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Notre Dame fire: Investigations focus on construction work as world reacts to devastation

The building is said to “holding up well” despite the huge blaze.

Firefighters at the cathedral early this morning.
Firefighters at the cathedral early this morning.
Image: KAMIL ZIHNIOGLU/PA Images

Updated Apr 16th 2019, 1:14 PM

FRENCH INVESTIGATORS HAVE interviewed construction workers involved in renovation work at the Notre-Dame cathedral, as they sought to identify the source of a devastating blaze at the monument that has sent shockwaves through France and the world.

The fire began at about 7pm last night and around 500 firefighters battled the blaze throughout the night before it was declared fully extinguished at about 10am this morning.

Junior interior minister Laurent Nunez told reporters this afternoon that “some weaknesses” have been identified in the structure of the fire-ravaged cathedral but overall the monument “is holding up ok”.

“Some weaknesses have been identified particularly in the vault and the gable of the northern transept, which have to be secured,” Nunez said, adding that five neighbouring buildings had been evacuated.

Culture minister Franck Riester said that three large holes have been identified in the building.

“There are three large holes, one which is in fact due to the crumbling of the spire and another one at the cross-section of the transept and then the ceiling and the northern transept,” he said.

Investigators interviewed witnesses overnight and began speaking to the employees of five different construction companies which were working on the monument, said public prosecutor Remy Heitz.

“Nothing indicates this was a voluntary act,” Heitz told reporters, adding that 50 investigators had been assigned to the case.

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.

Around 500 firefighters battled into the night to control the flames, declaring in the early hours of today that it was partially extinguished but completely under control, around nine hours after it broke out.

“They are tired but fought the fire with a lot of courage and determination from outside and inside, and I’d like to underline this, with the peril of their lives and that’s what enabled us to save the building, “Nunez said.

Paris fire brigade chief Jean-Claude Gallet confirmed “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.

‘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.”

Officials later said teams had managed to salvage an unknown quantity of the cultural treasures.

Some of the artworks are to be moved to the nearby Louvre museum and more paintings may be moved later in the week when the are assessed for damage. 

‘Emotion of a nation’

Macron cancelled a planned national policy speech on recent “Yellow Vest” protests and instead headed to the scene, where he vowed the cathedral would be reborn.

“We will rebuild Notre Dame because it is what the French expect,” he said, describing Notre Dame as “the epicentre of our life” and the cathedral of “all the French”, whether religious or not.

EU Council President Donald Tusk called on all member states to take part in the rebuilding effort.

France’s billionaire Pinault dynasty immediately pledged €100 million for the reconstruction effort.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Notre Dame cathedral a “symbol of European culture” as the blaze raged.

The Vatican expressed its “incredulity” and “sadness” over the fire and Macron will speak to Pope Francis about the fire later today. 

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II said she was “deeply saddened” by the devastating fire.

“Prince Philip and I have been deeply saddened to see the images of the fire which has engulfed Notre-Dame Cathedral,” the monarch said.

‘Water bombers not used’

One firefighter was injured in the blaze, the fire brigade said, revising an earlier assessment that the individual was in a serious condition.

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.

‘Will never be the same’

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 24 August, 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.

Jacky Lafortune, a 72-year-old artist and self-described atheist stood forlornly on the banks of the River Seine staring at the burning cathedral.

Comparing the mood in the French capital to the aftermath of a terror attack he said: “But this stirs much deeper emotions because Notre Dame is linked to the very foundations of our culture.”

© – AFP 2019 with reporting by Rónán Duffy

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