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Train Derailment Investigation Continues; Actor's Autopsy Report Expected Soon

Aired December 3, 2013 - 18:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Plus, moment of impact. We have new video that gives us the closest look yet at the crash that killed the "Fast and Furious" actor Paul Walker. The results of his autopsy could be released at any moment.

And furious flier. The U.S. Supreme Court hears the case of a man who got booted from an airline's elite program because he complained a lot and demanded upgrades. Your frequent flier rights are on the line.

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

Right now, federal authorities are digging deeper into the possibility that human error caused the deadly derailment of a New York Metro train. You're looking at live pictures of the crash site from our affiliate WABC. After another day of investigation, the NTSB says it hasn't found any indication that the brakes or signal systems malfunctioned.

The focus on the train's engineer appears to be intensifying, and there are growing questions about his state of mind and whether he was fatigued.

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

Rene, what are you learning?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just moments ago a couple headlines came out of this press briefing.

We know that a union rep for this train engineer just told reporters it is his understanding the engineer caught himself nodding at the controls before this deadly crash. He also said the engineer changed shifts November 17. He went from a night shift to a day shift, and from investigators, we now know they found no problems with the brakes.


MARSH (voice-over): Forty-six-year old William Rockefeller, a Metro- North employee of 15 years, was on day two of a five-day workweek when he told investigators he was dazed in the moments leading up to this deadly derailment, according to two CNN law enforcement sources.

EARL WEENER, NATIONAL TRANSPORTATION SAFETY BOARD MEMBER: So the question is what was the driver's condition in the seconds before the crash? And the answer to that is we don't know at this moment.

MARSH: The NTSB will look at whether fatigue played a role, routine in every investigation. The union representing him says engineers are limited to 12-hour days, but can work 16 hours if they have a four- hour break. But we don't know how many hours Rockefeller worked.

WEENER: This was his regularly scheduled route, making two round- trips each day, with a typical day lasting approximately nine hours. The engineer had been running this particular route full-time since November 17. There's every indication that he would have had time to get full restorative sleep.

MARSH: The train left Poughkeepsie at 5:54 Sunday morning. It made nine stops with no report of brake problems, the last stop about 20 minutes before the crash. In two minutes, the train accelerated from 60 to 82 miles per hour as it approached the 30-mile-an-hour curve. The NTSB isn't ready to say if this was humor error or mechanical malfunction.

But New York's governor appears ready to draw conclusions.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO (D), NEW YORK: There was a truly excessive amount of speed. There was no equipment failure, no track problem.

MARSH: Investigators cut their interview with Rockefeller short Monday because of his emotional state. A union rep telling CNN:

ANTHONY BOTTALICO, ASSOCIATION OF COMMUTER RAIL EMPLOYEES: He's extremely distraught over it. And he feels for the families.

MARSH: Whether investigators determine he was at fault or not, William Rockefeller must live with the fact he was at the controls when the train left its path. Lives were lost, and life-changing injuries were suffered.


MARSH: All right. And additionally, we know that the blood alcohol tests all came back negative for the train crew. Wolf, we also heard from New York's governor saying that service will be restored to that Hudson line by tomorrow, the majority of the service.

BLITZER: They have still got an important investigation under way, a lot of unanswered questions. Rene, thanks very much.

Let's bring in Mary Schiavo. She's the former inspector general oft Department of Transportation.

Mary, it increasingly looks like human error. Is that your conclusion yet? Or is there more information we need to get?

MARY SCHIAVO, FORMER TRANSPORTATION INSPECTOR GENERAL: Well, it certainly does point in that direction, and that would be consistent with many prior train accidents of the same set of facts.

This is all very -- a common scenario, unfortunately, when you have a train accident. But the comment about his work hours and nine hours would have been legal under federal rail regulations which are very much like the regulations for airline pilots. You can work nine hours or 12 hours depending on your duties, and you just have to have an eight-hour rest period between your duty times. They're pretty strict, in some ways stricter than air rules.

BLITZER: Because if he says, as we have reported, he was in a "daze" and there are now suggestions he was nodding off before going into this very dangerous curve, and he was going 60 miles an hour, then 70 miles an hour, and then 82 miles per hour in a curve where the speed limit was 30 miles an hour, that would be understandable for a train to go off the tracks.

SCHIAVO: Absolutely, and particularly on this particular curve, a 30- mile-per-hour speed limit. Various parts of the track have various speed limits.

But a 30-mile-per-hour speed limit is slow and it would go off the track. Braking or not, 82 miles per hour at that curve, it would have gone off the track. And the railroad, by the way, has to do fatigue studies as required by federal regulations. So if this was a particularly fatiguing route, they should have done fatigue studies well in advance.

BLITZER: Mary, I want you to watch something that we have on a very different story. We have some new video and information about the car crash that killed the "Fast and Furious" actor Paul Walker. Initial autopsy results could be released at any moment, we're told.

CNN has obtained surveillance video that gives us the closest look yet at the crash. You can't see the car, but you can see trees swaying and falling when the Porsche clipped a light pole. It then takes 60 full seconds before you see the first feint smoke that turns into a dark heavy plume.

Mary, I want to keep watching this surveillance video in real time, but what does it tell us about the crash if it took so long for the fire to erupt, the condition of Walker and his racing partner during those critical 60 seconds?

SCHIAVO: Well, it tells since there was apparently no movement for them to get out of the car that the impact was so great that they were not able to get out of the car.

And the fire taking 60 seconds to go suggests, of course, that the fuel tank was breached and then the fuel leak eventually caught fire and the tank was burning out. But that did not happen immediately. That was a subsequent event.

So, sadly, it does appear that the impact did render them unable to exit the vehicle.

BLITZER: Yes. And you can see the surveillance video. We're showing it in real time. Eventually, we will see the smoke coming up and the flames and the fire, but it does take a while to actually get to that. And you have to wonder what was going on, because it is very obviously heartbreaking to see that.

You can see the smoke now slowly beginning to emerge there in the middle of the screen.

SCHIAVO: Right. That's right.

And people often think that the smoke or that the fire from a fuel tank is always an explosion, and it's not. Sometimes it just burns like this. So that could have been a fuel tank breach. They don't necessarily explode like you often see on action films. So that -- that would suggest that they were very grievously injured in the impact.

BLITZER: Certainly would. All right, Mary, thanks very much, Mary Schiavo joining us.

SCHIAVO: Thank you.

BLITZER: Still ahead, more on this story. Paul Walker drove fast and furious cars the movies. But the $450,000 Porsche he died in was rare. It was very dangerous in the wrong hands. We're going to show you what was going on.


RANDY POBST, PROFESSIONAL RACE CAR DRIVER: I love the power, 612 horsepower. The higher you rev the engine, the stronger it pulls. It's just -- it's a great feeling. You feel it right in the chest, pushing you back when you push down the gas.


BLITZER: And another story we're following. If you're a frequent flier, you're going to want to hear about the dispute that the United States Supreme Court heard today. Is it OK for an airline to revoke your privileges if you demand too many upgrades? That story and move when we come back.


BLITZER: As we have reported, we're standing by for the autopsy results in the death of the "Fast and Furious" actor Paul Walker. They could be released soon.

Authorities are focusing in on the speed of the sports car he died in, a rare and super expensive Porsche that could top 200 miles an hour.

As CNN's Martin Savidge explains, the car wasn't for amateurs.


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Paul Walker died in a car most of us could only dream of, a Porsche Carrera GT. An exotic two-seater with three times the horsepower of the average car, capable of going over 200 miles per hour. Price tag? $450,000. Exotic car mechanic Todd Trimble has just finished some routine maintenance on this Carrera GT in Las Vegas. He says, by the way, an oil change costs $900.

TODD TRIMBLE, EXOTIC CAR MECHANIC: It's a mid-engine car. You can see the full carbon fiber construction of it.

SAVIDGE: Porsche only made around 1,300 Carrera GTs. And to hear Trimble telling it, they're disappearing fast.

TRIMBLE: They're getting rarer and rarer. Most of the time when they do get wrecked, there's not much left to them. So the rumor has it there's 25 percent are already gone.

SAVIDGE: I have no way of verifying that, but Trimble does say there were 15 Carrera GTs in Las Vegas. Now there are only six.

TRIMBLE: A very hard car to drive. It's a pure racer's car. You really need to know what you're doing when you drive them. And a lot of people are learning the hard way.

SAVIDGE: Race car driver Randy Pobst has driver a Carrera GT. He also taught the actors in the second "Fast and Furious" movie, including Paul Walker.

POBST: Worked with all the stars of the film, Paul, and Tyrese Gibson and Devon Aoki and -

SAVIDGE (on camera): How was -- let me ask you honestly, how was Paul?

POBST: Paul was, by far, the best driver. A natural car guy.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): As for the car, Pobst says driving an exotic like the Carrera GT for an experienced driver offers a thrill few vehicles can match.

POBST: I love the power. The 612 horsepower. And the higher you rev the engine, the stronger it pulls. It's just - it's a great feeling. You feel it right in the chest, pushing you back.

SAVIDGE: But the car isn't forgiving of mistakes, lacking the feature common on many conventional cars today, electronic stability control.

POBST: Stability control is really good at correcting slides, keeping the car from getting out of shape.

SAVIDGE: Everyone I spoke to who drivers or works on the car told me pretty much the same thing. In the right hands, it's a great car.

POBST: But a car like the Carrera GT needs to be driven with great respect because it has so much power and capability.

SAVIDGE: Martin Savidge, CNN, Atlanta.


BLITZER: Now to your health and Obamacare. The president is making a big new push to promote the health care reform law and put the Web site fiasco behind him.

Here's our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The president of the United States, Barack Obama.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My main message today is, we're not going back.

ACOSTA: Because President Obama is in a race he just might lose, the race to rescue Obamacare from its disastrous rollout.

OBAMA: Today, the Web site is working well for the vast majority of users.

ACOSTA: Surrounded by supporters, the president conceded the tech turmoil at has clouded the law's consumer projections.

OBAMA: Every day, I check to make sure that it's working better. And, you know, we have learned not to make wild promises about how perfectly smooth it's going to be at all times.

ACOSTA: And he issued a warning.

OBAMA: We're not repealing it as long as I'm president.


ACOSTA: That was aimed at Republicans who say that the president's rebranding effort is too little too late.

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA), HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER: We know that Obamacare is still plagued with problems. And every American deserves relief from it.

ACOSTA: But more Americans are signing up, like CNN iReporter Mike Meekins, a I.T. small business owner himself.

MIKE MEEKINS, CNN IREPORTER: Today, I was successful logging into the Web site. I had been trying fairly consistently for the last six weeks.

ACOSTA: But there are still questions whether the enrollment files completed on the Web site, or 834s, as they're called, ever make it to the insurance companies in one piece. The White House insisted that won't threaten anybody's coverage at the start of the year.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I'm telling you that the contractors and the issuers are working together and will make sure that every 834 form, both past and present, October 1 forward, is accurate. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: But on a conference call with reporters, an administration official would not offer that same kind of guarantee. That official said that while these enrollment issues are being addressed, she also urged consumers to take the initiative to call the insurance companies to double-check that they indeed have the coverage that they purchased on

It's one of the elements of this rebranding effort, this three-week rebranding effort, you might not hear a whole lot about, Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta reporting for us from the White House. To be continued.

Just ahead, frequent fliers all across America may have a stake in a case that the United States Supreme Court heard today. Stand by for details.

Could this happen to you?


RABBI BINYOMIN GINSBERG, PLAINTIFF: They called me out of the blue and said, your miles are done. Your status is done. And I was sure it was a prank. That's how outlandish it was.



BLITZER: Your rights as a frequent flier are on the line right now before the United States Supreme Court. This case is generating lots of buzz. The justices heard arguments today pitting an airline against a rabbi whose frequent flier privileges were yanked because he complained too much.

Our crime and justice correspondent, Joe Johns, is here to pick up the story for us.

All right, Joe, what is going on?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, tens of millions of Americans are signed on these frequent flier programs. Almost always, their complaints get resolved without the first lawyer getting involved.

But this case about the rights of the customers somehow made its way all the way to the Supreme Court, thanks to a rabbi on a mission.


JOHNS (voice-over): It's been said that Rabbi Binyomin Ginsberg spends more time in the air than on the ground, taking his teaching of the Torah to children coast to coast and overseas. But he lost faith in his frequent flier club when Northwest Airlines dumped him from its rewards program. Why? Because the airline said he complained too much.

GINSBERG: I was sitting with my wife in the car. And we both started laughing, thinking it was a prank.

JOHNS: Turns out Northwest was serious. They said he was abusing the program to get extra perks. He says his complaints were all on the up and up.

GINSBERG: It wasn't the nature that the peanuts were too salty or they served Pepsi products vs. Coke products. They were legitimate conservative and they were expressed in a very, very polite and cordial way.

JOHNS: It's a David and Goliath story that boils down to this. Ginsberg sued in state court, claiming the airline acted in bad faith. But Northwest had a contract that said it could do anything it wanted and rules put in place during airline deregulation in the late '70s said Northwest could not be sued over services.

Northwest attorney Paul Clement argued airlines should not be forced to haggle over such things in court. "The reason is, you cannot run a national, let alone an international airline if every one of your judgments about taking an unruly passenger off or taking out an abusive customer is going to be second-guessed by a jury."

A very unusual case to make it all the way to the Supreme Court, but it may be bigger than it looks. Frequent flier programs have partners, lots of hotels, rental car companies and many other brands that feed into the programs.

But Gary Leff (ph), who blogs about frequent flier programs, says lawsuits are rare. What is more common is customer confusion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the biggest drawback comes from misconception of exactly what's being offered by the programs, where the programs themselves, frequent flier programs have become very complicated.


JOHNS: Might be a tough case, too. The members of the court appeared split over it. A ruling is expected by the spring -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Joe.

Let's bring in our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

How extraordinary, unusual is a case like this going before the nine justices?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Wolf, why I love this case is Supreme Court cases are usually about abstractions and complex ideas. I think everyone can understand this, which is, how much can frequent flier programs run the show? Is this like a contract you have with an airline? Or can they simply say, you know what, we changed our mind? It's like a discount or a premium, like the toy in your Happy Meal. This is just up to the airline.

That struggle, is this -- where frequent flier miles fit within that commercial exchange, that's what the case is all about.

BLITZER: And there are precedents potentially that could be set here that will affect consumers across the board, right?

TOOBIN: Well, it's not just the precedent. It's just simply the fact of frequent flier miles.

Millions of Americans have these. Lots of people rely on them for their vacations, for all sorts of personal travel, and they feel like it's a form of property. The airline is arguing, it's not a form of property, that, under a federal law, this is something that's a gift, that airlines gave them and they can take them away for whatever reason they like.

And -- but several justices said, that just doesn't sound right. This is something we have come to expect. And airlines have to act at least somewhat rationally, or they can be sued. And that was the tension in the courtroom. And it's got big stakes for a lot of people.

BLITZER: Are you surprised that the Supreme Court decided to hear these arguments?

TOOBIN: Not really, Wolf.

You know, one of the dirty little secrets of the Supreme Court is they take lots of really boring cases. This case is a lot more interesting than most of them. And you could see it in the argument today. The justices were really into it. These were obviously nine people who have frequent flier miles. They didn't have to have this case explained to them, as most Americans don't.

BLITZER: Does this case pit liberal vs. conservative justice or other factors?

TOOBIN: It's probably not like abortion or affirmative action, but it is true that by and large the conservative side with defendants in -- in these cases.

When you have an individual suing a company, the more conservative members of the court tend to side with the defendants. The more liberal members tend to side with the plaintiffs. That's not 100 percent, but that was that division that you saw on display. And we will see by spring how it comes out.

BLITZER: We certainly will. Jeffrey will be with us every step of the way.

Thank you.