On Monday, April 15, billowing flames engulfed the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The 850-year-old structure is suffering massive fire damage to its 13th century roof and spire. French firefighters managed to overpower the blaze, but many are concerned about the state of priceless artwork inside the cathedral.
In the evening, French authorities were alerted about Notre Dame for a fire in the cathedral’s attic. CNN reports that 20 minutes after the original call, a second call came in. By this time, a visible fire prompted 400 firefighters to the scene who were sadly delayed by rush hour traffic.
People around the world are mourning this incident at Notre Dame. Crowds watched from the streets, on television, and through social media in horror, as the flames blew up huge clouds of smoke and ash.
The flames died down on Tuesday morning, revealing severe damage to the cathedral. Archbishop of Paris Michel Aupetit released a statement on how pained France is.
“Our Lady, our dear cathedral, witness to so many major events in our country, was destroyed by a frightening fire after so long resisted the vicissitudes of its history. France cries and with her all her friends from all over the world”, he said.
Archbishop Aupetit also thanked the public for its support.
“Dear brothers and sisters, dear friends, thank you for all the many signs of friendship and encouragement that come from everywhere. Thank you for the outpouring of solidarity, thank you for the fervent prayer that consoles our heart”, he said.
Parisians gathered outside Notre Dame Cathedral to sign hymns against a background of intense flames and clouds of smoke.
Although no one died in the fire, according to CNN, two policemen and a firefighter were injured.
Why is Notre Dame important?
The Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the most revered, loved, and famous architectural monuments in history. It is the most-visited monument in Paris, attracting 12 million tourists every year.
Notre Dame’s construction started in 1163 and was completed in 1345—two centuries later. It is known for the intricate Gothic style, featuring a long spire, massive stained-glass windows, arches, and 225-feet-tall towers.
Notre Dame has also lived through major historical events like Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation, the French Revolution, and Nazi occupation of France during World War II. Even crusaders prayed there before embarking on their holy wars.
“It was the face of Paris”, says Paris resident Eric Zelnick to the Guardian.
The Cathedral also appears in art, literature, and pop culture. Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame novel is one of its most well-known representations. The 1996 Disney film based on Hugo’s book also showcases animations of the rich architecture inside the cathedral.
Vox says, “Notre Dame represents the most beautiful things that we as human beings can make if we pour unimaginable amounts of labor and wealth and resources and time into the effort. It’s a pinnacle of a certain kind.”
Fire damage to Notre Dame
The Guardian reports that there is a large hole above the choir area where the cathedral’s now collapsed spire once stood tall. Two-thirds of the wooden 13th century roof called “the forest” has caved in, as well.
“The entire roof has collapsed and there is still intense amounts of smoke, from across the river, it’s choking. I can feel it in my throat and nose”, said journalist Charli James from the field.
James also said that she saw emergency services tackle the cathedral from all sides and poured massive amounts of water into the structure to defuse the flames. Photos by AFP news agency also shows large jets of water trying to battle the flames on the roof area above the main altar.
Photographing the remains of the Notre Dame, Reuters’ Philippe Wojazer captured a striking shot of embers, smoke, and ash filtering in and out of the main altar area.
Other images released by news agencies show a gaping hole in the ceiling
The Cathedral is now littered with ash, shards of glass, and crumbling remains of the roof and spire.
French media covered the fire in a solemn tone. Journalist Alison Sargent posted images of front pages of various French newspaper headlines that called the fire a tragic loss of culture and history.
Notre Dame’s recovered artwork and relics
The altar, main cross, and rest of the cathedral escaped unscathed. The famous intricate, stained-glass Rose Window, Gothic bell towers, and organ are also intact.
Firefighters managed to save important relics like the 13th century ‘crown of thorns’ believed to be worn by Jesus during his crucifixion, and the tunic of St. Louis, a canonised Catholic French king.
Although the spire has snapped and crumbled, the bronze statues of the Twelve Apostles have luckily survived because they were removed for prior restoration work, according to ABC news.
French Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said that it will take 48 hours for authorities to asses the damage and security of the cathedral. Only after that will the artworks be recovered and sent to the Louvre Museum for storage. Many pieces of art are believed to have weathered the fire.
While the flames itself have not damaged major artwork, there is no official word yet on smoke and water damage.
Notre Dame restoration and fire safety
The authorities also said that the fire does not appear to have been deliberately started, but employees were being questioned nonetheless. BBC reports that officials suggest the fire could be linked to renovation work that was underway.
People are also concerned that the cathedral may never be rebuilt to look exactly the same because materials that went into the damaged structures are not available anymore.
For example, the roof was made from large 800 year-old wood sourced from primal forests. Moreover, Notre Dame will now be closed to the public for many years for repair work.
80-year-old former nurse Catherine who regularly prayed at Notre Dame told the Guardian, “I won’t be able to go back into it in my lifetime”.
The threat of fire in India and to Indian heritage
Threat of fires loom large over India where fire safety is flouted regularly.
In 2019, the Delhi government cancelled 27 hotels’ safety certificates after a fire in Karol Bagh killed 17 people.
Between 2014 and 2018, after inspecting over 5,000 high-rise buildings, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation found that over 50% violated fire safety regulations. 2,600 such high-rises were served notices.
From 2012 to 2018, there were 29,000 reported cases of fire across Mumbai’s slums, heritage buildings, and skyscrapers. Unfortunately, there seems to have been little action ensuring that residential and commercial buildings in India are safe for their occupants.
Forces unite to rebuild Notre Dame
In France, in an extraordinary show of solidarity, people donated hundreds of millions of euros to help rebuild Notre Dame.
Three of the richest French families that run the LVMH Group (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy), L’Oreal, and Kering donated 500 millions euros ($565 millions) to rebuild the cathedral, says CNN.
French President Emmanuel Macron also promised to restore the structure. European Union President Donald Tusk also asked other EU countries to come to France’s aid, becoming a model for South Asian countries to assist each other in similar times.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius.