April 15th, 2019. It is 7 p.m. when the firemen first arrived at the scene. Notre-Dame of Paris is burning. Immediately, they started taking action to put off the fire. Outside, a powerless crowd gathered watching the flames devouring the secular cathedral bits by bits. All over the world, channel news were relaying the unfolding event non-stop. It seemed like the world had stopped. At 7.50 p.m., Viollet-le-Duc’s lead spire collapsed. Shock and terror. After a 15-hour battle, the 600 firefighters were able to contain the fire and, finally, extinguish it. The cathedral is terribly slashed but still standing. Two tiers of the roof disappeared in the fire. The 12th century (apse) and 13th century (nave) wood frame is irremediably gone. Part of the vaults are seriously damaged. Still standing, yes, but so fragile. At any point, the whole edifice, whose internal structure has been compromised during the catastrophe, can collapse.
Straight away, the first questions arose. What happened? Was it a terrorist attack? An accident? A crime? Who is responsible? What will happen to the cathedral? Will it be rebuilt? Almost 7 months after the fire, let us answer these questions.
Preliminary reports: the possible causes.
On June 26th, 2019, Paris High Court filled a lawsuit against persons unknown (plainte contre X) regarding the fire at Notre-Dame of Paris.
According to the first reports – bear in mind that the investigations will take several years – the police’s preliminary conclusions established the fire was not of criminal nature and not linked to terrorism. So, what did cause the fire to start? Four points have been raised by the investigators.
The most plausible cause of the fire at Notre-Dame is a default in the electric system. An electric panel near the starting point of the fire had to be turned off every night. Unfortunately, the breakers were not correctly assembled and, on April 15th, this electric panel stayed under voltage. It has been reported that this electrical panel was set up without the consent of the manager in charge on the spire’s restoration work.
A second cause of the fire may be a problem with the actuating device for the bells. It was set near the start of the fire and it was used twelve minutes before the start of the inferno.
During the investigation, the police found out that there was only one security guard instead of two (cutbacks). This person was inexperienced and started working after only a two-day training. The security guard had done two consecutive shifts that day, clocking in at 7.30 a.m. and was supposed to clock out at 11 p.m. on April 15th. Due to his lack of experience and the exhaustion of working two shifts in a row, the security guard was not able to recognise the alarm’s signal – which may also have had a malfunction. This error is crucial in the development of the event. Indeed, the fire broke out at 6.18 p.m. The call to the firefighters was made at 6.48 p.m., the first teams arriving at Notre-Dame about 8-10 minutes later. By the time of their arrival, the fire had spread and there was no hope to save the wood framework anymore.
Finally, the fourth and less plausible cause brought forward in the preliminary reports is that whilst inspecting the building, the police found nine cigarette butts on the scene. After the DNA tests, five out of nine of these cigarette butts belonged to Europe Echafaudage’s employees. It was strictly forbidden to smoke on site (before the fire on April 15th, the 19th century cathedral’s spire was undergoing some restoration work).
It is important to stress again the fact these causes highlighted above are the first conclusions of the preliminary report. The investigations are still undergoing.
On April 16th, 2019, the French president Emmanuel Macron declared his intention for the cathedral to be rebuilt in five years. As of now, this promise seems impossible to be fulfilled. Different factors are to be considered.
First, the fact that the fire damaged the internal structure of the building. The cathedral was still on the verge of collapse and it took several weeks for the teams working on the site to secure it. Also, as said previously, the spire was undergoing some restoration work. To that end, scaffoldings were installed. In the aftermath of the fire, the scaffolding was still standing on top of the cathedral, its weight putting pressure on the whole structure. The fall of the scaffolding could possibly lead to the collapse of the three vaults below. Plus, the metal had fused during the catastrophe, causing further technical issues to the teams working on consolidating and securing the edifice. The dismantling should start in this month and end around March-April 2020.
Secondly, the work on Notre-Dame had to be stopped between July 25th and August 19th, 2019, the staff’s safety being compromised. During the fire, the 19th century spire burnt and collapsed. It was made of a wooden frame roofed with lead plates weighting 250 tonnes. When it combusted, the lead melted and partly evaporated, contaminating a large area. This issue had to be resolved so that the staff could work without any risk of lead contamination.
Furthermore, there is the question of the reconstruction: should it be rebuilt as it was before the disaster or should it be rebuilt with a contemporary twist? This question is still unanswered at the present moment. What is sure though is that money should not be a concern. Six months after the tragedy, 922 million euros were raised for the reconstruction of Notre-Dame.
Finally, what about the reopening of the cathedral? According to some sources, Notre-Dame may partially be reopened to the public in 2024, even if the reconstruction is not completely achieved. The visitors will have access to the first three to four rows of the nave once the safety procedure is done. This is subject to confirmation and may change in the years to come.
As a conclusion, allow me to make a comparison with another tragedy which happened at the same date, 107 years ago. On the night of April 15th, 1912, the RMS Titanic sank in the freezing waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Out of the 2,224 estimated passengers and crew members, over 1,500 souls perished. Numerous explanations have been given throughout the years in regard to the causes of the Titanic’s sinking, mostly technical dysfunctions and human errors. As terrible and devasting as it was, the aftermath of the tragedy allowed ocean liners designers and builders to reflect on the essential necessities cruising ships must always have onboard (enough lifeboats for instance) to ensure the safety of its passengers and crews.
Why is this relevant to this article on Notre-Dame you ask? On the evening of 15th April 2019, tragedy stroke one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, leaving her scarred for the rest of its existence. One point I have noticed is that the day after the catastrophe, newspapers reported how cultural organisations worldwide started to inspect their museums and heritage sites’ security systems and safety procedures to make sure what happened at Notre-Dame will never happen again. I believe it is in its greatest tragedies that humanity finds its greatest strength. Let us hope that a lesson was learnt and that every necessary measure will be taken to protect our heritage throughout the world.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section. Have a great day!
Follow me on social media:
YouTube: Heritage Connect.