By Agence France Presse and Reuters
PARIS (AFP/Reuters) – A raging fire that tore through Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris was under control early Tuesday after the blaze brought its towering spire and roof crashing to the ground, wiping out centuries of priceless heritage central to French culture and history.
French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the cathedral described as the soul of the nation and expressed relief that “the worst had been avoided” in a blaze that had at one point threatened the entire edifice.
Thousands of Parisians and tourists watched in horror from nearby streets cordoned off by the police as flames engulfed the building and officials tried to save as much as they could of the cathedral’s countless treasures, built up over centuries.
The inferno destroyed the roof of the 850-year-old UNESCO world heritage landmark, whose spectacular Gothic spire collapsed as orange flames and clouds of grey smoke billowed into the early evening sky Monday.
Around 400 firefighters battled into the night to control the flames, declaring in the early hours of Tuesday that it was partially extinguished but completely under control, around nine hours after it broke out.
Paris fire brigade chief Jean-Claude Gallet said “we can consider that the main structure of Notre-Dame has been saved and preserved” as well as the two bell towers.
But “the whole of the roof has been devastated… a part of the vault has collapsed, the spire is no more”, fire brigade spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Gabriel Plus said.
Laurent Nunez, state secretary at the interior ministry, told reporters early Tuesday that with the immediate “danger of the fire over,” the focus would be on assessing the damage to the building’s structure.
Nunez said officials would meet shortly to see if the building was stable enough to allow fire services to go inside.
‘France is Notre Dame’
“Notre-Dame survived all the wars, all the bombardments. We never thought it could burn. I feel incredibly sad and empty,” Stephane Seigneurie, a consultant who joined other shocked onlookers in a solemn rendition of “Ave Maria” as they watched the fire from a nearby bridge.
Gasps and cries of “Oh my god” erupted around an hour after the fire first broke out when the top portion of the church’s spire came crashing down.
“We have been dealt a knockout blow,” a stricken-looking Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit told reporters.
The cause of the blaze was not immediately clear, but the cathedral had been undergoing intense restoration work which the fire service said could be linked to the blaze.
French prosecutors said it was being currently being treated as an accident.
Historians expressed dismay at the collapse of a building that has been a symbol of France for almost a millennium.
“If Paris is the Eiffel Tower then France is Notre Dame. It’s the entire culture, entire history of France incarnated in this monument,” Bernard Lecomte, a writer and specialist in religious history told BFM TV.
Deputy Paris mayor Emmanuel Gregoire told the channel that workers were scrambling “to save all the artworks that can be saved.”
Wooden roof beams dating from the 12th century were to blame, but the first-responders had made “saving as many artworks as possible” a priority, Gregoire explained.
Some teams had managed to salvage an unknown quantity of its cultural treasures, he and the head of the Paris fire service said.
The Holy Crown of Thorns and a sacred tunic worn by 13th-century French king Louis, two irreplaceable artifacts, had been rescued, the cathedral rector Patrick Chauvet said.
Macron paid tribute to the efforts of the fire service as he visited the scene, sending the “thanks on behalf of the whole nation.”
He praised their “extreme courage, their great professionalism and lots of determination by their commanders.”
Donations pour in
Macron said France would launch a campaign to rebuild the cathedral, which is considered to be among the finest examples of French Gothic cathedral architecture, including fundraising efforts and by appealing to “talents” from overseas to contribute.
“We will rebuild it together. It will undoubtedly be part of French destiny and our project for the years to come,” a visibly moved Macron said.
French billionaire businessman Bernard Arnault’s family and his LVMH luxury goods group pledged 200 million euros ($226 million) to help repair the Paris cathedral “ to show their solidarity at a this time of national tragedy, and are joining up to help rebuild this extraordinary cathedral, which is a symbol of France, of its heritage and of French unity.” Arnault’s pledge follows a similar 100 million euros donation of Francois Henri Pinault, who heads the Kering luxury goods company.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo also said Tuesday that the city would unlock 50 million euros, and would propose holding an international donors’ conference in the coming weeks to coordinate the pledges to restore the gothic architectural masterpiece.
The privately run French Heritage Foundation has already launched a call for donations on its website — www.fondation-patrimoine.org — while several pages were set up on the Leetchi fundraising portal.
The Ile-de-France region comprising the greater Paris region is to provide another 10 million euros.
Wooden beams offered
Specialized craftsmen and rare materials are also expected to be needed to restore the monument, which welcomes more than 13 million visitors each year — an average of more than 35,000 people a day.
The head of a French lumber company told FranceInfo radio that it was ready to offer the best oak beams available to rebuild the intricate lattice that supported the now-destroyed roof, known as the “Forest”.
“The work will surely take years, decades even, but it will require thousands of cubic metres of wood. We’ll have to find the best specimens, with large diameters,” Sylvain Charlois of the Charlois group in Murlin, central France, told the radio station.
The United Nations’ Paris-based cultural agency UNESCO has also promised to stand “at France’s side” to restore the site, which it declared a world heritage site in 1991.
“We are already in contact with experts and ready to dispatch an urgent mission to evaluate the damage, save what can be saved and start elaborating measures for the short- and medium-term,” UNESCO’s secretary general Audrey Azoulay said in a statement Tuesday.
‘Water bombers not used’
One firefighter was injured in the blaze, the fire brigade said.
US President Donald Trump in a tweet said it was “horrible” to watch the fire but caused controversy by offering advice on how to put it out.
“Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!” he said.
But France’s civil security service, which oversees crisis management in the country, tweeted back at Trump that the use of water-bombing aircraft was not being considered.
“If used, (this) could lead to the collapse of the entire structure of the cathedral,” it said.
The cathedral is located at the very centre of the French capital and its construction was completed in the mid-12th century after some 200 years of work.
During the French Revolution in the 18th century, the cathedral was vandalised in widespread anti-clerical violence: its spire was dismantled, its treasures plundered and its large statues at the grand entrance doors destroyed.
It would go on to feature as a central character in a Victor Hugo novel published in 1831, “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” and shortly afterwards a restoration project lasting two decades got under way, led by architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc.
The building survived the devastation of two global conflicts in the 20th century and famously rang its bells on August 24, 1944, the day of the Liberation of Paris from German occupation at the end of the World War II.
“Paris is disfigured. The city will never be like it was before,” said Philippe, a communications worker in his mid-30s.