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Notre Dame: Burning Questions

Why the Paris cathedral fire happened at just the right moment

On 15 April 2019, during Holy Week, a fire broke out in Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral. Just before 7pm, smoke appeared above the roof of the world-famous landmark. The fire had started in the attic underneath the spire during mass, but there were delays in discovering it, and then evacuating the building.

Flames quickly spread through the “Forest”, the 13th-century timber framework that supported the roof. An hour later, the lead spire crashed through the ceiling before the eyes of appalled Parisians and tourists. The fire department announced the entire structure could be lost. Firefighters climbed the north tower, appearing as tiny shadows silhouetted against the flames as they risked their lives to stop its collapse, which would have brought down the entire building. Throughout the night, believers stood vigil before their burning house of worship. The next day, one of the loveliest churches in Europe was still standing, barely, a burnt-out carcass with a gaping roof.

The fire at Our Lady of Paris shook people worldwide. The 850-year-old gothic masterpiece was the most-visited monument in the world. Many had personal memories of the cathedral that inspired Victor Hugo’s romantic bestseller, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. For the French, it is a core part of the country’s national identity. Roads signs give the distance to “Paris-Notre Dame”. Key historic events are marked there, as when General de Gaulle entered Notre Dame under sniper fire to celebrate the end of the city’s Nazi occupation in 1944.

While the fire was still raging, President Macron addressed the nation, promising to rebuild the cathedral, making it “more beautiful than before.” Donations were pledged for Notre Dame’s restoration, most prominently by France’s two richest businessmen. No terrorist group claimed responsibility for the fire, and investigators quickly claimed it wasn’t arson.

Those who worked in Notre Dame share their stories of the fateful night and the sense of loss they now feel. These include the priest who was celebrating mass, Notre-Dame Cathedral’s organist, Johann Vexo, and a security guard for whom intercultural romance blossomed in the comforting embrace of Our Lady’s walls.

RTD listens to those who served in the cathedral, those involved in restoration work as well as critics. So, was the Notre Dame fire really an accident? If so, why is it such a painful wound for France?