Return to Transcripts main page


Explosion Rocks California Neighborhood; President Obama Blames GOP For Ailing Economy

Aired September 10, 2010 - 18:00   ET




MALVEAUX: Appreciate it.


Happening now: Fires are still burning in a San Francisco suburb almost 24 hours after a massive explosion reduced an entire neighborhood to charred rubble.

Also, President Obama urges patience and blames the GOP for the ailing U.S. economy. Is it a message that helps Democrat as the midterm election looms?

And the world watches and waits to see if a Florida pastor will go ahead with his plan to burn copies of the Koran. With the protest just hours away, his messages are mixed.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux, and you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We begin this hour with a fiery disaster in a quiet San Francisco suburb. It was around dinner time last night when a natural gas line ruptured in San Bruno, California. It was a massive explosion and a fire that burned through the night and continues right now.

It produced fireballs that shot eight stories high, incinerated homes and cars, and daylight revealed what some -- looks like they say a moonscape of devastation. At least four people were killed, but search crews have not even been able to get to about a quarter of the area, because it is still too hot.

Take a look at these iReports sent in by our viewers and you get an idea of just how quickly these flames spread and how massive this fire was. More than 50 people were injured, but officials say that everyone is accounted for. There are no reports of missing people.

Our CNN's Casey Wian is there for us.

Casey, give us a sense of what is happening now.

CASEY WIAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, local residents were reflecting back on what happened at the time of that explosion say that it felt like an earthquake, but unlike a quake, some of the residents say there were plenty of warning signs well in advance.


WIAN (voice-over): Home video captured moments after the San Bruno gas explosion shot by the cousin of Shari Macaraeg as he ran to help her escape the fireball.

SHARI MACARAEG, RESIDENT OF SAN BRUNO: Well, when I went out, I felt the heat on my face already, so it was kind of like close, but nothing happened to me.

WIAN: Shari and her father, Enrique, are staying with relatives in a house overlooking the devastation. He is among residents who say they were warning signs weeks before the explosion.

ENRIQUE MACARAEG, RESIDENT OF SANCHEZ: When I walk down, normally, when I down on the spot, area. When I walk down here, I just came, it smelled like gas. But I didn't even -- I just ignored it.

WIAN: He was not the only one.

TIM GUTIERREZ, RESIDENT OF SAN BRUNO: It started around three weeks ago in my neighborhood. PG&E had came out. I was working in my garage. They had told me to shut the door, shut the garage, go inside, that there was real heavy, strong gases.

After being in the neighborhood for a little bit, they packed up and left. But the real heavy smell was right down the street at the next stop sign. Every day after work, I would smell the heavy smell coming from the gutter and sewer right there.

WIAN: PG&E struggled to address the issue throughout the day Friday.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That will be something that is looked at during the course of the investigation; right now our focus is on the ground right now.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, you either did it or you didn't, Mr. Jones. And I think, you know, you have got neighbors saying there was a strong smell of gas, and now you have a massive explosion with dead people.

And so, was there -- did the company go out there and investigate this strong smell?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Again, Kyra, thank you for the question. That -- there will be a full investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have heard news accounts about customers reporting to PG&E that they had smelled gas in the area previously. Right now, we have not got confirmation about that, but we have records that we are going back right this minute to try to confirm what exactly those phone calls looked like and when they occurred.

WIAN: Johns (ph) told CNN affiliate KRON the company -- quote -- "has no record of its crews working in that area at the time."


WIAN: The National Transportation Safety Board is leading an investigation into the causes of the explosion. PG&E says it will cooperate fully -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Casey, thank you very much.

The explosion that triggered all of this was so massive that residents mistook it for another, more familiar disaster. This is how one man described it.


CLARENCE PRESS, RESIDENT OF SAN BRUNO: We heard a great rumble that shook the house and we figured it was an earthquake, but it had a completely different sound to it.

And when I looked out the kitchen window, as far as I'm concerned, I saw what I thought was a fireball coming towards the house. And I then thought it was an airplane caught fire and going to crash.


MALVEAUX: I want to bring in our Tom Foreman. He is at the magic wall.

Tom, give us a sense of what happened there in San Bruno.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what happened was just an inferno in one little area.

I want you to move into this neighborhood and look at it before all of this happened. You can see how tightly packed together all of these houses are in here, so an ignition source like this is a big deal. Look at what happened, though, the change from then until what we see now.

This is the amount of damage that was done. All of these houses -- I'm going to change it back again, so you can see the difference. All of the houses, nice, tidy rows. This red line marks where the gas line itself came through. I believe it is about a 30-inch pipe. That would be a feeder line that would normally come down here.

This is a big line. Then you have smaller lines that would go down each street and from there even smaller lines that go to the individual houses. There are millions of these in California alone and many millions of miles of them across the country.

In any event, look again. This is the neighborhood before. This is the neighborhood after with the degree of explosion here. Some of these pictures show you the kind of images we have been seeing all day. One of the things we have been studying is the degree to which the simple intensity of this heat was at work here.

This sort of fire, a natural gas fire, is going to burn at about 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit. That is very, very hot, as you might guess. But how hot is that? Well, one of the issues would simply be that homes that are very close in here -- this is the blast site right here, by the way -- many of these would be swept into the immediate blast of it.

But other homes, because of the intensity of this heat, could actually burst into flames even though they were never touched by this. It only takes about a third of that much heat to cause a house to spontaneously combust, actually a little bit less than a third.

And that can happen in as best we can tell from the calculations and the wind and everything else less than a minute. You could have a house that was over here not touched by the blast, but that would simply start cooking so quickly, it would burst into flames.

This is enough heat to actually melt stainless steel, enough to melt aluminum, so when you look at the immediate area here, what a lot of the investigators are going to look at is how much of this was the actual blast, how much of it was the heat, the radiant heat from the blast?

And then when you look at the spread of it down here this way to these other sites a little bit further down, what you are possibly talking about here is just the spread of a fire like you would have in a wildfire, where it was leapfrogging to other sections, because you will notice, a lot of damage over here on this side of the ignition point.

The ignition point is right here. Not so much over here, but also you have to look at the topography here. We can't really show it here, Suzanne, but this is all along the ridge of a hill. You see these trees down here?


FOREMAN: That is falling away a little bit, so naturally fire is going to burn uphill or stay up on the ridge. It won't run down so much. So, my guess is, Suzanne, by the time they finish the investigation, the blast damage is going to be fundamentally focused in this area.

The blast and that intense, intense, intense radiant heat we were talking about -- there have even been studies done on if you were standing here and you survived the initial blast how quickly you would need to run away so that the radiant heat did not kill you where you stood, because you simply have a matter of seconds to get under way and get away from it, because it is so unbelievably hot, like standing near a little piece of the sun.

MALVEAUX: And we heard stories from residents talking about how they were literally trying to escape, either run or get in their cars, that type of thing.

But it seems what makes this disaster unique is the fact that the fire was able to spread in so many different kinds of ways.

FOREMAN: Absolutely. Well, like I said, you have the same problem you would have with a wildfire. You have an intense fire like this, it can spread, but it is complicated by the intensity of the heat which allows it to leapfrog across any exposed surface over here.

Anything that was shielded a little bit wouldn't have felt so much of the radiant heat, but anything that was exposed to it, it is coming on really fast. That explains why -- when people say, I was driving away with the bumper with the melting off the car, that really can't happen, because in the moments that they're most exposed here, you are talking about a kind of heat that most of us rarely encounter at this sort of level.

So, investigators will be looking very hard here, Suzanne, and then down here, I think you're going to be looking more at the spread of like a wildfire where once it started, you had the fire feeding upon itself and growing through all of these houses. So, a lot of investigation to figure out exactly how all of this came to be so cataclysmic.

MALVEAUX: Unbelievable disaster. Thank you so much for the explanation, Tom. I appreciate it.

Well, many residents, they didn't even know that there was a natural gas pipeline in their neighborhood and there are millions of other Americans who probably don't either. How many of them are living near a hidden danger?

Also, President Obama pushes his campaign message on the economy, but is there enough time before the midterm election to really make a difference?

Plus, members of a German church talk about their former pastor. Now, that is the one who is threatening to burn copies of the Koran. They are telling their side of the story that few people know.


MALVEAUX: The U.S. economic recovery painfully slow in the words of President Obama. He fielded multiple questions on the topic at the White House news conference this morning. It was his first in almost four months or so.

And with the midterm elections looming, he drew sharp distinctions between Democrats and Republicans. He laid blame for the recession at the feet of the GOP.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We came into office with a different view about how our economy should work.

Instead of tax cuts for millionaires, we believe in cutting taxes for middle-class families and small-business owners. We've done that.

Instead of letting corporations play by their own rules, we believe in making sure that businesses treat workers well and consumers friendly and play by the same rules as everyone else.

So we put in place commonsense rules that accomplish that.

If you want the same kinds of skewed policies that led us to this crisis, then the Republicans are ready to offer that. But if you want policies that are moving us out, even though you may be frustrated, even though change isn't happening as fast as you'd like, then I think Democrats are going to do fine in November.


MALVEAUX: I want to talk more about that with our own CNN's John King, host of "JOHN KING, USA," which begins at the top of the hour, and senior chief political correspondent Candy Crowley, host of "STATE OF THE UNION" Sunday morning at 9:00 Eastern.

Thanks for joining us here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Good to see you guys.

Obviously, the president was making a distinction. He was talking about -- trying to appeal to Democrats, saying, look, you know what, in the short term, I understand you are hurting, but stick with me in the long term. Obviously, things will get better in the long term.

Does he have that kind of time, Candy, when you have people who are like out of work and needed to pay their mortgage yesterday?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That is the problem, is the elections are in the short term. So it kind of -- it is really very hard to talk to people about the long term when it is something as close to home as the loss of jobs or the loss of a house or the inability to pay for a college education.

So it is a tough sell, but what the president is hoping by making remarks like this is to trigger in the back of faithful Democrats who might be disenchanted because they didn't get all they wanted from this presidency so far to say, stick with me, come on out and vote because I can't do it unless you stick with me. So that is his audience, not those that are disaffected and are going to vote against him.

JOHN KING, HOST, "JOHN KING, USA": It is a great point Candy makes, because -- and they're doing this at the White House -- if you poll any big race in the country and you poll registered voters, let's say you get a dead heat between these two fine candidates, Candy and Suzanne.

Then you look at likely voters. Whichever one of you who is the Republican is going to be ahead by three or four points. The White House sees that intensity gap. And that is the president's biggest priority right now, saying essentially to people on the left, maybe you are mad at me about something. Maybe you are mad about troops in Afghanistan. Maybe you are mad I didn't get the public option in health care.

But if you don't come out to vote, you will be more mad, because the Republicans will own the Congress.

MALVEAUX: Is the president running out of time, though, 53 days left? What can he do?

CROWLEY: You never run out of time to get the vote out, because you can send out the buses, you can send out the vans, you can send out the people who knock on doors. So you never run out of time for that.


CROWLEY: I think he has run out of time to convince people who are unconvinced that the economy is getting better. I think that argument is over for this year.

KING: Yes, the strategic draft of this election, the arc of the election is set, economic anxiety, a tough economy, and the Republicans making a pretty good case so far that President Obama has -- the stimulus did not give you what he you would give you, and they have sure spent a lot of money. For what gain?

That part is very hard for the president to change. But to Candy's point, seven weeks, the nuts and bolts, identifying people, just the money decisions the president and the Democratic Party are going to have to make over the next five or six weeks, are fascinating, cutting some candidates off to give extra money to other candidates, there's a lot of time for the nuts and bolts.

And the Obama team, a lot of Democrats are criticizing them right now, administering the government, communicating as the government. They did prove in 2008 they were very good at the nuts and bolts.

MALVEAUX: Is there anything in terms of economic numbers, jobs numbers? We really just have maybe one more set to kick those out that might get people's attention to think again, or is that...


CROWLEY: It is at 9.6. The president's administration has said they think it might go to 10 by the end of the year, but even if it doesn't, what is going to happen between 9.6 and 9.4, or 9.2, even, which would be mega-movement?

It just does not feel right. And if the economy does not feel right to voters, they're going to vote on that.

MALVEAUX: All right.

KING: And that's the unfairness of it. If it goes up, it will hurt president. If it goes down just a tad, probably won't help much.

MALVEAUX: John, Candy, have a great weekend. All right, good to see you.

Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro says he did tell an American reporter that the Cuban economic model no longer works, but he says he did not actually mean it.

And California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger mocks fellow Republican Sarah Palin. We are going to tell you about the jokes he sent out on Twitter as he flew over Alaska.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.



MALVEAUX: Well, before he grabbed the world's attention with the threat of burning the Koran, this pastor was the leader of a large church in Germany which eventually broke ties with him. Now some former followers are speaking out. They say questioning him was like questioning God.

Plus, the latest on the explosion and the fire that obliterated dozens of homes near San Francisco, all caused by a natural gas pipeline few even knew was there. Do you know what is under your neighborhood?


MALVEAUX: It is still not clear whether a Florida pastor will go ahead with his plan to burn copies of the Koran tomorrow on the ninth anniversary of 9/11.

Terry Jones has been giving mixed messages today. It is also unclear whether he is going to meet with a New York City imam about moving a controversial Islamic center away from Ground Zero. Jones says it was that promise that led him to initially cancel his protest, but the imam's denying any deal was made.

CNN's John Zarrella is in Gainesville, Florida. He has been on the story since the very beginning.

John, take us -- get us up to speed here. Take us up to speed on what has been happening today, where we are today in all of this madness.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN MIAMI BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Suzanne, Terry Jones was out here about four, maybe five times -- I have kind of lost count -- today.

And, as you mentioned, the story seemed to change or at least migrate a little bit from one appearance to the next. But in the last couple of appearances, what we were told, not directly by Jones, but by his son Luke and also by an evangelist, K.A. Paul, who was by his side today, that there will not be a burning tomorrow.

That will not happen. What happens after that, we don't know, but, at this point, Terry Jones is saying that, Pastor Jones is saying he still intends to go to New York, he is planning to go to New York.

But the interesting thing is, at one point today, Jones and the evangelist came out here and said they are giving the imam in New York two hours to call them and to tell them that in fact he will move the mosque in New York. And they gave out their phone numbers where the imam could call.

Now, we all knew that was not going to happen. Indeed, it did not happen. But Jones insists that he still plans to go to New York and hopefully meet with the imam, if not tomorrow, Monday or Tuesday -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, John, give us a sense of what it is like down there. Has it turned into something -- somewhat of a circus or what are we seeing?

ZARRELLA: Yes, I think you can definitely say it is a circus.

And if you don't think that the entire world is watching and is seeing what has been transpiring here, take a look at this. This is the setup, all of the cameras waiting for when Jones comes out here to make some statements. There is a podium set up there with probably 20 or 30 mike flags sticking in there.

And if Mike Miller (ph), my cameraman, can spin around, you can see, this is just one side of the array of all of the media here, national media, international media from all over the world that have gathered here to put -- to stake their part of this story and to transmit to their news outlets literally across the world, Suzanne, what has been transpiring here.

And I have to tell you, it got a little bit testy this afternoon in the last appearance, when Jones was out here, because people -- the media has gotten to the point with this blazing heat of saying, look, enough. Are you? What are you going to do? And, of course, he had been evasive pretty much all day, until finally we got the definitive word that it would not happen tomorrow -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. We will see if that in fact does actually -- if that is the last word on all of this. You never know with this.


MALVEAUX: All right, thank you, John.

ZARRELLA: Exactly.

MALVEAUX: Hundreds of people in Cologne, Germany, have been watching this story unfold with special interest, because they are members of Jones' former church.

Using CNN's global resources, we found some of them willing to speak about their disillusionment, what ultimately led Jones to leave them. It is a compelling part of the story.

And they shared it with CNN's Phil Black. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): For 20 years, Heinz and Elka Koop followed their pastor, Terry Jones. For 19 of those years, they trusted his every word.

HEINZ KOOP, FORMER JONES FOLLOWER: He was a charismatic leader. I think he was -- the preference was very strong for us.

BLACK: Jones' church, the Christian Community of Cologne, became the focus of their lives. Jones insisted on it, borrowing an infamous Nazi motto.

H. KOOP: And we worked the whole week, also Sunday and Saturday.

BLACK (on camera): For the church?


H. KOOP: For the church, yes.

E. KOOP: Work made free.

BLACK: Is that what he said?

E. KOOP: Yes.

BLACK: Work makes you free?


CHANCE (voice-over): The Koops say that Terry Jones didn't speak German when he arrived in this country, but even so, he built a congregation of around 1,000 worshippers telling them he had been sent to Germany by God to do His will, and he must be obeyed.

E. KOOP: Who was bigger than God? So it was a big reason why it fell out.

CHANCE (on camera): If you questioned the things he told you to do, did he say this you were questioning God?

E. KOOP: Yes.

BLACK: He did?


E. KOOP: Yes.

BLACK: So to question Terry Jones was to question God?

E. KOOP: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. That's correct.

E. KOOP: Yes.

CHANCE (voice-over): The Koops rose through the hierarchy of the church based in these modest buildings on the outskirts of the city. They regularly traveled to Jones' other church in Florida.

Heinz (ph) (ph) eventually took on a key job in the church fund- raising business which sold donated goods for the church.

(on camera) What happened to that money?


E. KOOP: Yes. We didn't know it in the beginning. He saw it, and this would have (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that this goes to the church.

CHANCE (voice-over): They started to see other problems with the business. They say its workforce of believers were paid almost nothing. They say worshippers were persuaded to give everything; sell their own belongings, even their homes.

The control over people grew in every way, he tells me: personally, emotionally and financially. Heinz (ph) says his awareness also grew and after months of trying, persuaded his wife they should leave the church together.

Then came the day they openly stood up to Terry Jones.

E. KOOP: It was a revolution.


BLACK: Others quickly joined him. It was important that you could criticize him, he says, and show everyone he's human with weaknesses.

E. KOOP: He left and never come back.

BLACK: That was in 2008. The church severed all ties with Jones and continues today under new leadership. Terry Jones relocated permanently to his Florida church. From there he's grabbed the world's attention with plans to mark the anniversary of 9/11 by burning the Koran.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's completely convinced that he is, so to speak, God's first ambassador.

BLACK: Protestant Pastor Andrew Schafer says he's counseled dozens of people whose lives were damaged by Jones and his church.

He cannot stand the pain of losing his significance, he says, and this is why he's using this issue now to try to become a big player again.

Elka and Heinz (ph) say they're still angry with Jones. But they're also angry with themselves for letting him control their lives for so long. Phil Black, CNN, Cologne, Germany.


MALVEAUX: We are also going to update you on that massive gas explosion in a San Francisco suburb and take a look at whether it could happen in your neighborhood.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


MALVEAUX: More now on our top story: that massive explosion and fire from the natural gas pipeline that incinerated dozens of homes in San Bruno, California, killing at least four people.

Now, officials say all residents are accounted for, but some areas are so hot that search crews can't even go in yet to look for more possible victims. The disaster was all the more shocking for many residents who didn't even know that a pipeline was there, but there are tens of thousands of miles of similar pipelines that are across the country. Could this happen in your neighborhood?

Our Brian Todd is investigating -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, we're taking a look at the overall safety record of the natural gas industry in the United States pegged to that explosion in California.

We're here at a natural gas facility that is not involved in any way in this explosion, so we're not going to say the name of this place. I'm here with Rick Kessler. He is with the Pipeline Safety Trust, which is a nonprofit organization that monitors the safety of natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines.

Rick, I guess what many people are asking in the wake of that California disaster is could that happen in any neighborhood in America?

RICK KESSLER, PIPELINE SAFETY TRUST: Unfortunately, Brian, it could. A lot of people don't know what's below them. Communities have sprung up around pipelines as much as pipelines have gone in around communities, because the tax base and things like that.

So it could, unfortunately, happen and, given the lax safety enforcement of the federal government and the state lax safety laws, unfortunately, it really could affect a lot of people over time, especially with the huge growth in natural gas transportation by pipeline.

TODD: What could trigger an explosion like that one in San Bruno, California?

KESSLER: Could be anything. A lot of times it's third-party damage where someone digs. That's why you have call-before-you-dig laws. But it could also easily be -- and I know that the industry does not want me to say this -- but it could be corrosion from either the water or the soil above the pipeline or internally, because acid, acid -- gas is also acidic and corrosive and really could cause that. It could be faulty seams and the welding. It could be bad steel. It could be any number of things.

TODD: Is the safety and oversight of these facilities and these pipelines what it should be in this country?

KESSLER: Absolutely not. In fact, I would say, if the organization that oversaw pipelines oversaw airplanes, you and I wouldn't be flying. It's underfunded, undermanned. It is dependent on the industry's user fees for funding that gives industry a special leg up. And it really -- it doesn't have the political will I think it needs to really regulate. It doesn't quite understand, although it's gotten much better than it used to be, but I'd still say it's a D-plus agency.

TODD: This is the Department of Transportation Agency?

KESSLER: Yes, there are some great people there who are really trying hard, but they don't have much to work with, and they really need some wholesale changes over there.

TODD: All right, Rick. Thanks very much for joining us. We appreciate it.

We have tried to reach the organization that Rick mentioned, the government organization called the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, which is part of the Department of Transportation; tried to get a hold of them to respond to some of the concerns that Rick and other experts have spoken about.

They said that they were working on a response. They were not able to get it to us in time for this story. What they did send us earlier was an e-mail saying that every state except for Alaska and Hawaii is certified to conduct their own inspections and enforcement of these pipelines.

Also, we got a statement from an advocacy organization for the natural gas businesses across the country. It's called the American Gas Association. They said essentially that safety is their No. 1 priority. They said that natural gas utilities are subject to not only their own stringent internal controls, but also to rigorous federal and state oversight to ensure that natural gas is delivered safely and efficiently.

So Suzanne, that's what we've got from here.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Brian.

There are new developments in the case of an American hiker held by Iran for more than a year. Why is her release being canceled for now?

Plus, details of the multimillion-dollar White House renovation that is sparking some interesting theories about what's really going on.


MALVEAUX: There are lots of conspiracies. They're saying, come on, could this really be electrical? Is this really phones or is it a secret tunnel that they're digging?

BOB PECK, GENERAL SERVICES ADMINISTRATION: Well, all I'll tell you is, as you can imagine, it's a very secure infrastructure project. That's as much as I can say.



MALVEAUX: Fredricka Whitfield is monitoring some of the other top stories that are coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

Hi, Fred.


Hello, everyone.

Well, an Iranian official says the release of an American hiker, Sarah Shourd, has been, in his words, canceled. He says the judicial process has not been completed in her case, and Iranian officials said yesterday that she would be released tomorrow.

Shourd is one of three Americans held in Iran for more than a year now. Their families say they mistakenly strayed across the border while hiking in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Iran says they were spies.

Army paratrooper staff sergeant Salvatore Giunta will become the first living service member to receive the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam Era. Giunta reportedly risked his life to come to the aid of two fellow soldiers during a firefight in Afghanistan back in 2007.

According to a statement from the White House, President Obama called Giunta to thank him for, quote, "extraordinary bravery in battle."

And every wonder which Web site is the biggest time drain on the Internet? According to the marketing research company Comscore, the winner is Facebook. You probably guessed that. The company reports that in August Americans spent more than 41 million minutes on Facebook. That's more than all the Web sites owned by Google combined.

Suzanne, are you in there?

MALVEAUX: I'm on Facebook. Are you on Facebook, Fred?

WHITFIELD: I'm on Facebook, but I can't say I spend a whole lot of time. MALVEAUX: Me neither. We don't have a lot of time.

WHITFIELD: That's what I'm saying.

MALVEAUX: We're too busy.

WHITFIELD: That's right. Every second counts.

MALVEAUX: All right. I'm going to befriend you, Fred. Is that all right?

WHITFIELD: Oh, that's good.


WHITFIELD: We're always friends on and off Facebook.

MALVEAUX: Good deal. Thank you, Fred.

Well, it is the only house of worship destroyed in the 9/11 terror attacks, and nine years later the struggle to rebuild continues. Plus, this surprising state of affairs inside America's most famous house.


PECK: We had electrical outages. We had the lights go out. We've had computers go down, and the kinds of things that you can't accept in the White House.


MALVEAUX: In the midst of the debate over the proposed Islamic center and mosque at Ground Zero, the fate of a church that once stood there has gone largely unnoticed. It is the only house of worship that was actually destroyed in the 9/11 terror attacks.

CNN's Mary Snow is in New York with the story.

Mary, tell us. After all of this time, this church still has not been rebuilt?

Yes, and Suzanne, we've seen that with anything being built at Ground Zero. It's been complicated, and this church is no exception.


MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): BP is focusing its latest operation to permanently seal the blown-out well in the Gulf. In a...


SNOW: Obviously, that was not the correct tape. We're hoping to correct that technical difficulty. But in a nutshell, Suzanne, this is a Greek Orthodox Church that is trying to rebuild after all these years -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: All right. We're going to take a quick break and then at the end -- other side of the break, we'll bring you that piece.


MALVEAUX: Our Mary Snow has a special piece -- Mary.

SNOW: We're going to try that again, Suzanne. This is the story of a Greek Orthodox church that's been struggling to be rebuilt after it was destroyed on September 11.


SNOW (voice-over): This is the last known image of St. Nicolas, moments before the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, crushing the church. Leaders of the tiny Greek Orthodox church were able to salvage only a few items.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a place for St. Nicolas, and it is no more.

SNOW: Along with prayer came a vow to rebuild the small church that was home to about 70 families, but nothing has happened.

(on camera) Nine years later, you look around and you see all this construction. St. Nicolas is nowhere to be found. How hard of a struggle has this been?

PETER DRAKOULIAS, ST. NICOLAS CHURCH EXECUTIVE BOARD: It's been trying to say the least. There's no doubt about that. I think from day one, we recognized we were a very small piece of a very large puzzle. We still have hope that we will be rebuilt on or near the original site, but to be honest at this point in time, it's probably the most frustrating it's been.

SNOW (voice-over): Frustrating, says Peter Drakoulias, a board member of St. Nicolas, because the church's location is at the Ground Zero site, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is overseeing construction there.

Rebuilding includes using public money. Years of negotiations have gone nowhere. And with so much focus on the proposed Islamic site near Ground Zero, the plight of St. Nicolas has gone virtually unnoticed.

(on camera) Does it bother you that Christians have come out against that community center but not in support of your church?

DRAKOULIAS: No, the Cordoba House and St. Nicolas are two entirely separate issues.

SNOW (voice-over): Separate issues, yes, but church leaders recently stood with politicians opposed to the Islamic center to draw attention to the stalemate, saying the Port Authority stopped negotiating. BISHOP ANDONIOS OF PHASIANE, GREEK ORTHODOX ARCHDIOCESE OF AMERICA: It's unfortunate that it took a controversy over a mosque to bring attention to the St. Nicolas Church.

SNOW: But the Port Authority has a very different version of events, saying it was St. Nicolas that rejected its offer of a new site for the church.

STEPHEN SIGMUND, PORT AUTHORITY OF NEW YORK AND NEW JERSEY: What the question always was, was whether tens of millions of public dollars should be spent to move the site to a different location on the World Trade Center site to build a church six times the size of the original church, and to make sure that any arrangement for that did not further delay the World Trade Center site.

SNOW: The church says it wasn't demanding so much space.

(on camera) There's some people who say this is all about money and that you want more money. What do you say to them?

DRAKOULIAS: If it were all about money, and we wanted money, we would have taken deals offered to us decades ago for St. Nicolas and moved somewhere else. It's never been about money.

SNOW: What is it about?

DRAKOULIAS: It's about building on or near our original site, the birth rite that St. Nicolas has to go back to that site where it was for 85 years prior to 9/11. Plain and simple.


SNOW: Now, the Port Authority says the church has always retained the right to rebuild on that original site, but at this point work would have to begin in 2013 after construction is complete at the site. The church says it's holding out hope that something can be worked out before then -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Excellent story, Mary.

For more on this story, visit CNN's Belief Blog at

Well, there is a makeover in the works at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and it is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. During these hard economic times, should the White House be renovating? I had a chance to go behind the scenes on a project that's raising some eyebrows.


T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR: Sounds like they're building another wing to the White House, but we appreciate you keeping your focus.

MALVEAUX: You can't even imagine, T.J. It's going to happen for the next two years. All the banging, the jackhammering, the dust, the confusion and the noise. Of the places to do construction, it's happening right here, the front lawn of the White House.

(voice-over) It's a four-year renovation project. Estimated cost: $376 million. The basic problem: pipes up to 100 years old, which are running into the White House, causing disastrous and dangerous conditions.

PECK: This part of the White House has not been upgraded since it was built in 1902 and then upgraded, some parts of it, in 1934. We have electrical lines and water lines that haven't been upgraded since, and basically, we're digging underground to fix them up.

MALVEAUX: So tell me about the problems of the White House has had. It's hard to believe that, yes, sometimes the lights go out at the White House. Sometimes pipes have leaked. Have there really been those kinds of problems here?

PECK: There have. There have been electrical outages at the White House. Telephones have gone down.

MALVEAUX: And what happens? Does the president call and say, you know, the toilet's not flushing, and the lights have gone out?

PECK: From the residence, itself, we haven't had those kinds of issues. But the West Wing, where the president does his business, has had those issues.

MALVEAUX (voice-over): Bob Peck of the General Services Administration is overseeing the massive makeover of the East and West Wings, which includes the Oval Office, the Situation Room, and offices of the Secret Service and first lady.

(on camera) So tell us what's actually happening here.

PECK: You know, we're digging trenches and burying new cable, burying new water pipes.

MALVEAUX (voice-over): Congress approved funding of the project in 2008 after a Bush administration report revealed some systems in the White House were periodically failing.

(on camera) This project is going to cost some $376 million to the taxpayers, and some would say, really? Why would you spend that kind of money simply on a makeover for the White House when there are so many folks who are not doing well?

PECK: Well, and we're aware that it's underground work, but you know, it doesn't do a whole lot of good to have a building that is sort of the image of the free world standing up there and not functioning well. And to be honest, when you're digging underground and doing this kind of utility work, particularly in the White House environment, it's a -- it's a costly project.

MALVEAUX (voice-over): Five hundred workers have security clearance to work on the four-acre project.

(on camera) In the briefing room things have been known to get pretty boisterous and heated, but it is nothing compared to the noise right outside in this construction zone.

(voice-over) And it's right outside the Obama family residence.

(on camera) Have you ever gotten a call, "Look, you know what? This is too much noise. We're trying to sleep here. We're trying to think"?

PECK: Well, you know, we do have -- we have a very understanding first family, but we have a first family with some young kids who need to get their sleep.

MALVEAUX (voice-over): So construction is normally limited to daylight hours.

But despite the open nature of the project, it still attracts some suspicion.

(on camera) There are lots of conspiracies. They're saying, come on. Is this really the electrical? Is this really phones? Or is it a secret tunnel that they're digging?

PECK: You know, all I'll tell you is that, as you can imagine, it is a very secure infrastructure project. That's as much as I can say.

MALVEAUX: This construction project also impacts how we do our job. I don't take just one, two, but three steps to clear this eight- foot fence behind me so you can see the White House when we do our stories.


MALVEAUX: Since we put that story together, there have been even more changes at the White House. My colleague Ed Henry sent us this update today.


ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, oh, how things have changed. The General Services Administration built his big platform so all the networks can climb on up here and get a bird's-eye view of the White House. We don't have to be climb any more ladders any more. This way we're up high over the construction projects.

In fact, we were getting a little worried about you. We don't want you up there climbing this ladder, going up three levels, maybe falling on your head. Then you have to put that construction hat back on for your live shots. We've got to protect you, the all-star player: reporter, anchor. We want you to be all in one piece.


MALVEAUX: You, too, Ed.

Remember, you can follow what's going on in THE SITUATION ROOM with me over at the White House and on Twitter. You can get my tweets at

You can also follow THE SITUATION ROOM on Facebook. Go to to become a fan. Wolf will be back on Monday. I'm Suzanne Malveaux in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.