The Notre Dame Fire Gives Way to an Unsettling Discovery
The Notre-Dame de Paris is one of the most iconic buildings in the western world. The cathedral, considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, is home to numerous sculptures and other works of art that are some of the most famous in Paris.
On April 15, 2019, Parisians watched in horror as flames engulfed the cathedral’s roof. Guards swiftly evacuated the building, and hundreds of firefighters were sent to put out the fire. As experts scrambled to determine the cause, they also made some interesting discoveries. Read on as we uncover some truths about the legendary fire at Notre-Dame de Paris.
The Cathedral's Neighborhood
The Notre-Dame de Paris is located on Île de la Cité, an island in the River Seine in the middle of Paris. The land mass was the site of the fortress of the Roman governor in the 4th century and was an important religious center in the 12th.
These days, locals and tourists alike flock to this island to take a stroll along the banks of the River Seine, enjoy the scenery, and admire the landmarks and monuments that can be found here.
The Breathtaking Dame De Coeur
The Notre-Dame Cathedral is an important landmark that carries quite the iconic legacy. From October 18 to 25, 2018, visitors gathered at the cathedral’s courtyard to watch the “Dame de Coeur,” a light and sound show featuring more than 80 projectors placed in and around the cathedral.
Screenwriter and director Bruno Seillier was the creative genius behind the magnificent spectacle. The 25-minute show tells the story of a French nurse and an injured American soldier in World War I who fears dying before seeing the famed cathedral. To soothe him, the nurse tells him about the cathedral’s 850-year legacy.
A Spectacular View From Afar
It’s magical to see the Notre-Dame de Paris up close, but have you tried viewing it at a distance? The cathedral’s imposing structure and stained glass windows make it a truly stunning sight to behold.
You can appreciate this building’s beauty even more when you consider its surroundings. The sight of the imposing structure surrounded by trees and the picturesque River Seine brings to mind feelings of peace and tranquility.
If you think the Notre-Dame de Paris looks beautiful from the outside, wait till you see what’s under the hood! The cathedral’s stone vaulted ceiling is designed to draw visitors’ gaze towards heaven. The rest of the cathedral’s interior, meanwhile, was built using priceless materials, with brilliant designs that are almost impossible to recreate.
The cathedral, a dedication to the Virgin Mary, can accommodate thousands of visitors at a time. Around 12 million people visit Notre-Dame every year, making it one of the most-visited landmarks in Paris. Who would have thought that this masterpiece – under such scrutiny – would fall victim to a fire?
The fire that largely destroyed the Notre-Dame Cathedral, one of the country’s most iconic landmarks, was indeed a tragedy. Hundreds of firefighters from Paris and the surrounding area were dispatched to help extinguish the blaze that lasted 15 hours.
The disaster left behind a ruin of scorched wood and melted lead. The cathedral, considered to be one of France’s greatest national treasures, had become a shadow of its former self. Aside from the structure, the fire also damaged paintings, sculptures, stained glass windows, and other precious artifacts inside.
The Magnificent 'Mays of Notre-Dame'
One relic inside the cathedral, the so-called “Mays” of Notre-Dame, are some of the most intriguing attractions in Paris. The Mays is a series of paintings that were gifted to Notre-Dame in the 17th and 18th centuries, and are displayed throughout the cathedral.
One such painting is the La prédication de Saint Pierre à Jérusalem (The Preaching of Saint Peter in Jerusalem) by Chalres Poerson. Fortunately, its location prevented it from being heavily damaged by the fire, though some restoration work was still needed.
Looking For Clues Into to Source
Following the fire, the focus shifted towards rebuilding the cathedral and restoring the works of art that were housed in the building. The cathedral, after all, had been an important symbol of the French capital for centuries.
Of course, one question that begged to be asked was: what caused the fire? Some believe that it was an explosion, while others suspect that the fire was caused by a discarded cigarette butt. Not long after the fire, investigators set to work to find out the culprit.
Assessing the Damage
Not long after the fire, a team of scientists at France’s Laboratoire de recherche des Monuments Historiques (LRMH) began assessing the damage. Clad in helmets and other protective gear, the team set out to examine the extent of the damage in order to plan the cathedral’s restoration accordingly.
The LRMH team knew that rebuilding the cathedral would be a gargantuan task. After inspecting the ruins, the team came together to decide how they would go about the reconstruction. One suggestion was to combine old elements of the cathedral that had survived with newly-constructed ones, a symbolic way of looking back while looking towards the future.
A Horrific Sight to Witness
The 2019 fire caught Parisians off guard—they never could have ever imagined one of their city’s most famous landmarks would be destroyed in a matter of hours. However, for those tasked with looking after the cathedral, this was a disaster waiting to happen. Parts of it dated back to the 12th century and were in desperate need of repair. The cathedral’s caretakers could only watch in horror as the very thing they had feared unfolded before their eyes.
The cathedral’s iconic spire symbolized the church’s role as a beacon of faith and guidance. At 315 feet high, the it towered above the rest of the buildings in the neighborhood. The spire’s oak beams, dating back to the 13th century, had largely dried out by then, posing a fire risk—tragically, the spire collapsed during the fire. It also caused further damage to other parts of the cathedral as it tumbled.
The International Restoration Effort
The sight of the centuries-old Notre-Dame in flames broke the hearts of millions around the world. Not long after the fire was finally put out, organizations and individuals worldwide began offering to help reconstruct the cathedral and restore the precious artworks and artifacts that were damaged.
French President Emmanuel Macron launched an international fundraising campaign on the night of the fire. Bernard Arnault, a French businessman, donated $200 million. A year after the fire, Germany offered the services of three skilled tradesmen to help restore some of the cathedral’s large clerestory windows.
Containing the Damage and Extinguishing the Blaze
The fire broke out at 6:18 PM in the attic located beneath the cathedral’s roof. Two minutes later, the fire alarm sounded, which prompted guards to evacuate the building. One guard was sent to investigate the fire, but ended up in the wrong location. By the time he managed to reach the cathedral’s attic, the fire had already spread. The fire brigade was notified of the blaze at 6:51 PM, and the first firefighters arrived at the scene ten minutes later.
To minimize potential damage to the cathedral, firefighters doused the flames from inside. Applying water from outside would have been safer for the personnel, but that approach risked deflecting flames and hot gases inwards. The fire brigade also thought it best not to use aerial firefighting since water dropped from heights could cause structural damage. Deluge guns were used but at much lower pressure than usual.
A Lucky Break for Many Statues on the Roof
Just days before the tragic blaze, sixteen statues on Notre-Dame’s roof were taken down as part of the ongoing renovation works at the cathedral. Statues depicting the Twelve Apostles and four New Testament evangelists were being kept in a warehouse in southwestern France for cleaning.
Unfortunately, not all the roof statues were spared—a copper rooster that topped the spire was found amid the rubble a few days after the fire. The rooster contained numerous relics, including one of 70 thorns on the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ.
But What Became of the Gargoyles?
Even if you’ve never visited Notre-Dame, you’ve probably heard of its famous gargoyles. The sculptures aren’t just decorative statues—they also protect the cathedral from damage caused by rainwater by redirecting rainfall away from the rooftop.
Unfortunately, many of the Gargoyles were heavily damaged by the fire. In April 2021, the nonprofit Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris launched a fundraising scheme that would allow people to sponsor the restoration of specific artworks, artifacts, and gargoyles that were destroyed in the blaze.
The Sacristy Remained Mostly Intact
The sacristy is where many of the Notre-Dame de Paris’s treasures are stored, and where priests prepare for celebrations and services. Located adjacent to the cathedral, it was built on the site of a chapel in 528 AD by King Childebert of the Merovingian dynasty.
Fortunately, the relics and other items stored in the sacristy were largely undamaged by the fire. Some of these include precious materials used in the liturgy: gold, silver, textiles, and rare adornments, as well as the altar table.
Watching the Disaster Unfold
One of the first eyewitness reports of the fire came from Twitter user @khentekas who tweeted a video of black smoke billowing out of Notre-Dame. As word of the blaze began to spread, newsrooms scrambled to send reporters to the scene.
Meanwhile, Parisians gathered in nearby plazas and street corners. Some took photos and videos, while others called their loved ones. As news outlets around the world showed live footage of the fire, people began sharing photos of their past visits to Notre-Dame.
A Team Effort to Limit the Destruction
More than 400 firefighters from all over Paris and surrounding areas took part in the battle to save Notre-Dame. Additionally, nearly 100 government workers and police officers formed a human chain to move precious objects to safety. According to Maxime Cumunel of the Observatory for Religious Heritage, 5-10% of the cathedral’s artwork and treasures were destroyed. However, a lot more could have perished if not for the heroic rescue efforts.
Fortunately, no one was killed in the blaze. However, three emergency workers suffered non-fatal injuries while putting out the fire. Days after, Michel Aupetit, the Archbishop of Paris, honored the firefighters during Sunday Mass at Saint-Eustache Church. He also handed them a book of scriptures that was saved from the fire. President Macron, meanwhile, invited firefighters to a special gathering at the Élysée presidential palace to share words of thanks.
Optimism in the Afterglow
When the sun rose the next morning, the extent of the damage caused by the fire became clear. Two-thirds of the cathedral’s roof was destroyed, while its 19th-century spire had disappeared. Piles of debris were scattered around the cathedral, and the smell of smoke hung in the air.
Following the fire, President Macron announced that the iconic cathedral would be rebuilt in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics. However, some architects said that rebuilding the church could take as long as 20-40 years given the amount of work that needed to be done.
World Leaders Chime In
World leaders offered their condolences to President Macron and the people of France in the days and weeks following the fire. Prince Charles called the cathedral a “treasure for all mankind,” while Queen Elizabeth II expressed her admiration for the firefighters who risked their lives to save one of France’s most important monuments.
South Korea’s president Moon Jae In sent a telegram to President Macron to express his deep regret over the damage caused by the fire. On his Twitter account, he described the cathedral as “a very important treasure of humanity” and said that the tragedy was “a loss for people all over the world.”
Inspecting the Ruins and Assessing the Damage
As the world mourned Notre-Dame, the LRMH team led by Aline Magnien headed to the cathedral to inspect its ruins. They knew their first task would be to prevent any additional destruction, and that they would face many roadblocks. For instance, the squad struggled to reach Notre-Dame’s damaged stonework. To do this, they needed to climb onto the top of the vault. However, doing so could potentially cause the entire structure to collapse.
To figure out how unstable the cathedral’s ruins were, the LRMH team looked at the stonework. According to experts, the color of individual stones change depending on the temperature they had been exposed to. When exposed to temperatures between 570 and 750°F, the iron inside decomposes and leaves behind a layer of red. As the temperature rises, the color becomes darker and darker. At 1,500°F, the stones turn to powder.
The Problems Continue
Another problem for researchers is the amount of water that managed to make its way into the cathedral. Firefighters tried their best not to aim their water jets at the stained glass windows, but they could not do the same to the vaulted ceiling and limestone walls because they were heavily affected by the fire.
As the ceiling and limestone walls absorbed the water, their weight drastically increased. The water in the stones would also expand and contract depending on the temperature, which put the ruins at greater risk of collapse. Even a year later, various building materials still hadn’t completely dried out.
The Stained Glass Windows Stand the Test of Time and Disaster
The Notre-Dame has many stained glass windows, but its most famous are the three rose windows that date back to the 13th century. The west rose window was made in 1225, the north in 1250, and the south rose window ten years later in 1260. When researchers took a closer look, they discovered that the lead joints of some of the 19th-century windows had melted. However, the three rose windows survived the blaze.
The Notre-Dame’s north rose window is one of the most striking features of the cathedral’s facade. Designed by Jean de Chelles, the window tells the story of the Virgin Mary and the birth of Christ. The mother and child are surrounded by doves and angels. These are then encircled by 12 prophets, who are in turn encircled by 12 flowers (fleur-de-lis), the symbol of both France and the Virgin Mary. The outer layer then shows 12 more prophets.
Fire Deemed a Deliberate Act
On April 16, 2019, the prosecutor ruled out the possibility that the fire was a deliberate act. The cathedral had been under renovation at the time, and investigators believe the remodel may have increased the risk of fire due to short circuits, sparks, and heat from welding.
The firms working on the cathedral’s restoration were then questioned by authorities during the investigation. The only company whose employees were working on the day of the fire said that no soldering or welding was going on before the outbreak.
The Renovations Continue
As of July 20, a dress rehearsal of the Notre Dame Cathedral renovations have continued in the French countryside. The dress rehearsal was conducted to ensure that all of the spire shaft’s meticulously-carved components fit together.
Architects, engineers, and artisans have been working hard to achieve this feat. The beloved church will soon be restored to its former glory.
Who's in Charge?
French Army Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin is spearheading the reconstruction project. Georgelin shared with CBS News: “It’s a very emotional time, because the reconstruction of the spire is the key time phase of the reconstruction of the cathedral.”
In addition to utilizing Eugene Viollet-le-Duc’s original 19th century plans, the team is using modern computers to run 1,600 hours of calculations to understand exactly how it was built. The calculations will also help them figure out the possible weather effects and time on the new structure.
Out of 320 various versions that were drawn up, they were finally ready to construct the new one.
Where Did the Materials For the Spire Come From?
The spire’s timber was collected from public and private woodlands throughout France, even some that once belonged to the king and the Catholic Church. The oak trees chosen were at most 100 years old, and were also the tallest and straightest.
285 pieces of the oak wood were put together in complex patterns to create the shaft. Architects dub the shaft “the heart of the spire.” Axelle Ponsonnet, an architect working on the prestigious reconstruction project, shares that it’s “very exciting.”
"A Very Historical Moment"
Fellow architect of Ponsonnet, Aurelie Ouzineb, says that the project is “very complex.” The designers and builders behind the original spire design were “really geniuses.”
Working on the reconstruction is a privilege: “We all know that this is a very historical moment.” Carpenter Benoit Angheben also shares his excitement, calling it all “a dream.”
It Will Reopen in 2024
With the shaft of the spire completed, it will be moved to Paris in August to be placed on the cathedral’s roof. Finishing the rest of the spire commences until the end of this year.
The cathedral is set to reopen to the public in 2024 per French President Emmanuel Macron. Georgelin has no doubts that they will meet the deadline. “I do my best,” he shared. “Every minute in my life is dedicated to that.”