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Former Governor Bill Weld Officially Announces He Is Challenging President Trump For GOP Nomination; Fire Engulfs Notre Dame Cathedral In Paris; Iconic Spire Has Fallen, Roof Has Collapsed; Barr Due To Release Mueller Report Thursday As President Trump's Legal Team Prepares To Push Back; French Official Says One Firefighter Seriously Injured Battled Blaze At Notre Dame Cathedral. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired April 15, 2019 - 17:00   ET


[17:00:00] BILL WELD (R-MA), FORMER GOVERNOR: I'm not saying I would ever endorse a Democrat in this race, but I cannot support the President.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Governor Bill Weld, thanks so much for making your announcement right here. We appreciate it.

WELD: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Our coverage on CNN continues right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Notre Dame destroyed. The 800-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral, a symbol of Paris, goes up in flames. Its iconic spire has fallen. The roof has collapsed and the rest of the structure is at grave risk as emergency crews try to evacuate precious artwork.

Still burning, the cathedral has been burning now for hours and an orange glow now lights up the sky over Paris. Thousands of shocked onlookers are gathered while firefighters try desperately to save what remains of the landmark. We'll take you to the scene.

Mueller is coming. The Justice Department says the redacted version of the Mueller report will be released to Congress and the public on Thursday. The President is sending out anxious tweets, as his legal team prepares for the worst and gets ready to push back.

And blocking Congress, despite a new demand by a powerful House committee, the White House is refusing to give up the President's tax returns and is rejecting other demands by Democrats. Who will win this battle?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer, you're in "The Situation Room".

Breaking news, a truly catastrophic fire is raging at the 800-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, an iconic landmark, a symbol of France, and an international treasure that attracts millions of visitors a year.

The fire quickly engulfed the roof, encased in construction scaffolding, and destroyed the spire, which toppled into the flames. Thousands and thousands of onlookers, some of them crying, are staying into the night, as firefighters desperately try to save at least part of the cathedral.

Also tonight, the Justice Department says the redacted version of the Mueller report will be released to Congress and to the American public early Thursday. And that has sent President Trump into a Twitter frenzy and his legal team into urgent damage control.

I'll speak with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal of the Judiciary Committee. And our correspondents and analysts, they will have full coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's begin with the devastating fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral. Our correspondents are standing by in Paris, but we begin with our Brian Todd, who's got the very latest. Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is still a terrible scene, a desperate battle by firefighters at Notre Dame Cathedral. They're working inside and outside the structure, trying to keep the fire from spreading. The commander of the fire brigade now says they're worried about the tower collapsing. We have new information tonight on how this disaster unfolded.


TODD (voice-over): Tonight, Notre Dame, one of the oldest and most iconic structures in Paris is burning out of control. For people who'd flocked to the area near the centuries-old cathedral, the fire which broke out around 6:30 in the evening local time was obvious almost immediately.

Across the Paris skyline, at first, the smoke could be seen billowing through the roof, then the flames. Within moments, the roof of the more than 800-year-old cathedral was completely engulfed. Crowds streamed into Paris streets and squares, watching in shock.

PATRYCJA BUKALSKI, TOURIST WHO WITNESSED FIRE (on the phone): We run out of the bar and what I seen in front of me was terrific and horrible. The fire was so big that I could see actually the ashes on my jacket.

TODD: The flames rapidly grew upward, into the more than 150-year-old wooden spire, burning through the structure, until it began leaning and eventually collapsed into the main sanctuary. French official say more than 400 firefighters were deployed, some climbed up the building even while it was burning, trying to save the iconic structure.

In a dramatic scene, Parisians sang hymns as their beloved cathedral burned just a few days before Easter. It was not immediately known what caused the fire, and there's no official word on injuries. Construction work was being done on the cathedral and it's been surrounded by scaffolding. JAMES JANEGA, TOURIST NEAR CATHEDRAL WHEN FIRE STARTED (on the phone): These flames just grew and spread across the roof. And the spire -- it was terrible.


TODD: Now, the fire brigade commander says they are now frantically trying to take out the most precious artwork that was inside the cathedral and that they are still at a critical juncture as to whether significant parts of the building can be saved.

One local resident captured this very well. He said it's been there for so many years, and in a few minutes, half of it disappeared. His quote, "Paris without Notre Dame, madness." Wolf?

[17:05:05] BLITZER: Brian, do they have any idea where in the cathedral this fire started?

TODD: The fire brigade commander, Wolf, says the initial call to emergency services notified them of a fire in the attic of Notre Dame Cathedral, so that may offer a clue, but the cause still not known right now.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, I know you're working the story. We'll get back to you. But right now, I want to get some more on the latest developments in Paris. Our Correspondent Melissa Bell, she's near the cathedral now. She's been there for hours, watching it burn. Melissa, we're learning that it's a crucial time in terms of saving the actual structure of the cathedral. What's the latest on the firefighting efforts?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right. We're hearing in the next hour is going to be crucial, Wolf, but also from France's junior interior minister that it isn't even yet clear whether the cathedral can be saved. Because although those very dramatic images of those flames that reached right to the top of the towers at the front of the cathedral have now died down, inside, that fire continues to rage. And that has huge implications, of course, structurally.

One of the questions is whether the bells might not collapse, which would then bring down the towers, those iconic towers on the facade of Notre Dame that seemed largely to have been spared.

So many questions, as well, about what of the artwork inside, what of the relics inside, including the crown of thorns, believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ, as he went towards his crucifixion, brought from Constantinople by Louis XIV in 13th century housed inside Notre Dame, unclear at this stage whether it has been saved.

We know that the firefighters are now inside the building because we can see their torches shining out through the windows of the cathedral. But for the time being, this is a battle that is very much ongoing, and this in front of the eyes of the bewildered and horrified Parisians themselves who have gathered to sing hymns throughout the evening, early on, we had cinders falling on to our heads. That's now come to an end. The question is now whether part of this extraordinary monument, extraordinary gothic monument will, at this stage, be saved at all, Wolf?

BLITZER: And we hear the singing behind you, the hymns that are going on. And that's been going on for a while, presumably will continue. How far has the fire actually gone, Melissa, as far as we know, inside the cathedral? How extensive is the damage?

BELL: Well, that is one of the big questions. Very interesting that idea that it might have begun in the attic, because what we first saw, the very first images of this tragedy that flooded social media just before 7:00 p.m. local time, Wolf, were of smoke coming from the very top of the roof, billowing out from the roof, and the flames that quickly followed and it did appear to be coming from the top of the structure.

That very quickly spread and it was to the astonished gasps of this crowd that the entire tragedy unfolded. And they sort of reacted in real time as that spire collapsed, shouting in horror, many of them crying, many of them holding on to each other, as they watched this gothic monument, a monument not only, of course, that is important to Catholics and to France, but the whole of humanity go up in flames.

Clearly, the damage inside will have been extensive. This was an intensive fire that took hold remarkably quickly. It was very difficult for the firefighters to get there in time, because of the geography of Notre Dame, right in the historic heart of Paris and at rush hour. That's when those flames began to consume the top part of the edifice, so very hard for them to get there.

And an inability, we're hearing, from French authorities, to use any water from the air, because that would have damaged the structure irretrievably. They had to try and get inside the building to try and save as much of it as they could, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. It's so heartbreaking to watch all of this unfold over these past few hours. Melissa, French authorities, we understand, they've obviously opened up a full-scale investigation into the fire. What are officials saying there in Paris, where you are, about the cause?

BELL: For the time being, they're being very careful about speculating as to any cause. Clearly, the timing of this is particularly tragic, coming up, as we are to Easter Sunday. A mass would have been celebrated as it is every Easter Sunday in Notre Dame. And that is on Good Friday, by the way, is the moment when that crown of thorns is exposed for worshippers to come and see, so a tragic timing to this catastrophe.

Many questions about what could have started it, how it could have spread so quickly. We have no information for the time being as to whether it was an accident or whether it was started deliberately and authorities for the time being are avoiding speculation at all, Wolf.

BLITZER: Is it possible for your photographer there, Melissa, to show us the crowd, because I know the singing of the hymns continues outside the cathedral. I think our viewers would be interested in seeing the folks who have gathered there to pay their respects.

[17:10:04] BELL: Let's try and swing the camera around.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm going to change the battery. I really need to.

BELL: We're going to swing the camera around to try and show the crowds behind you right now. They're singing just behind me, Wolf. You can see, of course, there are thousands of people gathered around Notre Dame, many of them on the other side, of course, all around which you can see. And it is towards the back of the crowd that the crowds are singing.

They've been singing there for the best part of the last two hours, Wolf, singing catholic hymns, expressing their emotion, gathering, really, to be together at a time of great sadness and emotion.

Emmanuel Macron, the French President, who is here on the scene earlier, tweeted about it earlier on saying that this was an evening of tremendous emotion, not just for Catholics, but for all of France. And that's really what we've been hearing.

I was speaking to a priest who'd made his way here as quickly as he could, he told me earlier on. And he said he'd come here because this, Notre Dame, was his home. It was his house. It was where he'd been ordained, and his big question tonight was about those relics kept preciously inside Notre Dame, what has become of them for so many Catholics around the world this evening, that will be the burning question, Wolf.

BLITZER: So powerful, so sad. Melissa Bell, thank you. We'll get back to you. Our CNN Reporter Hadas Gold is also in Paris right now. Hadas, there has been a lot of concern that the cathedral's towers could fall. What are you hearing? What's the latest?

HADAS GOLD, CNN REPORTER: Well, Wolf, I'm on the other side of the cathedral right now, and I don't know if you can see, but there are still orange flames coming out of the roof. In the back here, you can see two cranes on either side where firemen are trying to hose down those flames.

We did just get a statement from the French secretary to the interior minister saying that both towers of the cathedral are safe, but they are still working to save the cathedral's works of art, and that's what a lot of people are very concerned about, are those precious works of art inside the cathedral themselves. It's not clear what will happen to them and what can be saved. Obviously, the structure has been so horribly damaged.

Similar to where Melissa is, I don't know if you can hear the singing behind the camera right now. They're singing a prayer about the rosary and they have been, as though they are holding a vigil for the cathedral, they have been singing nonstop for the last two hours. There are thousands of people here gathered around the river Seine, and every now and again they start applauding, especially when a fire truck starts moving and they are applauding the work to try to save this cathedral. It is really stunning to see the number of people here.

What's even more stunning though, Wolf, is the quiet. It is very, very somber and very, very quiet. To have this many people out here and I feel as though I'm speaking very loudly right now, but because everybody is just in a quiet reflection watching what's happening.

Clearly, people are praying, they're hugging, they're crying, but they're still feeling very strong. I spoke to an owner of a wine shop here and he said he was still going to be drinking wine and toasting Notre Dame and toasting the city of Paris, Wolf.

BLITZER: You know, Hadas, I want to just -- I want to show our viewers the very, very awful dramatic video of the spire collapsing. Watch this.

Hadas, what are you learning about the safety of the people who were inside the cathedral at the time of this awful fire?

GOLD: So, Wolf, the fire started towards the end of the day. We started getting the reports about it around 7:00 p.m. right around when rush hour really at its peak here in Paris. We so far don't have necessarily any firm information on anybody who has been injured. We've seen some reports of a firefighter who may have been injured.

This was luckily in way on a Monday, not on a weekend, but it is Easter week when tens of thousands of people come almost daily to come to see the cathedrals, obviously one of the top tourist attractions in Paris, getting millions of visitors a year. They will probably get hopefully some more information on what happened to the people inside.

But because there was -- the fire seems to may have started in the attic, that might have given people time to get out in time. And we've been talking to people around and they said that it seems as though people may have been able to get evacuated. Of course, now, the concern is about the firefighters who have just been rushing in to try and save what they can of the structure and of course those precious works of art inside.

But people here, like I said before, are just -- they're still feeling very strong about the city, very sad, but they expect and they are already talking about how they will rebuild Notre Dame.

BLITZER: You mentioned the artwork, the catholic relics inside the cathedral. What do we know, Hadas, about all of these priceless treasures? Have they survived?

[17:15:00] GOLD: So that is the interior secretary did say there, working to save those precious pieces of art. A lot of them are sort of centering this sort of museum. I believe it's near the front of the cathedral. And so that might have given them some time, because if that fire did start in the attic, that might have given them some time to try to remove some of those pieces. It's not clear.

I mean, there are hundreds of pieces in there that are so valuable and it's not just the artwork inside, it's also the structure itself is a piece of art, including all of the statues inside and outside that are just absolutely amazing. If you've ever been to Notre Dame, it is absolutely breathtaking.

And so, there is a lot of hope that they can at least save some of those materials and also obviously hopefully save the structure itself. The spire has already fallen, but they are hoping to get as many of those pieces of art out and safely and hopefully get them restored once again, Wolf.

BLITZER: Most of the roof has burned. We see scaffolding outside. The structure still there, so precisely, what are you seeing and hearing about the structure?

GOLD: So, I'm looking behind me right now and it seems as though we can no longer see the bits of the fire coming out of the roof. So that does seem to be an improvement right now. They're still shooting water cannons on to it, but it looks like a different Notre Dame than what I saw just yesterday, when I was here.

The outline is completely different, people are now applauding. I don't know if because -- now it seems as though the fire is at least somewhat contained. There are fire trucks now moving away and everybody is obviously very happy. It seems as though most of the fire, at least from what we can see from the back of Notre Dame, has gone down.

This is the first time, I have to say, in hours that we are not seeing fire just billowing out of here. The smoke was incredible. You could see it from blocks away. So to see it finally, finally go down to the point where we're not seeing flames licking up out of the roof, that's a good moment of what has otherwise been an absolutely very, very sad day, Wolf.

BLITZER: I assume, Hadas, the smell of that smoke still permeates the air where you are.

GOLD: You could smell it. The moment I came out of -- they had closed down the metro station that's closest, but when I came out of the next closest metro station, you could smell. It smells almost like a fragrant wood smell and it is still permeating the area. And, you know, there was ash falling all over the place.

Melissa had talked about earlier how she was getting ash on her air and it's still -- you can still smell it all around here. But it is just an incredible scene. I have never seen anything like this. I've never seen this many people out all in one place and completely quiet, witnessing what is the very, very sad destruction of one of the most important monuments in Paris. I was speaking to one person who said that Paris without Notre Dame is not Paris, Wolf.

BLITZER: Good point. Hadas, I want you to stand by. Melissa Bell is on the other side of the Notre Dame Cathedral. The crowds near you, we can hear them singing, Melissa, and we just heard Hadas tell us that maybe there's still some hope for the structure to survive or at least a piece of that structure to survive. What else are you seeing and hearing?

BELL: Well, those flames that had been brought under control, but were still really lighting up the center of the cathedral. We could see it through the windows of this front, this facade of Notre Dame, so famous, of course -- this famous facade. We could see still the orange of the fire burning brightly inside. That appears now to have died down somewhat.

What we are seeing through those windows now are the flashlights of the firefighters who've clearly managed to make their way inside. And the question will be now that they're inside the structure, whether they manage to get that fire fully under control. We've been told a short while ago that this hour would be absolutely crucial.

And so they're in there trying to get the end of the fire under control in the heart of Notre Dame itself. Also, to try and get an idea of how much damage has been done. But still, we're told, that the structural threat remains because if those bells were to fall through, then there could be still some structural damage done to those towers and there is still that threat that they might collapse.

So still a very fluid situation, still a very dangerous situation. The crowds are still being kept back well away by a police cordon that's been put up. And still, their numbers are not diminishing because of the tremendous emotion, because of the need, really, to be here.

There's not terribly much to see anymore now that those flames have been brought down under control, now that that orange glow seems to have subsided from what we can see out here. But a need, as ever, on occasions like this to be together, to be surrounded, to understand what has happened, and to try and get to the bottom of what the investigation is going to tell us about, how this terrible tragedy could have come about, Wolf.

[17:20:00] BLITZER: And how the people of Paris, the visitors, the residents, they've responded. We've heard them singing, they're praying, they're bringing -- they're singing these hymns. You know what, I just want to listen briefly to this hymn right now.

Melissa, I want you to stand by. Hadas is getting some more information. She's on the other side of the cathedral. She can also hear the folks over there singing these hymns. But what else are you learning, Hadas?

GOLD: Well, Wolf, we are getting information about injuries. The French junior interior minister says that one firefighter has been seriously injured, that's also according to the fire brigade commander. That is really stunning that one injury after such an incredibly large fire. I mean, thankfully, there haven't been more injuries that we're at least not hearing so far.

As we noted, it looks as though the fire may have started in the attic, and that may have helped give people time to get out of the cathedral, hopefully give time also to save some of those precious pieces of art that are in the cathedral, as well. But so far, we're hearing one firefighter has been seriously injured.

We don't know the extent of those injuries yet right now, but the junior interior minister also told reporters that the fire is now weaker, something that we can see right now. We're no longer seeing the flames coming through the roof of the building, which we had been seeing for the past few hours.

They say that they are now in a time of cooling, but both towers of the cathedral, both -- that very famous front facade, those two towers, do appear to be safe and they are still working to try and save those precious pieces of art, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's hope they can. Hadas, stand by. I'm going to get back to you. But I want to bring in our Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward right now. Clarissa, tell us more about the significance of this holy cathedral, not just to Catholics, but to people around the world.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, when you hear those hymns and you look at these epic scenes of this extraordinary battle against this blaze consuming one of the most beloved edifices, really, in the world, the idea that 800 years of history could be going up in smoke. And when you saw those social media videos, Wolf, of the moment when the spire collapsed, you actually could hear people in the crowd of onlookers gasp.

There's a sense that this isn't just about a building made of stone. This is a building that has survived for hundreds of years, that has come to signify so much of France's culture and history of resilience. It's been through incredibly painful and difficult times. It's been ransacked by the Huguenots in the 1500s.

It was desecrated during the French revolution. And yet, it has withstood that. It's been lived through the crusades, through the Napoleonic wars, through two world wars. Notre Dame has remained a kind of cultural institution not just for the French, as you said, but for people around the world.

What young American does not remember if they're fortunate enough to have traveled to Paris the first time you stand there and you behold the extraordinary facade in front of you and you go into the cathedral and you see that beautiful unique rose window and there's a sense, whether you are catholic, whether you are Jewish, whether you are an atheist, whether you're a spiritual person at all, of the sort of majesty of the artistry, of the architecture, you feel humbled in the presence of this building.

And I think that's probably why, Wolf, we have seen such strong reactions from people in spite of the fact that it does not appear that this was a great human catastrophe in terms of loss of life, there is such a sense of grief as people watch this iconic and beautiful building reduced to less than its former glory. [17:25:14] Although hopefully now with the news that the blaze is starting to be contained, that the structure is still in tact, perhaps it will be renovated once again to its former glory, Wolf.

BLITZER: We can only hope and pray. And we see the folks who have gathered there in the streets of Paris around this cathedral singing these religious hymns. They have been doing it, as you point out, for the past couple of hours, and presumably will continue to do so, even though it's approaching 11:30 p.m., getting close to midnight in Paris right now.

You know, Clarissa, this devastating fire comes during this holy week leading up to Easter and that is going to have a huge, huge impact as well.

WARD: Absolutely, Wolf. This week is the most important week in the Christian calendar. And there are so many components to it. You have Good Friday, which is the day of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This is a day where Christians tend to grieve, to feel sad.

But Sunday, Easter Sunday, is supposed to be a celebration. It's supposed to be a day of jubilation. It's about renewal, rebirth. And the mass that would be held every year in Notre Dame on Easter Sunday was truly a sight to behold.

And so I think that French leaders and the Catholic Church at large have a real moment now, a real void to try to fill, a real moment to try to provide an opportunity of solace to Catholics around the world, who will be grieving at what should be on Easter Sunday, something of a joyous time.

It will be really interesting to see what they try to do, how they try to sort of replace that Sunday mass, that all-important Easter Sunday mass, and try to turn this in to a moment of hopefulness. Because in spite of everything we've seen, there is a message of hope also from this horrific fire.

The fact that the structure is still in tact, the fact that only one firefighter has been seriously injured, but of course, there's the loss. Those relics that you mentioned, the crown of thorns that Jesus Christ was believed to have worn as he went towards his death on the cross, the parts of the true cross itself.

This is a place that is steeped in symbolism, in ritual, that is deeply intertwined, not just with France's history, but with this ritual that Christians and Catholics across the world are participating in throughout this week, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. I want you to stand by, Clarissa. Melissa Bell is now in the crowd outside the cathedral where people have been singing these hymns. You know, Melissa, tell us a little bit about the emotion that you're sensing, that you're seeing.

BELL: The crowds really have been gathered here ever since this fire first broke out. And at first, what they were doing was watching almost in shock as these flames engulfed the structures and the tragedy unfolded. And over the course of the evening and as the night fell, the scenes turned to this.

People gathered to sing the hymns of the Catholic Church, gathered in emotion, gathered not so much to watch the flames anymore since they've now largely been extinguished from what we can see out here, at any rate. We can no longer see the orange flames or the light of those flames burning from within. Instead, for the last several hours now, it's been going on for the last two or three, these hymns have been being sung and now these prayers are being said.

As Catholics have gathered this time to speak of their faith, to gather around their faith, to consider from the point of view of their faith, what had happened here this evening. And as Clarissa was just saying, so much is likely to have gone up in smoke tonight inside Notre Dame, beyond to the structure itself.

Of course, the relics, the artwork, those relics that were exposed on every Good Friday, every year for the faithful to come and see that would have been exposed as we went into Easter weekend. The question is tonight, is that crown of thorns even still in existence or was it also consumed by the flames?

That is what so many of the Catholics who have gathered here have been talking to us about tonight. That is their concern. That is why they've gathered here, creating a sort of vigil, even as they've watched the tragedy unfold.

We've been speaking to priests and to young Catholics, as well, who have gathered because it was about their faith. And that's what so many of the people here have been telling us, a huge sense of emotion here amongst the faithful tonight who have gathered. It is now very late here in Paris and you have a sense that this is a vigil that is really only just beginning, Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm sure it is. And you've spent a lot of time in Paris. And you've spent a lot of time in Paris. You've covered a lot of major developments, major stories in Paris, including terrorist attacks. Give us a sense of the reaction you're seeing now as compared to some of those other horrific moments.

BELL: It is -- there have been, you're right, wolf, so many times of tremendous tragedy and raw emotion as Paris has bore the brunt of so many terrible tragedies over the last few years, many of them terrorist-related. This time, we have no idea of knowing -- no way of knowing for the time being what is behind this particular fire.

But, again, that sense of people coming together very early on, as the police were trying to push people back behind the cordons, people were really trying to help them go about their work, saying, let them get on with it, get out of the way, trying to do what they could to help them earlier. Firefighter pause to the crowd and were applauded by it.

And so you have that sense of people coming together, brought together by a huge amount of emotion tonight with that very religious tinge as well as people watch a monument of Catholicism. This was -- this is the cathedral that is the most visited monument in Europe, not only by Catholics, but from people, by people from every faith.

But, clearly, for the Catholic Church, this is one of the great monuments. It contains so much that matters to so many of the faithful. And tonight, it is those prayers and those hymns that have brought people out here to gather, to mourn, to begin to mourn what appears to be the loss of a good part of Notre Dame Cathedral.

BLITZER: Millions and millions of people visit the Notre Dame Cathedral every year. Everybody who's been to Paris and all of us have been to Paris, you know, over these years, we remember that moment when we saw it for the first time and it stands out so powerfully, indeed.

Stand by for a moment. I want to bring in Patryk Bukalski, who witnessed the fire. He's joining us on the phone right now. Patryk, tell us about that moment you first realized what was going on.