was the gentleman who had the cervical spine injury, who's going to have -- most certainly have severe neurologic injury.

ROBERTSON (on camera): Paralyzed?

LISTMAN: Probably paralyzed from -- hopefully he will have use of his arms. ROBERTSON (voice-over): The patient is still in critical condition. And if that's not hard enough, he had been traveling with his 14-year- old son.

LISTMAN: I was actually told that the son was sleeping and the father was awake. I don't know if he was up and around, you know, if he was trying in any way to protect his son as the crash happened.

ROBERTSON: Luckily, the boy escaped with just cuts and bruises, but his mother told Listman he takes the train to school every day, and she doesn't know how he's going to do it now.

LISTMAN: I said to her, I have no answer for you today. I can only imagine sort of how difficult it's going to be the first time he has to get back on the train. I don't know if he will ever be able to do that, or if every day it's going to remind him of yesterday and, you know, his father who's alive, but whose life is permanently changed.

ROBERTSON: Dr. Listman and Amanda Swanson, so thankful for small miracles, but still so many questions.

LISTMAN: It's hard to understand how they were sitting next to each other on the train and sort of, you know, the son walks away with minor bruises, and the father sustains such a severe injury.

SWANSON: I told my mom this morning on the phone that the only thing I was thinking was, I have to stay alive.


ROBERTSON: And for everyone involved really until the full results of the investigation are known, it's going to be a matter for them of whether they were just lucky or just unfortunate, Wolf.

BLITZER: What a heartbreaking story, indeed. All right, Nic Robertson on the scene for us in New York City.

Still ahead, he's best known for his role in the "Fast and Furious" films, a series of movies about illegal street racing. Now authority expects Paul Walker's need for speed may have led to his death. We will have the latest.

And changed online shopping, as we all now, wants to further revolutionize package delivery by using drones. Experts are telling us if it's a realistic idea or is it pie in the sky?


BLITZER: Authorities are now focusing on speed as the chief factor in the fiery car crash that killed the actor Paul Walker.

Walker described himself as a speed demon. He played that out on the screen, as well as in the "Fast and Furious" movie series. Walker was in a Porsche apparently driven by his racing partner when the car crashed in flames over the weekend.

CNN's Kyung Lah is over at the crash site in California. She's joining us now with the latest.

What are you learning, Kyung?

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the latest information we're getting from detectives is they are now moving away from the possibility of street racing being involved, because at this point they have no evidence that a second car was involved.

Meanwhile, here at what is certainly a growing memorial, he is being remembered by his co-stars, his family, and his many fans.


LAH (voice-over): To the engines of the fast cars of his fans, mourners weeping, carrying flowers and candles to the accident site where actor Paul Walker died.

This is one of the last photos of Walker, attending a charity event to help victims of the Philippines typhoon before he and his racing partner Roger Rodas left in a Porsche Carrera G.T. It slammed into a light pole and burst into flames.

ANTONIO HOLMES, WITNESS: This man tried to do to Walker and Rodas. There was nothing. We tried. We went think fire extinguishers.

LAH: The death of the 40-year-old actor stunned young Hollywood. Fellow co-star Tyrese Gibson paid his respects. To his family, Walker was the father of a 15-year-old girl, and a son devoted to his father.

PAUL WALKER SR., FATHER OF PAUL WALKER: I'm just glad every time I saw him, I told him I loved him, and he said the same.

LAH: To fans, they have lost a blockbuster, the star of the "Fast and Furious" franchise that spanned more than a decade.

MICHELLE VALENZUELA, FAN: I have grown up watching him, so it's tough to -- and he was so young.

LAH: Lime imitating art in a painfully violent way.

JUAN BANUELOS, FAN: In Hollywood, they never get hurt, they're always driving fast, you know, and in reality, we do have to be concerned. We have to be concerned. This could happen to any of us. We have to follow the rules, follow the speed. We can't be too fast and furious.


LAH: Back here live at the memorial for Paul Walker, you see these messages. A lot of them are handwritten, a lot of them are heartfelt.

And again that I want to point out, as you look at these candles and flowers, is that there's a bit of a generational divide. People who are showing up here at this memorial are overwhelmingly young.

The car hit this area so quickly that three trees were taken out before the vehicle hit a light pole. As far as what will happen with the autopsies, they are scheduled for tomorrow. Wolf, the bodies were so badly burned in this crash, that dental records will have to be used.

BLITZER: Our deepest, deepest condolences to the families. Only 40 years old.

Kyung Lah reporting, thanks very much.

On this Cyber Monday, the world's largest online retailer says it's testing a wild new way to deliver small packages to your home. Imagine a small unmanned aircraft, a drone, dropping your order down at your front door. It sounds like a lot of science fiction, but Amazon believes it will be a reality sooner than you might think.

Brian Todd is looking into this for us.

Is this for real, Brian, a publicity stunt? What is going on here?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, is touting this as if it's very real. He says in four or five years, he hopes to be able to get your order to your door with a drone within a half-hour after you place it.


TODD (voice-over): He's made point, click and shop a huge part of our lives. Now Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos is promising delivery by drone. He unveiled his plan to CBS' "60 Minutes."

JEFF BEZOS, CHAIRMAN, PRESIDENT & CEO, AMAZON.COM: These are octocopters. These are effectively drones, but there's no reason they can't be used as delivery vehicles.

TODD: Bezos says the vehicles Amazon is developing can carry objects weighing up to five pounds, which he says covers 86 percent of the items they deliver. He says they can fly within 10 miles of any Amazon distribution center and they will be autonomous. That means no operator with a joystick in front of a screen.

They will program the coordinates of your house on GPS and it will fly there.

(on camera): But there are all sorts of potential pitfalls like how is Amazon going to safeguard against these so-called octocopters from veering off-course and hitting us in the head? How will they avoid unknown obstacles on the roof, even other unmanned aerial vehicles?

(voice-over): Caitlin Lee is a UAV expert with IHS Jane's.

(on camera): What else can go wrong?

CAITLIN LEE, IHS JANE'S: Jamming would certainly be an issue.

TODD: Hacking?

LEE: Hacking, trying to take down the system, just cutting on off that GPS signal. Another issue is weather. That even dogs U.S. military UAVs in combat today. And I think there's also just the potential for these things getting shot down.

TODD (voice-over): And then there's the accuracy question. Will the package actually be dropped at your book door or will it end up on the roof? Could it be stolen? If those obstacles are overcome, are we going to be living out the old cartoon "The Jetsons" with futuristic vehicles taking up all our airspace?

Experts say that's a long way away. First, Bezos has to have American law on his side. Right now, the FAA doesn't allow drones to be flown for commercial purposes or outside the operator's line of sight. But in 2015, the FAA will have new regulations and that kind of drone flying might be allowed.

GREGORY MCNEAL, PEPPERDINE UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW: They have to sure that the operators have sensitive weight capabilities on those aircraft, that the aircraft can de-conflict the airspace so they don't collide with others and also that the operators are operating in a way to ensure they are not flying in the route of manned aircraft or over airports.


TODD: The use of drone deliveries and this type of -- for this type of commerce, rather, is drawing serious concern on Capitol Hill. Senator Jay Rockefeller Says he will hold hearings soon to look at the potential benefits of all of this, but also at the potential risks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot of folks think this is all just a publicity stunt done, released on the eve of the biggest shopping spree of the year in December looking towards Christmas. What are you hearing about that?

TODD: Well, I did have Amazon reps about that. I never heard back from them. In the e-mail I sent, they never really responded.

I said a lot of people think this is a publicity stunt. They never really responded to that. As you point out, he does this right on the eve of Cyber Monday. And also just the overall logistical capabilities of this, a lot of drone experts are saying there's just so many potential safety, security, privacies issues, logistical problems surrounding this.

They don't think it will ever be available in any kind of widespread delivery mode.

BLITZER: You never know. It might happen. Who knows. We will see.


TODD: Right.

BLITZER: All right, thanks very much.

Just ahead, she lost her leg in the Boston Marathon bombing. Now she is not only walking again. She's doing it in very high heels. She's sharing her emotional recovery of recovery and hope.


BLITZER: Nearly eight months after losing part of her leg in the Boston Marathon bombings, one victim will wow you with her very, very dramatic progress.

CNN's Poppy Harlow is joining us now with her incredible story.

Poppy, what happened here?


Just like she did every year on April 15, Heather Abbott went to the Red Sox game and then went on to cheer the runners in the Boston Marathon, but she was one of the victims of the attack. Today, she is a strong survivor. She had to have part of her left leg amputated, but the progress she had made, Wolf, it is absolutely stunning, and frankly you just have to see it to believe it.


HEATHER ABBOTT, BOSTON MARATHON VICTIM: I didn't look at it at all from, you know, the moment that it happened.

HARLOW (voice-over): Heather Abbott is talking about her left leg, amputated after the Boston bombing. She wanted to remember it the way it was, before.

(on camera): You call yourself a professional heel wearer?

ABBOTT: I think I did call myself that once.

HARLOW: Really?

(voice-over): And today she is again, walking on four-inch stilettos on her prosthetic leg. Nothing short of miraculous. Take a close look.

Can you tell which one is manmade?

ABBOTT: I can go out in public now with part of my leg exposed, and nobody is staring at it, because they can't tell. You can kind of see where there's like shaving marks where somebody would have shaved.

HARLOW: It looks lifelike, the cosmetic color-matched down to her skin tone, down to freckles and creases on her heel. Heather now has four prosthetic legs.

ABBOTT: This is my waterproof leg. And I wear this one in the shower.

HARLOW: This one is for running, another for flats, and one for high heels.

ABBOTT: I kind of feel like my old self.again when I wear it HARLOW: She had no idea she would get this far until amputee advocate Aviva Drescher walked into her hospital room.

ABBOTT: She walked in with high heels and skinny jeans, and I couldn't tell which leg was real and which wasn't. It really helped me think, OK, I'm going to be able to do this.

HARLOW (on camera): Of course the priority when you lose a limb is how am I going to walk? But beyond that is sort of a female rite of passage, which is, how am I going to feel pretty, how am I going to feel sexy? How am I going to get a pedicure? How am I going to wear a bathing suit? I think those are all very normal questions.

It feels like skin.

ABBOTT: Some of the more cosmetic concerns that I had, I wasn't as vocal about, because they seemed sort of insignificant at the time.

HARLOW: Were you sort of embarrassed to ask?

ABBOTT: I think I was, yes. Asking if I could was going to be able to wear a dress again didn't seem like an appropriate question.

HARLOW (voice-over): But it is, and here's why.

DR. DAVID CRANDELL, SPAULDING REHABILITATION HOSPITAL: For Heather, having a highly cosmetic cover that matches her remaining leg was essential to her recovery. She is now able, and has the confidence to go out in public.

HARLOW: This isn't the norm, though, for most amputees, not by a long shot, with highly prosthetics often not covered by insurance. For Heather, it was a combination of insurance and donations.

(on camera): Do you think everyone should be able to have a limb like this and have it covered by insurance?

ABBOTT: Yes, I do. If I couldn't have a leg that looked like my own, I don't know that I would have recovered as well. It's upsetting to me that there are other men and women out there that aren't able to have a leg that looks like their own leg, if that's what they want.


HARLOW: Just to give you some perspective here, Wolf, the four prosthetics that Heather has right now, she estimates the cost together about $200,000. She's going to have to replace them every three to five years. That gives you a sense of the scope of the price, how expensive these are and the fact that oftentimes they are not covered by insurance.

That is why she and so many others are fighting, and saying, look, it's not about how these look. They're very important to feel like yourself once again. So she will be fighting for that, certainly, but kudos to her and the amazing recovery that she's made.

BLITZER: Kudos, indeed. Very amazing. Thanks for sharing that story.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching.