PARIS — The last flames have been extinguished and now experts will assess how much the shell of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris has been damaged and how many years, maybe decades, it will take to repair it.
A fire April 15 in the 850-year-old edifice devoured the roof, felled the elegant spire that stood atop its transept and spread down into the nave to threaten priceless relics and artworks. About 400 firefighters battled the blaze, pumping water into the nave and trying to keep flames away from the giant stained glass rose windows and the endangered northern bell tower of one of the most visited monument in Europe.
French president Emmanuel Macron and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo took a quick look inside the building on Monday evening as firefighters still fought the blaze. Macron announced that France would rebuild the state-owned cathedral “because that’s what the French expect, because that’s what our history deserves, because it’s our profound destiny.”
Hidalgo described a hole in the roof where the spire crashed through but added a hopeful note.
“The altar and its cross were preserved,” she said. “It’s less terrible than I feared.”
Standing outside the monument on Tuesday, Paris prosecutor Rémy Heitz contradicted speculation that the fire was an attack on Notre Dame.
“There is nothing that indicates a voluntary act,” he said. His office announced it had opened an inquiry into a case of “involuntary destruction by fire.”
Reconstruction will probably take decades and cost hundreds of millions of euros.
Stéphane Bern, 55, a well-known filmmaker and specialist in French history, lamented: “My generation will not see Notre Dame back on its feet again.”
The investigation will be “long and complex,” Heitz warned, adding that his staff had begun quizzing several dozen workers who had been doing renovation work on the roof. All had already called it a day on Monday before the fire broke out about 6:20 p.m. Paris time.
The spire that fell amid the flames was due to be repaired and 16 statues that surrounded it had already been removed last week. Scaffolding over that part of the roof was still standing on Tuesday as Parisians and tourists flocked to the streets around Notre Dame to catch a glimpse of the damage.
The cathedral roof was entirely gone after the “charpente,” the thick network of wooden supports between the vaulted stone ceiling of the cathedral and the peaked roof of lead tiles above it, burst into flames. Burned timber and tiles crashed into the cathedral, mixing into sludge with the water pumped in to put out the fire.
Embers from the spire and roof were still smoldering on Tuesday morning around the modern altar, at the intersection of the nave and transept, and parts of the wood-paneled choir stalls leading to the old altar at the back of the cathedral appeared burned in photographs published from inside.
But the relic of Christ’s crown of thorns was saved, as was a tunic of St. Louis, the 13th-century French king and saint who bought this and other relics and to the cathedral in his capital.
The Treasury, a museum of chalices, vestments and artwork over the centuries not far from the choir area, was also untouched.
Some but not all of the centuries-old paintings from the side chapels were rushed out to the nearby Paris City Hall, officials said, and firefighters kept sprinkling the rose windows to avoid them overheating and falling apart.
The grand organ, another of the jewels of Notre Dame, was “a priori” saved from the flames, but would probably have to be dismantled and rebuilt, Church officials added.
“It was a stroke of luck, because that is an irreplaceable part of our national heritage,” said Olivier Latry, one of the cathedral’s three organists. Latry, who recently recorded a selection of Johann Sebastian Bach’s organ works there, last played in the cathedral on Sunday evening.
The cathedral’s north bell tower, the one to the left when visitors approach the main entrance, was in danger of catching fire on Monday evening but firefighters were able to keep the flames at bay. Had the blaze reached it, its eight bells could have crashed to the ground, bringing down the tower and probably its southern twin as well.
Over the next few days, architects must examine the standing stone structure to see if the blaze caused any structural damage to the Paris limestone that was heated to several hundred degrees and then doused with cold water pumped in from the Seine River just outside.
Offers to contribute to the reconstruction of the building poured in, with more than 600 million euros pledged by rich French businesses and several private funds launched on the internet. A national collection announced by Macron began taking pledges at midday.
A large timber company offered its best oak to rebuild the roof supports, but it was not sure it could duplicate the massive beams that dated back to the 13th century. The cathedral in the northern French city of Reims was rebuilt after its almost complete destruction in World War I with supports of reinforced concrete.
The Vatican issued a statement in the evening saying that it learned “with shock and sadness the news of the terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, symbol of Christianity, in France and in the world.”
“I had a scream of horror. I was ordained in this cathedral,” Bishop Eric Moulin-Beaufort of Reims, president of the French bishops’ conference, said in reaction to the disaster.
“For a Parisian, Our Lady is a kind of obvious,” he said. “I’ve been here this afternoon. This tragedy reminds us that nothing on this earth is made to last forever. … But I hope this will create a new momentum, a universal movement.”
“The horrific fire that is engulfing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris is shocking and saddens us all, for this particular cathedral is not only a majestic church, it is also a world treasure,” stated Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Outside the cathedral, the gray skies provided the perfect backdrop for a melancholy morning April 16, as throngs of people headed to the riverbank to gaze at Notre Dame de Paris and breathe a sigh of relief that it still stood.
Crowds lined the riverbank on both sides, and on nearby bridges.
Sylvain Lam, a lifelong Parisian, said the church represented French identity and French history. He had watched the fire on television the night before and wanted to stop on his way to work to see the church in person.
“It’s attached to our French roots, our Catholic roots, our Christian roots,” he said.