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Flames Engulf Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris; 400 Firefighters On Scene to Cease Destructive Fire. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired April 15, 2019 - 15:00   ET


[15:00:00] MELISSA BELL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And as those flames earlier rose that high, to the very top of those towers, it was very difficult to imagine that they would be able to bring them under control at all.

And we were witnessing the structure collapsing entirely. As you say, of course, we watched those very high flames come under control. But, of course, the fire inside the main structure will have burned so hard, so violently, would have raged so fiercely, that, as you can see, whilst the size of the flames has come down, the strength of the fire is undiminished, since it is still moving to parts of the structure that had so far been untouched.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: And the concern is that we heard from the fire chief before here in New York City, they will be OK if it's just about the insides being burned up, because they're stone.

But if the walls collapse, God forbid, if they can't sustain their integrity, then the entire structure could be vulnerable. And one of the things -- Melissa, stay safe. Stand by. Let me know what changes and get back in my ear, so I can come to you.

But let's go to Dominic Thomas, I believe, is the name of CNN European affairs commentator.

Can you hear me? You do?


CUOMO: OK, good. And did I pronounce your name correctly?

THOMAS: Yes, close enough.


CUOMO: All right. I will take it. Thank you.

Listen, this is a reminder that there's still beauty in the world. This is one of those symbols that we all have that we could look to regardless of what faith or denomination of faith and see something beautiful, something that has withstood the test of time, and that has been here since the 1100s, the 1300s in earnest.

Give us some perspective on that, Dominic, in terms of what those walls have received, what they have witnessed.

THOMAS: Right. Yes, Chris, you're absolutely right. This is a building that -- one of the most phenomenal examples of Gothic architecture that was initially built, and let's not forget by hand, all the way back in the 12 century.

This is a building that in, the 19th century, the authorities were considering to destroy, as the whole area in front of it was inhabited, dilapidated, and it was a goal to open up the city. And Victor Hugo famously led the campaign to defend this building.

It is the building that internationally, along, one could argue, with the late 19th century Eiffel Tower, every single person can recognize. Every tourist that has been to France has visited this site, either entering the cathedral or walking in the surrounding area.

And the big steeple that we saw collapse was part of the late 19th century restoration of this particular structure. And the French government over the past decade or so has invested considerably in the process of renovating these iconic sites of French culture, precisely to encourage more tourism to the French capital.

And seeing this, of course, happen to Notre Dame Cathedral is absolutely is devastating for people who have lived and grown up there, as indeed I did, and for all the tourists that have had the chance to visit this city.

CUOMO: I mean, just some of the high points.

And Clarissa Ward is here with me as well. We have both been doing our homework as we're watching what's happening here to give people some better context and perspective, the crowning of kings, at least Henry VI. Napoleon, I think, wanted to be received as the ruler of all the French territories in that place for a reason.

And what have you been finding in terms of how it's always been a place of significance?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: France's history and the Notre Dame Cathedral are so deeply embroidered in and of each other.

And I think the one thing that sort of can give us any degree of hope on this day is that Notre Dame has been in this state before, perhaps not to quite this extent that we're seeing today. But, certainly, it was ransacked by the Huguenots back in the 1540s.

It was desecrated during the French Revolution. In 1845, it underwent 25 years of renovations. So, not only is it sort of so richly and deeply intertwined with French history, but it is also a story of survival. This is an edifice that has faced many challenges, that has been attacked many times before, and has always managed, because of the support and love that French people and indeed people of the world have for Notre Dame, to rise up again, to be returned to its majesty, this incredible emblem of Gothic architecture. And so one can only hope now that, as France's President Macron stands

there watching this with all those bystanders and tourists and people on the streets who happen to be walking by, seeing this burn, that he is already thinking and that all French officials and architects and people who are involved in issues like UNESCO of restoration are already thinking about, how can we somehow rebuild this incredible structure, so that it can rise once again?


CUOMO: It looks like that will be the need.

And for people who are celebrating this week, whether it's the Jews or the Christians, they will attach a lot of significance to the idea of descending to the depths of darkness, the concerns about destruction and evil, and being born once again, making it through difficult times.

Those are thematically consistent for both the celebrations that are going on this week. People will get their different ways, according to their faith. But the journey of this famous place is going to seem to track exactly that.

And just to give a sense of what is being lost in real time, Dominic, the spire, we have seen it in so many postcards, so many paintings around the world. When it fell, so did one of the most identifiable symbols in our collective culture. Your take?

THOMAS: You're absolutely right.

I mean, this is something that stands up above the city. You can see that the Notre Dame Cathedral sits on one of the two very small islands that are part of the Old City of Paris that separate the historic Left Bank from the Right Bank of the city.

It is a predominantly pedestrian area. And access is very limited, all the more also since the terror attacks in Paris, which means that there are these concrete cement bollards that have been put up around it that make traffic access extraordinarily difficult.

And as I look at this building, and as I see that the fire is not yet under control, and I'm constantly asking myself, what is it that's driving this flame? What are the catalysts? And my initial thinking is that the building has inside it all these materials that are being used for renovation and special substances that are probably highly inflammable and that are used to clean the stone and protect the stained-glass windows and restore this -- this iconic structure.

And it was only just a few years ago that they celebrated the 800th or so anniversary of the building and the scaffolding came off that front part of it. And they have moved to this significant area at the back now. And as you were talking earlier about the fact that everybody who goes to this city has visited, my concern is that it will take, as Clarissa had pointed out, a generation to rebuild and restore this building. And the great concern is watching the front left tower, as you look at it from the west of Paris here, that also seems to be on fire now. And this is not yet under control.

CUOMO: No, it does not seem to be that way. One of the fire experts that we spoke to earlier said that will -- what will make sense to people, as desperate as it will sound, something that is made of stone and hollow on the inside, it's going to get very hot. It's like an oven.

You know, it's like a -- literally a crucible of everything that has been kept inside, and everything is going to succumb to the fire that's inside that building by its very own design.

Now, we just got word from the authorities there that there are some 400 firefighters, first-responders, as we call them here now, responding to this situation working it. But you have to contextually put that in line of what the chief told us, which is, can't fight it from the inside, too hot because of this stone oven effect that we're talking to you about, too dangerous.

God forbid, on top of the loss of all the history, we lose human lives as well, obviously cannot be replaced or rebuilt.

Melissa Bell there on the ground now, we hear word that there are 400 firefighters. I still don't understand, though. Jim Bittermann gave us a little context. You're not allowed to fly in Paris, that maybe they don't have the chopper capabilities that close, that that's something that's more in the outskirts of Paris.

But it does seem to be something that we would have thought that would come into play here. Do you have any sense of why we haven't seen helicopters?

BELL: Well, beyond the one that I saw very early on in this -- and it appeared to be involved in reconnaissance, really, rather than anything else -- we certainly haven't seen any helicopters dumping any amounts of water.

That is one of the questions. Of course, the main one is, given how long at rush hour it was going to take firefighters to get here, what could have sparked this terrible fire to begin with? It took hold so quickly.

I mean, from the moments when on social media we first got a sense of smoke billowing out of the top of that cathedral to the moment when those flames appeared to engulf its roof entirely was really a very short amount of time. So, something caused this catastrophic fire to get under way.

That is now the subject of an investigation. Here, the sense of emotion now that night has fallen seems to be getting stronger. People are watching this unfolding tragedy with a great deal of emotion. Hymns are being sung all around, and people are watching even as that front tower now appears to have been affected by the flames. [05:10:00]

Still, even though the flames much lower than they were earlier on, even though they appear to have been brought somewhat under control, Chris, still, the heat inside that building, given the size of this fire will be tremendous.

And that fire is very far from being brought entirely under control. Indeed, it continues to threaten the very front part of that iconic facade, so famous worldwide, as people continue to look on in horror at what is likely to prove to be the substantial damage that has been done tonight to Notre Dame, this historic monument, the most visited in Europe -- Chris.

CUOMO: Boy, it is just a haunting picture to see, you know, the beauty and everything that that cathedral represents backlit by fire, as literally parts of it are being burned to the ground right before our eyes.

Just to balance out what we are losing with what we have had the beautiful benefit of for all these centuries, let's show you some of the iconic pictures from inside the cathedral, what we had, what may have been lost, and what we will need to work very hard and collectively in replacing

You're going to see the frescoes, the obvious architecture, what they're calling the nave, you know, so big and beautiful, so awe- inspiring. Its organ, that organ is one of the most famous organs in the world, the sound, the resonance, the beauty, the depictions of something greater above us all.

That was the reason for the height, not just to show significance of architectural achievement, but the calling to look above yourself, to think of something bigger than yourself, the spire the most obvious manifestation of pointing the way up to the heavens.

So much timeless work and memories and history inside one place, visited by kings and rulers and everyday men and women alike, and now on the verge of largely being gone.

And that organ, I got to tell you, part of it is the sound because of the architecture of that particular church and the unusual height of that one cathedral, but that organ is known. And, you know, when you look on the inside, you just see so many of the materials of a church are either completely kindling or invulnerable, you know, the stone.

But as the chief pointed out earlier, walls are only as strong as that which supports them. And we just have to hope and pray that people are safe, that the firefighters don't get hurt, that nobody was lost inside, and that those walls can stand this test of fire, because, if they collapse, if they go out, there's going to be devastation in that city.

If they go in, there's going to be a loss of something that will really will just be very difficult to replace.

Now, we have had fire on the inside before, as Clarissa was telling you, and this church has withstood a lot.

But let's get some more perspective on what it has been like to witness this on this day all through and into the night.

We got Patryk Bukalski, Polish tourist, standing at the scene, obviously, Notre Dame right next to the John Paul II Memorial, obviously special significance to you, as a fellow Pole.

But what was this like for you today to see this happen at Notre Dame?


Well, I was -- I had my Polish friend who came to see me, to visit me from Poland, since I was in Paris. We have been walking around. And then we just choose one random cafe to have coffee.

And so we started smelling like if something was burning -- like if something was burning. Then one of the bartenders said that it's not at the restaurant, actually. And the other person came in and said, well, Notre Dame is on fire.

And, at first, I was like, how is it possible? Like, it's just something ridiculous. It cannot be happening. And then so we ran out of the bar. And we what saw -- what I seen in front of me was terrific and horrible, one of the symbols of Paris next to Notre Dame and (INAUDIBLE) is actually burning.

And the fire was so big that I could see actually the ashes on my jacket. And it was horrible. Then, it was like a few hours ago. And now it seems like it's getting better. And so the -- I'm sure that the roof -- because I have a friend who lives just right -- right behind Notre Dame.


So I could see that the roof collapsed. And what I can see -- I am in front of this, so I see the two towers. And I can tell you right now, like, looking at the Notre Dame, that the left tower is actually on fire.

I'm surrounded by thousands of people. On my left side, I can clearly see people praying, singing a prayer in French, people crying. People don't really know what's happening.

People don't believe that the Notre Dame, famous all over the world -- it brings millions of tourists -- is not going to be there probably in a few hours.

And I am still shaking. I don't know what to say. Like, I have been living here for four years, and Notre Dame was one of the first places I visited in Paris. And it's just horrible.

CUOMO: All right. Well, listen, thank you, Patrycja, for talking to us about this. You're lucky. You're blessed with family. Stay close.


CUOMO: And whenever we lose things, we're reminded that it's the people that we can't replace. But those words are going to fall hollow when we lose something of this significance, but the best to you and your family. Thank you for sharing the experience with us.

And, again, look, the timing is significant also. I mean, this place, I think it was commissioned in the 1100s. It took obviously hundreds of years to build. It got finished some time in 1300s. But this time of year matters. Thank God this wasn't yesterday, Clarissa, you know?

WARD: And you mentioned -- you mentioned, I think, importantly, Chris, the inside of the church as well, because, obviously we're so struck by the spectacular majesty of the architecture.

But some of the artifacts that were inside the cathedral are quite literally irreplaceable and very significant this time of year. And I'm thinking principally of the relics of the crucifixion. It's believed that Notre Dame is home to part of the crown of thorns that Jesus Christ wore, part of the original cross.

And so this is a place that is so deeply embedded in the hearts of Catholics, in the hearts of Christians, and in the sort of pageantry and ritual and sacredness of this time of year, that it is absolutely heartbreaking for people who are watching that all go up in smoke, who are watching that history, who are watching that sacredness be eviscerated by the hungry flames of this senseless fire -- or, as far as we know, senseless.

CUOMO: Hungry -- hungry is the right way to term it.

And I tell you, I hate seeing those images of the scaffolding, because they are just tempting the flames to keep ascending, because there's fuel there.

WARD: And, as we all know, that they have been there for years on and off.

CUOMO: Right.

WARD: I mean, the first time I visited Notre Dame back in the late '90s, the facade was dark.

CUOMO: Right.

WARD: It was dirty. And then they had for years and years these -- scaffolding up. They did this huge operation. And then suddenly it was again once this sort of brilliant...

CUOMO: New bells. Didn't it get new bells like six, seven...

WARD: New bells. And what huge bells they are, enormous bells.

You mentioned the organ as well. It's the largest organ in France, 8,000 pipes. Everything about Notre Dame is spectacular, is magnificent. CUOMO: Big, yes.

And that's how it was designed. It was to be like -- it's that for a lot of cathedrals, but this one stood out in terms of the grandeur, the greatness. And people with religion and religious philosophy, they can debate the need for grandeur or should Jesus' message have been something else?

That's not what today is about. But, this week, this will be a test, because this is when Catholics come together the most and the most often. You have the Triduum. It's a three-day, not celebration, but it's a rite, it's a ritual, the washing of the feet, the Last Supper, the obvious crucifixion of Jesus and what that means and how it's broken down.

And, obviously, it all culminates in the ascension from the dead, Easter Sunday, rebirth and renewal. These are all heavy themes. They're the most important part of the liturgical calendar. And now these people -- this was a major collection point for people -- where will they go?

And that will be a great measure of the resolve that will be necessary after something like this. Who will bring them in? How will they gather? What will they make this week about in the wake of this?

We're told that the French president, Macron, is there on scene right now. You know what? Security concerns being equal, that's where he should be.

WARD: And that, I think, gives you a sense of just what a building we're talking about. In many countries, the idea of the president going to the site of a fire, of a building on fire, would be unheard of. But, in France, with Notre Dame, there's no question that Emmanuel Macron is exactly where he should be.


And coming to speak to your other point, Chris, which I think is so important, where will Easter mass take place this Sunday? What will the Catholic Church do to try to fill this void? Because it is a tremendous void and a tremendous sadness that will be in the hearts of many worshipers on Easter Sunday, which, as you say, coming on the heels of Good Friday, which is a day of sadness.

Easter Sunday is supposed to be a day of jubilation, of celebration, of renewal, of rebirth. And so it'll be very interesting to see how the Catholic Church and how France rises to the occasion to try to provide people with some sense of hope in this sad time -- Chris.

CUOMO: The French president is there. The United States president has taken notice of this, obviously called it what it is, a tremendous tragedy. He was supposed to have a roundtable on taxation. He says it's going to have to wait because all eyes are on this situation, an experience we are living through together. And it is of the most horrible variety. We are going to take a quick break. We still haven't heard from the

pope, from the head of the Catholic Church. What will the Vatican say? What will it do for this Easter celebration?

Let's take a quick break. Our special coverage will continue in a moment.


[15:25:51] CUOMO: All right, you're watching CNN's continuing coverage, special coverage. I'm Chris Cuomo.

And what you're witnessing there is from Paris, and our viewers all around the world are joined in watching the death of something beautiful. That is Notre Dame, one of the oldest cathedrals, one of the most famous cathedrals, one of the most significant cathedrals.

It has been lit on fire. We don't know why. It's undergoing extensive renovations. That is speculated as what this could be. There is no reporting of any intentionality, of any attack, but we do not know the answer.

The only solace is, we have not gotten reports of human casualties, loss of life. This fire has been burning for several hours. The nature of this church is that the best we can hope for right now from this structure is that it can continue to stand after the amazing heat that it is tolerating on the inside.

A stone structure that is largely hollow on the inside works like an oven in terms of fire capabilities. That's what the experts say. That's what we're witnessing. The flames have gotten so high. They have destroyed so much. They went right through the roof. They're devouring the scaffolding that's around. that's working as some type of temptation for the flames to keep them high.

We have seen it travel into the front, so close to one of the famous rose windows that is a distinctive feature of Notre Dame the world over, but no reports of human casualties. What we're watching for right now is, how much can they control it and will the walls remain standing?

And if not, will they fall in or out? Very different types of challenges and potential catastrophe with that.

Now, what you're watching on the other side of your screen is one of the greatest symbols of this cathedral, the spire pointing the way up to the heavens, a reminder for people of something bigger than us here on Earth, the heat literally eating away its foundation, taking down that stone spire, gone forever.

This is a difficult day, no matter who you are, no matter where you are. We all want and need beautiful things in the world right now. And, unfortunately, there will be one less, at least until there's an upswing after this decidedly downturn in the fate of Notre Dame.

It's been down before, but I don't think ever like this. We have people all over the ground. We have experts helping us

understand the fight against this fire and the loss of this dimension of this caliber of history; 1100s, that's when this was commissioned; 1300s, that's when Notre Dame was completed.

All throughout history, kings, rulers, queens, and everyday people have visited, to the tune of 13 million people a year. It means so much, no matter what you believe . Put up the map. It's situated in a special, but precarious way, a little island in the middle of Paris.

I actually think it's called the Island of the City. It's in the River Seine. So getting to it is not easy. Although fire boats can get to it, they can't really get right next to it. Remember, scale matters. That's a significant distance from the river to it.

On the other side, there's a little passageway through. We don't know how well it's being utilized, 400 firefighters on the scene. An expert told us earlier you can't fight it from the inside, not in a stone structure like this, too much energy, too much heat, too much danger.

God forbid, we lose a number of human lives that in any way starts to compare with the loss of architecture and significance that has already happened. So, this is a fight against the odds. And we will keep watching it in real time.

Let's start on the ground.

Melissa Bell, you have been watching this since first word of it. What has changed recently? What can you tell us?

BELL: Well, night has now fallen, but the crowds have gotten even bigger as the evening has worn on, Chris.

And all around me, Catholics have gathered to sing hymns, as they continue to watch this extraordinary monument.