updated 5/19/2004 10:38:24 AM ET 2004-05-19T14:38:24

Byline: Alex Witt, Natalie Morales, Andrea Mitchell, Lori Hirose, Tom Costello, Dawna Friesen, Lisa Myers, Ray Lane, Carl Quintanilla

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEX WITT, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

The roots of abuse:  The first court-martial for a serviceman accused of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison now less than 24 hours away.  The penalties, the procedures, and the questions:  Were these soldiers just following orders? 

A steal girder collapses in Colorado and an entire family killed.  Now 9-1-1 tapes show the collapse of communication that could have saved this family‘s life. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It looks like it‘s structurally unsafe over the freeway.

WITT:  More trouble on the freeways.  Gas prices increase.  The size of your wallet decreases.  Why the latest surge in fuel costs could cost you more than you think this summer. 

And the heat is on:  Michael Moore‘s Bush-bashing documentary, on fire in France and on ice in America?  The latest attempt to block the release of “Fahrenheit 9/11.” 

All that have and more now on COUNTDOWN

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  Good evening, everyone, and welcome to COUNTDOWN I‘m Alex Witt in for Keith, tonight.  It will be the first major trial in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, but it won‘t be the country‘s former dictator who takes the stand, it won‘t even be an Iraqi.  At No. 5 tonight, the first test of justice in Iraq centers around a 24-year-old from Hyndman.  Pennsylvania.  It is a small town that is standing behind their hometown boy, Specialist Jeremy Sivits.  In a moment we‘re going to take to you a vigil being held in support of the Pennsylvania native. 

But a world away, there are new developments on the prisoner abuse scandal.  More evidence today, that the military police may have indeed been following orders.  the “New York Times” is reporting that military intelligence actually instructed guards to force Iraqi detainees to strip before questioning.  Detainees were also apparently shackled while naked.  That comes from classified testimony given by the officer in charge of interrogations at Abu Ghraib.  But, while more fingers point to the involvement of military intelligence, the U.S. spokesman in Iraq was pointing the press to towards tomorrow‘s court-martial. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIG. GEN. MARK KIMMITT, COALITION PROVISIONAL AUTHORITY:  We would hope that by making it open to the public, by making it open to the press, that the press would take advantage of this situation, not only to see American justice in action, but to record it and tell the readers about their observations. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WITT:  But while the press is invited to cover the story, they may already be the story.  One Iraqi journalist who worked with our sister network, NBC, and three with the British-based news agency “Reuters” have come forward accusing U.S. forces of abusing them.  All four were reportedly detained last January in a military camp near Fallujah.  They allege that they were forced into sexually explicit positions, hooded for several hours, and repeatedly kicked.  The journalist‘s also report being taunted by soldiers and then photographed, making demeaning gestures. 

A U.S. military report issued in January found no specific incidents of abuse.  NBC has yet to receive the full results of that investigation despite repeated requests. 

And as we hear from more victims of the abuse, we‘re also hearing from those on the other side of the scandal, a prayer vigil for the seven reservists implicated in the prison abuse scandal has just wrapped up in Cumberland, Maryland, it is a city that is home to many families whose loved ones have served as guards at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. 

But tonight, no one occupies the spotlight of this scandal more than Specialist Jeremy Sivits.  In his hometown, local residents are right now holding a vigil to show their support for their native son.  Natalie Morales is on the scene in Hyndman, Pennsylvania. 

Natalie, good evening to you.  What‘s the mood like in Hyndman? 

NATALIE MORALES, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Hi Alex, well as you can probably hear behind me, very animated and certainly a very strong show of support here, for Private Jeremy Sivits on the eve of his court-martial.  His mother, in fact, is here today along with the neighbors and family who are standing here in a show of solidarity.  As one community member here, said today, that this is a community that they feel, even though it‘s only a town of about 1,000, they are speaking for many communities here, that they stand by their troops, through the prisoner abuse in Iraq, they stand by the actions while they may not support those that—well, they may not support the seven who are accused now of the prison abuse, they stand by Jeremy Sivits and believe that, in fact, that they perhaps were ordered to do it and, in fact, we spoke to a minister earlier this week who talked about how the community now is suffering and they‘re now facing up to what has happened in Iraq. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID KLINK, PASTOR IN SIVITS‘ HOMETOWN:  To be in the national spotlight in—for such a thing is a little embarrassing and a little hurtful and so we would rather be remembered for something else. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MORALES:  And that was the local pastor who spoke to us earlier in the week to talk about how the community is now having to deal with the hurt.  They don‘t want to be remembered for this, but they feel like the world spotlight is now shining on them, the glare and the scrutiny is now clear and they are standing by their troops and they say now they need to be embracing their time of greatest need—I mean, need to embrace the families of those who are now suffering through this—Alex. 

WITT:  Natalie, a lot going on there behind you, so in light of that, thank you so much for that live report, we do appreciate it.

MERLES:  It‘s hard to hear, sorry. 

WITT:  Natalie Morales in Hyndman, Pennsylvania. 

Specialist Sivits will be a long way from home tomorrow when he faces the special court-martial in Baghdad with a preview of just what he‘s up against, here‘s NBC‘s Campbell Brown. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CAMPBELL BROWN, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Trial and punishment for these seven soldiers, three will be arraigned tomorrow entering pleas while one, Specialist Jeremy Sivits, has made a deal with prosecutors foregoing a trial and pleading guilty to taking pictures of the abuse and doing nothing to stop it.  He faces a maximum of one year in prison in exchange for his plea he‘s expected to testify against other soldiers charged. 

(on camera):  This is the room where Specialist Jeremy Sivits will face a special court-martial, tomorrow.  No cameras will be allowed, only a courtroom sketch artist.  The room, however, will be filled with media from all over the world. 

KIMMITT:  Our aspiration is not to turn this into a show trial, our aspiration is to mete out justice to Mr. Sivits. 

BROWN (voice-over):  But, even Sivits claims he was following orders and the other soldiers say they were doing what intelligence officers told them to. 

MICHAEL NOONE, LAW PROFESSOR, CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY:  Some of the soldiers will have a legitimate defense because they thought that they were doing what was all right. 

BROWN:  Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has denied giving any specific order to toughen up the questioning. 

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  I don‘t recall that a—that policy came to me for approval.

BROWN:  In Jeremy Sivits‘ hometown in Pennsylvania, people are standing behind the former high school wrestler.  They believe he‘s doing the right thing, admitting his mistake in the special court-martial tomorrow. 

Campbell Brown, NBC News, Baghdad. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  And for more now on what to expect from tomorrow‘s proceedings, we‘re joined by military law expert Michael Noone. 

Good evening to you, Michael. 

NOONE:  Good evening. 

WITT:  Specialist Sivits is expected to plead guilty tomorrow.  So what does he gain by doing that? 

NOONE:  Well, he gains the—limits down the punishment that he could face.  Otherwise the offenses with which he‘s charged could expose him to a dozen to 15 years confinement of hard labor.  By pleading guilty and by agreeing to be tried before a special court-martial, the most he can face is a year in jail. 

WITT:  So, when this investigation was beginning, and it was back in January, Specialist Sivits told military investigators, quote, “I was laughing at some of the stuff they had them do.  I was disgusted at some of the stuff, as well.  As I think about it now, I do not think any of it was funny.” 

What do you read into that statement?  What does it tell but his level of complicity in all of this? 

NOONE:  I read it as a rather low level of complicity.  He was an observer, a neutral participant, if you will, not an active participant.  And just the sort of person that prosecutors would want to reach early in the investigation in the hope that by achieving a guilty plea from them he would then incriminate people who more actively participated in the abuse of the prisoners. 

WITT:  And should he be found guilty on these charges, you say that under this special court-martial situation he would only be facing a year in prison.  Sir, would that be in the United States that he would be imprisoned or does it have to be in the country where the abuses were alleged to have happened? 

NOONE:  It would not be in the country in which the abuses took place.  There is an Army regional confinement facility in Manheim, Germany.  There are also Army regional confinement facilities in the United States, particularly at Fort Knox, Kentucky.  There‘s a major military prison at Fort Levin worth in Kansas, but only those prisoners who are sentenced to more than five years and a day would go there.  We don‘t know where Sivits would go if he‘s to be confined, but typically nowadays that‘s part of the guilty plea arrangement.  He‘ll have negotiated with the government as to where he will serve his time. 

WITT:  Mr. Noone, three other reservists are going to be arraigned tomorrow, they are all facing much more serious charges.  So, what kind of defense do you expect from them? 

NOONE:  Until about a week ago I would have expected no defense at all.  It seemed that their conduct was outrageous, incomprehensible, and far outside the bounds that one would expect of American soldiers.  Now as information comes forward that perhaps special treatment had been directed towards some of the prisoners and that these military policemen may very well have thought that the kind of treatment that they were according the prisoners was what could be expected.  I‘m beginning to wonder whether or not I‘m going to see guilty pleas or some sort of defense on the grounds of what they did was they thought consistent with the orders that they had received from higher authority not just from some sergeant, but probably from a colonel at least. 

WITT:  All right.  We‘ll certainly be watching.  Military law expert Michael Noone, many thank you for your expertise tonight, sir. 

NOONE:  Thank you.

WITT:  And as the U.S. military begins to tackle the scandal, there may be an even larger problem looming over the Iraqi horizon, the crisis of leadership.  A day after a suicide bomber killed a member of the Iraqi governing council the Bush administration has backed away from a man once pegged as Iraq‘s once future leader.  For more on that, we go to NBC‘s Andrea Mitchell. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The State Department has said that Chalabi fabricated intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.  Under pressure the Pentagon finally cut off payments to him and his supporters.  They had received at least $27 million from the U.S.  over the four years, most recently $340,000 a month. 

PAUL WOLFOWITZ, DEPUTY DEFENSE SECRETARY:  We felt it was no longer appropriate for us to continue funding in that fashion. 

MITCHELL:  Chalabi‘s firing comes as surging violence threatens the transition, even though U.S. officials say it will take place as scheduled. 

In Baghdad today, mourners buried a governing council leader assassinated in a car bombing, yesterday.  So, who will run Iraq?  The big question today at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. 

SEN. JOE BIDEN, SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE:  There‘s going to be no single national figure.  There‘s going to be no George Washington, There‘s no Madison. 

MITCHELL:  The U.S. is now relying on the U.N. to pick interim Iraqi leaders and plan an election by early next year.  A related issue, how many U.S. troops will have to stay and for how long?  The administration still doesn‘t know. 

SEN. RUSS FIENGOLD, SENATE FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE:  There are reports that Iraq—our troop strength in Iraq will remain at about 135,000 troops until the end of 2005.  Is that report inaccurate? 

WOLFOWITZ:  It could be.  It could be more or it could be less, Senator. 

MITCHELL:  A big part of the problem, training Iraqis to take over. 

BIDEN:  There is no seriously trained Iraqi force, now.  I mean, this malarkey you came up with, that you got 200,000 trained Iraqis...

MITCHELL:  And finally Abu Ghraib.  One senator recommended bulldozing it. 

(on camera):  So with fewer than six weeks until Iraqis are supposed to take over, there are no decisions about who will be in charge, how Iraq will be secured, what will happen to Iraqi prisoners, and what America‘s role will be. 

Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, at the State Department. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  The COUNTDOWN opening tonight with the headlines from Iraq from the abuse scandal to the looming handover.  Up next, tonight‘s No. 4 story: 

A tragedy on the highways of Colorado.  A family is crushed by a fallen girder, a girder officials were warned about a full hour before that accident. 

And later, the 9/11 Commission takes their investigation to New York City.  The tough questions and answers about what happened inside the World Trade Center on that fateful morning. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  The COUNTDOWN‘s No. 4 story is up next, your preview:  A call to 9-1-1 gets misunderstood and entire family ends up losing their lives.  The highway horror in Colorado, coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  It proved to be a prophetic warning, quote, “It may not be a big deal,” said the unidentified caller, “but I‘ve done bridge construction in the past and it doesn‘t look right.”  Our No. 4 story tonight, a tragic, yet preventable accident, killed a family of three in Denver this weekend.  More than an hour earlier a 9-1-1 dispatcher misunderstood that warning and set into motion a fatal sequence of events that went unchecked.  Lori Hirose of NBC affiliate KUSA, reports. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LORI HIROSE, KUSA CORRESPONDENT:  A horrifying scene from Saturday morning: A 40-ton, 100-foot-long steel girder dropped from an overpass just as the Post family‘s SUV drove under, killing William Post, his pregnant wife, Anita, and their 2-year-old daughter, Koby.  Now comes word of a detailed warning more than an hour before the accident in a call to 9-1-1. 

CALLER:  It looks like the hung a new I-beam girder in the last couple of days.  Well, it‘s rolled and it looks like it‘s structurally unsafe over the freeway. 

DISPATCHER:  So, is the sign actually hanging down?

CALLER:  Well, it‘s rolled towed the existing bridge, a good two or three feet. 

The dispatcher calls the Colorado Department of Transportation to take a look.  The road crew fixes a damaged sign and does not notice the structural problems.  An hour later the girder collapsed. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  And that was KUSA‘s Lori Hirose reporting right there.  One more sad twist to this story, William and Anita Post move their family to Colorado from New York City after the terrorist attacks of September 11.  Friends say they wanted to raise their family in a safer place. 

Joining us now with further details on this tragedy is Stacey Stegman of the Colorado Department of Transportation. 

Good evening to you, Stacey.  Nice to have you with us. 

STACEY STEGMAN, COLORADO DOT:  Thank you. 

WITT:  The man who alerted emergency personnel clearly said that he was concerned about an I-beam girder that appeared to be structurally unsafe over that freeway.  Why were a repair crews looking for a downed sign rather than damage to the overpass? 

STEGMAN:  Well, believe me, we wish we had known.  Unfortunately, when the dispatcher from the Colorado State Patrol called us, she reported to our crews that they needed to find a sign, so they went out and were searching all over the area for a sign that looked to be potentially dangerous and they did find one. 

WITT:  They did find that sign.  Where was it in proximity, though, to the downed girder? 

STEGMAN:  Coincidentally it was above the bridge so the girder is hanging from the bridge down to interstate 70.  The sign was up above on c-470 exactly where the dispatcher told them to go, and so as you can imagine our crews are devastated just, as well. 

WITT:  I can imagine.  What would have happened differently if they had been told that it was a girder rather than a sign, that that was a problem?  What would they have done? 

STEGMAN:  You know, that‘s a good question.  You know, we can only say “what if,” but we would hope if any of our crews had any inkling that the highway was unsafe, we would have been able to close the highway. 

WITT:  Stacey, at this point in your investigation, why did the girder collapse? 

STEGMAN:  Well, that‘s the question that we‘re all wanting answers to.  In fact, I just met with the project team today.  All of us want to answer that same question because everyone here is just so horrified and sickened.  We want to make sure nothing like this ever happens on one of our projects again. 

WITT:  And who is handling this investigation right now and what, in fact, are the next steps? 

STEGMAN:  The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation with partners from law enforcement agencies, the federal highway administration—everyone is fully cooperating and putting all of their resources into finding the answers to these questions and making sure we know exactly what happened.  And so it‘s going to take a long time because it is a very slow process.  We want them to be professional and thorough and give us the good answers so that we can good decisions on future projects. 

WITT:  And Stacey, what can you tell me about this photo we‘re about to see?  It was taken by another motorist of that very same overpass on Thursday, just two days after it was installed. 

STEGMAN:  That photo actually was e-mailed to me by local media on Sunday night and so I just, again, forwarded that to all of the structural engineers on the teams.  They‘re going to be reviewing that as part of everything else in this investigation and, again, hopefully we can get some answers soon. 

WITT:  We hope so.  Thank you very much for being with us tonight on COUNTDOWN Stacey Stegman of the Colorado Department of Transportation. 

COUNTDOWN, now past our No. 4 story.  Still ahead, a dangerous trek to the top of Mt. Rainer triggers a daring rescue effort, that story coming up. 

But, next those stories that know no COUNTDOWN number, but we just have to tell you anyway.  “Oddball‘s” right around the corner.  Some bees with a dream.  Gee, do you think we could get the colony a double wide and a satellite dish? 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  We‘re back and we take time out from the COUNTDOWN now to travel from the news of the world to the news of the weird.  Let‘s play “Oddball.” 

And what would you do if you found $92,000 in a cheap filing cabinet you bought at a tag sale?  Well, you‘d keep it, of course, and spend it wildly on extravagant trips and expensive gifts for yourself and that‘s why school cafeteria worker, Patsy Sherin (ph) of Pleasant View, Tennessee is such a better person than you are.  Sherin bought the cabinet at an estate sale over the weekend for $15 and when she got home found that it was stuffed with cash, $92,000 in dozens of envelopes.  Without giving even a thought to keeping the money she returned it to the unsuspecting widow who was having the estate sale in an attempt to keep her house. 

A touching story indeed, especially considering the housing market out there.  Here is a nice property; it‘s located in Hillsboro County, Florida.  It‘s an abandoned motor home.  But, it might be nice after they clean it up a bit and remove the gigantic minivan sized bee‘s nest and the 200,000 yellow jackets living inside.  Authorities aren‘t sure how long the bees have called this trailer home, but the huge nest filled the inside of the vehicle and was starting to go bulge out through the windows.  Exterminators sprayed the nest with chemicals and cut it to pieces to be taken away.  The mobile home should be ready for tenants by the first of the month.  But who‘s moving in, is my question? 

And if you thought that was strange, we end “Oddball,” tonight with the very weird story of Robert Chamberlain.  Listen to this, Mr.  Chamberlain is 44 years old, hails from Virginia and can only be described as a serial slimer.  He was arrested this month in upstate New York after brief stays at a Super 8 hotel and a Motel 6.  Now, each time after Chamberlain checked out cleaning crews discovered every single thing in his room covered in Vaseline.  We‘re talking the mattress, the pillows, the sheets, the television, the artwork, the furniture, everything slathered in Vaseline.  When police finally caught up to Chamberlain he was staying at a nearby Econolodge and when he answered the door, police say, he was completely covered from head to tow in, you‘ve got it, Vaseline.

COUNTDOWN is picking back up with our No. 3 story, your preview:  The horror of September 11 as seen through the eyes of the commission investigating what wept wrong that day.  Alarming information that TV viewers thousands of miles away knew more about what was going on at ground zero than people directly on the scene. 

And later, will America‘s gas pains mean political gains?  The presidential campaign trading barbs over what‘s wrong with the high gas prices? 

But first, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of this day:

No. 3:  A German mugger who brings the term “dumb criminal” to a whole new level.  After robbing a man at Sullington (ph) Train Station, the mugger, thinking he was handing the victim back his empty wallet before running off, actually handed him his own wallet complete with his name and address.  Yikes. 

No. 2:  Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, who had to sit out his team‘s game last night against the Padres with a back injury.  The cause of the injury was attributed to a, quote, “violent sneeze.” 

And No. 1:  We told you gas prices were out of control.  A would-be gas thief is still on the loose in Scotland.  Apparently, under cover of night, the thief used a plastic hose to siphon the diesel fuel from the tank of an R.V. owned by John and May O‘Hare.  Only problem is he stuck the hose in the wrong place and found himself sucking out the contents of their R.V.‘s septic tank instead.  OK, eeewww!

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  I‘m Alex Witt, sitting in for Keith tonight. 

A mile from the footsteps where the World Trade Center once stood, there was a roomful of tears today.  The No. 3 story on the COUNTDOWN, the 9/11 Commission tracking the timeline of the tragedy in New York; 979 days after the towers came crashing down, the minute-by-minute account of that tragedy was still painfully vivid, all the more so because it recounted what went wrong in all the chaos. 

NBC‘s Lisa Myers has our report. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LISA MYERS, NBC CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  8:46 a.m., the first plane hits the north tower.  Within minutes, a fire safety official orders immediate evacuation.  But the public address system is damaged, so no one hears it. 

Amid the chaos, frantic callers to 911 get standard instructions for high-rise fires, stay put and wait for rescuers.  Some workers on upper floors head for the roof, having never been told the doors there are locked.  Meanwhile, workers in building two, the undamaged south tower, recall hearing an announcement. 

BRIAN CLARK, WORLD TRADE CENTER SURVIVOR:  Your attention, please, ladies and gentlemen.  Building two is secure.  There is no need to evacuate building two. 

MYERS:  Around 9:00 a.m., those instructions change.  Officials order the south tower evacuated.  But for some, it‘s too late.  9:03, the second plane hits the south tower. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The initial impact...

MYERS:  As the anguished families of victims relived that horrifying day, 9/11 Commission members suggested that despite the heroics of rescuers, mass confusion added to the loss of life, that no one was sufficiently prepared or clearly in charge. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Let‘s go, this way. 

JOHN LEHMAN, 9/11 COMMISSION MEMBER:  The command-and-control and communications of this city‘s public service is a scandal. 

THOMAS VON ESSEN, FORMER FDNY COMMISSIONER:  You make it sound like everything was wrong about September 11 or the way we functioned.  I think it‘s outrageous that you make a statement like that. 

MYERS:  Commission members also found, evacuees were confused that day by the configuration of the stairways and had never taken part in evacuation drills.  With 911 emergency operators still telling frantic callers to stay put, at 9:59, the south tower collapses. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We have a number of floors on fire. 

MYERS:  As debris crashes into the north tower, commanders there still don‘t know the other building has collapsed.  Communications are so bad that day, they say TV viewers had better information.  Still, commanders ordered police and firefighters to evacuate immediately, but many never hear the order. 

10:26, the north tower collapses.  Commissioners also questioned why there were no plans at all for rescuing people on floors above the fire.  In 1993, after the Trade Center was bombed, a helicopter rescued people off the roof.  But on 9/11, that was not even a possibility, in part because heat from the fires caused high winds and poor conditions. 

ALAN REISS, FORMER WORLD TRADE DEPARTMENT DIRECTOR:  I‘m concerned that if you try and get people up to the roof of the building that we may have a scene like when the embassy was evacuated in Vietnam. 

LEHMAN:  By the way, many people got out that way. 

REISS:  That‘s true. 

MYERS:  Also today, a familiar refrain from the panel. 

BOB KERREY, FORMER U.S. SENATOR:  We had ample reason to believe that New York City, as the financial and media capital of the world, was going to be the target and we didn‘t give it the primary attention. 

MYERS (on camera):  The commission pointed out that New York City remains at the top of the terrorist target list and that even today critical problems still have not been fixed. 

Lisa Myers, NBC News, New York. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  The commission members are not alone in demanding answers.  Filmmaker Michael Moore‘s latest documentary is the most talked about entry at the Cannes Film Festival this year, but there‘s still a question on when, if ever, it will be released in the U.S.

Whether you think he‘s a righteous watchdog exposing wrongdoers or a radical propagandist willing to skew facts to make his point, you have to admit, he knows how to create a buzz. 

NBC‘s Dawna Friesen brings us that story. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAWNA FRIESEN, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Michael Moore was greeted at Cannes in the style usually reserved for Hollywood stars, not maverick moviemakers. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Michael! UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Michael!

FRIESEN:  In his latest provocative work, “Fahrenheit 911,” Moore slams President Bush and his administration. 

MICHAEL MOORE, FILMMAKER/AUTHOR: The lack of character begins with him and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and the fish rots from the head down. 

FRIESEN:  Using lots of archive material, Moore accuses Bush of being asleep at the wheel in the months leading up to September 11. 

MOORE:  In his first eight months in office before September 11, George W. Bush was on vacation, according to “The Washington Post,” 42 percent of the time. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I hit every shot good, people would say I wasn‘t working.

FRIESEN:  But it‘s Bush‘s handling of the war in Iraq that Moore takes special aim at, using footage his own crews secretly shot. 

MOORE:  We had footage because I‘ve been able to sneak crews into Iraq.  We were able to get crews embedded with the U.S. military without them knowing it was Michael Moore. 

The first screenings of the film at Cannes were packed.  Reaction ranged from outrage to admiration. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I was crying through this film.  I‘m deeply moved, deeply moved. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This movie is completely (EXPLETIVE DELETED). 

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC, “L.A. WEEKLY”:  It‘s actually a better film than I thought it was going to be.  It‘s overlong, but it is a good political polemic. 

FRIESEN (on camera):  Whether Americans will actually see it remains up in the air.  Disney has blocked its release in the U.S.  But two Hollywood producers have bought it back from Disney and are working on getting it in theaters by the July 4 weekend. 

MOORE:  Thank you very much. 

FRIESEN (voice-over):  Not everyone in the U.S. would give it a standing ovation, but, if the reaction at Cannes is any indication, it‘s sure to make a big impact. 

Dawna FRIESEN, NBC News, London.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  Another moviemaker made headlines at the French film fest.

Alexandra Kerry, daughter of presidential wanna-be John, has entered “The Last Full Measure,” a depiction of the ravage wreaked upon a U.S.  family by the Vietnam War, in the short film corner.  But it‘s not her movie that is causing tongues to wag.  According to the tabloids, when Alexandra walked the red carpet, the 30-year-old revealed a bit more than she bargained for.  Her sexy little off-the-shoulder black number turned transparent under photographers‘ flashes, giving all new meaning to the Cannes Film Festival. 

The COUNTDOWN now past the three-fifths mark.  Up next, tonight‘s No.  2 story, the dangerous mission to the top of Mount Rainier, a climber gravely injured in a fall, rescuers racing against the clock to save the man in time. 

And later, remembering an entertainment legend.  Tony Randall, star of TV, stage, and the silver screen, passes away.  A look back at the finicky half of “The Odd Couple.”

But, first, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three sound bites of this day. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALBERT STRAUS, COW DUNG ENTHUSIAST:  Once I heard that there was energy to be gained from the waste product manure, that it interested me and excited me to be able to do this.  Yes, we‘re taking cow manure.  We‘re digesting it and producing energy from it. 

BONO, U2:  Doctor of Laws, wow.  I know it‘s an honor and it really is an honor.  But are you sure? 

(LAUGHTER)

BONO:  Doctor of law?  All I can think of is the laws I‘ve broken. 

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My fellow delegates, please welcome the president of the United States. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Finally, AIPAC elected a president I could kiss. 

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

Three down, two to go in our trek to today‘s No. 1 story.  Danger on Mount Rainier, the fight over gas prices or the death of Tony Randall, which of those stories will top the COUNTDOWN? 

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Every year, 11,000 people try to climb its slopes and every year some don‘t make it back down. 

Our second story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, Mount Rainier has claimed another victim.  For 72 hours, Peter Cooley lay injured stranded 12,000 feet up that mountain.  Despite the constant care of his climbing buddy and an amazing helicopter rescue, he didn‘t survive the trip down to the hospital. 

Ray Lane from our Seattle affiliate KING-TV reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RAY LANE, KING REPORTER (voice-over):  There was so much optimism and relief as Peter Cooley dangled from that Chinook helicopter, strapped to an orange lift.

With an unexpected break in the clouds, a crew from the Oregon National Guard pulled off a daring rescue in treacherous conditions late yesterday afternoon.  The 39-year-old veteran climber, former mountain rescue volunteer in Alaska, suffered severe head injuries on Saturday when he fell 30 feet and hit his head on a rock, his helmet not offering enough protection.

For the next 2 ½ days, his climbing partner, Scott Richards, cared for his friend as best he could, keeping him warm, nursing the injury, dripping melted snow in his mouth.  But as that helicopter raced toward Madigan Army Medical Center, just 15 minutes away, Cooley could not hold on any longer. 

LEE TAYLOR, PARK RANGER:  It appears that the trauma of his injury and the stress, just the physical stress of being at high altitude for so many days and all of the physical demands that had been made upon him were too much. 

LANE:  Cooley‘s parents, who flew in from the East Coast, thankful to hear their son had been rescued, only to learn the devastating news on the drive to the hospital that he had died on board that helicopter. 

In the family‘s hometown in Maine, a shocked community, many knowing Peter Cooley was doing what he loved to do. 

VIRGINIA HANSON, FAMILY FRIEND:  This was not something that was taken lightly.  This was something that these two men had been planning for a long time.  They attempted this route three years ago and were hampered by weather and were frustrated that they had to take what they considered an easier route. 

LANE:  This time around, on what‘s considered the most difficult route up and down Rainier, tragedy instead of triumph for two friends searching for the climbing adventure of a lifetime. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  Ray Lane from our Seattle affiliate KING-TV reporting there.

Scott Richards didn‘t learn of his friend‘s death until he, himself, was being rescued off Mount Rainier today.  Tonight, he is reuniting with his family and friends at a park ranger station nearby. 

Moving now to news in the world of entertainment and the nightly segment we call “Keeping Tabs.” 

And we begin with the death of actor Tony Randall.  Known best to Americans from his role on the sitcom version of “The Odd Couple,” he died in his sleep last night of complications from a long illness.           

NBC‘s Tom Costello has more on the life and career of Tony Randall. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM COSTELLO, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Millions of Americans knew him not as Tony Randall but as Felix Unger, the lovable, slightly prissy roommate of New York slob Oscar Madison in the 1970s TV series “The Odd Couple.”  It was a role that earned Randall an Emmy. 

But Tony Randall was well known in Hollywood and on Broadway long before “The Odd Couple.”  He appeared in several Rock Hudson-Doris Day hit “Pillow Talk.”  Most recently, he played Scrooge in a stage production of “A Christmas Carol” in New York City.  Tony Randall underwent heart surgery last year that left him struggling with pneumonia.  He leaves behind two small children and his wife, Heather, who made him a father for the first time at the age of 77.  Tony Randall was 84 years old. 

Tom Costello, NBC News, New York. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  And he will be missed. 

If there was ever anyone that could be described as a female version of Felix Unger, it would be Martha Stewart.  Now her television show is going off the air.  The producers of the award-winning “Martha Stewart Living” have announced that show will go on hiatus at the conclusion of this, the show‘s 11th season.  With the star facing a possible prison sentence, this was an inevitability, though Stewart promises fans she‘ll resume production as soon as possible. 

How long will the show be on hiatus?  Oh, about three to five with good behavior. 

Finally, it‘s been a big week for celebrity mommies.  Yesterday, we announced the birth of Gwyneth Paltrow‘s daughter, Apple.  Today, it‘s Geena Davis and twin boys.  Neither one of them is named banana.  Actually, it‘s Kian and Kaiis, the second and third child for Ms. Davis and her husband, surgeon Reza Jarrahy.  Her publicist says mommy and two sons are doing beautifully.  Mommy, by the way, is 48 years old.  You go, girl. 

Tonight‘s No. 1 story is straight ahead.  Your preview, soaring gas prices, how the fight to get prices in check could have a major impact in the battle for the White House. 

But first, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top two photos of this day. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WITT:  Reaching the top of the COUNTDOWN and the prices at the pump sending people over the edge.  This week, the cost of gas soared to over two bucks a gallon on average across America.  And now we are being given a chance to revolt. 

An e-mail declaring that May 19 has been formally declared “Stick It Up Their Behinds Day” and the people of this nation should not buy a single drop of gasoline that day is busy circulating on the Internet.  Vive la revolution.  Gas prices will plummet.  OPEC will be brought to their knees.  Actually, no. 

This kind of thing has happened before in 1999 and 2000.  And both years, hardly anyone paid attention to the boycott.  And even if drivers don‘t fill up tomorrow, they‘ll still have to fill up at some point.  So it really makes no difference at all to the companies. 

But it might make a difference to the presidential race. 

As Carl Quintanilla reports, Democrats are using the high prices to take a hefty swipe at the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) 

CARL QUINTANILLA, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  For Democrats, a coordinated attack on high gas prices and the president‘s response. 

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Highest prices that we‘ve had in this country on average ever.  And where‘s the president? 

QUINTANILLA:  John Kerry campaigning in Portland, Oregon today, where prices almost matched the Democrats show-and-tell gas cans in Washington. 

TERRY MCAULIFFE, DNC CHAIRMAN:  It is now time to can Bush. 

QUINTANILLA:  Two weeks before Memorial Day weekend, Democrats now sense a political opening, voter frustration over fuel costs, and echoing loudly in key Western battleground states, prices there all above the national average.  The Democrats‘ plan?  Pressure OPEC to increase supply, simplify rules on fuel additives, which vary state to state, and take 30 million gallons from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a key argument today on Capitol Hill. 

SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), MINORITY LEADER:  We‘re at 96 percent of capacity in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve today.  If we can‘t draw it down at 96 percent, when can we? 

But Republicans bristle at that suggestion, saying the small drop in prices wouldn‘t be worth the risk. 

SPENCER ABRAHAM, ENERGY SECRETARY:  We should maintain as much oil as we can in our Strategic Reserve to protect us in the event of a national security crisis. 

QUINTANILLA:  And while Kerry has been flirting with the gas price issue since March, the Bush campaign today railed on his one-time support for a 50-cent gas tax and his opposition to the president‘s energy bill, which would boost domestic capacity. 

TERRY HOLT, BUSH CAMPAIGN SPOKESMAN:  For John Kerry to attack anybody on higher gas prices is for him to ignore his own vote history on this issue. 

QUINTANILLA (on camera):  Democrats privately admit gas prices don‘t win elections, but they can be used to make broad assertions about the fragile economy, even if the job market is improving. 

KERRY:  And you feel it everywhere, you know, in the products you buy, the trucks that drive them there.  They‘re paying more in prices.  It just squeezes everybody downwards, folks. 

QUINTANILLA:(voice-over):  Tonight, 10 Democratic governors called for an investigation of the nation‘s gas pricing structure.  And Kerry‘s aides say he‘ll ride the issue through at least the Memorial Day weekend. 

Carl Quintanilla, NBC News, Portland, Oregon. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WITT:  Now, according to some economists, for every extra penny paid at the pump, the country loses about $1 billion in consumer spending.  Wal-Mart backs that concept up, claiming that the high price of gas is taking an average of seven bucks a week out of the American pocket and out of their stores. 

So what exactly are you looking at losing every time you fill up the family cruiser? 

Patricia Powell, financial expert and owner of the financial planning and asset management firm Powell Financial Group, joins us tonight with some answers. 

Thank you so much for joining us. 

PATRICIA POWELL, POWELL FINANCIAL GROUP:  My pleasure. 

WITT:  So where will those extra gas pennies come from, missed lunches or places more serious than that? 

POWELL:  It depends where you are in the economic food chain. 

The guy on the bottom, the guy working at McDonald‘s, he‘s in trouble.  If he‘s got to spend another $20 a week to fill up his tank to get to and from work, he‘s got $1,000 to come up with.  And he‘s really in trouble.  As you move up the food chain, the economic food chain, what you‘ll find is the middle class may be getting some benefits on the tax cuts.  The tax cuts are going to be spent at the gas pump.  So you‘re not going to feel the economy the way everybody thought they might. 

WITT:  And, Patricia, let‘s look long term here.  Will your average driver still be spending less at other stores because gas is so expensive? 

POWELL:  Well, long term, you have really, major, major issues.  Long term, this is a fundamental shift.  The reason that gas is rising is due to two factors called supply and demand.  We have short-term disruptions in the supply, but we have a real increase in the demand for oil and oil products, and that‘s a long-term shift. 

Right now, we, in the United States, have about a consumption of 20 barrels -- 20 million barrels a day.  China consumes about six million barrels a day.  Their growth rate is about 20 percent per year.  So this is a fundamental shift.  We‘re going to have to get used to higher prices, because both supply and demand are a problem here. 

WITT:  And let‘s look at the big and little picture of this, because it kind of sounds like a pyramid, domino effect.  The high gas prices mean the truckers are paying more, and that means, what, the grocery store is paying more, which means we‘re all paying more, right? 

POWELL:  You bet.  It is systemic. 

Every good and service produced in the United States has an element of energy in it, down to the carton of milk that you buy.  A trucker is going to bring that to market.  You‘re going to have to package that.  Maybe you‘re going to package that in plastic, a petroleum product.  You‘re going to see it everywhere, from the simplest item, which you may only see a couple of pennies difference in the price of a carton of milk, to expensive things like cars. 

Do you realize how much energy it takes to make the steel that goes into a car?  You might be seeing thousands of dollars in a price change for the car that you buy.  We‘re talking about inflation.  And most adults who are under 40 have never experienced real inflation.  We‘re going to be seeing inflation very differently than what we‘ve seen for the last 20 years.  This is a huge problem. 

WITT:  And you‘re talking things about energy as well.  Does this mean like washing machines, air conditioners, everything like that? 

POWELL:  Not only the expense of the washing machine, but also running the washing machine.  You heat the water, the air conditioning, buying the unit, but also running the unit is going to get more expensive.  A lot of our electric utilities depends on oil to provide us with energy.  So you‘re not only going to see that at the gas pump.

You‘re going to see it in the utility bill.  You‘re even going to see it when you go and buy a pair of sneakers.  Those sneakers are going to be transported into this country from Japan—I‘m sorry, from China.  Excuse me.

WITT:  Well, Patricia, all I have to say to that is, ouch. 

(LAUGHTER)

WITT:  Patricia Powell, owner of the financial planning and asset management firm Powell Financial Group, thank you so much for your time tonight.  We appreciate it. 

POWELL:  My pleasure, thank you. 

WITT:  And the No. 1 place to find cheap gas prices, COUNTDOWN.MSNBC.com.  We have a link to a Web site that helps you find the cheapest price at gas stations in your neighborhood.  Happy driving.

Let‘s recap the five COUNTDOWN stories, the ones we think you‘ll be talking about tomorrow.

No. 5, torture trials.  The first court-martial in connection with the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon in Baghdad.  Specialist Jeremy Sivits will plead guilty as part of a deal to testify against his fellow soldiers.  Three others will also be arraigned tomorrow. 

No. 4, preventable tragedy.  A motorist calls in an unstable-looking girder on a Colorado freeway.  The dispatch reports it as a broken sign.  The maintenance crews fix a sign in the area, but don‘t notice the girder.  The girder breaks off the bridge, killing all the family of three.  Now the federal government is investigating.  No. 3, screen shocker, filmmaker Michael Moore‘s film documentary about the ties between the president‘s family and the Saudi kingdom getting a popular welcome at the Cannes Film Festival.  But the politically charged film still doesn‘t have an official distributor here in the U.S.

No. 2, rescue on Mount Rainier.  A climber survives a 30-foot fall and 72 hours stuck 12,000 feet up a mountain with the help of his close mountaineering friend, but he died in the rescue helicopter on the way to the hospital.  And No. 1, more than a pain in the pump, how the soaring gas prices could have a knock-on effect on the economy and on your everyday bills. 

And that‘s COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Alex Witt, in for Keith Olbermann.  Have a good night, everyone. 

I‘m going to give this shot a try once again.  Oh, bingo!

END   

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