Notre Dame Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the most visited monument in Europe, attracting 50 million tourists every year.
The beloved cathedral that lies on the lle de la Cite in the heart of Paris experienced a catastrophe last April 15 when a massive fire engulfed the wood roof, spire, and parts of the interior.
For the next 15 hours, Parisians stood on every side of the church, staring straight ahead, in disbelief and disempowerment as 400 firefighters battled the nearly inextinguishable blaze.
The most heartbreaking moment came when the wooden fleche, the spire, came crashing down. Its loss struck the world with fear. Could the heart of Paris be saved?
It was. And oddly, the thick stone of the cathedral itself was what bolstered it against collapse — its saving grace, one could say. The vaulted stone ceiling served as a container for the wood roof, which burned entirely.
The upper walls were severely damaged, but the interior below was incredibly spared, including the altar, two 13th-century rose windows and two pipe organs.
The fire was said to have been started by a non-extinguished cigarette or a malfunction from electrical equipment. An investigation concluded at the end of June, found no criminal wrongdoing.
A lack of fire protection of any kind in the attic — where the fire started — did not help matters.
Further results will only come upon research into the detritus gathered, much of which is electrical wiring mixed with dust and charred wood.
And those results may take years to uncover.
Paolo Vannucci, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Versailles, Saint-Quentin, warned in a 2016 report about the fragility of the frame, especially the roof.
“The condition of the building remains critical,” said Vannucci in an interview on the university’s website. “Exposure to strong winds — more than 90 kilometers per hour (56 miles per hour) — could jeopardize the monument, which has lost its resilience with the loss of part of its vault.”
He adds that reconstruction needs to happen only with modern technologies. “According to my calculations, the risk of a collapse at the level of the vault is still high,”, said Vanucci. “There are 28 flying buttresses to be secured.”
In the months since the tragedy, support poured in from the world over — in the form of prayers but also more modern messaging, like texts and emails, Social media lit up immediately afterward in solidarity, with people posting photos of themselves in front of the cathedral — on college break or a memorable first trip to the city.
The day after the tragedy, President Emmanuel Macron announced to the nation that Notre Dame would be rebuilt within five years, and called for donations to bring France’s cultural landmark back to life.
The world’s largest corporations pledged monetary support: In one day, the sum totaled €1 billion ($1.103 billion). Another €100 million ($1.103 million) was given by Total, a French company, in October.
On July 16, 2019, parliament passed a law requiring the cathedral be rebuilt exactly as it was.
The 12th-century structure, considered one of the finest examples of French gothic architecture, was finished in 1260 and built over 100 years. Nonetheless, an international competition was launched to rebuild the spire, which will take place later this year.
Philippe Villeneuve has been chief architect of the cathedral since 2013. Regarding the spire, in October, he told Radio France International: “Either I restore it identically, or they make a contemporary spire and it will be someone else.”
General Jean-Louis Georgelin, former chief of staff for the French army, was put in charge of renovation by Macron. In a television interview Jan. 5, Georgelin said the cathedral is “still in a state of peril. Notre Dame is not saved.”
Three phases have been established for the church’s reconstruction. This — stabilization — is still the first, estimated to take two years.
Georgelin’s worry lays on the scaffolding surrounding the spire, which needs to be removed, as well as the vaults, which are in danger of falling apart.
“We need to inspect them, to remove the rubble that is still on them. It’s very difficult work that we have started,” he said.
A large chain-link fence and many meters of wall surround the church to keep curious at bay. Workers toil daily, a security guard, Homar, informed that they are at the cathedral 24/7.
How long has he been there?
“Au debut.” From the start.
And he will stay for “six months, nine months.” It will be ongoing, he says, as a giant crane hoists a giant piece of metal to a lofty location.
In December, Homar said, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, the Rector of the Cathedral, said there was still is a 50% chance Notre Dame may not be saved, noting the risk of the scaffolding falling onto its three vaults.
“The exterior is not bad,” Homar says, although he recognizes that the exterior looks smudged. Is it residue I ask, or just age?
The latter. “The fire did not do as much damage outside as they thought. But inside, that’s a different story entirely,” he said.
“It is a passion for all who are involved. Everyone who passes by remarks at the church, and at us. ‘Thank you, thank you,’ they say — the doctors, the students, everyone,” he said.