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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Wildfires Rage in Texas, Oklahoma; Somali Pirates Hold American Hostage

Aired April 9, 2009 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Larry, we begin with breaking news tonight on two fronts: American lives in danger a world away on the high seas, and, back here, on dry land, tinder-dry land, wildfires burning tonight in Texas and Oklahoma, flames now searing entire neighborhoods. You see them right there. Hurricane-force winds drive them higher.

CNN's Chad Myers is in the Weather Center right now, gathering late developments. He will be with us in a few minutes.

We begin, though, with the danger on the high seas. Tonight, it comes down to a lifeboat just like this one with a captain in it, an American captain, and four Somali pirates. They're armed, dangerous and increasingly, it seems, desperate.

First contact today with them and their hostage, Richard Phillips, who is skipper of the freighter Alabama. We have new details on that as well -- his family reporting that he offered himself to the pirates in exchange for the freedom of his crew. The Alabama is now steaming to safety.

The lifeboat now in the shadow of one of the U.S. Navy's most fearsome warships and, we are just learning tonight two more heading their way, including one with a full surgical team, if the need arises.

Now, all of this taking place in pirate-infested -- infested waters off the coast of Somalia there. Negotiations are going on with the hijackers as we speak. The talks normal in cases like this one. Usually, no one gets hurt, money is exchanged. But there's a wild card this time. Everyone is hoping it won't be a deadly one.

This time, the pirate are face to face with the U.S. Navy. And tensions are high. In a cell phone call to the Reuters press service, one of the pirates reportedly saying, "Please, pray for us."

Randi Kaye has the latest.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The lifeboat is adrift, fuel for the engine used up, on board, the four pirates, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, and their hostage, captain Richard Phillips.

Looming nearby, a 9,200-ton U.S. Navy warship, the Bainbridge. Overhead, an unmanned drone feeds the Navy ship images of the lifeboat. As for the captain's ship, the Maersk Alabama, and its 20- man crew, it steamed away earlier today, now accompanied by armed sailors on a 50-hour journey to its original destination in Kenya.

But what about the captain? How will the standoff end?

KIRK LIPPOLD, FORMER COMMANDER, USS COLE: Time is on the Navy's side. Right now, it's just a matter of wearing them down, talking them through, and ensuring that they understand the complicated situation that they have gotten themselves into.

KAYE: Sounds simple, but family members are anxious.

On "Good Morning America," the captain's sister-in-law.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")

LEA COGGIO, SISTER-IN-LAW OF MAERSK ALABAMA CAPTAIN: They were able to get some food and water to Richard and the Somalis in -- in the lifeboat.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KAYE: But the standoff has so far lasted nearly two full days in that lifeboat.

(on camera): Here's what that lifeboat looks like. It's about 28 feet long. It's covered, made of fiberglass, with standard military-style seats. It's designed for survival, not comfort. On board that lifeboat, food is limited, and they have no fuel.

JOE MURPHY, FATHER OF MAERSK ALABAMA CREW MEMBER: It's a very uncomfortable place. It's very small. There's no toilet facilities or anything like that.

KAYE (voice-over): Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a bright spot: The captain is unharmed.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: We are watching this and intend to do all we can to make sure there is no loss of life.

KAYE: The White House says an interagency group on maritime safety is managing the situation.

In the meantime, two more Navy ships are headed to the scene. They should arrive in the next 24 hours. But, really, what are the options, given the U.S.' policy on dealing with terrorists?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE, FORMER DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The U.S. has a very clear policy of no concessions. That's different than no negotiations. That means no ransoms, nothing of value in return for the safe release of hostages. That does not mean that the FBI or other elements of the U.S. government cannot talk to hostage-takers.

KAYE: So, for now, huddled in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the captain, the pirates, and the Navy wait for someone to make a move.

Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, more now on the American in that lifeboat, captain Phillips, a former Boston cab driver, who traded the highway for the high seas.

Erica Hill now takes us up close -- Erica.

ERICA HILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And, Anderson, before he got behind the wheel of that cab, we're told he played basketball, football and lacrosse.

He's been described as a six-foot burly guy with a thick Boston accent, which likely came in handy with that cab. He actually drove a cab while he was attending the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. We have heard a lot about this school in the last couple days.

He graduated in 1979. And, apparently, at one point, he thought about going into international law, but beautiful sunrises and sunsets, we're told, drew him to the ocean. He's known as a diligent captain, who frequently conducted emergency drills, including what to do in case of a pirate attack.

Now, we -- we did mention he -- he graduated in 1979. He's married. He has two college-age children. We actually heard from his wife, Andrea Phillips, yesterday, before she knew, as I understand it, that he had actually been taken hostage.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDREA PHILLIPS, WIFE OF MAERSK ALABAMA CAPTAIN: Even from the e-mail I got from Richard a couple days ago, he did say that activity was high and they were, you know, on high alert.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: He had actually just gotten out there two weeks ago -- two weeks ago, Anderson. He lives in rural Vermont, but he had flown to the United Arab Emirates to captain this 508-foot-long ship.

COOPER: His family is not speaking anymore, right?

HILL: They're not. In fact, there was a press conference scheduled for this afternoon.

We thought we were actually going to hear again from his wife, Andrea Phillips. But, at one point, a neighbor came out of the home and said that, in fact, she was not going to be able to come to the microphone.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think, right now, she's just overwhelmed, and she feels that she just can't deal with this right now.

She's upset enough about her husband and his situation, and just needs her privacy.

QUESTION: Has there been a change in the...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Obviously something everyone can understand right now.

The neighbor also said, when asked, that, at that point -- this was about 4:30 this afternoon -- she hadn't had any additional updates. But we have been hearing a little bit more about him, and just that he really was this fun-loving, risk-taking guy, but who cared so much about his crew.

COOPER: Well, and, right now, he's on that lifeboat. There's no bathroom there. The batteries ran low.

And his radio -- apparently, the Navy was able to drop off some more supplies, a little bit more food. But it's got to be a pretty dismal situation on that lifeboat.

We're "Digging Deeper" on this story tonight. We're going to have more on it.

But don't just watch it alone. You can join the live chat happening at AC360.com. You can talk with other viewers there. And check out Erica Hill's live Webcasts during the breaks as well.

Up next, though, why didn't the Alabama carry armed guards? Why don't all these freighters? We're going to have the answers on that.

Also, the latest on those wildfires and the hurricane-force winds we're talking about in Texas, Oklahoma. The winds are driving them strong. We will -- we will take a -- we will have -- bring you the latest.

Plus, a story everyone is talking about: a young pitcher's life tragically cut short -- details of the hit-and-run that has stunned a team and their fans.

And, later, 360 M.D. Dr. Sanjay Gupta investigating the death of actress Natasha Richardson. What really happened on that mountain? Sanjay takes a close look.

And first lady Michelle Obama planting the first White House vegetable patch in generations. She was out there again today, with a little help from her young friends.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: So, the sun is about to rise on the high seas off Somalia at this hour, American merchant captain Richard Phillips sitting in a crippled lifeboat, no motor left, four Somali pirates armed, desperate, facing one Navy warship, soon two more.

This is no longer the old game of grab a ship, hold the crew, collect the ransom, and race home. This is not a game right now at all. It is a standoff.

Chris Lawrence is monitoring the military moves at the Pentagon tonight.

Chris, what's the latest?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, two ships on the way, they should be there in the next day, day-and-a- half.

One is the Halliburton. It's a frigate armed with guided missiles and helicopters on board. The other is the Boxer. It is going to the general area, not necessarily right to the scene. But the reason that it's going, I'm told, is because it has got large medical facilities on board, full operating room, full surgical team. And that's the reason it's going.

COOPER: And you -- but it's going to take a day, day-and-a-half to get there?

LAWRENCE: Yes, just like it look -- remember, last night, we were waiting for so long for the Bainbridge to get there? You know, a few hundred nautical miles, that's -- that's quite a ways. We're talking about a big, big area of open ocean.

COOPER: So, why send these two more -- I mean, these are huge ships. We're dealing with a little lifeboat here with four guys in it. Why this massive response?

LAWRENCE: Well, the -- what the Navy is saying is, it's not just this one hostage situation, that the attacks are -- are increasing in this area.

You know, January and February, there were only two attacks in this whole area. All of a sudden, that skyrocketed to 15 last month. So, what it shows to Pentagon officials is, the pirates are adapting. They're going where the coalition is not.

So, the Navy is going to have to reposition their ships a little bit.

COOPER: And there's a large number of U.S. officials dealing with this hijacking. What -- I mean, what can they do?

LAWRENCE: An unbelievable amount.

You know, President Barack Obama has been getting daily updates since the moment he got back from Iraq. The attorney general has spoken out about it. The FBI is involved. The secretaries of state and defense both say this is a top priority. That's a lot of high- powered people to -- for this one rescue. And some analysts say the reason they're all involved is because that how the Obama administration really responds to this crisis could indicate to some of our enemies around the world how it might respond to future crises.

COOPER: All right, Chris Lawrence at the Pentagon, we will continue to check in with you throughout this hour.

There have been six pirate attacks so far this week, 66 this year alone, millions in ransom paid, as much as $80 million last year.

Now, the Alabama, as we mentioned, is steaming from Mombasa, which is in Kenya, with armed guards on the deck now. They didn't have that before.

So, the question is, given the risk and the cost of piracy, why aren't all these ships armed?

Joe Johns has the answers.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The question so many are asking, why aren't the ships' crews armed? Why don't they defend their vessels?

First, shipping companies fear unintended consequences. A shoot- out on the high seas could escalate a hijacking into an even worse situation.

JAMES HOHENSTEIN, MARITIME EXPERT: Consider a vessel, Joe, that is carrying a -- a volatile cargo, and resistance is shown. The pirates decide to take on the crew and use a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, fire upon the vessel, and horrible things could -- could take place, not only the loss of the crew, but the loss of the vessel, and given what is carried in -- on various ships, you know, an environmental disaster.

JOHNS: Plus, crews in territorial water are subject to local firearms laws. Guns are banned by some countries. And guns that are allowed by other countries are likely to be no match for pirates with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles.

So, what are the defense techniques crews can use? A lot of them are almost primitive. It's a game of cat and mouse. And the first tactic is to watch the seas and your radar closely to avoid pirates. But if their little speedboats catch up to your ship, there are ways to stop them from boarding, everything from fiery Molotov cocktails to electric shocks, to repelling the pirates with high-pressure fire hoses, even making a lot of noise.

The best defenses against a -- a piracy attack is -- is -- is vigilance, number one, the passive weapons, such as the acoustic device that will blow out the eardrums of -- of attackers. There's the -- there are barbed wires, razor wire. There's even greasing the decks. JOHNS: On a bigger scale, so far, military intervention has pretty much failed. After all, it's a vast expanse, hundreds of square miles of water in this part of the world. And pirates adjust and move to the areas not patrolled. So, how about private security forces for individual vessels?

They're apparently already being used, although no one knows how often. A company called Maritime Asset Security and Training, MAST for short, boasts on its Web site that it's currently conducting over 30 ship transits a month in the Gulf of Aden for 13 large shipping clients.

(on camera): But the same problem exists with private security that exists with arming the crews, the danger of escalation, causing harm to the crew and damage to the ship or its contents.

HOHENSTEIN: To some extent, it's the same concerns about having an armed crew, albeit a private security company should have highly trained personnel who know what they're doing. In other words, the concern is the escalation of the threat.

JOHNS (voice-over): So, it's risky, no matter what. Shipping companies face a Hobson's choice. If they send firepower to defend their vessels, they invite return fire that could cause a catastrophe. And if they don't, the pirates are free to roam the seas, making millions more in ransom.

Joe Johns, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, the question is, how do U.S. authorities deal with these pirates? They have them surrounded. What happens next? We're going to cover that angle next with a security expert who deals with just such emergencies.

Also, could Natasha Richardson's death have been avoided after her fall on a Canadian ski slope? Dr. Sanjay Gupta has gone to the scene of the accident, and has this:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Twelve forty-three p.m., a call comes in. Natasha Richardson has fallen somewhere on these slopes, gentle beginner slopes. What no one could have known then was that, when she fell, she hit her head hard enough to fracture her skull and start bleeding on top of her brain.

The clock started had ticking for Natasha, and the closest trauma center two-and-a-half-hours away.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: We're going to have more on our breaking news, also, wildfires raging -- you see them right there -- Texas, Oklahoma. Hurricane-force winds are making it all worse, fueling the flames. We will have the latest from Chad Myers.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Well, you look at these pirates, you have got to wonder, are they any match for the U.S. Navy? They prey on dozens of freighters a month Gulf of Aden and off the Horn of Africa. They hijack cargo ships, oil tankers, vessels carrying artillery and tanks.

There, they have got AK-47s, some heavy machine guns, some RPGs. They're in it for the money. But, this time, four of them are stuck on a lifeboat with one American hostage. Apparently, they only have AK-47s with them.

Joining us now is author and security consultant Duncan Falconer of AKE Security.

Duncan, it's good to see you.

You know, when I first heard that these guys, four guys, gunmen, in a lifeboat, my -- my first thought was, well, I'm sure there are some Navy SEAL snipers around who could just pick these guys off. But, then, you look at the lifeboat, and it's basically an enclosed plastic tub. So, you really, I guess, can't get a visual on where these people are.

DUNCAN FALCONER, AKE SECURITY: Yes. I don't think that would be the -- the option anyway.

I mean, this has got to be a clean option. We have got to get the captain off without any injury to him, and, also, really, to -- I think the plan would be not to injure not any of the fishermen pirates either.

COOPER: So, what do you do?

FALCONER: Well, right now, it's all down to the negotiators. That's their job.

What they're going to try to do is turn a bunch of very frightened individuals -- because these guys, I think they know that their future as pirates and fishermen has come to an end. And now all their concerns are is, are we going to spend the rest of our lives in a Kenyan prison? And do we do something -- what do we do to get out of this?

And I think the negotiators' job is to try and turn that fear into trust.

COOPER: The -- it's got to be a difficult thing, though. I mean, I have worked in Somalia. Everything is an argument with -- with gunmen. You're always in arguments. You're always in these negotiations. They're very unreliable. A lot of time, they're chewing khat, which is this amphetamine-like twig that sort of makes them all tweaked out by the end of the day.

It has got to be a difficult dance with them. FALCONER: Oh, absolutely.

Yes, I mean, they're -- but -- but I think, more than anything, now, they're really scared. And so I think a lot of that has gone by the bye now, and so you have got -- you have got to deal with a scared person who's only got one ace in their -- in their hands. And that's -- and that's the captain.

They want to avoid years of imprisonment. And I don't -- I don't think they're under any illusions that that's going to happen. And they're just trying to negotiate the best deal possible.

COOPER: Does this change -- I mean, once this is resolved, does the situation off the gulf change? I mean, do countries get together? Do they rethink security for these ships? What happens?

FALCONER: Well, first of all, I think everyone accepts the fact that piracy is here to stay. It's just -- it's not only in the gulf. There's a lot of pirates around the world.

But I don't think it is going to stop in -- in the Gulf of Aden. We have got a -- we have got a -- we're going to look at decades of this, at least, until we can find a way of stabilizing the government of Somalia. Yes, we can come up with plans, but you have got international law. You have got -- there are so many issues.

I think independent security companies are going to move in and try and fill the gap, pretty much the way they did fill these sort of gaps in Iraq and they're filling in Afghanistan, sort of the -- the military isn't always prepared and geared up and can't actually do this long term.

COOPER: Well, I have got to say, if I was stuck on a boat, I would want you with me, because I have worked with you in the past. And it's good to have your expertise. Thank you.

FALCONER: Great to see you again.

COOPER: All right. Take care.

Coming up, we will have the latest on the wildfires raging in Texas and Oklahoma. At least 75 homes are destroyed.

Also tonight, President Obama being briefed on the pirate standoff. He's also asking for more money for Iraq and Afghanistan, a lot more money, and the White House looking to move on immigration reform. New questions tonight if the president is taking on too much. David Gergen joins us live for that.

And one of baseball's rising stars is dead, a tragic hit-and-run. We will bring you the latest on what happened.

And the first presidential seder -- it's never happened before with the president in attendance -- we have the new photo just released. We will show that to you. And Michelle Obama going green in her new White House garden, hoping to use Sasha and Malia as healthy examples for kids across America.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: What I have learned as a mom, in trying to feed my...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: All right, updating our breaking story out of Texas and Oklahoma: 75 to 100 homes already destroyed in Oklahoma, flames now threatening neighborhoods in Oklahoma City, thousands more acres -- the inferno being driven by the kind of wind that you never want to see, even without flames.

One firefighter has been critically injured right now. And everyone on the fire lines and off is watching the weather forecast.

So are we.

Chad Myers is in the Weather Center. Chad, what's happening?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: And now the wind are shifting, Anderson, which is a bad thing, because what was a long fire line now becomes a long front line.

And from our affiliate KFOR -- we're going to go to a bunch of different affiliates here, but this is what it looked like in Midwest City, Oklahoma, near Choctaw, Oklahoma, in parts of West Texas as well. We have probably had 35 wildfires completely out of control during the day today. Some of them still are out of control, although a lot of them are getting knocked down at this hour.

As the sun sets, the winds go down a little as well. So, that's kind of helped the firefighter. But it was a devastating scene in Midwest City, in Choctaw, west of Stillwater as well, near Sparks, Oklahoma, and then also down to the south, to the west of Fort Worth, also west of Dallas about 50 or so miles.

That same system tonight making tornadoes, tornadoes on the ground, damage and injuries in Mena, Arkansas, going up the I-44, up near Springfield, Missouri, tornadoes on the ground near Glenwood, Arkansas, Bradley, Arkansas, and Nesbitt, Texas, right now. What a big-time system. We're going to have this wind all night long tonight for most of Oklahoma, 35 miles per hour, but not the 55 and 60 miles an hour that we had earlier today -- Anderson.

COOPER: Those pictures are just horrific.

MYERS: Devastating.

COOPER: Yes. We will continue to monitor it with you throughout this hour.

To Washington now and a major milestone, the administration announcing plans to seek another $83 billion -- that's billion -- for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing the total spending close to $1 trillion. The president also wants to also overhaul veterans services. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have a sacred trust with those who wear the uniform of the United States of America. It's a commitment that begins at enlistment, and it must never end.

But we know that, for too long, we have fallen short of meeting that commitment. Too many wounded warriors go without the care that they need. Too many veterans don't receive the support that they have earned. Too many who once wore our nation's uniform now sleep in our nation's streets. It's time to change all that. It's time to give our veterans a 21st century VA.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: Mr. Obama also laying out plans to tackle administration, in addition, of course, to the economy and all the other things.

Candy Crowley takes a look at his full plate and the "Raw Politics."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): remember this, less than a month before the election, Joe Biden at a fund-raiser?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, OCTOBER 2008)

JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Mark my words: It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama, like they did John Kennedy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: It's no Bay of Pigs, but the new president has been hit with some pretty major pop quizzes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He has a lot on his plate. He's got a lot of pressure. But, so far, it looks like he's trying to find a way to deal with all of these issues at once.

CROWLEY: It's not like he has a choice. Sunday, in Prague, the president was awakened. It was a scenario reminiscent of a campaign ad Hillary Clinton aired suggesting Barack Obama was inexperienced.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, HILLARY CLINTON CAMPAIGN AD)

NARRATOR: It's 3:00 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CROWLEY: President Obama was awakened at 4:30 to learn that North Korea launched a rocket that could be used for long-range missiles. It was a failed, but defiant act, in the face of U.N. rules.

B. OBAMA: Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons.

CROWLEY: So far, the U.N. has not responded to the North Korean launch.

Since then, a second flare-up -- a U.S.-flagged ship hijacked off the coast of Somalia, its captain taken hostage.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president has followed the situation closely, has gotten -- got updates throughout yesterday and today.

CROWLEY: That's code for: aware and keeping up, but not hands- on.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... Somali pirates.

B. OBAMA: Thank you.

Guys, we're talking about housing right now.

CROWLEY: The president ducked reporters' questions about the hijacking, but he's covered.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: These people are nothing more than criminals. And we're bringing to bear a number of our assets.

CROWLEY: And now, just a day after the U.S. does a 180, and agrees to join Iran at multinational talks about Iran's nuclear program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad again showed himself to be a tough customer.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): They should start by destroying their own weapons. We are prepared to teach them our logic and rationale.

CROWLEY: He's winding down the war in Iraq, ramping up the war in Afghanistan. The president says he will be needing about $84 billion to cover things until the fall. It is a lot of work, with a lot of surprises, but don't cry for him, Argentina. He saw this coming last September.

OBAMA: Presidents are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time.

CROWLEY: In workplace parlance, the president is multitasking. He's under a lot of pressure, but it's part of the job description.

Candy Crowley, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Part of the job description but pressure like this is extraordinary. Senior political analyst David Gergen is here now with more of our politics.

David, we got word the president is also talking about tackling immigration this year. Do you think he's trying to do too -- we've asked this before, but it seems more important now than ever. Is he trying to do too much?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Anderson, since we first started talking about this, we were talking mostly about a domestic agenda, and now the international agenda is pushing in, just as it does on every president.

During Cold War, most presidents spent about 60 percent of their time on international affairs. And now the percentage is going up for President Barack Obama.

I don't think he's trying to do too much on the international front. I question whether they need to get him up in the middle of the night to tell him things when it's -- you know, we knew the Iranian -- I mean, the North Korean test was coming, for example. I don't think you have to get him up for pirates or something like that. I think those things can be handled in the morning.

The -- he's also -- on the pirate question, Anderson -- using Hillary Clinton out front and not Barack Obama.

COOPER: He didn't want to -- he didn't want to take questions.

GERGEN: Somebody else. Yes, I thought that was very smart. He doesn't want to get in the middle of it. It's messy. You know, a man's life is at stake, and it's extremely important how we handle that. But he doesn't want to micromanage that situation. That's -- that's what he's got a government for.

I think the bigger question, though, is on this domestic stuff. I just cannot believe he's going to put immigration on the plate of the Congress. He may raise it this year. But the Congress is absolutely stacked with stuff.

And you know, it's -- and he still doesn't have this economy under control. The markets are coming up, but the Federal Reserve has its own internal report from a few days ago, saying, this economy is coming around much slower than anybody thought. It's going to be a very rough year this year, and next year's going to be very slow.

It seems -- I continue to believe that has to be his No. 1 focus. Health care and climate change are important. But I think his focus has to be on the economy.

COOPER: His argument, of course, is that health care is vital to the economy and to the economy's future. It's also interesting with immigration. I mean, this is such a contentious issue. If bipartisanship is one of the things you're trying to achieve, although we don't hear so much about that, frankly, anymore, it's one of the most contentious issues out there right now.

GERGEN: Well, it sure is, Anderson. And one of the things we do know is -- and Karl Rove just drove -- you know, drove that issue today in a piece in "The Wall Street Journal." Is the country is separating out. The Pew Research people have found, actually, we've become more polarized than we have been under previous presidents. A whole lot of Democrats, Democrats almost universally supporting President Obama, many, many independents, but Republicans peeled off in droves. We have this -- a lot of polarization.

On this immigration issue, he did promise during the campaign that he would put this issue on the agenda in year one of this presidency. He did get a lot of Hispanic support. In fact, of the eight states that were Republican states that he flipped into the Democratic column, Hispanic voters were often given credit for moving at least four of those into the Democratic column. So he has a debt there.

But I don't think he wants to put it into play legislatively. He may want to start the conversation, but next year ought to be the year for immigration reform. His plate is absolutely full already.

COOPER: One quick more question. Because we don't have much time, but I think it's important. You worked with Republican presidents and Democratic presidents. In terms of Barack Obama, President Obama's leadership style, the way he deals with this full plate, I mean, how do you assess him? He seems cool as a cucumber whenever, you know, I've interviewed him and stuff. But -- because the pressure has got to be intense. How do you assess his leadership, his style?

GERGEN: I think he's handling the pressure extraordinarily well. He's taking it in stride. He clearly loves being president.

He's leading a very different way than we've seen either Democrats or Republicans do. And that is on -- both on climate change and on health care, rather than writing the legislation downtown in the executive branch in the White House, they farmed it out to the Congress to go write it.

Now, most White Houses would never want to do that. It's sort of like leading from behind instead of in front. Whether it's going to work or not, I think remains to be seen. It's going to be one of the big, big questions hanging over the next few months.

COOPER: All right. We'll talk more about this down the road. David Gergen, thanks very much.

Up next, a 360 investigation. Dr. Sanjay Gupta reporting from the scene of the accident that killed actress Natasha Richardson, retracing her final moments, looking into why some believe her death could have been prevented.

Plus, a massive terror roundup in Britain. We talked about it last night. A top cop, though, quits today. We'll tell you why tonight -- after this photo. It's all about this photo, what he's carrying in his hands. What he's holding there should never have been seen in public.

Also tonight, Michelle Obama's latest moves in the garden, what she said today, what she planted and why.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Tonight Liam Neeson returns to work. The actor is going to star in "Clash of the Titans," which is his first film since the death of his wife, Natasha Richardson.

Meanwhile, there are new details about the accident that led to her death. As you'll recall, she was on a ski getaway at a ski resort in eastern Canada. The 911 calls obtained by Canadian newspapers, the "Globe" and "Mail," illustrate what some Quebec doctors have been saying, probably, for a while. Getting to a trauma center fast just is not possible in this area. That has, perhaps, deadly consequences.

Chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon, has this 360 investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was Monday, March 16. The conditions were clear, cold and sunny on the mountain when the first 911 call went out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (SPEAKING FRENCH)

GUPTA: In French, an operator dispatches an ambulance to the Mont Tremblant resort. A woman has fallen.

(on camera) 12:43 p.m., a call comes in. Natasha Richardson has fallen somewhere on these slopes: gentle, beginner slopes. What no one could have known was that, when she fell, she hit her head hard enough to fracture her skull and start bleeding on top of her brain. The clock had started ticking for Natasha, and the closest trauma center, 2 1/2 hours away.

(voice-over) Richardson likely doesn't know what was happening to her. She is up; she's walking.

(on camera) By 1 p.m., 17 minutes after that initial call, an ambulance arrived here, but Natasha Richardson was already heading back to her room. She said she felt fine. I can tell you, as a neurosurgeon, that's not unusual. Someone has a significant blow to the head and then has what is known as a lucid interval where they do feel fine, but that pressure is still starting to build up in the brain.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING FRENCH)

GUPTA (voice-over): The paramedics are told to stand down. Richardson says she doesn't need medical attention.

(on camera) The Mont Tremblant ski resort is considered one of the best in eastern Canada, yet there are no medical helicopter services here, which got us wondering if this was less about the tragic story of Natasha Richardson and more about anybody who chooses to ski here. Remember: the closest trauma hospital is 2 1/2 hours away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING FRENCH)

GUPTA (voice-over): Richardson's story is about to take a turn.

(on camera) 2:59 p.m., another 911 calls comes in. Natasha Richardson has been at this resort for more than an hour, and she's feeling sick. From a head injury like this, that typically means she has a headache; she's feeling disoriented; she may have trouble seeing.

3:09 p.m., about ten minutes later, another ambulance comes in here. The paramedics go inside. They work on Natasha for about 33 minutes. Precious time here before they bring her back into the ambulance.

What we now know is that she was suffering from an epidural hematoma.

(voice-over) An epidural hematoma, it occurs when a blood clot forms between the skull and the outer layer of the brain. Too much pressure causing brain damage. Every moment counts.

DR. LIAM DURCAN, MONTREAL NEUROLOGICAL HOSPITAL & INSTITUTE: The symptoms are apparent, it can be a matter of 30 minutes to an hour to 90 minutes before there is major deterioration.

GUPTA: Dr. Liam Durcan is a neurologist with the Montreal Neurological Institute.

DURCAN: It was a rapidly deteriorating situation. The distance might have been too much by, you know, by ambulance.

GUPTA: And that's the point. It happened to be Natasha Richardson, but for anyone who suffers a head injury on this mountain, a trauma center may be too far away.

(on camera) Under the best of circumstances it would have taken her a few hours -- more than two hours to get to Montreal, the closest trauma center. Is that close enough? DURCAN: It's difficult to say.

GUPTA (voice-over): Back in the ambulance, Richardson's lapsing in and out of consciousness.

(on camera) It is now 4:20 p.m. Natasha Richardson is brought to this hospital here in St. Agathe. It's only 38 minutes away. But here's the problem. It is not a trauma center, and they can't provide the sort of care that Natasha needs.

Keep in mind: it is recommended that anyone who's in Natasha's condition needs to be in a trauma center within 60 to 90 minutes. It's now been 3 1/2 hours.

(voice-over) Way too long since she fell on the mountain. The doctors here, without the right equipment, without the right facilities, eventually send her to a trauma center in Montreal. She arrives close to 7 p.m. Time has run out.

Twenty-four hours later she is flown to New York, where she's taken off life support and where she dies.

Flight time from medevac helicopter from the mountain to a trauma center is about 15 minutes. So could it have saved Natasha Richardson? No one can answer that question. But let's pose the question this way: if this happened to you, what would you want?

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, Mont Tremblant, Canada.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, CNN reached out to the Canadian government for comment on the lack of medevac services in Quebec. They would not return our repeated calls nor our e-mails.

Coming up next, a tragic ending for a baseball rookie, Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, killed in a hit and run the night he'd pitched one of the best games of his career.

Also tonight, wildfires roaring through small towns of Oklahoma and Texas. Hurricane-force winds, firefighters struggling to put them out. That's a live picture right now. You're seeing that house just completely up in flames. We'll have the latest.

And the first presidential Seder. We have the new photo, just released. It took place tonight. It is our "Shot." More ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Tonight a heartbreaking tragedy has shaken America's pastime. Last night 22-year-old Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart pitched one of the best games of his life and just hours later he was dead, along with two others in what police call a hit and run with a drunk driver at the wheel.

David Mattingly has the latest. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Nick Adenhart was having the kind of spring ballplayers dream about. Wednesday night the Los Angeles Angels right-hander had just polished off his fourth major league start, a brilliant game against the Oakland A's. He threw six scoreless innings and struck out five.

But just hours later, all Adenhart's promise, all his talent, came to a sudden and terrible end.

SCOTT BORAS, MAJOR LEAGUE AGENT: The privilege -- good kid.

MATTINGLY: At 12:23 a.m., police say a red minivan ran a red light and struck two vehicles at an intersection south of L.A. Adenhart was a passenger, one of four people in this silver Mitsubishi. Two people in the car died at the scene. Another is in critical condition. Adenhart was seriously injured and died later at the hospital.

TONY REAGINS, GENERAL MANAGER: It's just so difficult at this time to just put it into words how much Nick will be missed.

MATTINGLY: Adenhart was just 22, enjoying the first time he ever started the season on a major league roster. His agent says he had worked hard to overcome shoulder surgery and believed his latest performance proved he was a true major leaguer.

SCOTT BORAS, MAJOR LEAGUE AGENT: It's one of the most exciting things about what we share in this game is to see the glow of a young man when he takes a huge step in his life. The (UNINTELLIGIBLE). It's something that all of us in the game can share.

MATTINGLY (on camera): Police say the man who allegedly caused the accident was also just 22. He survived the accident and fled the scene but was later arrested. He faces charges of manslaughter, drunk driving, and hit and run.

(voice-over) And Adenhart's family, friends and fans face a season thinking of what might have been for a talented young pitcher who seemed destined for great things.

David Mattingly, CNN, Atlanta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: So sad.

Let's get you up to date on our other breaking news, the wildfires raging. Erica Hill has that and more in our "360 News and Business Bulletin" -- Erica.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Anderson, those wildfires have no incinerated as many as 100 homes in the southwest. Evacuations are under way in the suburbs of Oklahoma City. The flames there simply burning out of control. They've been fanned by high winds in parts of Oklahoma and Texas.

Also, just getting some more video coming in to us here of what's happening. I believe we have some video just in front Midwest City, Oklahoma. I believe that might be it. We're seeing some people trying to fight these flames. Three men trying to fight the flames on a house with a hose. Something we've seen before, Anderson. And unfortunately, it never seems to work with a fire like this. Simply too strong.

We'll continue to follow this for you here on CNN.

Meantime, substantial gains on Wall Street today. The Dow closing above 8,000, its highest level since early February. The NASDAQ and S&P also ending the day in positive territory.

Britain's chief terrorism officer resigning today, one day after he accidentally exposed a sensitive document related to the recent roundup of terrorist suspects. Those raided had to be conducted suddenly after details of the operation went public.

Reports out of London indicate an attack may have come as early as this weekend if yesterday's roundup had not occurred. Twelve people were taken into custody.

And an interesting sign of these tough economic times: men buying less underwear. Oh, yes, apparently it's true. And apparently very serious stuff. Former Fed chair Alan Greenspan once said a dip in skivy sales is almost always a sign that trouble is on the horizon.

COOPER: Wow.

HILL: There you go.

COOPER: Well, he's going commando these days, so we're really in trouble. From what I understand.

HILL: So TMI.

COOPER: I made that up.

Up next, Michelle Obama goes organic with the help of some kids. I don't know -- yes. She may inspire you to do the same. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: This garden cannot only feed my family, but it's going to feed all the staff at the White House. We're going to use these vegetables to help feed you guys. We're going to serve it at some state dinners. So with this little plot of land -- and this is a big plot, you don't even have to plant this much -- we can produce enough fruits and vegetables to feed us for years and years to come.

(END VIDEO CLIP) COOPER: Plus a White House first, the Obamas hosting a Passover Seder. The first one a president has attended. It's our "Shot of the Day." Be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: At the White House Michelle Obama hits the dirt, comes up smiling. Joined by an army of fifth graders, the first lady planted the first fruits and vegetables in the new White House garden. Her plan: to keep the family and the White House staff knee deep in leafy greens and to teach America about healthy eating, as well.

Erica Hill has the latest in a "360 Follow."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

M. OBAMA: Well, hello.

HILL (voice-over): On a beautiful April afternoon, the White House garden is springing to life.

M. OBAMA: You have brought another perfect day. Thank you for that.

HILL: Kids from Washington's Bancroft Elementary School back to help the first lady plant the seeds that will keep the White House kitchen humming. Rhubarb, kale, cilantro, sage and plenty more where that came from.

M. OBAMA: Well, let's get to work.

HILL: It's a moment renowned chef Alice Waters has been waiting for.

ALICE WATERS, EXECUTIVE CHEF, CHEZ PANISSE: That image of Michelle Obama in the garden with the children is maybe the most important message we can give about food. It's just the most wonderful way to make the connection between the garden and the table.

HILL: And Americans are getting the message. With spring barely on the calendar, the impact of Mrs. Obama's garden is growing like, well, a weed.

SCOTT MEYER, EDITOR, "ORGANIC GARDENING MAGAZINE": All of the seed companies I've been speaking to and everybody in gardening is experiencing a great boom in sales. And it's really driven by this enthusiasm for people to grow their own food and imitate the president and his wife.

HILL: It's also a smart move financially. Despite high estimates from these students -- one thought the garden cost $100,000, a figure Mrs. Obama said would make her husband crazy -- this 1,100 square foot garden actually costs less than a fancy dinner for four.

M. OBAMA: This garden cannot only feed my family, but it's going to feed all the staff at the White House. We're going to use these vegetables to help feed you guys. We're going to serve it at some state dinners. So we can produce enough fruits and vegetables to feed us for years and years to come. For just a couple hundred dollars.

HILL: The last time there was a vegetable garden at the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt was first lady. And across the country, Americans were planting so-called victory gardens to feed their families and the troops.

M. OBAMA: And now what are you going to do?

HILL: In today's America, $50 worth of seeds can yield more than $1,200 worth of produce.

There's also honey to be had in this White House garden. The bees are on loan from a White House staffer and come with very important instructions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't mess with the queen.

HILL: One of the many lessons these kids will take home.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HILL: Now, interestingly, the garden was apparently a very hot topic on the European tour. Everyone asked her about that. They apparently didn't all ask her about the dog, Anderson, but today somebody did. Her answer: soon. They said, but when? She said, soon.

There you go. The important update.

COOPER: All right.

Tonight at the White House, presidential first. The Obamas hosting a Seder. It's our "Shot of the Day."

And at the top of the hour, the breaking news, an American captive still being held by four armed Somali pirates. We'll bring you the latest in the U.s. Navy's plan to deal with the situation. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: All right. Time now for "The Shot," Erica.

The Obamas hosted a Passover Seder at the White House. It's actually the first time a president has marked Passover with the traditional holiday meal. We've just gotten this picture. The president naturally at the head of the table. Young Sasha and Malia. You can see them down on the left. They're sitting -- Michelle Obama is to their left.

The other guests included aides from the campaign trail, who marked last year's Passover with the president in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Back then, apparently, they changed the traditional words "next year in Jerusalem" to "next year in the White House." HILL: And it worked. Look at that.

COOPER: There they are. There they are.

You can see all the most recent "Shots" on the Web site: AC360.com.

Coming up at the top of the hour, one of the crises that President Obama is dealing with, an American merchant captain held in a life boat by armed Somali pilots, facing off against a U.S. Navy warship. We'll have the latest from the high seas. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: On two fronts, American lives in danger a world away in the high seas. And back here on dry land, tinder-dry land, wildfires burning tonight in Texas and Oklahoma. Flames now searing entire neighborhoods. You see them right there. Hurricane-force winds drive them higher.

CNN's Chad Myers is in the weather center right now, gathering late developments. He'll be with us in a few minutes.

We begin with, though, the danger on the high seas. Tonight comes down to a lifeboat just like this one, with the captain, an American captain, and four Somali pirates. They're armed, dangerous and increasingly, it seems, desperate.