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What was destroyed and saved in Notre Dame's massive fire

The building's rose windows, the crown of thorns, and one of the world's biggest organs were all saved.

by David Gilbert
Apr 16 2019, 12:49pm

For almost 9 hours, more than 400 firefighters battled the flames that engulfed the 850-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral until they finally extinguished the massive blaze at 10 a.m. local time (4 a.m. ET) Tuesday.

Firefighters managed to save the main stone structure, including the two towers and many of the precious religious artifacts inside. But the cathedral’s iconic spire and much of its roof collapsed.

Two rival French fashion billionaires each pledged over $300 million to help rebuild, and a national collection launched Tuesday morning pulled in over $3 million in donations from the public, within a matter of hours.

“We'll rebuild this cathedral all together, and it's undoubtedly part of the French destiny and the project we'll have for the coming years," French President Emmanuel Macron told the media late Monday night.

As engineers, firefighters, and architects pick through the remains of the cathedral Tuesday morning, however, concerns remain about the extent of the damage caused by the blaze.

“The main structure has been saved, but there is still a lot of instability. The situation is still precarious,” Minister of Culture Franck Riester told French radio station France Inter.

The building is undergoing $6.8 million in long-overdue restoration, and officials said Tuesday the fire could be related to that construction. Prosecutors have opened an investigation into the incident as an accident.

“Nothing suggests that it was a voluntary act,” Remy Heitz, Paris’ public prosecutor, told reporters in front of the cathedral Tuesday morning.

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The cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris is seen the day after the massive fire that ravaged its roof on April 16, 2019 in Paris, France. A fire broke out on Monday afternoon and quickly spread across the building, collapsing the spire. The cause is unknown but officials said it was possibly linked to ongoing renovation work. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)

What happened?

A fire broke out inside the building at 6:45 p.m. local time (12:45 p.m. ET) while mass was taking place.

The fire began in the roof space of Notre Dame, which was surrounded by scaffolding because of the ongoing restoration. The flames spread quickly to the iconic 300-foot spire, which collapsed soon after and fell through the roof of the building. By then, thousands of onlookers had gathered in the streets, and audible screams from the crowd can be heard on cellphone videos taken of the devastation.

The fire also consumed most of the cathedral’s ribbed roof — known as “the forest” — which is made up of hundreds of oak beams dating back to the 13th century and measuring up to 110 meters long.

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Damage caused to Notre-Dame Cathedral following a major fire yesterday on April 16, 2019 in Paris, France. A fire broke out on Monday afternoon and quickly spread across the building, causing the famous spire to collapse. The cause is unknown but officials have said it was possibly linked to ongoing renovation work. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Over the course of the next four hours, firefighters successfully battled to prevent the fire from reaching the north tower.

Laurent Nuñes, a junior interior minister, told reporters that some fires had started in the north tower, but firefighters managed to put them out — though part of the vaulted stone ceiling inside the building did collapse.

What was saved?

In trying to assess the scale of the damage, experts will need to also take into account the huge volume of water poured into the building during the 9-hour firefight.

“Last night, two-thirds of the roof burned, the spire collapsed, creating a hole in the vault, and part of the transept collapsed,” Nunes said Monday morning. “A meeting of experts and national architects is taking place this morning to consider whether the building is stable and whether fire officers can set up inside to continue their work.”

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Religious artifacts that were saved from Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral are stored in a room of the Paris City Hall on April 16, 2019 in Paris, France. A fire broke out on Monday afternoon and quickly spread across the building, collapsing the spire. The cause is unknown but officials said it was possibly linked to ongoing renovation work. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)

Firefighters did manage to save the much of the building’s frame, including the twin bell towers — the tallest structures in Paris until the Eiffel Tower’s completion — as well as its trio of priceless, stained-glass rose windows.

Aside from the centuries-old architecture, the building also contained numerous religious relics and works of art, most notably the crown of thorns that Jesus supposedly wore during his crucifixion on the cross. Firefighters reportedly formed a human chain around the building and saved the crown, which Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said has been taken for safekeeping.

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The interior of the Notre-Dame Cathedral is seen through a doorway following a major fire yesterday on April 16, 2019 in Paris, France. A fire broke out on Monday afternoon and quickly spread across the building, causing the famous spire to collapse. The cause is unknown but officials have said it was possibly linked to ongoing renovation work. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The tunic of Saint Louis, thought to have been worn by Louis XIV as he brought the crown of thorns to Notre Dame, was also salvaged from the blaze.

Officials also announced Tuesday morning that Notre Dame’s famed organ, among the world’s biggest, remained intact.

How did the fire start?

It’s unclear at the moment how the fire began, but officials are focusing their attention on the extensive renovation work being conducted on the building’s roof structure.

Police on Tuesday morning interviewed workers from the companies involved in the renovation of the cathedral to try and establish the cause of the fire, according to Heitz.

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Damage caused to Notre-Dame Cathedral following a major fire yesterday on April 16, 2019 in Paris, France. A fire broke out on Monday afternoon and quickly spread across the building, causing the famous spire to collapse. The cause is unknown but officials have said it was possibly linked to ongoing renovation work. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Heitz said his office was “favoring the theory of an accident” but had assigned 50 people to work on what he believed would be a “long and complex” investigation. Experts said that the combination of the building’s age, the material used in its construction, and lack of a sophisticated fire-protection system led to flames spreading rapidly on Monday evening.

Within minutes of the blaze breaking out, however, far-right conspiracy theories spread online. A fake CNN Twitter account claimed the fire was an act of terrorism, while others falsely claimed Muslims were celebrating the fire on Facebook.

What has the reaction been?

There has been an outpouring of support for Paris and France since the fire began.

To aid in rebuilding efforts, billionaire François-Henri Pinault — CEO of the company that owns the Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent fashion brands — pledged €100 million ($113 million. And Bernard Arnault's family, whose empire includes the Louis Vitton brand, pledged €200 million ($226 million).

Total, the French energy company, also pledged €100 million to the fund on Tuesday.

Hidalgo also plans to hold a “major international conference of donors” to raise money for the effort to rebuild cathedral, and Valerie Pecresse, president of the Ile-de-France region comprising the greater Paris region, said her organization would provide €10 million in funding.

United Nations’ Paris-based cultural agency UNESCO also promised to stand “at France’s side” to restore the site, which the organization declared a world heritage site in 1991.

European Council President Donald Tusk also called on all EU member states to rally round and support, and Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to send experts to help rebuild the cathedral.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II sent a message of condolence to Macron that she was “deeply saddened” by the blaze and sent her “sincere admiration” to the firefighters who tackled the fire.

Correction 4/16/19 1:24 p.m. ET: A previous version of this post incorrectly reported the duration of the fire as 15 hours. The fire lasted for 9 hours.

Cover image: (Photo by Pierre Suu/Getty Images)