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Brussels on Lockdown after Terrorist Attacks; Security Beefed Up in U.S.; NY City Mayor Press Conference; U.S. View of Attacks in Belgium; Witness Describes Brussels Airport Explosion; Belgian Ambassador Talks ISIS Claim of Responsibility. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired March 22, 2016 - 11:00   ET



[11:00:13] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm John Berman.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thank you so much for joining us.

We're continuing to follow breaking news. Brand new video just into CNN taken moments after explosions ripped through the Brussels airport. Watch this.




BOLDUAN: Just terrifying. And after that, Brussels is now on lockdown AT THIS HOUR. The death toll rising after three attacks rocked the capitol city in Belgium today. This, we're going to show you another view of the scene just seconds after blasts went off in the main airport in Brussels.

We also want to let you know this is exactly what we know right now. As we always said, it's fluid in like this. Belgian media reporting 34 dead, more than 170 injured. The U.S. embassy there is working AT THIS HOUR to determine if any Americans are among the victims.

This all started around 8:00 a.m. when two explosions ripped through the international airport. At least one of the explosions was a suicide bomb. Then a third blast went off about an hour later about six major subway stop, the Maelbeek station, where the headquarters of the European Union is stationed. Listen here.




BERMAN: That was the scene. We can see so many people evacuating just moments after the blast. How frightening that must have been. The Belgian government has raised the terrorist threat level in the

nation to the highest level. All transportation has been suspended in Brussels. The bus, train, metro, airport is shut down. Flights have been diverted.

Here in the United States, there is stepped-up security. The New York Police Department will hold a press conference any minute now. We'll bring it to you.

In the meantime, we go to Brussels. CNN's senior international correspondent, Nima Elbagir, is outside the airport in Brussels where the first attack happened, this pair of bombings.

Nima, you're at a staging ground right now about as close as you can get to the scene of these attacks. Why don't you walk us through what happened and give us the latest on the investigation.

NIMA ELBAGIR, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CNN CORRESPONDENT: The latest on the investigation is that authorities are asking people to refrain from giving the locations where the house raids are going on. It gives you a sense of how quickly the operation kicks into effect. They're trying to seek whoever be out there, John.

To give you context, this explosion, these detonations, these twin detonations happened at the departure hall, check in, the softest of areas at the airport, right before they would have had to go through security and be searched. And U.S. officials, who have been given access to the preliminary evidence, say that the working theory authorities here have is that one of the bombs, at least, one of the devices, was inside a suitcase.

And that is -- that matches one of the descriptions of the injuries we've been hearing that people have been injured on their legs, the kind of blast zone radiated out from the suitcase on the ground. Eyewitness and reports from early on say that before the detonation, there were some shots fired and some people report hearing shouts in Arabic. Of course, in such a fluid panic situation, you can't ever be clearly exactly how these things unfold, but these are the preliminary reports as we understand them of that scene.

But as we were rushing here to the airport, we started seeing ambulances, first responders, heading in the opposite direction. What's when we heard the news there was another blast, this one at Maelbeek. Very quickly after that, the Belgian interior minister addressed the nation and said we've raised the terror threat and it is now at the highest level. And that was to allow them to have the option to deploy soldiers and ask people to remain in their homes or to start moving back toward their homes. That's what you're seeing behind us, this backed up traffic as people try to get back indoors as authorities are asking them to.

BOLDUAN: And, Nima, as we speak with you, we're also showing the viewers some of the truly stunning video in the immediate aftermath of the blasts. And you can see, the smoke, the confusion. You can hear the screams and the shock of no one being able to believe exactly what has just happened all around them. Nima, you said you were rushing to the scene. You've been there as

all of this is playing out. We keep hearing right now Brussels is in complete lockdown. What's the state of the city right now?

[11:05:38] ELBAGIR: The shopping centers have been evacuated. People are asked if you're at your offices or wherever, remain there. Schools will be closed, but for now, they're asking that students not be allowed to leave their classrooms without accompaniment.

The prime minister stressed as of now we don't know exactly what we are dealing with. They're trying to close in on whatever, whoever might remain out there from this network. But they're still trying to glean information in response. Behind me, it was contained quickly. We kept seeing reinforcement of teams going in, and similarly to the train station.

Although the scenes inside the train station -- the images from the airport are terrifying, but eyewitnesses we spoke to at the train station, one man whose train left just after the train that had the device on it, he reports feeling this gust of wind, which he later realized was the blowback from the explosion, and then darkness. The energy signals started going off, and then an alert telling people to stay where they were. And as they were being evacuated from inside the train cars, he said he saw one woman in absolute distress, crying about having seen bodies on the rails.

This is a country that is just reeling. It's been months now since Paris in this state of tension, and now this -- Kate?

BERMAN: Tension really bursting right now.

Nima, stand by right now.

I want to go near that metro station, near the Maelbeek metro station, which was also attacked, which saw the majority of fatalities this morning.

Our Chris Burns is standing by.

What are you learning, Chris?

CHRIS BURNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, this is just a couple blocks away is where the Maelbeek station is. That's where the bomb went off just after 9:00 this morning. This was right in the middle of rush hour. This was when a lot of European institutions are coming, people are coming to those places. This is a place where I was in the last part of the train, that's usually where I got off with dozen and dozens of other people. That's where it struck just after 9:00 this morning at the Maelbeek station. And also there was actually blow back. People heard and that there was an explosion also here at the Shuman station.

This is the heart of the capitol of Europe, and it is a strike. It is the first terrorist strike against it.

I talked to the spokesman for the firefighters here in Brussels here this afternoon, and he said he was there in the rescue. He was in tears telling me how horrible it was. It was the worst thing he has ever seen. It was war scene to him. He's been a firefighter for a long time, and he's seen everything.

BERMAN: Chris --

BURNS: He's seen nothing like this with bodies and people injured and with blood all over the place and people screaming.

BERMAN: Chris, stand by. Stand by.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

BERMAN: I want to bring you back to New York City, a Mayor Bill de Blasio briefing along with the police department on the security situation here.

BILL DE BLASIO, NEW YORK CITY MAYOR: The community of nations has to stand together at moments like this and reject the forces of terror and the appalling violence that they wreak upon innocent people. And we in New York City stand ready to fight against terror in every way.

Let me say at the outset there is no specific and credible threat against New York City at this time, but we are in a high state of vigilance and readiness because of the investments we have made in building a strong anti-terror capacity in this city. Our critical response command, 500-plus officers at the ready, highly trained, well armed, plus our strategic response group, our emergency services unit, all these units were available this morning.

Commissioner Bratton and his team will speak in a moment about the way they were deployed.

I want to commend the NYPD for immediately responding and putting additional capacity out at key sites around the city, to show people they were safe and to make sure we were ready to respond in all instances. There was a tremendous amount of NYPD presence around our subway system, in particular, literally, just hours after the attack, showing the speed and the agility with which the NYPD can move.

[11:10:22] We are working very closely with all our partners. You'll hear from in a moment from the FBI leaders in this area. We thank them as always for their extraordinary partnership. We have been working closely with the state and port authority, given that the issues affected the airport in Belgium.

But all those preparations and the effort being put into today to making sure people are safe, all the personnel being deployed should be another reminder that the NYPD and our partners with are keeping the people of this city safe and, therefore, is a moment to remember that what the terrorists want is for us to change our ways. The terrorists want to undermine our democracy. They want to undermine our values. They want to and see us in panic. But we refuse to be afraid and change who we are. We are going to respond to their efforts to create chaos by showing them order, by showing our city functioning. The NYPD is ensuring that everybody can go about their business safely. 35,000 members of the NYPD today acting as one to protect the people of this city.

The terrorists, by definition, try to use death as their tool. Their aim is to spread death. We answer them with life. We answer them with a strong and vibrant society.

I ask the people of New York City to offer our prayers to the victims of these attacks and their families, and to stand in solidarity with them.

And over the next hours and days, we will keep the people updated as new developments occur. But expect to see extraordinary NYPD presence out over the coming days as a sign of our readiness to protect people at all times.


BOLDUAN: You're listening right there to the mayor of New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio, giving an update in the aftermath of the attacks in Belgium. This is the situation here in the United States. He says there are no specific and creditable threats against the city right now, but he spoke about the additional presence of police, of counterterrorism resources being deployed around the city, especially at key targets, airports tunnels, bridges.

BERMAN: He made clear the purpose is to show people they are safe. This is what law enforcement does now in New York City and in Washington and other key locations around the country when there are international terror attacks to reassure the people of the cities here in the United States that they are safe.

BOLDUAN: You're seeing it. You will also be seeing -- we've heard from airports around the country, there will be a stepped up presence at some of the biggest airports in the United States.

For more on the investigation on what our people are learning, especially from U.S. officials, let's get over to Pamela Brown. She's in Washington.

Pamela, you've been getting some information from your sources on what is -- what's the view of what happened in Belgium from the U.S. side. What are you picking up now?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Kate. We learned Belgium authorities shared a picture with U.S. authorities on three possible suspects they believe were involved in the terrorist attack. It's a picture of three men pushing carts through the airport, and then we know subsequently that's where two explosions happened. This is a picture taken presumably from a surveillance camera inside the airport. Looking at that picture, trying to figure out if these were people on the U.S. radar, trying to see if there was any nexus to the U.S.

And also one big question officials are trying to answer right now is whether the men, whether one or more, perhaps dropped off that suitcase bomb there in the airport and then went to the metro station after that, where we know the explosion happened an hour after. A lot going on right now in terms of the investigation.

Also in addition to that, U.S. authorities right now are scrutinizing the whereabouts of suspected extremists in the United States. Of course, a big concern is that when something like this happens, it will embolden copy cat attacks inside the United States. So FBI officials very busy right out where those people are who are of high concern -- Kate and John?

BERMAN: Pamela, you said there's a picture of three suspects. Any sense that they might release that photo to the public at any point?

BROWN: It's unclear at this point. That will be something the Belgium authorities will have to decide if they want to do that. We've seen in many of the cases, they rely on the public's help, particularly if there's a manhunt. And one of the things they don't know is whether all three of them died or some of them are still at large. That's certainly something they would be considering.

[11:15:09] BOLDUAN: Pamela, one additional quick question for you. We have seen that there were two nuclear sites in Belgium that were evacuated except for key personnel. What are U.S. officials hearing about that? That sounds troubling.

BROWN: Right. At that stage, it's unclear if it was a precaution or if it's something bigger. At this point, U.S. officials don't know what to make of that. As you know, right now, Belgium authorities are focused on the ground trying to figure out what exactly happened, what they missed, and also looking for the suspects involved, so information doesn't always come to U.S. officials as quickly as perhaps they would like.

BERMAN: You can understand the abundance of caution being taken, evacuation the nuclear power plants and also the royal palace for a period of time out of concern as well.

Pamela Brown, stand by.

We want to bring in David Crunelle, who was inside that airport when those explosions took place. A lot of video that we've been showing you actually taken by David.

David, if you're with us by phone right now, tell me what you saw. Walk me through what happened?

DAVID CRUNELLE, WITNESS (voice-over): Around 8:00, I was dropping off my luggage. The international departure hall for American flight was next to me. There was a first explosion with a lot of dust, a lot of -- the ceilings were starting to collapse, and just a few seconds after, a second explosion on the other side, like maybe 30 or 40 meters from the first explosion. A second explosion came, and same kind of cloud and noise, and the ceiling collapsing, people screaming. To very quickly we understand it was something dangerous.

BOLDUAN: David, did you hear any gunfire? Some reports we were hearing was there was gunfire. Did you hear gunfire? CRUNELLE: I read and heard about this, but I was really close, and I

didn't hear any gunfire shots or anyone shouting Islamic sentences. I didn't hear that. I was really close. I was actually so close that my eardrum is a bit damaged in the explosion. I don't say that I am -- I own the truth, but I didn't hear that at all. Just two explosions in just a few seconds.

BERMAN: David, on that point, how far were the explosions in terms of the length of time and how much time passed between the two explosions? And if you have a sense, what was the distance, the physical distance between the areas where the explosions were set off?

CRUNELLE: The two explosions were quite close. They were almost like 20 or 30 meters away from each other, and time wise, it was maybe three, maybe four seconds. I know people are talking about $ one minute, but they were really close to each other. By the time we realized what was happening on one side, the second explosion happened on the other side. It was a matter of seconds between the two.

BERMAN: Can you describe, David, what you felt? I mean, we can't imagine when we see this video that you took in the aftermath, I mean, you can see the ceiling has fallen in. You see this cloud of smoke, and you see cries of agony and obviously of fear and people kind of walking around trying to figure out what's going on. What did you feel?

CRUNELLE: The first feeling was like I was thinking that it was happening. Something that we may expect was happening. We were not wondering if it was something like an accident inside the airport. No, it was obviously something that it was not an expected sound. And first, the first thing was to look around if people were injured and the exit door was close from the two explosions. So it's not a big terminal. So people could go out in just a few seconds, but the first thought was OK, it's an attack. We don't have -- everybody was prepared. They were mentally prepared for such an attack.

BERMAN: Looking at these pictures now of the aftermath, smoke filling the lounge. We see luggage abandoned and some people hugging each other trying to get cover where they can. How long before the situation came under control? How quickly did authorities arrive on the scene?

CRUNELLE: It's hard to tell, because after the first explosion, the crew, the people working in the airport, just went out with all of us, and there was not a lot of security. I saw some military in front of the door before entering the terminal, but there was not a lot of security around. I would say that everybody was taking care of each other. We saw some employees of the airport starting to take care of people around. My only complaint -- everybody was doing great, but my only complaint is that the balances took some time to arrive and to take care of the injured people. I saw some people on the floor for maybe 20 minutes before the ambulance could take care of them.

[11:20:31] BOLDUAN: All right. David Crunelle, thank you so much for getting on the phone. There's a lot for you to deal with, especially in the aftermath of some of the video you provided. Thank you so much. Thanks you so much. We're glad you're OK.

CRUNELLE: You're welcome.

BERMAN: Thank you.

BOLDUAN: Thank you very much. We appreciate the contact.

Let's go to Paul Cruickshank. He's with us right now.

There's been a lot of talk in the aftermath exactly what the Belgian authorities are doing to find the people who perpetrated this, to find if there's a cell, bring people to justice. There has been a request for a media blackout on the specifics of some of the raids we've been hearing about, going on in the neighborhoods. But we're picking up some more information about what's happening.

Paul, what are you picking up?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: They are reported that there is an ongoing manhunt in Brussels for individuals they believe are tied to the attack, suggesting that they suspect, they know a few of the individuals who were involved, cells, but no more information than that.

And the Belgian authorities have asked all media in Belgium not to report on any aspects, in addition to that, of the searches because they don't want to give the game away to people who are being looked for and are on the run.

BERMAN: All right, Paul. Stand by.

First, we should say we're just learning that ISIS has now claimed responsibility for the attacks. That will not come as a surprise, given the level of activity that has been in the region, specifically in Brussels now for some months, and the fact that Salah Abdeslam was just captured four days ago with known ISIS contacts.

I also want to bring in the Belgian ambassador to the United States, Johan Verbeke, who joins us now from Washington.

Mr. Ambassador, first, thank you for being with us.

Our sympathies and condolences are with you and your people this morning after what you're going through. You heard the president express that earlier today.

You heard Paul Cruickshank report there was a manhunt underway right now. Can you bring us up to speed on what you know about the current state of the investigation?

JOHAN VERBEKE, BELGIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: Well, let me start by thanking the American people for all the messages of sympathy we have received here, and also the call from your President Obama to our prime minister, and John Kerry, state secretary. The latest situation, of course, is something that you can much better

see from Brussels straight away. I can tell you these are parts in the heart of Brussels, the capitol of Belgium, and it's also in the capitol of Europe. We are all in it. No country, no city is immune of that kind of treacherous events.

BOLDUAN: Mr. Ambassador, this is not only hitting your country, but I've also read this has hit close to home for you. Your son had a meeting at a building that was very near the metro stop where the third explosion took place. Have you spoken to him? What has he told you?

VERBEKE: Basically, he called me this morning to inform me about the situation. Of course, I was already informed. I was at 5:30 here at the embassy. He called me to say, look, father, what happened. I had a meeting planned around 11:00 at the very place where the station was attacked, just to tell you that the world is small, that we are all in it, and that not just the people of Brussels of Belgium or Europe, but I think the world is in it. And I think that we now have a determination that is even greater than it was any time to attack, frontally, this extremely dangerous development which we call terrorism. Also I would like to stress that the resilience of the Belgian people should not be underestimated. We will stand up again.

BERMAN: Indeed, this is now a global issue. We heard the French president, Francois Holland, say the whole of Europe was hit. We heard the French prime minister say we are at war.

Mr. Ambassador, do you believe what happened today was connected to the arrests on Friday, the apprehension of Salah Abdeslam?

[11:25:01] VERBEKE: Well, I prefer not to speculate on that direct connection with the arrest last week of Mr. Abdeslam. There may be connections, and some people have already given some part of that. But let me stress one particular fact. That is for the last month, indeed, our investigators and security people, what have you, intelligence community, has been working very hard, but particularly for the last two weeks. There have been a lot of house searches being conducted last week, and something new being found. That is that we really found heavy weapons, heavy weapons which are a clear indication that something was in the offing. That was one point.

And the second point is that new names, new people connected to a network of terrorists have emerged. And that is why the security people, the police have been working for days and nights, all over the last 10 days, in order to dismantle whatever network that would be in time for an attack. The attack occurred too early.

BOLDUAN: Mr. Ambassador, one final, quick question. Are you comfortable to say that the threat has subsided today? Is there a concern of additional attacks as obviously it looks as if these were three coordinated explosions? Because the city of Brussels is clearly on lock downright now. Is it over?

VERBEKE: Well, I would not say that it is over. That would be premature. I think it's an ongoing -- it's going to be an ongoing battle. But to the extent that we continue to investigate, doing hard searches, identify people, arrest people, and I can -- the figures are out there, that the number of arrested people, the number of trials going on in the Belgian court system has not simply doubled but quadrupled for the last few months. All this means the situations for these people, their freedom to act, has been seriously restrained and restricted.

BERMAN: Ambassador Johan Verbeke, again, thank you for being with us. And again, our thoughts are with you and your people this morning. Good luck in the coming hours and days.

We are just getting word right now that the there are some new images, some video believed to be possibly of the suspects at the airport before the bomb blasts. We're going to get everything set up and bring that to you after the break.