Flames In Notre Dame Shake France’s Rich Heritage

Credit: Chesnot/Getty Images

Emmanuel Macron, the French President, has described the fire in the 850-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral as “a terrible tragedy”.

At about 6.45 this Monday, a blaze broke out in the roof of Paris’ beloved Notre Dame Cathedral, which is, according to Macron, “the very centre of our lives”. Five minutes later, the first reports of a fire emerged, as flames were spotted near its two bell towers.

The medieval cathedral, built in the 13th century, is considered a massive architectural accomplishment as well as a religious centre, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Drawing approximately thirteen million visitors every year, the Notre Dame is the second most-important site in the history of Western Christendom and has been a beloved symbol of the city for eight centuries.

The roof has been under recent renovations costing over £6 million, and French media suspects the blaze was related to these works.

At 7.05 pm, Parisians watched in horror from the banks of the River Seine as the giant main spire of the cathedral collapsed to the ground. After being weakened by the fierce inferno, chilling footage shows the 300-foot-high Great Spire crumbling and falling over.

The Great Spire had been built in the 1800s from lead and wood and the fire broke out at the base.

Minutes later, the entire wooden building flame was caught in the flames. There were genuine fears that the entire cathedral structure would fall apart and endanger nearby houses if it fell. Those in close residential areas were evacuated and the surroundings were cleared for these concerns.  

About four hundred firefighters were involved but only one was seriously injured in attempts to save the Gothic building from the blaze. At 8.20 pm, the French President arrived on scene to speak to the police and emergency services, as crowds watched from behind police cordons. Parisians took to the streets to sing hymns and observe the flames.

Firefighters battled the flames for hours, attempting to extinguish the roof fire from the interior by dousing it with hoses. However, this has probably caused significant damage from the water they used.

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Temperatures reached almost a thousand degrees Celsius, and the fire put a host of valuable Christian relics in danger.

Chaplain of the Paris fire brigade, Jean-Marc Fournier, entered the burning Notre Dame to save artefacts such as the Crown of Thorns, the crown which Jesus wore on his head before the crucifixion, and the Blessed Sacrament. Fournier had served in the French armed forces and his courage was recognised in the ISIS terrorist attack of 2015 in Paris, when he ran back into the Bataclan venue. He has been titled a “hero” since, notably by the emergency services who said that “Father Fournier is our absolute hero”.

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The cross in the middle of the Notre Dame remained intact. Furthermore, the grand organ, which has thousands of pipes and dates from the 18th century, has survived the destruction. Firefighters managed to retrieve the tunic of St Louis and some other relics. The walls and floors have been blackened and the pews have been completely burnt. Statues of the twelve disciples and four apostles had been removed during the renovation works so they were saved from the flames.

In a tweet, Mayor Anne Hidalgo said that “a terrible fire is under way at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris”.

“There are a lot of artworks inside … it’s a real tragedy,” she told reporters.

Fortunately, many of the valuable artworks have been saved, and the most precious relics were spared from the inferno.

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Fourteen hours after the fire broke out, the flames were put out. An hour later, firefighters confirmed that it had been mostly extinguished. They reported that the blaze had been brought under control on Tuesday morning. A spokesperson mentioned that “the fire is completely under control. It is partially extinguished, there are some residual fire to put out”.

According to Emmanuel Macron, the “battle is not yet totally won” and the smaller fires shall rage for several more days.

Some parts of the roof have collapsed, but the concrete vaulting holding it up hasn’t.

Emergency services expect that the interior of the cathedral will be almost destroyed. However, Jean-Claude Gallet, the Fire Chief, has said that the structure of the cathedral has been “saved and preserved overall”. According to Laurent Valdiguié, a French journalist who was watching the fire on scene, stated that the La Rosace Nord, the north rose stained glass window, “seems to have held”. The main Gothic structure of the building and its iconic two towers have remained. Perhaps the entire cathedral may have come down if the fire had been extinguished only a mere fifteen minutes later. Firefighters used a drone to assess the level of damage from above.

The Paris prosecutor’s office believe that the fire was “involuntary destruction by fire”, and there is no evidence for arson. Valérie Pécresse told journalists that the fire was an accident – “This was an accident. It wasn’t intentional”.

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However, investigators are confused about the cause of the fire. Police have interrogated the companies involved in the renovation works.

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The Vatican says that Pope Francis “has seen with shock and sadness the news of the terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame, symbol of Christianity in France and in the world”. At the same time as the Notre Dame fire, there was a blaze in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, which is the third holiest site in Islam. It wasn’t as large as the Notre Dame fire and appears to be under control now.

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French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild the cathedral. “It is what French people expect, because it is what our history deserves, because it is our deep destiny,” he said. Macron announced a fundraising campaign in order to raise funds for the reconstruction of the Notre Dame.

Over £500 million was raised in mere hours this Tuesday as international tycoons pledged large amounts of money to the reconstruction cause. Fondation du Patrimonie has begun a campaign and international appeal to reconstruct the Notre Dame, “in order for Our Lady to be reborn from her ashes”. François-Henri Pinault has pledged $100 million towards the rebuilding of the Notre Dame.

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Macron wants the reconstruction of the Notre Dame to take only five years but experts say it might take decades.

Le Monde released a special edition with the headline reading, “Our Lady, our history”. Other newspapers and magazines have reported on the incident, including Liberation, Le Parisien and La Croix – their title read “le coeur en cendres”, meaning “the heart in ashes”.

The Queen of England sent a message to the President of France, saying:

Prince Philip and I have been deeply saddened to see the images of the fire which has engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral. I extend my sincere admiration to the emergency services who have risked their lives o try to save this important national monument. My thoughts and prayers are with those who worship at the Cathedral all of France at this difficult time.

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