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Fire Engulfs Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris as Huge Crowds Gather in Shock. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired April 15, 2019 - 14:30   ET


[14:30:00] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Let alone when there's this ring of kindling essentially around it in the form of the scaffolding. It is mostly wood and metal that has a low-cook point itself. So this is the worst of situations. Except for one facet. We do not know that anybody was in the church at this time. That is developing information, so we do not know it as a human tragedy, but the tragedy alone is so great in this moment. As Brianna was telling you, the famous spire, that is one of the easiest ways to identify Notre Dame, is gone. Is that because it was weakened just by the fire? Had they hallowed out some of it as part of the restoration efforts? It's not uncommon for work like this to go on at this cathedral. You saw it fall on the left of your screen. We don't know about anybody inside. We don't know about injuries.

One of the points of curiosity is, why are there no helicopters dropping water? They're right next to the River Seine. We're getting information. On the ground, we have correspondents, we have experts in the works to help us understand what the chances are of salvaging anything in this situation.

CNN's Melissa Bell live on scene.

Melissa, thank you for the continuing coverage.

What have you gotten to understand about efforts to fight back against this inferno?

MELISSA BELL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We've been watching them get underway, Chris, slowly over the course of the evening. This was a fire that took hold so quickly. The first images we saw are on social media. Very quickly the crowds gather out here and are still surrounding me as we speak. The cordon is being pushed back continually because of the cinders falling from the sky until a short while ago, trying to prevent people getting singed.

But that fire, the flames so high at one point, as high as the towers on the famous iconic facade. As you say, this is one of the most visited buildings in the world, 13 to 14 million visit a year. The most visited in Europe. It's famous for its construction. The building, Chris, began in the 12th century, ended in the 14th. It's a spectacular work of gothic architecture. It's at the heart of French culture and civilization also.

Tonight, all around me, huge crowds still in a sense of shock. We've seen people, witnessed people cry, holding each other even as they were pushed back by the security services, the emergency services trying to get themselves around the building as quickly as they could. For a while, that fire raged uncontrollably. Those flames seemed to grow higher and higher and people looked on aghast.

As you say, very early stages. We know very little about why or the damage inside, and we know nothing about whether there were any human casualties at all.

CUOMO: Right. The last part is obviously most important. Things can be rebuilt. I'll qualify that statement in a moment. We're trying to get people on the phone inside to let us know if any others were there. There's no official word.

Let's be honest about the situation. This is an overwhelming catastrophe for the municipality of Paris. It happened at a tough time. They're six hours ahead. It's 8:30 there. This is about rush hour. It's a tight city. The area where Notre Dame is, is not easy to travel around in. There's a ton of foot traffic. Remember, this place is not just about Catholics. It's about history and culture and visiting some of the most beautiful artwork and some of the most significant aspects of our collective history. And 13 million people a year have gone there. Today, there would have been tours. We don't know about anybody being hurt or worse. We do know this. It is raging out of control. This is stone on the outside, hallow on the inside.

I spoke to two first responders on my way over here to the office running across town. This is the worst of all worlds. It's all wood on the inside. It's in a state of disrepair. There's a lot of work equipment on the inside, and on the outside, it's a shell that can hold in the heat. This is very, very difficult.

Now, to get to what was going on inside Notre Dame, we have James Janega from Chicago. Like I said, people come from all over the world to go and see this. He was there as the fire started.

James, can you hear me?

JAMES JANEGA, WITNESS (via telephone) I can hear you, Chris. If you can hear me.

CUOMO: All right. Thank god you're OK. You and your family, I hope that goes for.

What can you tell us about what you saw?

JANEGA: Well, my wife and I had brought our children for their first visit to Paris and had gotten into town hours before visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral. We went to visit as it was closing for the day. So we were in the very front of the church, walked outside, and around the north side of the church. Of course, the outside of the cathedral, the historic cathedral is coated in scaffolding for some of the work that is being done around it. And so after walking around the outside of the cathedral, we'd gone a couple blocks across. We turned around and looked and gasped and saw the fire, engulfed in flames. From there, we watched as the rest of the Paris watched in silent shock as these flames just grew and spread across the roof and the spire that is so familiar to all of us who have spent any time in Paris.

[14:35:20] CUOMO: Yes. James, let me ask you something.

JANEGA: It was terrible.

CUOMO: James, let me ask you. It's a very congested area. Your family was doing the tour. That's the loop people walk when they're visiting that area. Millions of people just like you do it all the time. Do you get any indication about what may have started this at all?

JANEGA: No. No. Chris, I really couldn't say anything like that for certain. There was a lot of scaffolding up around the building. My assumptions lead in that direction, but I don't know. I'm following the reports probably like you are to see what might has caused it.

CUOMO: And, James, you saw everybody get out, everybody that was with your tour group? You have no reason to believe that people were in there?

JANEGA: We weren't with the tour group. We saw a lot of people exiting because we assumed it was the end of the day, and so we sort of left with them before getting very far in ourselves. So --


CUOMO: James --

JANEGA: -- what we saw was people on bridges looking in shock at this thing.

CUOMO: Gotcha. Gotcha.

We're seeing the video images. This is a huge part of Parisian society, of world society. We're not used to seeing an historic icon, something of so much significance in this world, no matter what your belief system, literally being destroyed before our eyes.

James, thank god you and your wife are OK. You didn't see anybody else getting hurt. Let's take that as progress.

Thank you very much.

And let's head back to Melissa Bell.

One questions. Melissa, you understand some of the protocols about fighting fires in Paris better than I do. No helicopters. Is that something about capability at this point or is that a function of choice at this point?

BELL: Chris, in the very beginning, as this tragedy was beginning to unfold, the great crowds were coming here, when I got to the scene, there was one circling above. That was even before the fire engines had managed to get their water cannons pointed toward the flames. Beyond that single helicopter we saw circling above Notre Dame -- this is a cathedral situated on an island in the heart of historic Paris. At rush hour, it would have been difficult for the fire engines to get to. Some fire services making their way on boats. It took some time for the water to make its way to the top of the flames. Part of the difficulty was how high they were, Chris. We watched them -- the crowds all around me watched them in horror, many crying as they did, as the flames got as high as those two towers on the facade of the cathedral. We heard the screams of the people as they witnessed that spire collapse under the weight of those flames.

But now those flames very much under control. The huge plumes of dark smoke, the cinders falling on us earlier, have now largely gone away. And the flames, while still burning inside, appear to have been brought under control, at least have disappeared from our view inside the structure.

CUOMO: All right. So Melissa, I'm going to muster up a map. When I get it, I'll come back to you so you can help people understand the challenges of dealing with this.

One word of caution. Melissa is right. From an optic perspective, you don't see the billowing smoke and flames out of the top. But we're going to have an expert in a second to help you understand this better. That doesn't necessarily mean the worst is over. This could be a staged fire. It could be contained on different levels. That could mean good or bad things about what is beneath it. We'll take that on in a second.

Just to understand what they're dealing with -- put that map back up. Notre Dame is in a very special place within Paris. It is on an island. It's almost like the way Manhattan is situated in the state of New York. To get to it, you're going across small bridges. A lot of foot traffic and auto traffic. It is a tough time to get around. Yes, there are boats. That's the Seine River running through there. Not enough to shoot water that distance to make a difference with that kind of fire. They are up against it. It's a special spot. It's beautiful to visit. The cathedral was put there for a reason. You can Google it and see the historic significance, but it's a big challenge for first responders.

On that note, let's bring in Jim Bullock, retired New York City deputy fire chief.

Chief, thank you for joining us on such short notice.

Jim, can you hear me?


CUOMO: Jim, help us understand what the challenge is in fighting a fire like this.

BULLOCK: Well, the initial problem is the fact that it was such a historic cathedral. They wanted to be careful at first. When the fire started getting out of control, they have to -- this fire now, they have to really back out, and they have to fight this fire from the exterior and worry about the walls collapsing. Already the roof and the ceiling appear to be collapsed. So now they're worried about the walls. And they're using ladder pipes, ladders with streams on it, devices that could shoot up high, and they're trying to get water on to the fire. But they can't really risk their manpower by bringing people inside the cathedral anymore. It's beyond that point. They have to -- that wall is going to -- it's subject to collapse. And it could be an internal collapse or external back onto the street.

[14:40:] CUOMO: Both of those would be so catastrophic. Forget about the history. I mean, obviously, that's something that we're going to pay the price and we're going to lose. It's just about a matter of degree of destruction right now. But the human cost, if those walls go the wrong way, the cathedral is situated -- it's got room around it, but not that much. I know they've moved people back. That could be a problem if they fall externally.

One of your guys told me, Chief, it's hollow on the inside, stone on the outside. He said it's like an oven in there. And the fire, everything about a church, something about that era of building, no matter how it was retrofitted, there's little to do to suppress the flames. They were worried this was fire eating its way up and that stuff that is below what you see is the flame point is gone. Does that have to be true?

BULLOCK: It pretty much is the way you just described. The fire had that whole area of the church called the nave, which is just full of air that feeds the fire. The air, the fire -- the air for the fire is being sucked into the building and it's feeding the fire. The fire needs air and has plenty of air. And already, with the roof collapse, now the only part of holding up the walls, are just the other walls. It's not the roof. The roof is a part of the structure that keeps the walls together.

CUOMO: Is stone a benefit?

BULLOCK: Right now, they can't get -- it's hard to get the water on the seat of the fire. You can't fight it from the interior anymore. It's too danger for the firefighters.


BULLOCK: Everybody -- all the civilian people are backed out, but the firefighters, it's getting very dangerous.

CUOMO: All right. I appreciate it. Obviously, Chief, we've been looking to see about helicopters an using them. There was some discussion about whether or not there's enough visibility. It's a dense building area. There may be too much heat. The thermals might work against the helicopters. In any event, we haven't seen them at play here. I'll come back to you as I learn more information so we can get perspective.

Thank you very much, Chief. I appreciate it on short notice.

BULLOCK: Thank you. CUOMO: I want to go to Jim Bittermann now.

Jim, you've been a teacher to me about the politics and life in Paris for years now. What do you know about what the efforts are and the capabilities and why we haven't seen the helicopters that one might imagine would be used in this type of situation?

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I don't think they've got them in the area, Chris. Frankly, they use helicopters in the south with forest fires. I'm not sure there are any around the area. And generally speaking, helicopters and any planes are forbidden to fly over central Paris. So, in fact, they do occasionally see helicopters on rescue missions but they don't seem to be equipped with any kind of fire-fighting equipment, the kind of thing you'd need to fight something like this.

As well, I mean, one could raise the question about the number of fire boats that were available. It is -- the cathedral is right next to the river, the River Seine. And in fact, there's plenty of passageway for boats to get in. They did get there.

But all of this caught people by surprise because the fire spread so quickly. It was stunning to see this take place this afternoon and how fast it spread. And like the chief was explaining there, the center of the building, there's nothing in it. There's a big empty cathedral with a huge ceiling. More than 100 feet tall. And as a consequence, with the roof catching fire like that, it's very difficult to access the areas where the fire took place.

It's tragic for me personally. My first years in Paris, I lived right across the street from Notre Dame. And in fact, my daughter was baptized there. It's just tragic to see this happening.

And the head of UNESCO a couple minutes ago said this in a tweet: "Deep emotion in front of the fire, faced with the fire. It's a worldwide heritage site since 1991. And UNESCO stands with France to save and restore this heritage."

So a lot of people coming in to play this afternoon expressing sympathy and sadness.

[14:45:10] CUOMO: As word spreads around the world, hearts are going to break. This place means so much to so many people all over the world, regardless of your faith or any denomination.

One point of information, and then we need to make the point Jim is making about the significance of this. This is not just another place on fire. It's not another church on fire. This is a very big loss to the world. And it does look like a loss at this point.

Now, looking at a navigation map, Jim is right about where the church is. It's not an easy shot for fire boats. I was cross referencing it with the capacity of them to get about 100 yards of big water. It's going to be diffuse at the end. They can get close but not that close. They can't get next to it the way they would want to sidle up next to something they want to fight with water. As you can see, you can get close, but that's not as quick a shot as you're going to think to be dealing with something like this. It's not an easy opportunity for changing the calculus here. Just to keep our expectations in check.

Now, Jim mentioned this. This is the most important week of the year for Christians. This is Easter week, the three-day celebration of what winds up culminating in Easter Sunday. Not only were you going to have a lot of Catholics going there, but it's just a time of year of reflection and significance. And to be losing one of the main symbols of Christianity -- yes, the people are the church. Churches aren't places. They're the people. If you understand the religion, that's true. But this hurts and it's going to matter to people all around the world, especially this moment, factuality and metaphorically.

Watch the video of the spire, one of the most recognizable architectural things in the world, collapsing because of the heat and maybe some of the work that's going on restoring the church may have been working on that structure. It may have been weakened at this time. But watch the video.




CUOMO: Just so you can see, and you know, you hear there's some shock with people, but in truth, it is shock, and it's hard to process. This is just a very rare kind of occurrence.

We have Clarissa Ward. We have Jim Bittermann in Paris. Clarissa is with me here in New York.

Unfortunately, people in New York City especially know what it is like to see something that is iconic that represents you as a people that is a touch stone for your collective significance go down in flames. And there's going to be somewhat of that emotion. Thank god we don't know any reason to believe we have anything like the human loss that we suffered here. But to watch this is going to reverberate all around the world.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And it's extraordinary to watch those images, Chris. As you say, we don't know yet if anyone was killed. It doesn't appear that this was a large human catastrophe at this stage. And yet, the grief and shock that people watch seeing this building, seeing 700 years of history, more than 700 years of history, go up in smoke is very palpable. This wasn't, as you say, just any ordinary cathedral. This was one of the most spectacular examples of French gothic architecture. It was a site that was visited by 12 million people every year. And which of us Americans have been fortunate enough to travel to Paris --


CUOMO: One of the first stops. WARD: -- it's one of the first stops. And that awesome feeling of

walking into that church. And you heard the fire chief talk about how much air there's in that nave. The sense of spaciousness. It's a truly sacred, beautiful, unique place. So I think people across the world watching these images, watching that spire crumble, are feeling gripped by a shock and horror. And, of course, asking the question, how did this happen? What went wrong? This is what investigators are looking at now. We know Paris prosecutors' office is launching an investigation.

CUOMO: What's your sense about this? Pro forma at this point?

WARD: Pro forma, absolutely. Way too early to tell whether this could be related to the renovations going on, whether this could have been a deliberate arson attack. Way too early. They have to issue an immediate statement and show they're exploring every possible avenue. Because as you mentioned, the timing is so critical here. This is Easter week. Sunday was Palm Sunday. Good Friday coming. Millions of people across the world will be going to churches. Many were going to visit the beautiful Notre Dame. Of course, now that will no longer be possible.

[14:50:05] CUOMO: No. And you have the protests going on there right now. Some call them the Yellow Jackets. They wear yellow identifying vests.

WARD: Yellow Vests. Absolutely.

CUOMO: That's about government spending. There's no reason to believe that Notre Dame would be a target of that. And we haven't seen anything like that kind of violence or destructiveness by the protesters. That's something that should be to the side right now.

WARD: That's something I wouldn't think that would be one of their first lanes of inquiry, because Notre Dame is one of the sites that, it doesn't matter if you're Catholic, if you're Protestant, or Jewish or Muslim, if you're of no religion or an atheist, if you're French, not even. It's one of the sites I think that really galvanizes people across the world because it is so beautiful, because it is unique, because it is steeped in history. Victor Hugo wrote his famous novel, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," made into a successful Disney movie, all inspired by the incredible and beautiful and history of this extraordinary structure.

CUOMO: Can't be released, either. So much of what is inside there's so old. Was some of this to do with the repair effort? Anybody who knows the history of this place, there's always some kind of -- I don't know how often I've seen it without any scaffolding around it. I don't like seeing the scaffolding in this kind of scenario. That's like a ring of kindling around it.

You're looking at earlier pictures on the left. Or, I'm sorry, on your right. Obviously, passage of time. It's darker now. What does that mean? Well, this has been going on for hours. But also, remember, flames are going to be exaggerated in significance at night. So remember that in terms of processing what you see. But what is unfortunate and that we heard from first responders on my

way over here is that's a lot of wood, and low-flashpoint metal on the outside, and when you're doing renovations, even if you've done it on just a home, things are vulnerable, things can go wrong. And at this point, that's what this looks like. Although investigators are looking into it.

And as Clarissa was telling you and you probably know already, this is a meeting point for people, 12 million, 13 million people a year.

Christopher Brennan, another American in Paris watching this unfold for the pass several hours now.

Can you hear me, Chris?

CHRISTOPHER BRENNAN, WITNESS (via telephone): I can, Chris.

CUOMO: So what is it like on the ground? How are people processing this there in Paris?

BRENNAN: I mean, as I approach -- I first kind of saw images of the fire on Twitter, and then I saw the smoke in the sky, I was nearby on the boulevard, and I saw the smoke. Very yellow. Very dark. Coming across the city going into the streets nearby. As I approached it I saw the fire itself. It was huge at that point with a plume of smoke that extended across the cathedral. It's much less now. As I approached the cathedral, you could see people were mostly in shock, mostly kind of in awe, not understanding what's happening, taking pictures of it thinking that this is something unusual, of course, but now it's really settled in and now when you look away from the cathedral, you see people in tears.

CUOMO: Can you tell from where you are, Chris, how much of the church, of the cathedral seems to be affected?

BRENNAN: It's been in the back of the church -- I believe it's called the nave of the church --


BRENNAN: -- it extends from the west to the east. That's been where the fire has been. Starting when I saw it on the southern side but then moving more central as time has gone along. The firefighters are attacking it from the southern side. There are embers going. I imagine they're as well behind the few main towers I can't see past. The two main towers appear to not be affected at this point. Neither does the rose window at the front of the cathedral. That's perhaps the most famous rose window in the world. The back of the church appears to be damaged.

CUOMO: The rose window -


CUOMO: First, thank you so much.


CUOMO: Chris, how do you know -- Chris --


CUOMO: Not a great correction.

Chris, if you can still hear me, can you?


CUOMO: How do you know so much about the cathedral?

BRENNAN: Yes. Yes.

CUOMO: How do you know so much about the cathedral?

BRENNAN: I mean, I'm someone who passed -- I'm someone who lives and passes every day. But my knowledge of the cathedral probably comes from my parents who spoke about it as one of the most architectural -- it's our cultural heritage. This is also the world's cultural heritage. And everyone will miss it.

CUOMO: You are right about that.

Thank god you're safe. I'm sorry that I had to meet you through this tragedy. But thank you for helping us understand it better.

[14:55:05] It's interesting that he points out the rose window. And he is right. It is one of the signature features of this church. Rose, not because of the color but because of the configuration. And it's something that you see with stain glass windows obviously in churches. This one was known as one of the most extraordinary. You can see it in the front of the church, the glow of fire light coming through it. Hopefully, it isn't affecting this. Hopefully, they can keep enough of this structure so it can be rebuilt in a way where as little as possible is lost in terms of its architecture. The significance will live on as long as it stands.

Let's get to Melissa Bell.

We're hearing reports -- Melissa, one of our correspondents on the street by Notre Dame -- that the flames seem to be abating. Does that seem to be the point from your perspective?

BELL: Well, they're not as high, and they did reach, when I first got here about an hour and a half ago, the very top of the towers on the famous facade you were just talking about a moment ago. Just behind it, you could see them reach as high as that. They've now been brought under control. From here, we can still see the flames at the top of that roof still consuming that roof across the main body of the church.

The crowds here remain substantial. As you can see, night has fallen. They're singing hymns around me. A great deal of emotion here tonight as people, Parisians and tourists, continue to watch Notre Dame burn. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has tweeted in the last few

minutes that this is a tragedy that brings a great deal of emotion, not just to Catholics but also to the French.

I'm joined by Heinrich, who lives in Paris and who came down like so many people to watch this tragedy unfold.

You were watching people earlier on praying as they watched the cathedral burn.

UNIDENTIFIED PARISIAN: I think it's horrible and shocking to see such a beautiful and important monument burn. And for the people that come here to just look at it for the tourists, but most importantly for the Catholics and the Christians that come there to pray every day. And also just for the beauty of it, and the art inside. Yes. I think it's horrible. And there's -- I see people crying. I see a lot of emotions, and I'm shocked myself.

BELL: It is those emotions, Chris, that we've been seeing over the course of the evening. People praying and crying and holding each other. This even as the cinders were falling onto their heads earlier. There's a sense of watching history going up in smoke. And so many people here have spent their evenings, the evening watching.

You can see perhaps behind me. You can hear the crowd. This has been happening throughout the evening. Whenever a new part of the edifice catches fire, you can hear the emotion of the crowd. There's what happened. You can see the tower, the left-hand tower, as you look at the front, as you look that famous facade, now burning. It hadn't caught fire thus far. As you were saying a moment ago, Chris, the very famous front, the facade of Notre Dame, and its iconic towers appear to have been spared, but the flames still raging, clearly not under control yet, have now apparently reached that front tower -- Chris?

CUOMO: Melissa, I want to talk to you about this. One of the experts was saying to me, don't get excited or have false optimism about the falling of the flames. It can mean a couple things. One, it could mean it's run out of fuel in that area. That means everything is gone. And that it could be moving. And that it sometimes -- and in this type of configuration, stone sealing in a largely hallow cavity, that fire tends to move that way. And now we see and once again, the scaffolding is going to be an attractant to the flames and it's right behind the front part of that famous entrance way, those two big pillars in front. Melissa, what does that mean to you, as someone who calls the city home and understands it, to see the fire moving into the most vulnerable part?

BELL: Well, when I first got to the scene, as so many people, first seeing the flames for real as they were getting higher and higher and, for a while, they seemed to burn out of control with very little in the way of help reaching them with any efforts to bring them under control. Not yet managing to make it to the structure. The first thing anyone who lives here could think when they first got in front of it was, oh, my goodness, this is unbelievable. People burst into tears as they saw it, because, as you say, it means so much to Paris. It means so much to France. It means so much not only to the Catholics of the world but, as you were saying a while ago, this is part of the history of humanity and one of the most iconic buildings in the world. As the flames earlier rose that high to the very top of those towers, it was difficult to imagine that they would be able to bring them under control at all.