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Fire Engulfs Notre Dame Cathedral In France Just After Palm Sunday. Aired 3:30-4p ET

Aired April 15, 2019 - 15:30   ET


[15:30:00] MELISSA BELL, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT ON SCENE: Has gotten even bigger as the evening has worn on (INAUDIBLE). All around me, Catholics have gathered to sing hymns as they continue to watch this extraordinary monument not only to Catholicism but as you heard a moment ago, one of the most important monuments of humanity. One of the most ancient cathedrals that stands in Europe and the most visited on the European continent.

The fire inside continues to rage. We can see the flames not quite as high as they were earlier on, but still clearly not under control and continuing to damage the entire edifice structurally. A short while ago we watched those flames make their way to one of those towers at that very iconic front part of the church, its facade so known around the world.

This even as then the flames continue to rage 400 firefighters are involved trying to bring them under control. We understand the French president, Emanuel Macron, is now on the scene. He had been due to address the French people tonight in a televised address. Instead, that was cancelled and he is here with the interior minister and the chief prosecutor. Because you know that already an inquiry has been opened to try to work out precisely what could have been allowed this violent fire to break out as quickly as it did, engulfing the main part of the church's roof.

You can see just behind me there the flames continue to burn away inside the structure itself. No longer rising above the edges but clearly still burning fiercely inside and the smoke there not as thick, not as black as it was, but still billowing out of the structure. All around me astonished, horrified Parisians watching as the monument has gone up in flames.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: Melissa, obviously timing matters. This place has stood for centuries. But this is Easter week. Thank God it's not yesterday. It was Palm Sunday. And the schedule was full here. There were four, five different masses, and Palm Sunday is a huge day, Palm. They take Palm and it's a ritual that remembers how people threw them at the feet of Jesus as he was entering his final place, and not obviously the crucifixion, but he was being greeted and celebrated.

So we take the Palm as a reminder of that. Some people like me, I just put a picture today on Instagram of making a palm cross the way my grandfather did. I have been in that church. There are millions of people all over the world, all over this country of America where we are broadcasting from who have memories of being there if they have been fortunate enough to live or visit.

I prayed for my kids in that church. I have been with my wife in that church. I went to it for solace during the terrible Charlie Hebdo attacks. It means so much to so many people all over the world throughout time.

And while it will never be forgotten and it can be rebuilt, so much of it is now gone. What we are told by the experts is the reason the fires are dying down is of course they are being fought, but they are also running out of fuel on the inside which means they are just devouring everything and so much of it can't be replaced.

And in this week of all weeks, this is the main time the Catholics come together. (INAUDIBLE) is a three-day festival, what we call Easter. It's a process of days and events and significance of what Jesus brought into his crucifixion, why he went through it, the message to the rest of us, his descent to the death, and his rebirth and renewal. And that will be the part that we cling to in processing this situation no matter what you believe in terms of religion. The idea that something can be great again once it is destroyed, hard to believe in this moment.

The fire so much more dramatic at night. It is literally lighting up the city of lights in a way it never wanted to be illuminated, not by flames and Notre Dame. Not by flames and Notre Dame. Not now.

Anne Lester, John's Hopkins professor of medieval history, what is inside this place? Thank God no people that we know of. No human toll to add to the tragedy yet. Hopefully it stays that way. Hopefully the 400 firefighters that we are told are on scene stay safe. But what was inside that we are going to have to rush to see if any of it remains?

ANNE LESTER, PROFESSOR, JOHNS HOPKINS (on the phone): Thank you. That's right. Thank God nobody is inside and has been hurt, but inside hundreds of years-worth of objects, of paintings, of decoration. And of course, as you say, some monumentally, the relics that have been in Paris since the 12th and 13th century. Relic in particular of the true cross and crown of thorns that were a benchmark for the people of France, for the crown of France. The kings and queens. And just about (INAUDIBLE).

CUOMO: So tough. So much. And in terms of what people should know about this. I mean, it's one of the most recognizable places in the world, but what has this structure, even if you don't ascribe any spiritual significance to it, what has it born witness to? What has happened inside its walls? What has it suffered through before?

[15:35:19] LESTER: Yes. I think like you say, I think it really is a witness to community. To the community of French people back in the Middle Ages. The community of the realm. It is a huge structure. It's a place where people came together to worship, to profess, to hear, hear stories about their past as well as their present. To reflect on their place in the world. And you know, over time this is an unprecedented thing we are witnessing. But there is over time although the cathedral had been damaged in various ways during the reformation with the hognuts (ph) attacking the outside of the building, we know, during revelation in 1789 when images and sculptures were removed and fears of damage and destruction during the second world war.

But throughout all that time, communities came together. The community of France and of Paris and preserved parts of the building. In particular, preserving the glass during the Second World War. This is an event that no one was prepared for, and those things have not been preserved. I'm sure the community will come together as a result, but we have lost a huge amount.

CUOMO: Professor, you know the U.S. bishop's conference, we haven't heard from the Vatican or at least we don't have word of it here. Of course, it is 9:30 there but this has been going on since basically rush hour. You would think that the Pope would know. He just had a very big moment with people who made peace in Africa. I don't really understand why, but the somewhat controversial image of him kissing their feet and asking them to stay in peace as brothers, how he will respond to this? What he will do for the Easter celebration? Would he think about coming to Paris?

The U.S. bishop's conference put out this statement. Wishing hope to those fighting this fire. We are a people of hope and of the resurrection. And as devastating as this fire is, I know that the faith and love embodied by this magnificent cathedral will grow stronger in the hearts of all Christians. And it is very hard to look at something that is such an unmitigated tragedy, except for the solace that we have not had to deal with a loss of human life as far as we know. And we will stay on it. We will update you.

But it is still tough to find solace on those words when apparently so much has been lost already. I'm here in New York. We are broadcasting this around the world. I'm joined by Clarissa Ward.

And this will be a test for the church this week. How will they respond in this most significant, most emotional, most religious part of the catholic calendar when one of its main symbols of community is all but gone?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think the key will be first of all how they respond in the moment. Now we would expect to hear from the Vatican soon as to some kind of a response. But then what happens with Sunday mass? Because as you know, Good Friday is a day of sadness. It's a day of mourning the crucifixion of Jesus, but Sunday, Easter Sunday, is a day of jubilation. It's a day of renewal, of rebirth, of celebration. And Good Friday and Easter together are really the most important days in the catholic calendar.

CUOMO: Sure.

WARD: So how does the Vatican respond? How do they reach out to all the Catholics, not just in France but across the world who are going to be feeling desperately sad about this on a personal level? Because even though these images that we have been looking at are of a stone building burning, this is not just any ordinary building, Chris. This is a building that has deep religious and architectural and cultural significance that has been visited by 13 million people every single year. That's been the place of gathering during times of tragedy in France whether it was the 2015 Paris attacks.

This is where the memorial service was held. This is where people congregate. This is where they seek solace. Where do they go? What becomes of Notre Dame now? How do you fill that vacuum? How do you soothe that sadness? These are the very real issues that the Vatican will be grappling with and, of course, the French government as well.

CUOMO: And look, you know, in moments like this, it's OK to feel the pain. I mean, I remember after all of us covering what happened at the Bataclon and of course, the Charlie Hebdo attacks before, Notre Dame loomed large as a reminder that there was more beauty than there is the ugliness of hate in this world. And I remember, you know, that being an opportunity that it was OK to be sad and to cry and to feel the pain of what obviously we put aside in the moments people can know what's going on and seeking out solace in this place as so many have.

And you know, it's not just the Sunday. This is a big week. You know. They have to deal with the last supper and that's something where you would celebrate together the significance. The Stations of the Cross, the Adoration, dealing with the - what we call in Catholicism, the passion of the Christ which is, of course, the crucifixion. And even the quiet periods of what they call vespers.

You sought each other. Where will they do that? It's so important. Dare I say there's opportunity in catastrophe. I don't like to rationalize catastrophe. This is unmitigated bad, but it will be an opportunity. This year different than last year to show the connection to the faith and community in a way that they wouldn't be able to without those.

[15:41:00] WARD: And in that sense, I think this is a moment for the Catholic Church. This is a moment for the Vatican. This is a moment for president Macron, by the way.

CUOMO: He is there on scene.

WARD: He is on the scene as well he should be. He is fighting his own political fires in France at the moment. This is a moment for leadership. Whether it comes from the Catholic Church, but it's also a moment as you said, you know, you describe beautifully that sense of feeling that it's OK to be sad when you went in to Notre Dame. Feeling whether you're a religious person or not, whether you're catholic or Jewish or an atheist, it didn't matter. Because when you are in Notre Dame, there was a sense that there is something larger than you. There was a majesty that was humbling to experience.

And so trying to find a way to fill that spiritual void for people, to provide that comfort is going to be a challenge, but as you say, potentially, Chris, also an enormous opportunity and potentially a moment as well for coming together. And this is something that's needed right now, not just in France but across Europe and much of the world. CUOMO: Imagine the image of the Pope Francis in front of Notre Dame

saying mass on Sunday. You know, with smoke still rising up from it as an idea of rebirth and renewal. How powerful that would be.

And this is still going on, but look. The headline is written. This story is what it appears to be on your screen. That place will never be what it was. Maybe it will be greater someday. That would be a beautiful restorative dream.

We are going to take a quick break showing you the fires burning into the night. One of the world's most recognizable places all but gone.

CNN will continue its coverage. We are still trying to find out how this happened. What's going on inside right now and was anyone hurt or lost? There's a lot more to be discovered.

Stay with CNN.


[15:47:42] CUOMO: All right. I want to show you something going on right now. This is Notre Dame. We have been covering for the last few hours. It's been on fire. Much of it is destroyed. And the inside, do you see those lights? We think the firefighters have reached that front tower where it was burning, and made an additional layer of tragedy to this. That is the whole thing going to be lost? That's the fear right now.

Once a stone structure is hallowed out and the roof is gone, what supports the walls though made of stone, they are still structurally vulnerable. And the concern was will they fall out, will they fall in? But this, this is a sign for hope. If they are up there and able to walk around and inspect what's going on, one, thank God we know it's not on fire because you can't put your men and women in danger inside the stone place. We were told by fire experts earlier you can't do it. You can't fight this fire from the inside. So that's a good sign that they are there surveying and figuring out what else they have to deal with and what was lost. So thank God for them being inside and hopefully being safe.

This is why - and look, the fire is not out. There's tons of smokes. There is tons of flames. Look at this. The city of lights illuminated in the worst way by fire light burning through one of the most recognizable places in the world. The cathedral of Notre Dame. So many of you watching us all around the world right now in CNN's special coverage. If you have been blessed to live there or visit, the memories are deep.

Clarissa Ward said it so beautifully earlier that no matter what you believe, when you walk inside that place, you are awe struck with the humility that there is something bigger in this world than you.

That's what the architecture spoke to. And that's what it's existing over the eras, over the centuries, the test of time, something beautiful existing through the best and worst of times. This was a living monument to the durability of beauty and of higher beliefs. And now it is being ravaged by flame, tons of scaffolding around it, it was going through a period of renovation. That stuff works as fuel, fire so hot it burned through a stone roof, took down one of the most famous symbols of aspiration in the world, the spire atop Notre Dame, literally fell down into the body of the church early on.

Such a devastating moment. The symbolism, the reminders. Yes, I hear your messages from my brothers and sisters here in New York and those who all over the world watched the towers fall. Yes, I don't know that there's a need for comparison. There's no reason for us to remember an even greater tragedy because of all the human loss to process this one.

But yes, it is that same nightmarish fright of watching something that loomed large succumb to flame and fire. Yes, it is. And now they are inside, trying to figure out what this will be. Again, that's the best thing I have seen since this started, that there are men and maybe women, first responders in there, figuring out what's going on. Hopefully a sign that the worst is behind us in terms of the destruction of this.

So, this has been very difficult to deal with. It's a stone structure. It works like an oven when it's on fire on the inside. We have been told there are 400 firefighters attacking the blaze. The French president is on scene. The U.S. president has weighed in on this tragedy. We haven't heard from the Vatican yet, but certainly, this is shaking to the core.

This week of all weeks, Easter week, the highest of holy days. The significance, the symbolism of the savior being crucified and rising again. How will that message be communicated in the wake of this loss? We will have to see what the Pope does with this. What the church community does with this, what the world community does with this.

But the pictures tell the story. But only part of it. Because what was inside that church is every bit as valuable as what we see on the outside of it.

For that, I want to get a little perspective, OK? We have Dominic Thomas with us, works with us on CNN. He understands the history. What was inside it? What has it born witness to over the ages that made it literally living history?

[15:52:00] DOMINIC THOMAS, CNN EUROPEAN AFFAIRS COMMENTATOR: Yes, it is - you are absolutely right, Chris. I mean, just some of these pictures that you have up on the screen, going from this historic organ to the art works that were in there, the relics. It's also a building that has a deep underground structure that goes back so far in history. It is a place in which religious figures have gathered, at which important events have brought people together. And iconically, along with the Eiffel tower, it is probably the most recognizable physical structure in the world.

The definition of catastrophe would be if this had happened during the daytime when so many people visit these particular structures that right now the disaster of the loss of these objects. Some of the walls can be repaired, but the stained glass windows that are unique cannot.

And so as we are watching here, in the same way that we saw with the various Paris attacks that brought out hashtags like (INAUDIBLE), I am Charlie, you can see the same kind of happening here.

This is a national monument. Whatever your religious identification would be, this is a major iconic part of French identity. Something that was defended by Victor Hugo in the 19th century, when the authorities at the time thought that it was an eye shore that should be destroyed. And over the years, it has been restored. It has suffered attacks, fires, and so on. But here we have arguably the most devastating fire or anything to have hit this particular structure here.

CUOMO: Right.

THOMAS: And a huge concern about what these firefighters are actually doing in there now and whether, in fact, their safety is being put ahead of protecting these incredible iconic objects that are inside.

CUOMO: Right. Adapting, you know, a concept from Catholicism, the church is the people, not the places. And the people matter most. And thank God, to this point, we don't have reports of injured. Certainly, nobody reported to have lost their lives here yet, but we do have hundreds of firefighters. Hopefully they are safe. We understand the limitations of being able to fight a fire like this on the inside. There's so many layers of significance to this loss.

Again, this is holy week. This is the biggest week in the catholic calendar. Liturgically, this is it. Easter week follows Easter you have the Pentecost. And there all of that that is to come. But this is the week. And thank God as Dominic was saying to you, this wasn't a Palm Sunday yesterday when the place would have been filled. It wasn't one of the days to come, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, where you have so many people coming in and out of church most of the time.

You have got to take the good fortune where you can see it. And this is a relative assessment. Obviously, this is an unmitigated tragedy, but it could have been at an even worse time given the time of year that it is.

Now, we got word from the Vatican, we had been waiting, and they released a statement that the holy see, that's what they call the Vatican, has learned with shock and sadness, the news of the terrible fire that has devastated the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, symbol of Christianity in France and in the world. We express our closeness to the French catholic and to the people of Paris. We pray for the firefighters and all of those who are doing everything possible to face this dramatic situation.

It will be so interesting to see what does this Pope do with this holy week, given this loss? Is there a chance that you see the Pope not in Rome celebrating Easter Sunday, but here? What an important image that would be.

Delia Gallagher is live in Rome, understands the Vatican and the processes there very well, instructs us all on it all the time. We got the report from the Vatican.

What do you think, Delia, that we may still see in terms of reaction from the Pope, from the Vatican?

[15:56:24] DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Chris, I would say that your question about whether or not the Pope could visit may be a possibility. We do not have any kind of information at the moment. Obviously, the Pope is following this and has released the statement expressing his closeness to French Catholics. Because above all else, of course, Chris, this is also a regular catholic church for French Catholics. And as you have been saying, this is the place where they would have been going to celebrate this most important week in the catholic calendar.

Inside that church are important relics. A relic of what they assume to be the cross of Jesus, a relic of the crown of thorns, which they actually on Good Friday venerate in that cathedral. And so it's a place of gathering like many catholic churches. So, the first point is that for the Vatican, of course, it's a catholic place, and they express their sorrow to Catholics. Whether the Pope will actually be able to physically be with the Catholics in Paris, we have yet to see. Wouldn't rule it out. Of course, we know that he's a Pope of surprises.

This cathedral, also, Chris, is a place where other Popes have visited. John Paul II said mass there twice. Pope benedict has visited there. A very close connection, obviously, between the city of Paris and the city of Rome and the Vatican. So, we have been talking about how it is a devastating time for everybody around the world, because it is a cultural symbol, but of course, the religious symbol particularly as you've been pointing out in this week for Catholics in the country is immense -- Chris.

CUOMO: Rebirth and renewal. I'm one of the lucky ones. I was one of those who were blessed, so to speak, to be to visit this place so many times.

And I want to bring in Jim Bittermann, because, Jim, we lived some of these moments tog together. (INAUDIBLE), a reference to what happened after the Charlie Hebdo attacks and after the Bataclan attack, where you were mentor and reporter for so many of us on scene. And Notre Dame became a place where people could gather after those to seek solace, no matter their beliefs. I went there for that reason and to cover the proceedings there and to finally express the grief in a place that speaks to something bigger than life as we know it and ideas bigger than just ourselves. What will this mean to life there, if this place is burned out for years to come?

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT IN PARIS: Well, it's going to mean a lot. I mean, we have just completed some religious programming that we did that, in fact, featured Notre Dame in the middle of it. There's other things that go on there. You know, as you mentioned, it's the center of French life.

President Mitteron, who was probably the most a, religious president that we have had, in fact, his funeral was conducted there. It's a gathering point for all sorts of the both civil and kind of religious ceremonies. So I think without it, people will not have a place to go. I mean, it's just -- there'll be other churches, of course, there's plenty of churches around Paris, but nothing like Notre Dame.

The last Pope, by the way, who visited Notre Dame was 2008. That was Benedict 16. It would be quite a remarkable symbol if this Pope decided to come visit for this Easter mass. It's hard to believe that that could be organized so quickly, but especially with the church still burning at this hour. So it will be interesting to see what happens next, but, in fact, it's a loss of a gigantic symbol for the country and for the world.