Look back on the fire

April 15, 2019. Around 6.20pm, while Parisians were heading out onto the terraces and tourists were strolling along the bustling quays, a fire broke out in the cathedral. It would come to an end 15 hours later, after destroying its spire, framework and roof.

Before the fire

When disaster struck, Notre-Dame had been undergoing restoration for several months. An imposing scaffolding structure was being erected around the spire in order to replace the lead covering and restore the sculptures, green with oxidation, which decorated its base. Luckily, these sixteen copper statues had been taken down a few days before the tragedy: a miraculous action, carried out thanks to the support of the Fondation Notre Dame. The work on the spire was to last four years, and involve 2.5 million euros from the State. History, as we know, has changed these estimates.

A national tragedy

15 April 2019: the date of the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, is a historic fact today.

It was on a peaceful evening that the fire began its ravages. Starting from the frame, at roof level, it spread quickly to reach the entire roof. A mass was being celebrated in the cathedral: incredulous, the faithful evacuated through the central portal. Outside, many spectators witnessed the first act of the tragedy. 

Arriving around 7.00pm, the Paris firefighters embarked on a rescue mission whose extent they could never have imagined. They could not prevent, at 7.50pm, the dramatic collapse of the spire, ablaze on all sides, the images of which immediately went right around the world. The crowds gathered around the Île de la Cité, tears flowed, witnesses followed the flames’ progress live.

When the spire fell, it could have been the apocalyptic announcement of the fall of Notre-Dame. […] I waited, I prayed, I cried too.

Mgr Patrick Chauvet, rector-archpriest of the Cathedral of Paris

For several hours, Notre-Dame was watched by the press, the curious, Christians whose songs and prayers rose in unison, to ward off the drama. When the fire reached the North Tower, despair was at its height; but the heroism of the firefighters saved the building from total destruction. That night, there were more than four hundred fighting the flames.

Welcomed onto the forecourt, the President spoke in front of the cathedral. His words anticipated the 16 April address, which would set the five-year goal for reconstruction.

Notre-Dame de Paris is our history, our literature, our imagination, the place where we experienced all our great moments, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations. It’s the epicentre of our life, the yardstick from which distances start. […] We will rebuild this cathedral, all together.

Emmanuel Macron

In the light of these words, an entire people was touched to the core; the many reactions in France and around the world, during and after the fire, attests to this, as did the speed at which the first donations were sent to the emergency funds, created immediately afterwards. The Fondation Notre Dame was the first to set up its own, which quickly overwhelmed by calls and pledges from French and foreign donors. Without its fundraising action, and that of Friends of Notre-Dame association, the cathedral would not have had the same hope.

The Notre-Dame fire hour by hour

  • 6.50pm: the cathedral’s safety officers noted the outbreak of fire in the framework. Smoke and flames began to rise from the roof.
  • 6.51pm: the Paris fire brigade was alerted.
  • 6.58pm: the first emergency vehicles arrived on the scene. The firefighters took the building’s stairs to reach the structure and set up their hoses.
  • 7.17pm: roof and spire were ablaze.
  • 7.30pm: a first ALA* was positioned on Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame.
  • 7.50pm: the spire of Notre-Dame collapsed, in turn causing the collapse of the vault of a span of the nave. Then there was a lull, despite some occasional flare-ups, releasing a plume of yellow smoke visible beyond Paris.
  • 8.00pm: a second ALA was positioned on the forecourt.
  • 9.00pm: the fire regained its intensity and reached the north tower. Shortly before 10.00pm, the Secretary of State for the Interior, Laurent Nuñez, assured us that the rescue of the cathedral was underway.
  • 10.50pm: General Jean-Claude Gallet, commander of the Paris fire brigade, announced that the towers had been saved, the action of the firefighters having stopped the spread of the fire in the north tower. During the night, the vault of the casement window collapsed under the weight of debris from the base of the spire.
  • On 16 April, at 9.50am, the fire was declared extinguished. A long and delicate phase of expert work could begin.

*articulated lift arm

The causes of the fire

It is difficult to determine what, precisely, triggered such a tragedy. The same evening, the Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation for “involuntary destruction by fire”. The hypothesis of a criminal act was quickly ruled out. The investigators went down the route of a “malfunction of the electrical system or that of a fire outbreak caused by an improperly extinguished cigarette”*. So the disaster, in all likelihood, had an accidental origin. However, we may never be able to reconstruct, with absolute certainty, the exact circumstances that led to the fire. After a meticulous inspection of the rubble, expert analysis of samples should shed new light on the event.

*excerpt from the 26 June 2019 press release, in which prosecutor Rémi Heitz announced the end of the preliminary investigation.

© Photos Yannick Boschat, Michel Pourny – Diocèse de Paris