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Notre Dame fire: Charred beams, rescued relics and a vow to rebuild the cathedral

The day after the fire that caused Paris to hold its breath and drop to its knees to pray, Notre Dame Cathedral was smoldering, but still stood. Its spire and roof had collapsed, but the bells that rang at the crowning of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and the death of President Charles de Gaulle remained ensconced in their towers.

Fears that the blaze would bring down the building’s iconic Gothic facade were allayed after Paris fire crews created a wall of water between the flames roaring through the wood-beamed roof and the two bell towers at one end.

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The inferno that had seemed destined to consume nine centuries of France’s past was beaten down after 15 hours.

France’s relief soon galvanized into determination, with hundreds of millions of dollars pledged or donated by the end of Tuesday — by billionaires and by regular Parisians — to rebuild the 12th century cathedral.

French ministers praised the courage and determination of the firefighters who tackled the blaze from inside as well as outside. Laurent Nunez, a minister of state in the Interior Ministry, said that Notre Dame’s fate was decided in a matter of minutes.

“They saved the edifice, but it came down to 15 to 30 minutes,” he told reporters outside the cathedral.

He said the structure had been spared but remained “vulnerable” and needed emergency support before it could be declared safe for investigators to search for evidence of the cause of the fire and for experts to assess the damage.

Many of Notre Dame’s treasures had been saved in a desperate race against flames. Among the religious relics safeguarded was the Crown of Thorns, which many Catholics believe was worn by Jesus at the Crucifixion, said Culture Minister Franck Riester.

A Paris fire service chaplain was hailed as a hero for reportedly dashing into the cathedral to rescue artifacts.

Jean-Marc Fournier, according to the French Catholic television network KTO, had served as a chaplain with French armed forces in Afghanistan. And in 2015, he entered the Bataclan music club to offer comfort and pray for victims of a series of deadly terrorist attacks in the French capital.

Photographs from inside Notre Dame showed charred roof beams in piles where they had fallen below two gaping holes in the vaulted stone roof. Ash floated over the diamond-patterned marble floor, borne on vast pools of water. The altar, Pieta and cross appeared to have escaped damage.

Initial reports suggested the 8,000-pipe great organ, built in the 1730s, had survived the conflagration along with the three spectacular rose stained-glass windows, but officials said it would be at least 48 hours before they could properly inspect the building.

The investigation into the cause of the fire would be “long and complex,” said Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz. About 50 police officers were questioning witnesses and workers from five companies engaged in renovating the cathedral, he said, but officials were working on the theory that the blaze was accidental.

Julien Le Bras, from the scaffolding company involved in the renovation before the fire, said his family company had worked on historic buildings all over France, including the Louvre Museum. He said none of his workers was at the Notre Dame site when the fire broke out.

“Our workers will help answer questions with no reservation whatsoever in order to throw light on the cause of this drama,” Le Bras said.

Heitz told reporters that an alarm had sounded in the cathedral about 6:20 p.m. during a Mass on the first day of the Easter Holy Week, but no fire was found. As a precaution, the cathedral was evacuated.

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A second alarm went off at 6:43 p.m., by which time the roof underneath the spire was on fire, he said. An hour later the flames had raged through the roof, fanned by winds; the spire, constructed of wood and lead, was ablaze. Shortly after, it crumpled and fell through the cathedral roof.

A worker atop Notre Dame Cathedral on Tuesday.
A worker atop Notre Dame Cathedral on Tuesday. (Francois Mori / Associated Press)

As the spire collapsed Monday night, hundreds of Parisians and tourists stood and watched: Some wept, some sang, many prayed.

Many still remained under a gray, drizzling sky as dawn broke and it became clear that Notre Dame, at least part of it, was saved.

The next day, relief turned into action: About $700 million had been pledged by wealthy French industrialists and companies and donated by ordinary individuals for the rebuilding effort. The heads of French luxury goods companies LVMH and Kering, cosmetics company L’Oreal, and the French oil company Total each pledged $113 million or more.

The Italian, Russian, German and British governments offered to send restoration experts. And the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has offered to help France assess and repair the damage to the cathedral. The structure, which draws some 13 million tourists each year, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

French President Emmanuel Macron, after a draining 24 hours, made an unscheduled television address Tuesday night.

The fire, he declared, had shown the people’s capacity to “mobilize to conquer.” But he added that the blaze made clear to everyone that even things that seem indestructible are not.

“We will rebuild Notre Dame, more beautiful than before. And I want it done in the next five years,” he said. “We can do it.”

On Tuesday evening, prayers and special Masses filled churches across Paris and elsewhere in France.

Outside Saint-Sulpice church in the 6th arrondissement of the French capital, a group of young Catholics gathered to march to Place Saint-Michel. There they stood and sat on the left bank of the River Seine, across from Notre Dame, to sing and pray.

On Wednesday evening, at 6:50, the bells of all of France’s churches and cathedrals will ring for Notre Dame.

Willsher is a special correspondent.

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