PARIS—An alarm was raised at Notre Dame at 6:20 p.m. on Monday night—23 minutes before the structure was engulfed in flames—but officials found no sign of a fire.
Firefighters who responded to a second alert raced to the scene but were unable to tame an inferno that ripped through the 12th century cathedral for the next 9 hours.
Once the flames were extinguished, there was a sense of relief that many of the ancient artefacts had been saved but the integrity of the Gothic stone building could still be unstable. Two-thirds of the timber roof is gone—it had been crafted from more than 13,000 oak trees, an entire forest reduced to kindling. Preliminary images of the devastated interior reveal a gaping hole where the 300-foot wooden spire once stood and smoke rising from the ashes of burning pews.
Paris public prosecutor Rémy Heitz announced on Tuesday that a full investigation would uncover how a massive fire was allowed to gut the cathedral.
“What we know at this stage is that there was an initial alarm at 6:20 p.m., followed by a procedure to verify this but no fire as found,” Heitz explained. “Then, there was a second alarm at 6:43 p.m. and at that point a fire was detected in the structure.”
“The investigation is going to be long and complex,” he added. “We are in the process of interviewing witnesses.”
In the morning rain early Tuesday, Parisians and visitors gathered on the banks of the Seine to mourn the loss of a landmark that, for many, was personal. “This is a very meaningful spot for me,” said Heidi Waterfall, an American living in in Paris. “I feel a strong spiritual power when I go inside. I feel peace and joy.”
The South Dakota native had watched in stunned silence, tears rolling down her face, as the cathedral burned and then she heard a chorus she will never forget, the strains of people singing the Hail Mary. Whenever friends visit, the family takes them to see the cathedral. “My middle son always grumbled to go, but last night he said, ‘I’d give anything to go back one more time’,” she said.
The 850-year old landmark church survived the French Revolution and two world wars, and it seemed for a time late Monday night that perhaps Notre Dame’s final chapter had arrived in the form of an inferno.
Investigators from the Paris public prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into what is for now being called “the unintentional destruction by fire.” They have identified and interviewed some of the construction workers who had been working on the €6 million ($6.8 million), four-year renovation project, which began last April.
The restoration of the spire, which crumbled within the first hour of the blaze, was the first phase of a larger, 20-year renovation project on the rest of the cathedral. Some 500,000 steel tubes were brought to the cathedral last summer to construct massive, 300-foot scaffolding around the spire. The ugly, cage-like scaffolding had become a part of the Parisian skyline, as is often the case with the city’s centuries-old monuments under repair.
According to Heitz, some five different construction companies were involved in the ongoing restoration of the cathedral’s iconic spire. The work was being overseen by Le Bras Frères, a company headquartered west of the French city of Metz. Founded in 1954, Le Bras Frères specializes in the restoration of historic monuments. Prior to the start of the Notre Dame project, the company had already worked on several of France’s historical churches, including those in Amiens, Reims, and Poitiers.
Some of the company’s workers even appeared in a recent spot about the restoration on the France 1 network, during which they proudly showed reporters around the site. Today, hours after the last embers were extinguished, Le Bras Frères is being subjected to a different kind of attention.
A representative of the company refused to answer questions from French reporters on Tuesday, only acknowledging that the investigation was underway.
“We will communicate when we are able to, and when we have all the information,” a representative of the company told regional daily, Lorraine Actu.
Initial reports point to an accident—and police say foul play has so far been ruled out—but investigators will want to know exactly what caused the first spark that led to such devastating destruction, and whether it could have been preventable. Because much of the area where the fire is believed to have started has been reduced to ashes, there is little chance of finding material evidence. Thus, they say the investigation will be “long and complicated.”
Hundreds of firefighters battled the blaze from around 7pm local time to 3am, when it was extinguished. Miraculously, only one firefighter was injured and he is expected to survive. Two police officers were also reportedly burned by cinder falling from the burning church.
French Culture Minister Franck Riester said that most of the priceless artworks in the building had been saved. The Crown of Thorns was safely in City Hall and a tunic worn by Louis the 13th, had also been saved.
“The main structure has been saved but there is still a lot of instability,” Riester told a local radio station. “The situation is still precarious. The two belfries and the works were saved, including the treasure, thanks to the courage of the Paris fire brigade.”
Some of the artifacts, including the cathedral’s massive organ, were damaged. “The organ is obviously quite affected, the large paintings, a priori, have water-related damage,” he said. “They will have to be restored.”
While the investigation into the cause is underway, the government has launched a national call for donations to repair the cathedral. In the hours after the blaze started, French billionaire François-Henri Pinault announced that he would donate €100 million ($113 million) to the reconstruction effort. On Tuesday, the family of a second French billionaire businessman, Bernard Arnault, who owns the luxury group LVMH, announced a donation of €200 million ($226 million).
On Tuesday, the plaza in front of the cathedral, usually bisected with a long line of tourists waiting for the doors to open, was closed as firefighters continued their work. Fire hoses snaked outside and a cherry picker extended from the back of a red truck to one of the damaged towers.
Tourists snapped photos of the blank space between the towers where the famous spire once stood. Many of them had seen it topple the night before as the fire raged.
Along the left and right banks of the Seine, people stopped to take in the scene as charred rose windows towered above the rows of flowering trees that never lost their new pink blossoms.
That the tragedy happened during Easter week was particularly painful for Rev. Aidan Troy, who was scheduled to join a holy mass on Wednesday night at Notre Dame and who stood with the masses and watched the landmark burn. “This is the most poignant week of the Christian year,” he said. The loss of the city’s main cathedral will be a disappointment for some 400 believers set to be inducted into the Catholic church with rites on Easter, many of them before the altar at Notre Dame.
Father Troy, the staff priest at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church of Paris, said he noticed a shift in the mood today. “Last night was devastation and shock and this morning, people seem to be rising,” he said. He said he hoped he would live to see the next chapter of the cathedral that has endured so many over the ages. “Certainly the coming generations will see it,” he said.
Victor Hugo, who helped propel Notre Dame to international fame through his 1831 book The Hunchback of Notre Dame, famously described the cathedral as a “vast symphony in stone.” Sigmund Freud said that the building had a ”majestic presence.”
It is at once both a symbol of Catholicism and French culture.
“You can destroy Notre Dame,” Monsignor Michel Aupetit said Monday night. “But you can’t destroy the soul of Paris.”