Paris searches for answers as Notre Dame smolders

Permanently scarred.
Permanently scarred.
Image: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer
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A raging fire consumed much of the iconic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris today (April 15) as its roof and central spire collapsed six days before Easter, the holiest day of the year on the Roman Catholic calendar, in what appears to be a horrible accident.

Firefighters have been able to save the cathedral’s two main towers and its main structure, and stopped the fire from spreading to the northern belfry, according to the Associated Press. The fire is largely out after burning for eight hours. President Emmanuel Macron said that he would launch a global campaign for donations for Notre Dame, and that “all together” France would rebuild the revered structure that is “part of French destiny.”

Notre Dame—an enduring symbol of France and its most popular tourist destination—has stood through centuries of war and peace. Initial construction started in 1260. The last damage of any significant scale took place during the French Revolution in the late 18th century, when much of its religious iconography was destroyed. Today’s fire may have been linked to a renovation project, authorities say.

Police say no injuries have been reported. Paris prosecutors have opened an investigation into the blaze, the AP reported.

The fire at Notre Dame

The fire began at 6:50pm local time, and engulfed much of the cathedral within two hours. Scaffolding had surrounded part of the cathedral, including the section around the central spire, where renovations were ongoing.

The fire broke out shortly before the cathedral was closing to the public; the 850-year-old house of worship receives more than 13 million visitors each year. Buildings in the area were evacuated, and police closed nearby metro stations and streets. Loud bangs were heard as a section of Notre Dame’s roof came down.

Experts warned that the water being used to put out the fire could be absorbed by the stone structure, adding weight and increasing the danger of a total collapse.

Firefighters thanked local residents for giving them space to work:

Paris fire brigade chief Jean-Claude Gallet has said that the main task is now cooling the building so that investigators can carry out an inquiry into how the fire started.

The cause of the Notre Dame fire

The cause of the blaze has not yet been determined. Authorities suspect it could be potentially linked to workers renovating the structure, including the main spire, which was in the midst of a $6.8-million overhaul. The renovations were necessary in part because Paris’ air pollution had eaten away at the cathedral’s limestone.

“We need to replace the ruined stones,” Philippe Villeneuve, France’s architect in chief for historic monuments, said in 2017. “We need to replace the joints with traditional materials. This is going to be extensive.”

Some French media reported that the workers doing the repairs had already left for the day.

French president Emmanuel Macron canceled a previously scheduled evening speech to the nation about the so-called Yellow Vest protests, due to the fire.

The firefighters’ battle

Hundreds of firefighters battled the flames late into the night in Paris.

US president Donald Trump weighed in with an idea…

…which was promptly ignored:

The Vatican offered prayers for the firefighters:

Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement: “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.”

People watched the Notre Dame fire in shock.
People watched the Notre Dame fire in shock.
Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

The damage at Notre Dame

Those on the scene had feared the entire building would be lost.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo said a human chain formed by firefighters, police and municipal workers has helped saved major works from the cathedral, including its most precious relic, the crown of thorns. Sixteen statues that were removed for cleaning on Thursday were also safe.

There is no way yet to know how much it will cost to rebuild whatever is left.

Thoughts turn to rebuilding

Salma Hayek’s husband, French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault, said he will make a 100 million euro donation ($113 million) to help rebuild the cathedral. Pinault is CEO of Kering, which owns luxury brands such as Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.

The building is one of the world’s most heavily documented, meaning that the restoration project will have a wealth of imagery to work with whether France wishes to rebuild it exactly as it was until Monday—or with some changes. A major 20-year restoration that started in the 1840s, for example, added back a taller version of the spire that the cathedral used to have until it became unstable and was removed.

The late architect Andrew Tallon, who was obsessed with Notre Dame, used laser scanning to deepen understanding of how the building was constructed, creating enormous amounts of 3D imagery—some of which revealed bits that could have been done better. Artwork for the Assassin’s Creed Unity video game could help too.

The Obamas, who visited the cathedral as a family early in Barack Obama’s presidency, in June 2009, both tweeted messages of sadness, but also of hope—Michelle Obama is in Paris this week for a book event.

Tripti Lahiri contributed reporting.