‘Notre Dame is our history’: France promises to rebuild iconic church after devastating blaze

Posted at 4:29 AM, Apr 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-16 04:29:36-04

(CNN) — We will rebuild. That was the message President Emmanuel Macron had for the people of France, as they and the world watched in shock when the historic Notre Dame cathedral burned Monday.

Speaking from the scene of the fire in the French capital Paris, Macron described the fire at the 850-year-old Gothic masterpiece as a “terrible tragedy,” but added the “worst had been avoided.”

“I’m telling you all tonight — we will rebuild this cathedral together. This is probably part of the French destiny,” he said. “Starting tomorrow, a national donation scheme will be started that will extend beyond our borders.”

The fire broke out Monday evening and raged for several hours before 400 firefighters, working with skill and precision to avoid further damage to the medieval landmark, managed to bring it under control.

Around 9 a.m. local time on Tuesday, after more than nine hours of battling the fierce blaze, the Paris Fire Brigade said that the flames had been completely extinguished.

They were unable to save the spire, however, which burned to a blackened shell before finally toppling as thousands of Parisians who had gathered in the streets watched in horror. Most of the roof was also destroyed. Two policemen and a firefighter were slightly injured, the brigade said.

“Notre Dame is our history, it’s our literature, it’s our imagery. It’s the place where we live our greatest moments, from wars to pandemics to liberations,” Macron said.

“This history is ours. And it burns. It burns and I know the sadness so many of our fellow French feel,” said Macron.

Worst avoided

Images of flames engulfing the historic cathedral — a UNESCO world heritage site since 1991 and one of Paris’s most popular tourist sites — were splashed around the globe. But as shocking as the scene appeared, it could have been so much worse.

Its iconic facade and towers were salvaged, as were a host of invaluable artifacts and works of art stored inside, including the Holy Crown, believed by many to be from the crown of thorns placed on the head of Jesus, and which the cathedral calls its “most precious and most venerated relic.”

Among the parts of the church worst affected by the fire was also one of the newest: The spire, which was restored in the 19th century.

That will have to be rebuilt entirely, as will the far older roof structure, known as “the forest.”

“The framework from the 13th century is called a forest, because it required a forest of trees to build it,” said Patrick Chauvet, the rector of the cathedral. That framework was completely lost in the fire, he added.

“I want to offer a word of hope,” Macron said Monday. “This hope is the pride we need to have. The pride of those who fought to prevent the worst from happening. The pride because 800 years ago we built it and throughout the centuries made it grow and made it better. I am announcing it tonight, we will rebuild this cathedral.”

Pledges to help rebuild the cathedral had already begun to flood in by Tuesday morning.

In a statement, the family of French billionaire businessman Bernard Arnault and his LVMH luxury goods group said they would donate 200 million euros ($226 million) to the reconstruction fund.

Valérie Pecresse, President of the Île de France region told CNN affiliate BFMTV that the region will provide 10 million euros ($11.13 million) of emergency aid for Notre Dame and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo said she will host a fundraising conference at Paris city hall in the coming weeks.

Shock and horror

It was not immediately known what caused the fire. The cathedral is surrounded by scaffolding amid construction work. Paris Fire Brigade Commander General Jean-Claude Gallet said the initial call to emergency services notified authorities of a fire in the attic of the cathedral.

About 400 firefighters were mobilized to deal with the blaze, the French Interior Ministry said. Firetrucks had difficulty accessing the scene, located on an island in the Seine, amid the daily afternoon rush hour. Police urged the public to avoid the area.

Firefighters atop cherry-picker cranes sprayed water onto the church to try to douse the flames.

One firefighter was seriously injured, Gallet said.

Thousands of Parisians and tourists gathered to watch the blaze. The crowd sang hymns as, a few days before Easter, one of the symbols of French Catholicism burned in front of them.

“It’s awful to see such a symbol disappearing in front of you. It’s been there for so many years and in a few minutes half of it disappeared,” local Thibaud Binetruy said. “Paris without Notre Dame, madness.”

Another witness, Anne Marie, spoke with tears in her eyes.

“In Paris, it’s a monumental symbol — every person with different religions are really moved and saddened,” she said. “Paris without the cathedral is not Paris anymore.”

Messages of support and mourning poured in from around the world. The Vatican said the Holy See 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.”

The fire at the Notre Dame cathedral “goes beyond Paris,” the city’s archbishop, Michel Christian Alain Aupetit, told CNN

“I received a supportive message from the Chief Rabbi of Paris. Everyone is writing in to share their feelings. This goes beyond Paris. People are reacting worldwide,” Aupetit said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu described the fire as a “disaster for all humanity,” while the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said the British capital “stands in sorrow” with Paris.

“Heart-breaking scenes of Notre Dame cathedral in flames. London stands in sorrow with Paris today, and in friendship always,” Khan said on Twitter.

US President Donald Trump also weighed in, calling it a “terrible, terrible fire.” His suggestions on how to tackle the conflagration were less welcome than his sympathy however. The French Civil Security Agency pushed back against Trump tweeting that “flying water tankers could be used to put it out,” pointing out that dropping water on the ancient church could cause its collapse.

A symbol of France

Notre Dame’s foundation stone was laid in 1163 by Pope Alexander III, and the cathedral was completed in the 13th century. With its towers, spire, flying buttresses and stained glass, it is both an architectural jewel and a major religious and cultural symbol of France.

Located in Ile de la Cite, a small island in the middle of the city, the cathedral is one of Paris’ most popular attractions, drawing an estimated 13 million visitors a year.

Even as it fell into disrepair over the centuries, it was the site of Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation as emperor in 1804. The central spire was built in the 19th century amid a broad restoration effort, partly buoyed by the success of Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” in 1831.

Renovation was underway before the fire. A small silver lining from the blaze may be that the restored spire and roof will be built to be modern standards and better equipped to withstand future fires.

Experts have pointed to other fires at historical sites, such as that which engulfed the UK’s Windsor Castle in 1992, that were followed by comprehensive restoration projects. Windsor took five years to restore, but is now in a better state than before the blaze.