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tv   60 Minutes  CBS  October 6, 2013 7:00pm-8:01pm PDT

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rethink possible. captioning funded by cbs and ford >> pelley: we have gone from what, six to 12 million people on dissneability. >> where did all of these disabled people come from? >> kroft: senator tom coburn says the congress pays out $105 billion to americans claiming to be disabled, and a lot of them are not. >> if the american public knew what was going on in our system, half would btraged and the other half would apply for benefits. >> kroft: we decided to look into what appears to be a large- scale disability scam. there are a lot of allegations out there that we wanted to talk to you about. >> i understand. >> logan: it was a defining moment in the history of u.s. special operations, and it was the first time american forces faced al qaeda in battle. you may remember it as "black
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hawk down," a phrase immortalized on the battlefield in somalia 20 years ago this past week. >> let me show you what we found on the first dig. >> logan: tonight, you're going to see and hear things about that day you never have before. you were being hit from every direction? >> that's correct. >> logan: and taking casualties constantly? >> hooten: yeah, at close range. >> you can see exactly who is trying to kill you? >> you can. >> cooper: this is video of an asteroid in russia barreling toward earth at 40,000 miles per hour. it exploded into pieces 19 miles above and 25 miles south of the city of chelyabinsk, shattering glass and knocking some people right off their feet. more than 1,000 were injured. >> they're very low-probability events, but very high- consequence events. it's something that may not happen for another 100 years, 200 years. it may happen tomorrow morning.
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>> i'm steve kroft. >> i'm lesley stahl. >> i'm bob simon. >> i'm lara logan. >> i'm anderson cooper. >> i'm scott pelley. those stories tonight on "60 minutes." cbs updates. bromide inhalation powder. >> it is cancelling its planned furloughs since the defense department is calling back most of its civilian workers, disbas $3.35 a gallon, and gravity has the biggest october movie debut ever, 55 million. i am jeff glor, cbs news. [ female announcer ] it's time for the annual shareholders meeting.
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♪ there'll be the usual presentations on research. and development. some new members of the team will be introduced. the chairman emeritus will distribute his usual wisdom.
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you feel that in your muscles? i do... drink water. it's a long story. well, not having branches let's us give you great rates and service. i'd like that. a new way to bank. a better way to save. ally bank. your money needs an ally. >> kroft: there is a senate hearing scheduled tomorrow on a subject of some importance to millions of americans. but with the government shut down, it's not clear that the senate committee on government affairs will be able to pay for a stenographer to record the event. the hearing involves the federal disability insurance program,
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which could become the first government benefits program to run out of money. when it began back in the 1950s, it was envisioned as a small program to assist people who were unable to work because of illness or injury. today, it serves nearly 12 million people, up 20% in the last six years, and has a budget of $135 billion. that's more than the government spent last year on the department of homeland security, the justice department, and the labor department combined. it's been called a "secret welfare system" with its own "disability industrial complex," a system ravaged by waste and fraud. a lot of people want to know what's going on, especially senator tom coburn of oklahoma. >> tom coburn: go read the statute. if there's any job in the economy you can perform, you are not eligible for disability. that's pretty clear. so, where'd all those disabled people come from? >> kroft: the social security administration, which runs the disability program, says the
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explosive surge is due to aging baby boomers and the lingering effects of a bad economy. but senator tom coburn of oklahoma, the ranking republican on the senate subcommittee for investigations-- who's also a physician-- says it's more complicated than that. last year, his staff randomly selected hundreds of disability files, and found that 25% of them should never have been approved; another 20%, he said, were highly questionable. >> coburn: if all these people are disabled that apply, i want them all to get it. and then we need to figure out how we're going to fund it. but my investigation tells me and my common sense tells me that we got a system that's being gamed pretty big right now. >> kroft: and by a lot of different people exploiting a vulnerable system. coburn says you need look no further than the commercials of disability lawyers trolling for new clients. namely, the two thirds of the people who have already applied for disability and been rejected.
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there's not much to lose, really. it doesn't cost you anything unless you win the appeal, and the lawyers collect from the federal government. >> marilyn zahm: if the american public knew what was going on in our system, half would be outraged and the other half would apply for benefits. >> kroft: marilyn zahm and randy frye are two of the country's 1,500 disability judges. they are also the president and vice-president of the association of administrative law judges. they are each expected to read, hear, and decide up to 700 appeals a year to clear a backlog of nearly a million cases. they say disability lawyers have flooded the system with cases that shouldn't be there. >> zahm: in 1971, fewer than 20% of claimants were represented. now, over 80% of claimants are represented by attorneys or representatives. >> kroft: why do you think there's so many more lawyers involved in this than there used to be? >> zahm: it's lucrative.
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>> randy frye: follow the money. >> kroft: last year, the social security administration paid a billion dollars to claimants' lawyers out of its cash-strapped disability trust fund. the biggest chunk, $70 million, went to binder and binder, the largest disability firm in the country. lawyer jenna fliszar and jessica white worked for binder and binder, representing clients in front of disability judges from new hampshire to west virginia. >> jenna fliszar: i call it a legal factory, because that's all it is. i mean, they have figured out the system and they've made it into a huge national firm that makes millions of dollars a year on social security disability. >> jessica white: i was hired at the end of 2008, and business was booming because the economy was so bad. we had a lot of people who their unemployment ran out and this was the next step. >> fliszar: if you're unable to find a job, and you have any type of physical issue, then it really becomes a last ditch
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effort because the job market is so bad. >> kroft: many of the cases they handled involved ailments with subjective symptoms like backache, depression, and fibromyalgia, which is joint and muscle pain, along with chronic fatigue. hard to prove you've got it? >> fliszar: yes. and there's really no diagnostic testing for it. >> kroft: hard to deny you don't have it. >> fliszar: correct. >> kroft: out of the hundreds of people that you represented, how many of these cases involved strong cases for disability? >> fliszar: strong cases, i would say maybe 30% to 40%. and then i would say half of my cases were not deserving of disability. >> kroft: how many of them ultimately ended up getting benefits? >> fliszar: half. >> kroft: we tried repeatedly to reach binder and binder for comment, but our phone calls were not returned. >> coburn: we ought to err on the side of... somebody being potentially disabled. and we have a ton of people in our country that are, but what's coming about now with where we are is the very people who are truly disabled, because we have
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so many scallywags in the system, are going to get hurt severely when this trust fund runs out of money. >> kroft: senator coburn says disability payments are now propping up the economy in some of the poorest regions in the country, which is why he sent his investigators to the border area of kentucky and west virginia. more than a quarter of a million people in this area are on disability-- 10% to 15% of the population, about three times the national average. jennifer griffith and sarah carver processed disability claims at the social security regional office in huntington, west virginia. how important are disability checks to people in this part of the country? >> jennifer griffith: they're a vital part of our economy. a lot of people depend on them to... to survive. >> kroft: to see it first-hand, they suggested we come back right after the disability checks went out. and we did, to find crowds and traffic jams.
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>> griffith: you avoid the pharmacy, you avoid wal-mart. you avoid, you know, restaurants because it's just... >> sarah carver: any grocery stores. >> griffith: it's just extremely crowded. everybody's received their benefits. "let's go shopping." >> kroft: not everyone in the throngs we saw is on disability, but jennifer griffith and sarah carver say there's no question that a lot of them are and probably shouldn't be. >> carver: we have a lot of people who have exhausted their unemployment checks and have moved onto social security disability. >> kroft: this is, sort of, a bridge between unemployment and collecting social security. >> carver: generally, yes. >> kroft: are they disabled? >> carver: not always, no. >> griffith: more often than not, no. >> kroft: around here, people call it "getting on the draw" or "getting on the check," but they have other names for it. >> carver: i think you could call it a scheme. you could call it a scam. you could call it fraud. i mean, there's different
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definitions for it. >> kroft: large scale? >> griffith: very large scale. >> kroft: they began complaining to their bosses at the social security administration six years ago after discovering that an outsized number of claims and some questionable medical evidence was being submitted by eric conn, a flamboyant attorney whose face is plastered on billboards throughout the area and on local tv. he runs the third largest disability practice in the country out of the eric c. conn law center, which is just off route 23 in stanville, kentucky. it's a complex of several doublewides welded together with an imposing replica of the lincoln memorial in the parking lot. surprisingly, it has only one space for the disabled. i mean, it's kind of hard to miss eric conn around here, isn't it? >> griffith: you'd be hard pressed to find somebody who doesn't know who he is in this area. >> kroft: he calls himself "mr. social security." and some of his ads say "guaranteed success."
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how can he make that claim? >> carver: he backs that up. >> kroft: a slam dunk? >> carver: mm-hmm. pretty much. >> kroft: that's a remarkable record. >> carver: yes, it is. >> kroft: is he that good a lawyer? >> carver:: you know... >> griffith: no. >> kroft: a lot of conn's success, they say, had to do with a particularly friendly disability judge, david daugherty, who sought out conn's cases and approved virtually all 1,823 of them, awarding a half a billion dollars' worth of lifetime benefits to conn's clients. the decisions were based on the recommendations of a loyal group of doctors who often examined conn's clients right in his law offices and always endorsed them for the disability rolls. were most of the medical reports submitted by the same doctors? >> griffith: yes. >> carver: yes. sometimes, up to 13 to 20 reports a day. >> griffith: i know on one, we counted 16 exams by the same doctor all in one day at his office. >> kroft: and they were all
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approved? >> griffith: they were all approved. >> kroft: were all those valid claims? >> carver: there's no way that you're going to have 100% of clients walk through your door and be disabled. 100% of claimants, there's no way. >> kroft: we were hoping that, given eric conn's outgoing personality and love of publicity, he would be eager to talk to us, but that turned out not to be the case. at first, we were told he wasn't in the office. we said we'd wait. >> hey, take some pens, too, all right? >> kroft: okay. great. about an hour later, we got a call from his lawyer in washington. you know, we don't want to make it seem like he's hiding from us. the lawyer said he'd try to coax conn out of the office, and eventually, he emerged. >> eric conn: i'm very much familiar with you. how we doing today? >> kroft: i'm doing good. look, there's a lot of allegations out there... >> conn: there are. >> kroft: ...about you that we wanted to talk to you about. >> conn: i understand. well, i'm not normally a shy person, but i think it's probably best i speak in the legal realm rather than here.
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i know you all have come a long way, and i don't mean to be in... inhospitable, but i just think it's probably best right now. >> kroft: you can't talk about your relationship with judge daugherty or your incredible success in... in disability court? >> conn: boy, that's tempting. ( laughter ) oh, i would love to comment on some of that. but not... i'm really sorry, i don't think i should right now. >> kroft: conn didn't want to go into it with senator coburn's investigators, either. they've been quietly working on the case for two years, interviewing witnesses and pouring over disability documents. that's why they asked us to protect their identities. what did you find out in west virginia and kentucky? >> coburn: significant fraud. >> kroft: does the name eric conn ring a bell? >> coburn: mm-hmm. i would tell you, i wouldn't want him for a brother-in-law. and he's got a lot of money, and the american taxpayer paid him that money. >> kroft: is he breaking the law? >> coburn: that's probably going to be determined by the department of justice. >> kroft: coburn says the report, to be released tomorrow,
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will show that conn collected more than $13 million in legal fees from the federal government over the past six years, and that he paid five doctors roughly $2 million to sign off on bogus medical forms that had been manufactured and filled out ahead of time by conn's staff. you think what you found there is just an isolated case? >> coburn: no. i mean, it's... it may be one of the worst cases. it just shows you how broken it is. you take a good concept that's well meaning, and then you don't manage it, you don't monitor it, you don't over... congress doesn't oversight it. and pretty soon, you end up with places like, in west virginia, certain counties, where, you know, you're born to be on disability. >> kroft: it should be pointed out that no one is getting rich off disability payments of $1,100 a month. it's a minimum wage income with medicare benefits after two years. but each new case will eventually cost taxpayers, on average, $300,000 in lifetime benefits.
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for marilyn zahm, the disability judge from buffalo, the high demand for it is a measure of the low prospects that still exist for millions of americans. >> zahm: people run out of unemployment insurance. they are not going to die silently. they are going to look for another source of income. it is not unusual for people, especially people over 40, to have some sort an ailment or impairment. so they will file for disability benefits based upon that. for many of these people, the plant closed. there are no jobs in their communities. what are people supposed to do? >> kroft: some of these people are desperate people. >> coburn: absolutely desperate. i agree. but what you're really describing is our economy and the consequences of it. and we're using a system that wasn't meant for that, because we don't have a system over here to help them. which means we're not addressing the other concerns in our society, and that's a debate congress ought to have.
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>> logan: it was a defining moment in the history of u.s. special operations, and it was the first time american forces faced al qaeda in battle. you may remember it as "black hawk down," a phrase immortalized on the battlefield in somalia 20 years ago this past week. "super 6-1" was the call sign of the first black hawk helicopter to be shot out of the sky that day, setting in motion a series of events that remain seared into america's memory-- the sight of u.s. soldiers being dragged through the streets, the capture of a badly wounded american pilot named mike durant. when the fighting ended, america pulled out of somalia with the dead and wounded, but left behind the wreckage of super 6- 1. tonight, you are going to see and hear things about that day you never have before, and meet an american couple determined to bring home a lost piece of american history.
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to get to the crash site of super 6-1, you have to travel into the bakara market, the worst part of mogadishu. >> david snelson: there's still people there very sympathetic with the shabaab. >> logan: which is basically al qaeda in somalia? >> snelson: it's al qaeda in somali. >> logan: david snelson is a former warrant officer for u.s. army intelligence, and he's been running a private security company here with his wife, alisha ryu, for the past three years. he took us to the crash site with a small army of 20 armed guards. so the biggest threats here really are i.e.d.s, homemade bombs? >> snelson: i.e.d.s, v.b.- i.e.d.s, or vehicle i.e.d.s. >> logan: the violent history of this ancient arab city is written in the ruins that still dominate these streets. somalia has been a country without a government for most of the past two decades, and it's only now beginning to emerge from the chaos.
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david's guards set up a ring of security when we got to the site. >> snelson: it's just down over here, right, right here. >> logan: oh, my gosh. this tiny little alleyway? >> snelson: it's just this tiny alleyway. >> logan: there's nothing marking the spot, just a sense of history and the knowledge that this epic battle unfolded right here where super 6-1 came down. you can see where the wreckage was laying in these haunting images taken in the days after the battle. the smashed hulk of the main rotor was right against the wall where we were standing. >> snelson: in fact, i'm relatively confident that this... this section of the wall was probably damaged in the crash and just never been repaired. >> logan: how it ended up here began with a top-secret mission. a task force of u.s. special operations troops were sent in to hunt down a violent warlord, mohamed farrah aidid, who was preventing u.s. and u.n. troops from feeding starving somalis.
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>> norm hooten: the mission that day was to capture key leaders of his executive staff. we had all of his executive staff at one meeting, which was very rare. usually, you get one or two, but to have ten to 12 key leaders in one spot was, was just... was just something we couldn't turn down. >> logan: norm hooten was one of the special operators leading the assault force that day, and in 20 years, he has never spoken publicly about the battle. "60 minutes" was able to obtain this surveillance video, which has not been seen publicly until now. here you can see the very beginning of the mission. hooten was flown in on one of these "little bird" helicopters to the target building, which was quickly enveloped in clouds of dust. how well did you and your men execute that main... the main objective of the mission? >> hooten: it was flawless. from the time we set down to the
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time we called for the helicopters to come back and get us, i would say it was no more than five minutes and it was over. >> logan: so you thought you were going back, it was done? >> hooten: yes. the helicopters were on their way back to the target to pick us up. we had everybody that we'd been trying to get for months was in one package in one mission. >> logan: then, from this rooftop, with his men under fire, hooten watched as the lead black hawk, super 6-1, headed towards him. >> hooten: and it took a direct hit to the... to the tail boom, and it went and staíd a slow rotation. >> logan: how hard did it hit? >> hooten: it was a catastrophic impact. that's the only way i could describe it. >> logan: this is super 6-1 moments after it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, spinning out of control before it's torn apart on impact. >> going down. we got a black hawk going down. >> logan: when super 6-1 came tumbling out of the sky on
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october 3, 1993, these streets were already a battlefield. thousands of angry somalis and heavily armed gunmen were locked in an intense battle with the americans. and now, the unthinkable had happened. they'd shot down a black hawk, this powerful symbol of america's might. for the men on the ground here, it was the moment that changed everything. >> matt eversmann: there is now a... a complete 90-degree turn in our plan, and it is to go recover this aircraft. >> logan: matt eversmann was one of the army rangers who fast- roped out of these black hawk helicopters to secure the target building. until then, none of their operations had lasted more than an hour, and they had no reason to think this one would be any different. some of the guys didn't even take water with them, because they thought it would be over so quickly. >> eversmann: you're looking at one of them, you know? >> logan: you didn't? >> eversmann: what an idiot. i took one of my canteens out.
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because you could put seven magazines into the old canteen pouch. it was a perfect fit. >> logan: hovering a few hundred feet above the battlefield in the command and control helicopter was tom matthews. back then, he was the battalion commander for the 160th special operations aviation regiment, considered the finest helicopter pilots in the world. did you see super 6-1 get hit? >> tom matthews: i did. the nose went into a wall that was reinforced with another wall on the other side. the tail boom knocked down the wall behind it. the cockpit did not break through that wall because it was reinforced. so it crushed that cockpit. >> logan: which obviously meant that the... the two pilots had no chance. >> matthews: they had no chance at impact, in... in that particular case. >> logan: matthews told us the pilots, chief warrant officers cliff wolcott and donovan briley, were among the best under his command.
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he recalled those first few moments after the crash, as he tried to make sense of what had happened to the eight men on board. >> matthews: first thing i saw was a guy crawl out of the wreckage of super 6-1, one of the operators who was in the back, and take up a defensive fighting position at the corner of the building to protect that crash site. and that happened within probably 30 seconds of the... of the crash. >> logan: the dark figure you can just make out standing on the corner is 25-year-old staff sergeant dan busch, as he defended super 6-1 against swarming enemy fighters. he would soon be dead. norm hooten says he and his men were doing everything they could to get to the crash site that was in danger of being overwhelmed. you've described it as being like sharks, smelling the blood in the water. >> hooten: yes. they smelled blood and they were... they were moving towards it. >> logan: matt eversmann and his team of army rangers were also
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trying to get to super 6-1 in this convoy, but they kept running into a hail of gunfire. >> eversmann: i think we went through three or four ambushes along the way. literally, this is... the somalis line both sides of the street, face towards the center, and... and shoot while you're driving through. i mean, that's... that's their... their battle drill. and we start to lose more soldiers by attrition. >> logan: taking casualties on the convoy... >> eversmann: you know, we're taking casualties on the convoy. you know, each ambush, we're losing more guys. >> logan: the americans were outnumbered by thousands of somalis. norm hooten said it took him and his men hours to reach the crash site, which was only a few blocks away. and all the time, you were being hit from every direction? >> hooten: that's correct. >> logan: and taking casualties constantly? >> hooten: yeah, at close range. you're within a doorway away or over a brick wall, so within...
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within ten feet. so, it's very... very close and very personal. >> logan: you can see exactly who's trying to kill you? >> hooten: you can. >> logan: when you finally got to that crash site, what was that like, that moment when you first saw it, you knew that you were finally there? >> hooten: i can remember seeing the tail boom kind of broken and... and sticking out. and i remember the... the relief i felt when i saw it. i said, "finally, we finally... we can finally put our arms around this thing and start solving this problem." >> logan: in the midst of this intense fight, they faced a nearly impossible task-- to free the body of one of the pilots pinned in the wreckage. it took all night. >> hooten: we used every manual tool we could to try to disassemble that aircraft and recover. we went in with straps and lifts and basically pulled that aircraft off... until we could recover our friends and... and leave.
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i remember being inside that aircraft, working on it, and looking out and seeing the sun coming up and thinking, "here we go. it's getting ready to get... get bad again." >> logan: so you were not going to leave that pilot's body ... >> hooten: no, no, no. >> logan: ...trapped in that aircraft. >> hooten: that was absolutely not an option. >> logan: more than 13 hours after super 6-1 went down, they were still at the crash site and the battle wasn't over yet. out of 160 americans, more than a hundred were dead or wounded. one of them was a 21-year-old army ranger from new jersey, corporal jamie smith. >> hooten: he was shot in the leg, but he was shot way up close to the hip, so you couldn't get a tourniquet on him, you know. and we kept pushing i.v.s into him for hours and he would say "am i going to die?" and we would say, "no, you're not going to die." and we'd call the helicopter in to come and get him, and it would come in and that
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helicopter would get shot. and then we would try to get vehicles in, and, then finally, finally, you know, after hours of this agonizing thing with a young kid. you try to tell him "no, son, you're not going to die, you're going to live." and he died... and that, that is a... that's one of the things that i... you know, keeps me up at night sometimes-- that... that horrible lie that you tell someone trying to keep his spirits up. >> logan: the memory of corporal smith and the other men who died is what david snelson and alisha ryu say they see in the remnants of super 6-1. this past spring, after careful negotiations with local clans, they were able to start digging out the wreckage. they were anxious to get to it before the somalis went ahead with a plan to build a road over the crash site.
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the earth gave up one piece of twisted metal after another. it was surprising how much was there. few people realized that for 20 years since it fell, super 6-1 had been there, in that same place, where it went down. because of the threat from al qaeda, it was too dangerous for david and alisha to be at the site, and they were waiting for the wreckage to be brought to their home in mogadishu. >> i saw the truck pull in and i saw what appeared to be at least three of the rotor, of the blades, and i was, "wow." i said, "that can't be." >> i was amazed. >> logan: you had no idea? >> no idea. had absolutely no idea, it was just, absolute shock. >> snelson: let me show you what we found on the first dig. >> logan: they kept the wreckage safe behind their high walls and heavy security.
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pieces of the four rotors still attached. this massive part is the main rotor, which still dripped clean hydraulic fluid when they dug it out. >> snelson: i don't want to lift this up too much because it's really corroded and really fragile. >> logan: and these are the foot pedals used by one of the super 6-1 pilots as he struggled to control the helicopter in the final seconds of his life. it had taken them almost a year, and most of their life savings, but in june, they were finally able to package up the wreckage and send it on its way. with the help of the u.s. military, super 6-1 made it to fayetteville, north carolina, just a month and a half ago, and this is where it will stay-- on display at the airborne & special operations museum. >> hooten: i think it's coming back to where it belongs. >> logan: and that matters? >> hooten: and that matters.
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to anybody that was... that was there that night, it matters. >> welcome to cbs sports undate presented by pacific life, i am james with stories from around the nfl today. >> denver remains unbeaten as peyton manning throws four touchdowns, kansas city is. >> the saints also five and zero, drew brees throws two touches, green bay makes it 23 straight. >> and lions stopped since 87 and baltimore wins behind ray rice's two rushing touchdowns, for more sports news an information go to >> he taught me that whales leave footprints, glassy circles on the surface that show us where they've been and sometimes where they're going. he would always say, "if you know where you're headed,
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>> cooper: for a long time, astronomers saw the asteroids and comets that come close to earth as useless debris, space rocks that blocked our view of distant galaxies. not anymore. they're now viewed as scientifically important and potentially very dangerous if they were to collide with our planet.
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the odds of that happening on any given day are remote, but over millions of years, scientists believe there have been lots of impacts, and few doubt there are more to come. a former astronaut told us it's like a game of "cosmic roulette," and one mankind cannot afford to lose. concern over our ability to detect these objects that come near the earth grew after an incident in russia this february, when an asteroid crashed into the atmosphere with many times the energy of the bomb dropped on hiroshima, narrowly missing a city of one million. this is video of that asteroid in russia, barreling toward earth at 40,000 miles an hour. it exploded into pieces 19 miles above and 25 miles south of the city of chelyabinsk. people thought it had missed them entirely, until minutes later, when the shock wave arrived. ( windows shattering; car alarm goes off ) shattering glass, crushing doors and knocking some people right
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off their feet. more than 1,000 were injured. how much warning did people in chelyabinsk have? >> paul chodas: none. >> cooper: paul chodas is a scientist at nasa's jet propulsion laboratory in pasadena, california. he and his boss, don yeomans, have been trying to track near- earth objects for decades. >> chodas: we didn't see it coming. it was coming from the general direction of the sun, so it was in the daytime sky as it approached. >> cooper: so how did you find out about it? >> chodas: twitter and youtube, when we... when we first saw the images. >> cooper: so the first people at nasa that heard about it was twitter? ( laughter ) >> chodas: exactly. >> cooper: chodas says an object this size hits earth once every hundred years, on average. yet the same day, purely by chance, another asteroid twice as large came within 17,000 miles of earth, passing between us and the satellites that are bringing you this broadcast. the only reason there was any advance warning was because an amateur astronomer in spain, an oral surgeon by day, noticed it just before it moved out of view.
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>> amy mainzer: we know about some of the most distant galaxies in the known universe, and yet, we don't really know everything that's right in our own backyard. >> cooper: wow. amy mainzer is a nasa scientist who focuses on detecting asteroids. >> mainzer: so we got to move the dome out of the way. and then we're going to start to follow the asteroid as it tracks across the sky. >> cooper: this telescope at the table mountain observatory in california is one of dozens all over the world that are used to track and study near earth objects. mainzer told us they're often very hard to find. >> mainzer: some of these asteroids are really, really dark, darker even than coal in some cases. kind of like the soot at the bottom of a barbecue grill. >> cooper: so you're looking for something that's darker than coal against a black sky. >> mainzer: exactly. and now you see the problem. >> cooper: another problem is that ground-based telescopes can't see objects coming from the direction of the sun because they're in the daytime sky, like the asteroid that hit russia. astronomers find asteroids by taking repeated pictures of the night sky and looking for things that change position.
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professionals and amateurs all over the world work together, sharing information. once paul chodas and his nasa colleagues have multiple sightings, they can predict an object's location as far as 100 years into the future. >> mainzer: this particular object has a well-known orbit. >> cooper: the asteroid amy mainzer was observing the night we visited didn't look like much on her screen. that little thing? >> mainzer: yep, that's it. >> cooper: but it's nearly half a mile wide and capable of destroying an entire continent. so that's actually... that's a huge asteroid. >> mainzer: that's a huge asteroid. if something this size hit the earth, it would be devastating. it would be very bad. >> cooper: asteroids are composed mostly of rock; comets- ice and dust. they come in all shapes and sizes. some look like small planets; others, giant dog-bones. for a long time, nobody thought they were worth tracking at all. >> mainzer: it wasn't thought that they really did hit the earth.
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astronomers debated for a long time about the nature of the craters on the moon, and they thought that the craters on the moon were volcanic. >> mainzer: possibly, yeah. and it's only been fairly recently, within, you know, the last 50 years or so, that the field has really recognized that, yeah, impacts actually do happen. and not only do they happen on geological time scales, you know, millions and billions of years, but on human time scales, in some cases. >> cooper: the last major asteroid to collide with earth hit in 1908, in the tunguska region of siberia. it's believed to have been 40 yards wide and to have exploded in the air like a nuclear bomb, leveling 80 million trees in an area the size of metropolitan washington. this crater in northern arizona was created 50,000 years ago. it's one of more than 180 impact craters geologists have found so far. they think there are many more, hidden by water and vegetation, more even than on the moon, because the earth's gravity is greater. the most famous impact of all is the one that may have wiped out the dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago.
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the theory is that an enormous asteroid or comet collided so violently with earth, it created a cloud of debris that blocked out the sun, killing off 75% of all species, and leaving behind a crater in mexico more than 100 miles wide. >> don yeomans: these are objects that were once in space, pieces of asteroids. >> cooper: yeomans and chodas showed us some of the remarkable things that have fallen from the sky. >> cooper: this is a piece of mars? >> yeomans: you have it in your hand. it wandered around the inner solar system for a few million years, and a 40 pound stone came down in africa, about ten feet from a farmer, in... >> cooper: really? >> yeomans: ...october of 1962. >> cooper: it's amazing, to think this is from mars. they played a trick on me, as well. >> yeomans: would you hand that one to me, that big one? >> cooper: that one? >> yeomans: yeah. ( laughter ) come... come on. >> cooper: oh, my god. this one was iron-nickel and heavy as an anvil. not all asteroids are made of such dense stuff, but many contain high concentrations of
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valuable minerals, like platinum, that might someday be mined in space. >> president barack obama: we'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid, for the first time in history. >> cooper: president obama's proposed budget for next year includes a plan to capture a tiny asteroid so that astronauts could rendezvous with it by 2025. the idea is to perfect techniques needed to explore deep space, and perhaps find a way to exploit the water resources that many comets and asteroids have. >> yeomans: you could extract water from them. you could break the water down into hydrogen and oxygen, which is the most efficient form of rocket fuel. so asteroids may serve as the fueling stations and watering holes for future planetary exploration. >> cooper: but as the scriptwriters of the hollywood blockbuster "armageddon" vividly imagined, asteroids have the potential to harm mankind as well. for better or worse, this is what many of us know about near- earth objects-- that if bruce willis hadn't nuked one, it would have destroyed the world.
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i mean, you see these movies with bruce willis where an asteroid is coming and is going to destroy the world. is that likely? >> yeomans: no. no. we've found 95% of the large ones, and none of them represent a threat within the next 100 years or so. >> cooper: what about the other 5%? >> yeomans: we're still looking. >> cooper: he's talking about objects over half a mile wide that are big enough to cause global destruction. the problem is, there are lots of smaller objects over 40 yards in diameter that are unaccounted for and potentially very dangerous. >> ed lu: if you look at the light green dot, that's the orbit of the earth. >> cooper: ed lu is a former astronaut who spent six months on the international space station. he showed us a computer- generated representation of our solar system-- that's the sun in the center, and those green dots are 10,000 near-earth objects astronomers have found so far. >> lu: so these green dots are the asteroids that could hit the earth. >> cooper: this is the... about the 10,000 known asteroids? >> lu: yes, these are the 10,000 known asteroids. here's the problem. there's about a factor of 100 more.
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the real solar system looks like this. and we know this because we've only been able to observe a small fraction of the sky, and we know that there's about 100 times more asteroids than we've found. >> cooper: wait... wait, this is all the asteroids that are... >> lu: there are about a million asteroids large enough to destroy a city out there. >> cooper: and right now, we only know of... of what percent of those asteroids? >> lu: about one half of 1%. >> cooper: does it worry you that you only know 1% of these asteroids that are big enough to destroy a city? >> chodas: well, most of those are really small. and the odds are that many of these would hit in a remote area or they could hit in an ocean. so that is why the larger ones are those that we were paying attention to first. now, the next size range is the one to concentrate on, those that can cause, you know, continent-wide extinction or destruction. >> cooper: yeah. that would be pretty good to prevent that continent-wide destruction. >> chodas: those are the next ones. we'll continue to find those. and we work our way down to the small ones. >> cooper: but right now, an
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object that could wipe out the eastern seaboard or new york city could be a day away and there's a very good chance we wouldn't know about it. >> yeomans: well, we're working to make sure that we will know about it. >> cooper: but right now, we wouldn't know about it. >> chodas: it's possible, yes. >> the committee on science, space and technology will come to order. >> cooper: nasa administrator charles bolden faced similar questions from congress after the near-miss in russia earlier this year. >> what would we do if you detected even a small one, like the one that detonated in russia, headed for new york city in three weeks? what would we do? >> charles bolden: if it's coming in three weeks, pray. >> cooper: is there anything you can do to deflect an asteroid that's going to hit, besides evacuating a city? >> yeomans: if you find it ten or 20 or 30 years in advance, then yes, you could actually send a spacecraft up, run into it, slow it down a millimeter or two per second so that, in ten or 20 years, when it was
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predicted to hit the earth, it wouldn't. >> cooper: just slam a spacecraft into it. >> yeomans: just slam into it. >> cooper: in 2005, nasa did just that-- as an experiment, firing a small unmanned spacecraft into a comet called tempel one. but you can't deflect what you don't detect, which is why former astronaut ed lu has taken on a new mission. >> lu: here's the telescope that we're building. >> cooper: he's now chairman of the b612 foundation, which has designed a space-based telescope to speed up the discovery of near-earth objects. nasa's amy mainzer has been developing one, too. both telescopes would be able to find asteroids by using infra- red sensors that detect heat rather than light. but a telescope like this would cost roughly half a billion dollars, and so far neither the united states nor any other government has committed significant funds. so the b612 foundation is trying to raise the money privately . by reaching out to individual donors. >> lu: i don't think there's any
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other global catastrophe, global scale catastrophe that we can prevent. this is the only one that i know of we can solve this particular issue for the cost of building a freeway overpass. i mean, and that's literally what it is. >> cooper: but nobody has been killed by an asteroid. >> lu: yeah. and what i'm saying is that you can't wait till that point afterwards, when you say, "we should have done it." you have to think of this as cosmic roulette, right? the phrase that they have in vegas is that the house always wins and, you know, the sort of secret to all this is that we're not the house. at some point, you know, the solar system's going to get you. >> yeomans: they're very low- probability events, but very high-consequence events. >> cooper: the problem it seems like is you're asking people to care about something which may not affect their lives, may not even affect their children's lives. >> yeomans: that's true. it's a tough concept to get across because, as you say, it's something that may not happen for another 100 years, 200 years. it may happen tomorrow morning.
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