It started with a spark. Over the hours, it grew into a massive inferno that consumed the famed Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral. Heroic efforts by firefighters saved the structure, including the iconic towers, though it remains severely damaged, as the entire roof and 300-foot spire collapsed. The fire was out by the early hours of Tuesday morning, after more than 9 hours of fighting the blaze.
As it burned, residents and tourists gathered together, frequently sharing hugs, prayers, and tears. Many Parisians gathered near the monument, to pray and sing hymns, as sympathy and horror poured in on social media from around the world. Cathy Widawska, who has lived in Paris for fifteen years, told CNN “Everyone was very sad, people started to cry, it was a very emotional moment.” The Vatican also expressed “shock and sadness“.
French President, Emmanuel Macron, has promised that the French will “rebuild together“.
Speaking near the flaming cathedral, Macron said the “Notre Dame is our history, it’s our literature, it’s our imagery. It’s the place where we live our greatest moments, from wars to pandemics to liberations (…) I’m telling you all tonight − we will rebuild this cathedral together. This is probably part of the French destiny.”
In a televised address to the nation, he added “We will make the Cathedral of Notre-Dame even more beautiful. We can do this.”
Notre-Dame is more than just a very popular tourist site. It is a deeply emotional symbol for the French people, and in many ways, the country’s heart − all distances in France are measured from the site, which is kilometer zero. The fact that the burning took place during Holy Week adds a further tragic dimension.
Camille Pascal, a historian of French Catholicism, told Politico that this fire “is not just a trauma. It’s the live amputation of the national memory and identity of France. For more than eight and a half centuries, no joyous or calamitous event has not been celebrated, or marked by the bells of Notre Dame. What is burning tonight is the heart of the nation — whether Christian believers or not, it is who we are.”
Experts still aren’t sure what caused the fire, and an investigation is ongoing. While some corners of social media have been awash with conspiracy theories, blaming unknown terrorists of arson, authorities are fairly confident the tragedy was an accident, as the ongoing renovations likely introduced new fire hazards.
But once the fire got going, it was very difficult to tame. The roof of Notre-Dame was made of lead cladding, over what was then the oldest surviving timber frames in Paris, made of 5,000 trunks of solid oak. Combined with the height of the structure, these conditions made the fire both difficult to reach, whilst also providing extra oxygen to feed it.
Retired FDNY deputy chief, Jim Bullock, told CNN that churches, particularly cathedrals, are especially susceptible to fires because of their wooden frames. “It’s old wood that is dry and burns fast, and there’s a lot of wood in that building.”
“There’s a large open-air space, so there’s lots of air to feed the fire (along with) a lot of combustible stuff in the ceiling. And once (the fire’s) in the ceiling it’s hard to get up there.”
“Once these massive timber structures start to burn, they almost never can be stopped”, said Jonathan Barnett, an international fire safety authority, at Basic Expert in Australia.
“These cathedrals and houses of worship are built to burn. If they weren’t houses of worship, they’d be condemned”, said Vincent Dunn, a fire consultant and former New York City fire chief.
What Was Lost
The cathedral is just over 850 years old. Construction started in 1160, and lasted for nearly 200 years. And for a very long time, the structure was in a state of serious disrepair – long before the fire ripped through the church. Due to the flames, the cathedral’s iconic spire collapsed, followed a few hours later by the rest of the ceiling.
The wood that burned in the roof on Monday, was centuries old, and replacing it is likely to be difficult. When cut down, the beams used for the timbers, were over 300 years old, and the forest they came from no longer exists, even though similar oaks are still widespread across Europe.
And What Wasn’t
Even though Notre-Dame was an active cathedral, the fire did not cause a single loss of life.
The cathedral contained many artistic works, religious items, and antiques; though at the time of the blaze, a number of items and statuary were already offsite due to ongoing renovations. During the fire, some of the remaining items were evacuated via a human chain of civil servants, including emergency responders. The Paris Fire Brigade tweeted that the main works of art had been saved. Other items were protected from the fire by the surviving portions of the building, and remain in situ. However, how damaged these items are remains unknown.
French Culture Minister, Franck Riester, told reporters that rescued items include the sacraments, the treasury, and relics; like the Crown of Thorns, which some believe was placed on the head of Jesus, and is referred to as the cathedral’s “most precious and venerated relic”. The linen Tunic of St. Louis was also rescued, and both items are currently at the Paris City Hall. Other rescued items are being housed at the Louvre, where they will be restored from any damage they may have received from the smoke.
The famous rose windows, at the north and south of the structure also remained intact, as did the Great Organ, which contains pipework from its 15th century predecessors. The church’s main cross and altar also survived, as did the copper rooster that sat atop the collapsed spire. According to French media, a fragment of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails similarly endured.
What Comes Next
Contrary to popular belief, the cathedral is not owned by the Catholic Church − nor does the Church have readily available hoards of wealth to offer Notre-Dame for its reconstruction. In fact, under a 1905 law, the Notre-Dame is one of the seventy churches in Paris, built before that year, which is owned by the French state. The Archdiocese does not receive subsidies from the state.
Paris intends to rebuild – and they won’t be doing it alone. On the day after fire, nearly 1 billion euro were pledged in support. As staggering as that sum is, early estimates for the total costs of repairs suggest the needed sum is likely to be more in the ballpark of billions.
Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, called on all EU member states to aid France in rebuilding the Notre Dame, and referenced the rebuilding of his own hometown of Gdansk, Poland, in the wake of heavy bombing during World War II. The UNESCO also promised support.
Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, is also planning a major international conference of donors, to raise capital for the rebuilding efforts. And in addition, to mobilise the city’s budget of 80 million euros, earmarked for church restoration, with another 50 million euros to be put towards the cathedral from the Paris City Hall. Valérie Pécresse, the President of the Île-de-France region, said the region would unlock an emergency fund of an additional 10 million euros.
Many multimillionaires pledged support. The family of Bernard Arnault, the French business magnate, who owns luxury goods and fashion house LVMH, has promised to contribute 200 million euros. French billionaire François Pinault, pledged 100 million euros. French cosmetics company L’Oréal, along with The Bettencourt Meyers family and the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation, have said they will donate 200 million euros.
From the United States, the New York-based French Heritage Society, a non-profit supporting French heritage in the U.S. and France, launched a donations page. The University of Notre Dame in Indiana is also donating 100 thousand dollars towards the renovation of the landmark, according to a statement posted on the school’s website. Despite sharing a name, the university and cathedral share no connection.
The statement reads: “At the direction of Father Jenkins, the University will donate 100 thousand dollars towards the renovation of the cathedral. In addition, the bells of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the Notre Dame campus, will toll fifty times — representing the fifty Hail Marys of Our Lady’s Rosary — at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, to mark the start of the rebuilding process for the cathedral.”
Despite how well documented it is, the reconstruction and repair of the Notre-Dame won’t be easy. Architectural historian Jonathan Foyle, explained to CNN that first, it’s necessary to prevent further damage in a race against time.
“It’s already a wet building because of the water that’s been pumped on it, so they’re going to need to provide some kind of cover from the elements.”
“The roof’s job was to discharge thousands of tons of water, so where’s that going to go? Every time it rains it’s going to cause damage at this point, so it’s a war of attrition now.”
Frédéric Létoffé, a construction expert speaking at a news conference in Paris on Tuesday, said the site will need to be secured before any restoration work can take place. “This will require a lot of work since, beyond shoring and reinforcement, it will be necessary to build a scaffolding with an umbrella to be able to cover the entire roof that went missing, to ensure protection against weathering.”
A temporary roof will be installed, allowing experts to carry out detailed observations and to protect the unroofed stone ceiling. Those assessments could take years. Of particular concern is the balance of the structure. Architect John Burton, a surveyor of conservation works at English Gothic churches, Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, noted that “Gothic structures are all about balance (…). The building stands up by all the components being compressed together.” The dramatic flying buttresses that delicately supported the entire building could now be out of balance.
After that, French authorities will need to make design decisions over how best to rebuild, which will require a greater understanding of the original medieval methods of construction. However, design preferences and technology may influence how damaged structures are reconstituted.
Help may come from an unlikely source: namely the 2014 release of Assassin’s Creed Unity, which was set in 19th century Paris. Caroline Miousse, an Ubisoft level artist, spent two years poring over details of the cathedral, to create as accurate a depiction as possible, for players to be able to explore it, as the game’s centerpiece. The Assassin’s Creed series is well known for its attention to detail of historical landmarks — and its rendition of Notre-Dame is no exception. If Ubisoft were to offer its digital information to the French authorities, it might prove very useful.
Restoration will take anywhere from five to twenty years. Some experts caution it may even be closer to forty. French President, Emmanuel Macron, is particularly ambitious about the time frame. Speaking in a televised address, he said “We will rebuild Notre-Dame even more beautifully, and I want it to be completed in five years. We can do it.”
“It is up to us to convert this disaster into an opportunity to come together, having deeply reflected on what we have been and what we have to be, and become better than we are. It is up to us to find the thread of our national project.”