Notre Dame fire in Paris. What we know about the causes and the future of the cathedral

What happened in Paris, which saw its iconic Notre Dame cathedral destroyed by a massive fire. What we know about the damages, causes and projects for reconstruction.

in collaboration with Andrea Barolini

“We will rebuild it together”. It’s past midnight on Tuesday 16 April and, while firefighters are still struggling to put the fire out, French president Emmanuel Macron reacts with pride. He pledges to give Parisians their symbol back, the Notre Dame cathedral, destroyed by a massive fire that has taken an inestimable artistic and architectural heritage away.

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The Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burning © Geoffrey Van Der Hasselt/Afp/Getty Images

How the fire broke out and spread at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris

Monday, 15 April. It’s the first day of celebrations for Easter’s holy week. At 18:50 a fire breaks out in the upper part of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France. The fire spreads rapidly though the wooden beams that sustain the roof. Around 20:20 the nineteenth-century spire, which is 96 metres high, collapses engulfed by the vault. The entire structure is thought to be doomed. But then a correction comes: three quarters of the roof is destroyed, as is the spire and an undefined number of artwork, but the main bell towers and the structure are still standing. At 3:30 in the morning, according to Reuters press agency, the fire is under control with just a few pockets of fire left. At 9:51 Paris firefighters officially says that the fire is out and that main artwork has been safeguarded.

The deployment of forces is huge: over 400 firefighters are in action to contain and put the blaze out, save artwork and cool down some parts of the building. As the civil protection explains, Canadair planes can’t be used because they would drop tonnes of water which would irreparably destroy the entire structure. The statement seems to be a clear response to US President Donald Trump’s tweet suggesting their use, while expressing his sorrow and urging to “act quickly”.

The only seriously injured is among fightfighters. Luckily, the fire broke out after visiting hours. With 12 million tourists in 2017, the cathedral is Europe’s most visited historic monument.

Which artwork has been saved from the Notre Dame fire

Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, the cathedral’s archpriest and rector, says the tunic worn by Saint Louis and the crown of thorns, which was worn by Christ on the Calvary according to tradition, have been saved. Some goblets and paintings have been saved, too, but some larger paintings are lost. French news agency Le Monde reports that some glass windows exploded due to heat, but the thirteenth-century rose window overlooking the Seine appears to be intact. During the night, Parisian archdiocese’s vicar-general Philippe Marsset says, a team of experts have assessed the priorities of intervention on artwork. But the situation, as Minister of Culture of France Françoise Nyssen claims, is “precarious”.

The causes of the Notre Dame fire won’t be easy to find

“In this phase, we still know little about the origin of the ravaging fire,” writes Le Monde in the first hours of 16 April. The Paris prosecutor’s office has opened an inquiry into involuntary destruction by fire, excluding a criminal motive. But investigations are expected to be long and delicate.

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The Notre Dame cathedral in Paris seen in a picture of 2007 © Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

According to the first investigative analyses, the fire broke out in the attic, an area difficult to reach, which was surrounded by scaffolding for the vast renovation works started in the summer of 2018. By the time of the disaster, no workers appeared to be on site. The biggest problem for investigators now is that this part of cathedral no longer exists. This means that all potential evidence is turned into ashes.

All eyewitness reports, moreover, highlight how rapidly the fire has spread, minute after minute. This is for now another big question mark.


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The future of Notre-Dame, symbol of Paris

“The worst has been avoided,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters shortly before midnight. France, he adds, will launch an international fundraising campaign to rebuild the cathedral, calling the best experts from all over the world.

The first ones to respond were the leaders of two fashion and luxury giants: Bernard Arnauld, owner of the LVMH group, will donate 200 million euros, and Francois Henri Pinault, ceo of the Kering group, has promised 100 million euros.


Featured image © Geoffrey Van Der Hasselt/Afp/Getty Images

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