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Notre Dame came far closer to collapsing than anybody knew

Some of what went wrong that night has been reported in the French media. Now, The New York Times conducted scores of interviews and reviewed hundreds of documents to reconstruct the missteps — and the battle that saved Notre Dame in the first four critical hours after the blaze began.

By: New York Times | Paris | Published: July 18, 2019 8:35:22 am
A worker inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris on May 3, 2019. (Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times)

Authored by Elian Peltier, James Glanz, Mika Gröndahl, Weiyi Cai, Adam Nossiter and Liz Alderman

The security employee monitoring the smoke alarm panel at Notre Dame Cathedral was just three days on the job when the red warning light flashed on the evening of April 15: “Feu.” Fire. It was 6:18 pm on a Monday, the week before Easter. The Rev. Jean-Pierre Caveau was celebrating Mass before hundreds of worshippers and visitors, and the employee radioed a church guard who was standing just a few feet from the altar.

Go check for fire, the guard was told. He did and found nothing. It took nearly 30 minutes before they realized their mistake: The guard had gone to the wrong building. The fire was in the attic of the cathedral, the famed latticework of ancient timbers known as “the forest.” The guard had gone to the attic of a small adjacent building, the sacristy.

The security employee called his boss but didn’t reach him. When the manager phoned back, they deciphered the mistake and called the guard: Leave the sacristy and run to the main attic.

But by the time the guard climbed 300 narrow steps to the attic, the fire was burning out of control — putting firefighters in a near-impossible position when they were finally called, half an hour after the alert.

The miscommunication, uncovered in interviews with church officials and managers of the fire security company, Elytis, has set off a bitter round of finger-pointing over who was responsible for allowing the fire to rage unchecked for so long. Who is to blame and how the fire started have not yet been determined and are at the heart of an investigation by French authorities that will continue for months.

But the damage is done. What happened that night changed Paris. The cathedral — a soaring medieval structure that has captured the hearts of believers and nonbelievers alike for 850 years — was ravaged.

Today, three jagged openings mar Notre Dame’s vaulted ceiling, the stone of the structure is precarious, and the roof is gone. Some 150 workers are busy recovering the stones, shoring up the building, and protecting it from the elements with two giant tarps.

Some of what went wrong that night has been reported in the French media, including Le Monde and Le Canard Enchaîné. Now, The New York Times conducted scores of interviews and reviewed hundreds of documents to reconstruct the missteps — and the battle that saved Notre Dame in the first four critical hours after the blaze began.

What became clear is just how close the cathedral came to collapsing.

The first hour was defined by that initial, critical mistake: the failure to identify the location of the fire and by the delay that followed.

The second hour was dominated by a sense of helplessness. As people raced to the building, waves of shock and mourning for one of the world’s most beloved and recognizable buildings, amplified over social media, rippled in real-time across the globe.

That Notre Dame still stands is due solely to the enormous risks taken by firefighters in those third and fourth hours.

Disadvantaged by their late start, firefighters would rush up the 300 steps to the burning attic and then be forced to retreat. Finally, a small group of firefighters was sent directly into the flames, as a last, desperate effort to save the cathedral.

“There was a feeling that there was something bigger than life at stake,” said Ariel Weil, mayor of the city’s 4th Arrondissement, home to the cathedral, “and that Notre Dame could be lost.”

Precious Time Lost

Paris has endured so much in recent years, from terrorist attacks to the recent violent demonstrations by yellow vest protesters. But to many Parisians, the sight of Notre Dame in flames was unendurable.

“For Parisians, Notre Dame is Notre Dame,” said its rector, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, who watched in tears that night as firefighters struggled to tame the blaze. “They couldn’t think for one second that this could happen.”

The fire warning system at Notre Dame took dozens of experts six years to put together and in the end involved thousands of pages of diagrams, maps, spreadsheets and contracts, according to archival documents found in a suburban Paris library by The Times.

The result was a system so arcane that when it was called upon to do the one thing that mattered — warn “fire!” and say where — it produced instead a nearly indecipherable message.

It made a calamity almost inevitable, fire experts consulted by The Times said.

“The only thing that surprised me is that this disaster didn’t happen sooner,” said Albert Simeoni, an expert born and trained in France, who is now head of fire protection engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

The ponderous response plan, for example, underestimated the speed at which a fire would spread in Notre Dame’s attic, where, to preserve the architecture, no sprinklers or firewalls had been added.

The plan’s flaws may have been compounded by the inexperience of the security employee, who had been working at Notre Dame just three days when the fire broke out.

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