PARIS - The fire that tore through Notre Dame cathedral was probably caused by accident, French prosecutors said on Tuesday after firefighters doused the last flames in the ruins overnight.
More than 400 firemen were needed to tame the inferno that consumed the roof and collapsed the spire of the eight-centuries-old cathedral. They worked through the night to bring the fire under control some 14 hours after it began.
“We are favoring the theory of an accident,” Paris public prosecutor Remy Heitz said, adding that 50 people were working on what was expected to be a long and complex investigation.
One firefighter was injured; no one else was reported hurt in the blaze which began after the building was closed to the public for the evening.
From the outside, the imposing bell towers and outer walls, with their vast flying buttresses, still stood firm, but the insides and the upper structure were eviscerated by the blaze.
Investigators will not be able to enter the cathedral’s blackened nave until experts are satisfied its stone walls withstood the heat and the building is structurally sound. Television images showed firefighters atop the towers.
“The fire is fully extinguished,” fire service spokesman Gabriel Plus told reporters. “Our job today is to monitor the structure and its movements.”
The fire swiftly ripped through the cathedral’s timbered roof supports, where workmen had been carrying out extensive renovations to collapsed balustrades and crumbling gargoyles, as well as the spire’s wooden frame.
News of the devastating fire reached the Rev. Nick Adam while he was at a priests’ meeting in Davenport. Adam is pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Fairfield, and he said his reaction was one of “horror and fear.”
Nevertheless, he has been heartened by the news he has heard this morning, that the damaged portion of the cathedral can be rebuilt and that some of the important relics inside were saved.
CNN reported today that the Crown of Thorns, which some believe was placed on the head of Jesus during his crucifixion and which cathedral officials call their “most precious and venerated relic” was rescued from the fire.
The fate of other relics housed in the cathedral has not been confirmed. For instance, the cathedral contained a fragment of the True Cross and one of the Holy Nails, referring to the cross on which Jesus was crucified and one of the nails that pierced his body. Whether those relics have been saved is unknown.
Adam said the prospect of losing such an important piece of history has shaken everyone all over the globe.
“The whole world has been overwhelmed by this,” he said. “It’s not just the city of Paris or the country of France – it’s the world. And it’s not just affected Catholics, either, but all of Christianity.”
CNN reports that an estimated 13 million people visit the French Gothic cathedral every year.
Adam said he saw a picture from inside the cathedral after the fire, which showed the cross inside “shining bright” from a ray of light coming through a window. He saw it as an analogy to the Holy Week that Christians celebrate between Palm Sunday and Easter, a week being celebrated right now.
“It’s so significant for this week because just as we suffer with Jesus on Good Friday, we rise with him on Easter Sunday,” Adam said. “Even in the midst of despair and heartbreak, there are signs of hope and resurrection.”
Restoring historic churches
Ron Bovard of Bovard Studios in Fairfield has experience repairing damaged churches. The company restored St. Peter’s Catholic Church in San Francisco after it was badly damaged by a fire in 1997. That church was one of only a few churches in San Francisco to survive the 1906 earthquake.
After its fire in 1997, Bovard Studios replicated 38 of its 46 stained glass windows, and in the process brought the windows up to earthquake code.
“We matched the originals exactly. It took close to a year to do the windows,” Bovard said.
Initial reports from Paris suggest the stained glass windows in Notre Dame survived the fire. The cathedral’s rose windows are a trio of immense round stained-glass windows over the cathedral’s three main portals, which date back to the 13th century.
Bovard said it will probably take a year or two just to draw up plans to repair the cathedral. He had a chance to visit Notre Dame once in the early 1980s, and not just to admire its stained glass windows but also to worship.
“I walked in early in the morning, and I was the only one there,” he recalled. “I sat down and closed my eyes. A little while later, 15 priests in full regalia came in and they started doing Gregorian chants. That was the highlight of my experience.”
The Paris prosecutor has opened an investigation into “involuntary destruction by fire”. Police on Tuesday began questioning the workers involved in the restoration, the prosecutor’s office said.
Hundreds of stunned onlookers had lined the banks of the Seine river late into the night as the fire raged, reciting prayers and singing liturgical music in harmony as they stood in vigil.
“It’s a symbol of our country that risked being destroyed,” Culture Minister Franck Riester said.
Firefighters who entered the burning building saved many of its treasures, Riester said, although some paintings remained inside and risked smoke and water damage.
Donations pour in
President Emmanuel Macron promised France would rebuild Notre-Dame, considered among the finest examples of French and European Gothic architecture and visited by more than 13 million people annually.
Notre-Dame is owned by the state and has been at the center of a years-long row between the nation and the Paris archdiocese over who should bear the brunt of costs for badly needed restoration work.
It was too early to estimate the cost of the damage, said Bertrand de Feydeau of the Fondation du Patrimoine, a charity which works to protect French heritage, but it is likely to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Two of France’s wealthiest men, Francois-Henri Pinault, chief executive of the Kering group which owns brands including Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, and Bernard Arnault, the main shareholder of luxury group LVMH, said they would donate 100 million euros ($113 million) and 200 million euros respectively. The city of Paris pledged 50 million euros.
Other campaigns were launched in the United States as well-wishers around the world pledged contributions via social media.
Paolo Violini, a restoration specialist for Vatican museums, said the pace at which the fire spread through the cathedral had been stunning.
“We are used to thinking about them as eternal simply because they have been there for centuries, or a thousand years, but the reality is they are very fragile,” Violini said.
A centuries-old crown of thorns made from reeds and gold, and the tunic believed to have been worn by Saint Louis, a 13th century king of France, were saved, Notre-Dame’s top administrative cleric, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, said.
Copper statues representing the Twelve Apostles and four evangelists were removed by crane last week as part of the restoration work.
American tourist Susan Hargrove said she’d been left breathless by the scale of devastation.
“We are talking of world history, of our Western culture but also of something that is truly universal,” Hargrove said. “Notre-Dame means something to everybody.”
(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Inti Landauro, Richard Lough, Sarah White; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Leigh Thomas, Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)