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Massive Fire at Luxury Hotel in Dubai; New York Man Linked to ISIS-Inspired NYE Plot; Flooding Pushes Rivers to Record Levels. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 31, 2015 - 16:00   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers watching in the United States and around the world.

[16:00:02] This is THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in again today for Jake Tapper.

And we begin today on this New Year's Eve with breaking news. A massive fire has taken over a luxury hotel in Dubai. The five-star hotel was fully booked for New Year's Eve. And people were gathering in that very spot for an enormous New Year's Eve fireworks display when they ended up witnessing something much more alarming.

You're seeing those pictures there. Now flames have engulfed the 63- story structure. There have also been several explosions.

The hotel sits just across from the Burj Khalifa, that is the tallest skyscraper in the world. Amazingly, the Dubai government says tonight there are no major injuries from this fire. And even more amazing, that fireworks show at the nearby Burj went on with this inferno next door a little over an hour ago.

Let's get right to CNN's Becky Anderson. She's in Dubai.

Becky, is there any new information as to what caused this fire?

BECKY ANDERSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: What we are being told by sources is that a curtain in a room on the 20th floor of this hotel caught alight and caused the hotel to effectively go up in flames. The hotel now is 90 percent contained so far as authorities are concerned.

It is now just after 1:00 in the morning here. And this fire broke out at only 9:35 p.m. only two and a half hours before the huge firework display just a kilometer or so away was due to take place. And indeed did go on.

Now, let me tell you what we know so far as injuries are concerned. There had been 16 people who have sustained minor injuries from this fire which was at the Address Hotel, a five-star hotel and residential compound, 63 stories high, 196 rooms, as you rightly pointed out, a hotel that was full tonight as are many of the hotels in Dubai for what is one of the biggest fireworks spectaculars in the world. There are some 600 service apartments, Jim, at that hotel as well. So, 16 injuries sustained which were described as minor, one injury

that was described as medium. And one person who sadly sustained a heart attack as a result of the crowding and the smoke inhalation.

But we are, again, told by sources that the police response and the evacuation was a very, very organized process. They were told where to go and what to do. And everybody got out safely, it seemed, to all intents and purposes, and were evacuated to the nearby Dubai mall.

If any of our viewers know Dubai, they will know downtown Dubai. They will be well aware of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, where the fireworks start at midnight here. They'll be aware of the hotel complex around the Burj Khalifa and what is the biggest mall in the world, which is the Dubai Mall.

So, this only now what we're talking three and a half hours ago, the fire, Jim, as far as the Dubai media authorities are concerned, 90 percent controlled. And they are hoping that the integrity and the infrastructure of that building is intact.

SCIUTTO: Becky, so --

ANDERSON: They can assess exactly what happened as sun comes up.

SCIUTTO: As you say, Becky, credit where credit is due. Truly remarkable emergency response to get all the people out of that building safely at a time when I imagine not just hotel guests there but many others who came to watch these fireworks.

You mentioned there this question about the integrity of the hotel where the fire of this intensity, this extent, are there any concerns about the structural integrity at this point?

ANDERSON: We've been asking that question. And we have certainly been getting answers that suggest that they are as concerned as any emergency operation would be with the sort of fire that happened in this hotel. But they say a lot of the inside of this hotel actually wasn't affected.

So I say it was under control to the extent of 90 percent within about two hours of this fire happening. So, although the video is pretty dramatic, Jim, I think what authorities are telling us is that the internal infrastructure, the integrity of the hotel, they are not as concerned about as you might be if you were watching those videos.

SCIUTTO: Becky, one more question. We heard and I'm sure our viewers heard as well if they were watching, a number of explosions over the course of the last hour from that building.

[16:05:03] Is there any explanation as to what caused those explosions?

ANDERSON: There isn't any explanation for that at present. And we're working our sources. We'll work to try and find out more. Certainly, we've been told by the official authorities who are releasing information at this point that there were no explosions as far as they are concerned.

Now, we may have heard noises. They may be described by some who are there as explosions. I'm not getting any information to date as to what the cause of the noise or as some have described it explosions were. Forgive me, we'll get that to you immediately.

SCIUTTO: Becky Anderson, great to have you there on the ground. Thanks very much.

We also have on the phone with me now, Angus Villar, who was in the hotel and carried a person down the stairs in a wheelchair during that evacuation.

Angus, thanks so much for joining us. Can you walk us through what you saw in these harrowing last few hours?

ANGUS VILLAR, WAS INSIDE HOTEL (via telephone): Yes. So, it's been a couple hours ago now. I mean, I was in the kitchen pretty much pouring some champagne getting ready to watch the fireworks. I'm normally in London but I traveled to Dubai to be with my parents and watch the New Year in front of the best fireworks display in the world.

I was in the kitchen and my father went to the balcony and run into the room and said the hotel is on fire. We started laughing, oh, it must be a joke. I went to the balcony, peered out and saw flames coming from the entire balcony and room next door was on fire. So, it was actually fairly serious. Took a photo and sent it to my friends in the process.

But, yes, basically running. We basically grabbed everyone in the room, me, my girlfriend, my sister, my parents, and, yes, we essentially got to the nearest bar escape. My mother is normally in a wheelchair, on the 16th floor going to struggle getting down the sort of emergency steps. Basically have to throw her on my back and get down to the ground floor and get out that way.

It was, I mean, slightly worrying is that we basically half way down the stairs, at which point the fire alarm went off in the hotel. So, yes, that did worry me somewhat. And to be honest I'm here two hours later with no idea where we should be or what we should be doing. And I can still see our flat on fire. So, it is slightly worrying.

SCIUTTO: No question. And I'm happy that you and your family got out safely. What was the misdemeanor --

VILLAR: Yes, absolutely.

SCIUTTO: -- of the other hotel guests as they were going out? Was it calm? Were people following instructions?

VILLAR: Absolutely not. I mean, look, I cannot fault the hotel staff at all. They were trying to calm everyone down. Direct everyone to the nearest exit.

But, it was definitely not a situation like on the Titanic or something. It was definitely women and children want to get out first, people crawling over each other, pushing each other out of the way. So, yes, it was not as I would envision a situation like that would be.

SCIUTTO: Goodness. Did you see any people injured as a result of that? Because often in situations like this, sometimes the crowd itself can be dangerous.

VILLAR: Yes. Well, I mean, to be fair the thing is we were probably some of the first out because we actually saw the fire before the alarm went off. So we were getting out as soon as possible. But definitely when I got down below, essentially, you know, people were coming up to us super worried about friends and family who were in the building. They had no idea where they were, how to get ahold of them and particularly they were asking, you know, how did the wheelchair get out of this hotel?

One of the guys said my mother's up on the 60th floor in a wheelchair, how is she going to get out? Quite frankly I didn't know. Even for me, I might have struggled from the 60th floor walking down that many flights.


Listen, Angus, we're glad you're out safely and amazed frankly that so many others got out safely. We appreciate you taking the time.

ANGUS: Yes, sure.

SCIUTTO: Joining me now on the phone is Cena Baramni (ph) who's been watching this fire from his apartment which is a little more than a half-mile away, giving incredible vantage point as this has unfolded.

Cena, set the scene where you are right now. From where you are right now, do you see that the fire's under control or appears to be under control?


SCIUTTO: Keep going. We're having a little trouble with your audio but perhaps you can try again maybe a little louder.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sorry. Is that better now?

SCIUTTO: Cena, we're going to try to come back to you in a moment. The audio difficult there for us to understand.

We have another witness now, Bruce Szczepanski, he works in Dubai. He also has a vantage point to watch this fire from the beginning as it's happening.

[16:10:01] In fact, he's been on live with CNN for a good portion of this.

Bruce, can you hear me now? And tell us what you're seeing now. BRUCE SZCZEPANSKI, WITNESSED FIRE FROM NEARBY HOTEL: I can hear you,

Jim. As you can see behind me the fire seems to be pretty much under control. There's probably six or seven units that seem to be fully engulfed.

To the right, there was just an explosion, I would suspect it was one of the terrorist areas, and because the weather's a little cooler here now it's about 65 in the evenings, you have many of the propane, LP, radiate heaters that could have been the source of the explosions.

But either way, it seems to be under control. You know, we all hope everyone made it out safely. The local authorities have it looks like the situation at hand.

SCIUTTO: Bruce, you had a remarkable vantage point there from the beginning. We're now showing older pictures while that fire was still raging.

Were you able to see from where you are the quickness, the speed of the emergency response as they were coming in, the fire trucks, the police we heard immediately of four different teams of firefighters from the Dubai government going in. Did you see that all unfold from where you were?

SZCZEPANSKI: So, from where I was at, you know, when the fire erupted, it moved up pretty quickly along the facade of the building, I came in earlier this morning and they were already prepping with a number of fire equipment here in the area in anticipation of potentially something. And not normal they would for an event like this.

And I would assume that they reacted quickly. The fire trucks or the police and I believe they reacted very quickly here to address it. The problem is the fire moved quickly up the side of the building to the point where, you know, it was very rapid.

SCIUTTO: Well, Bruce, we're seeing now we have that picture over your shoulder showing the fire out and the earlier picture of just how intense it was. Nice to see that progress. Thanks for walking us through it, Bruce Szczepanski.

SZCZEPANSKI: No problem.

SCIUTTO: Incredible images coming out of this massive fire at this luxury hotel in Dubai. Amazingly, no one to this point was seriously hurt. We're going to have more on this breaking news story ahead on CNN.


[16:15:55] SCIUTTO: Welcome back. I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington.

We continue to follow the story in Dubai. A massive hotel fire, an inferno taking place just before New Year's was ushered in there in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, the fire engulfing a 63-story building. We are told now by Dubai authorities, one, that there were no

fatalities in this fire, 14 they say minor injuries.

We're told as well that the fire is now under control and that most of the damage was to the exterior of that building. One more thing to add, that the fireworks celebration there in Dubai went on as planned. Just a little more than a couple hours after this inferno was underway, right next door at the Burj Khalifa, next door to this tower, is the tallest building in the world. We will continue to follow that story throughout this hour for our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world.

We turn now to our national lead.

Excitement and security sky high as we usher in 2016. At this hour Baghdad, Nairobi and in Moscow, all ringing in the New Year with the backdrop of terror threatening this moment of celebration.

Here in the U.S. an ISIS-related arrest in New York as people pack Times Square. The crowd lined with police officers. Some you see. Many you don't see.

We have teams looking into the latest arrests and increased security. CNN's Evan Perez is getting the latest from his counterterrorism sources.

We start, though, with CNN's Miguel Marquez, who was among the masses in Times Square. More than a million expected there tonight.

Miguel, the crowds coming despite the state of alert, right?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The crowds will probably be in record numbers tonight. These are some of the folks who've been packing in here. You guys ready for this? Happy New Year.

CROWD: Happy New Year.

MARQUEZ: We've got many hours to go. We're sort of midway down here. If you keep looking that way all the way up there you can see that Toshiba sign, that's where the ball will actually come down.

More than a million people packing in here. Six thousand police officers to keep them safe from the land, sea, air and even underground in the subways here. Police say they will keep them safe. You can see a lot of police officers, the presence here throughout the area.

The main thing that they will have is bomb sniffing dogs. They'll have radiation and chemical detectors and cameras -- about 1,000 cameras in this area alone.

Across the city, you're talking tens of thousands of officers to keep all of those venues safe. Parties and celebrations as we once called them now they're considered soft targets after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Miguel Marquez, thanks very much, in the midst of it in Times Square.

The heightened security comes as authorities in New York arrest a man they say tried to plan a deadly terror attack directed by ISIS.

CNN's justice reporter Evan Perez is uncovering new details on that.

So, Evan, authorities say this man specifically wanted to time this attack for today, for New Year's Eve?

EVAN PEREZA, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: That's right, Jim. In Rochester, New York, his name is Emanuel Luchman (ph). He's 25 years old.

What the FBI says he planned to do was carry out an attack in a restaurant in the Rochester area tonight, New Year's Eve. And he was in touch with and directed by, according to the FBI, an ISIS member overseas. His plot was to carry out this attack using pressure cooker bombs and knives, perhaps kidnap a couple of people and kill them, Jim.

The FBI really says though that this guy's got a long criminal history in New York, including for robbery and for mental health issues. He plotted with a couple of FBI informants, including one who is paid $19,000 and another $7,000 for their work helping the FBI with these cases.

He recorded a video yesterday pledging allegiance to ISIS before carrying out -- what he planned carrying out this attack today in Rochester.

SCIUTTO: So, Evan, you're aware as I am the arrest in New York comes after major raids today in Europe, particularly in Belgium. And European authorities -- their state of alert is really higher than I've ever seen really.


[16:20:04] SCIUTTO: What are you hearing about their concerns, particularly tied to the New Year's holiday?

PEREZ: Well, you know, that's one of the things that's curtailed some of the celebrations in Paris, the celebrations have been shortened. In Belgium, they canceled one of the big celebrations in Brussels. It really ties together all of the concerns that you have, that people are having about ISIS. Not only in Europe, Jim, but also here in the United States. It's something that has grown over the year, and I think we're going to see more of it next year.

SCIUTTO: Evan Perez, thanks very much.

Joining me now to talk about these terror concerns is our CNN security intelligence and analyst Bob Baer, he's a former CIA operative. Phil Mudd, he's former deputy director of the CIA Counterterrorism Center. And CNN law enforcement analyst, Jonathan Gillim, he's a former FBI agent. So, three great minds to discuss this threat with.

Phil, if I could begin with you. You have Paris and Brussels both canceling their fireworks displays out of an abundance of caution. Does that send a message in effect giving terrorists victory?

PHIL MUDD, FORMER DEP. DIRECTOR, CIA COUNTERTERRORISM CENTER: I think in some ways when you see how ISIS will react to that, you can expect them to come out and say this is a victory. In addition, when you're looking down the road at their attempts to recruit people, this is going to feed into their ability to say, if there's one place you want to go that will allow you to impact the societies you're coming from, impacted not only with events like the Paris attack, but also with what's happening today, there's only one place to go. And that's Syria. I think it's hugely significant.

SCIUTTO: Bob Baer, I want to ask you because when I speak to European counterterror officials about the threat, they are extremely concerned. And I've talked to them for a long time, you certainly more than me. And I haven't heard this level of concern. Why so much right now?

BOB BAER, CNN INTELLIGENCE AND SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I think the problem is the Islamic State is under serious threat, and its believers in Europe think if they conduct violence there, whatever level, with guns or bombs, they can somehow defend the Islamic State. With the fall of Ramadi and before that, Tikrit and so on and Sinjar, I think these people really do believe that they have a duty to conduct these attacks. And Americans do as well living in this country who have, you know, held on to this cause. I think they have a good reason to be scared.

SCIUTTO: Jonathan, to Bob's point, and we hear this often, the threat that law enforcement is most worried about are the lone wolves because they're hard to track, right? There's no phone call to a cave in Afghanistan to pick up, there's no training on the battlefield in Iraq or Syria.

What can they do about that kind of thing -- and not just tonight but over these holidays and going forward? I mean, that's a really tough one to prevent, isn't it?

JONATHAN GILLIAM, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: It's extremely hard to prevent. And I think Phil and Bob will both agree with me on this.

You know, we've been seeing these techniques and the tactics and procedures that they're using for years and years, but it's always been in the Islamic countries over in the Middle East. Now as they start to move into the Western countries, this is the fear that terrorism experts and analysts and law enforcement individuals have had is that this day would come when they start to do these very simple, very effective attacks in Western countries.

And you cannot -- unless you have sources finding these home grown operatives is almost nearly impossible unless you just happen upon them. And lucky for us we do have sources like these two individuals that helped capture this guy in Rochester.

SCIUTTO: That's right.

Phil, final thing. As you watched what played out in Dubai, we don't know what caused this. Dubai government saying simple as a burning curtain, but just purely from a security perspective, were you surprised they went ahead with their massive New Year's fireworks demonstration, display despite the fact right next door you had a massive building on fire?

MUDD: Yes, that was the first thing I saw, Jim. I'm watching this. I was actually watching it on CNN and my first reaction not only from a security perspective, but from an intelligence perspective was, we don't know exactly what just happened here. And right next door, you want to initiate a fireworks display that has tremendous potential also for disaster?

My first reaction was, I can't believe they didn't cancel that. But Dubai's a different place than New York, Jim. I don't know what they're thinking out there.

SCIUTTO: I hear you. I would have driven in the opposite direction.

Bob Baer, Phil Mudd, Jonathan Gilliam, thanks to all of you and wish you happy New Year and safe New Year as well.

Also right now, a dire situation getting worse. As massive flooding in the Midwest breaches levees and heads downstream.

And as we head to break, crowds in Russia are celebrating the first few minutes of 2016. The celebration here happening in Moscow's Red Square. Gorgeous to see.

We'll be right back.


[16:27:49] SCIUTTO: We are back with the other big story in the national lead. Massive flooding in the U.S. is creeping well beyond historic levels and now threatening even more people.

Water from the Mississippi River is spilling over its banks moving downstream and putting more cities on alert. The flooding has swallowed homes leaving only their roofs above water, 14 people have died in Missouri alone.

CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray is in Valley Park, Missouri, where the flooding has breached a water treatment plant there.

Jennifer, tell us what you're seeing there.

JENNIFER GRAY, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Yes, just to add insult to injury, Jim, that water treatment plant was flooded. And so basically untreated sewage is now flowing into the Meramec River, which is what you see behind me. Now, they say bacteria levels are higher than normal, but so far, the water people are drinking and using is still OK.


CONNIE FAN, RESIDENT: This is unbelievable. This is like totally, totally crazy. I have never in my entire life seen anything like this before.

GRAY (voice-over): For Missouri residents, it's going to be anything but a joyful New Year. The National Weather Service says record flooding will serve as the new benchmark for the Meramec River Basin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have taken on more water than in the history ever that I've known in our city. It is in places we've never had it before.

GRAY: Flooding has submerged neighborhoods, schools and shopping centers in the St. Louis area including parts of Interstate 70, 44 and 55.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are keeping back a couple feet of water from actually getting on I-55. Unfortunately that hasn't been totally fruitful. We have some water anywhere from six inches to almost a foot in a couple deep spots.

GRAY: Even some homes have been swept away by the sheer force of the flood waters. And waters have breached a second waste water treatment plant this morning, sending untreated waste into the Meramec River.

The Missouri Red Cross has opened shelters across the state. And the governor has declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard as thousands are being evacuated.

KELLY NORTHCUTT, RESIDENT: It's like a ghost town now. It's pretty scary. Can't imagine all the water taking this whole town over.

GRAY: Even as sunny weather moves in, officials continue to plead with residents to be safe and heed their warnings.

GOV. JAY NIXON (D), MISSOURI: We can say anything over and over and over. It would be: don't drive into water.