Notre Dame severely damaged; roof collapses: cathedral may be forever lost

April 15, 2019 • 3:00 pm

Well, the roof of Notre Dame collapsed in the fire and the damage is horribly severe. There’s a timely report at The New York Times (click on screenshot below):

They still don’t know how the fire started, but here’s what the NYT says:

André Finot, a spokesman for the cathedral, said in a telephone interview that the cause of the fire remained unknown, and there was no immediate indication that anyone had been hurt.

“It’s not about the faith — Notre-Dame is a symbol of France,” said Emmanuel Guary, a 31-year-old actor who was among a huge crowd amassed on the Rue Rivoli, on the Right Bank. Many had tears in their eyes.

After part of the spire collapsed, the fire appeared to spread across the rooftop, where the growing flames licked the sky and projected a yellow smoke over the horizon.

. . . The French police rushed in and started blowing whistles, telling everyone to move back, witnesses said. By then, the flames were towering, spilling out of multiple parts of the cathedral. Tourists and residents alike came to a standstill, pulling out their phones to call their loved ones. Older Parisians began to cry, lamenting how their national treasure was quickly being lost.

. . .Vincent Dunn, a fire consultant and former New York City fire chief, said that fire hose streams could not reach the top of such a cathedral, and that reaching the top on foot was often an arduous climb over winding steps.

“These cathedrals and houses of worship are built to burn,” he said. “If they weren’t houses of worship, they’d be condemned.”

Apparently they couldn’t do a forest-fire-like drop of water from the air, as that, they say, might have caused the entire edifice to collapse. There will be plenty of recriminations in the next week. I’m just unspeakably sad. Yes, it was a religious structure, but that doesn’t detract from its historical significance, its beauty, and the emotional effect it has on many (including me).

The pictures and videos below show the fire in the interior, and that probably means that the stained-glass windows, the choir, and other works of art are destroyed. It will never be the same again.

Some photos:

Credit Charles Platiau/Reuters

This is such a sad picture:

Credit Thibault Camus/Associated Press
Francois Guillot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


118 thoughts on “Notre Dame severely damaged; roof collapses: cathedral may be forever lost

  1. A great tragedy. 🙁

    At the moment I see the evening news. The news presenter speaks with a suffocated voice and fights against the tears.

  2. Hopefully not one sapeurs-pompiers was risked. If there was then I hope some chief will have two badges, his own and some other fool’s, to cherish in retirement.

    1. Some of the footage is of them going into appallingly unstable positions. I’d be pretty surprised if this one burns out without loss of life.
      Probably a lovely building (I never saw it closer than a few hundred metres), but not worth a fireman’s injury.

      1. Indeed, I saw examples of trench cuts, but I did not confirm if it was just examples or actual operations. I have walked the nave and climbed the towers – a shame for those that haven’t. Et vous avez raison, aucune vie pour un bâtiment.

    2. On another web site, a correspondent said he would trade a few lives to save Notre Dame. I suggested he shouldn’t say that unless he was prepared to go first.

      Personally, I would not trade a single human life for any man made artefact but there may be others, including French firefighters, who would be prepared to put their lives on the line for a building. If they want to do it, I think it is up to them, but there is no way I could approve. I am very sad about what has happened, but it would be even worse if I knew people had died to save the cathedral for me.

        1. I knew someone who had a Ford Transit van, but (unlike most of them which rocket around at supersonic speeds), this one was very tired. Not very healthy at all, in fact.
          So of course they painted ‘Gloria’ in neat italic lettering on the door.


  3. *Sigh* I was watching some footage of a fire truck trying to spray water on the roof with their tall crane. They could not get nearly high enough, and even if they could I don’t think it would have made much difference.

    The fire chief is right. But the money to put in the safeguards to these and other ancient treasures just is not there.

      1. From the embittered tone of the fire chief quoted above, one can assume that the standard laws applying to buildings where large numbers of people, ummmm, congregate don’t, or aren’t, applied to churches. That really should have stopped … oh, let’s say, York Minster ago (1984). But the law probably isn’t going to be applied – I certainly couldn’t see anything apart from a few dry risers myself.

        to save lives, not art.

        Art can be replaced.

  4. One can only think – if it was caused by the extensive renovations of the structure, someone was surely sleeping at the switch as they say.

  5. Just horrifying.
    That structure is pretty representative of Western civilization itself.
    I visited a long time ago, and recent events in France have given me sort of a persistent nagging worry, in the back of my mind.
    On Friday, three terrorists were sentenced for attempting to destroy the cathedral. lately, France has been recording an average of two church desecrations per day.
    Of course no indication of fault has been noted here.

    1. The images bring me flashbacks of the Twin Towers collapse. I hope that everyone has been safely evacuated from Notre Dame at the start of the fire, and that it has been an accident.

  6. I am very sad about this, regardless that the purpose of the building derives from religion. The loss of the stained glass is beyond measure in any meaningful sense.

  7. Just heard them reporting that the towers may have been saved. They showed some fire fighters on one of the towers.

    1. And on the upper courses of the curtain wall. That is a horribly exposed position. Plant the monitors (hose branches on a ground frame) and get the fsck out of there.

    2. The towers are stone, with a far lower percentage of wood than the rest of the building, and probably structurally independent. So they are likely to survive much better than the rest.


  8. I understand how it can be sad, but here what a friend wrote me in reference to this, which made laugh hard:

    the only church that illuminates is a burning church

  9. After the fire in Brazil museum and this, I think we need to do a lot of thinking about how to save irreplaceable buildings when fire strikes. Too much history and culture can be lost in a few hours.

    1. Yeah, we can’t. The trick is to make city parts replaceable.

      Then we have the inevitable destruction of archaeological sites or weathered out fossils. Oy!

    2. Modest estimates of Christian wealth around the world has got to be at minimum tens of billions.

      Religions can easily pay for fire proofing every significant structure they posses.

      1. The problem is how to ‘fireproof’ an ancient structure without virtually destroying it in the process, physically or visually.

        In shakier countries (like New Zealand or presumably California) there is a similar problem with ‘earthquake-proofing’ buildings. Auckland Museum (tall stone building with Doric (?) columns) has been earthquake-proofed – huge concrete columns / portal frames and shear walls have been inserted into the structure at presumably staggering cost, but – credit to the engineers – not excessively obtrusive.


      2. The cathedral is actually owned by the French state since 1905 because of its national importance. The RCC has the right to conduct religious worship but must pay the utilities’ bills and allow free access to the general public.

        1. I heard on Swiss radio that all churches built in France before 1905 are owned by the state.

  10. Sad for France, nice to hear people haven’t been hurt.

    “These cathedrals and houses of worship are built to burn,” he said. “If they weren’t houses of worship, they’d be condemned.”

    Personally I am cool with it, I have seen the outside. (At a time when the insides, including religious art, had lost my interest.)

    This is, in my opinion, a historical part of city evolution and a nice reminder why modern edifices are built like La tour Eiffel.

    C’est la vie.

    1. “…a nice reminder why modern edifices are built like La tour Eiffel”.

      Modern edifices are not so safe as all that though are they? Over 70 people killed in Grenfell Tower and goodness knows how many die every year in house fires. Admittedly the Twin Towers in New York were destroyed by an unprecedented and extraordinary attack but once that happened and the upper floors were ignited a huge number of people were trapped and doomed.

      As to being ‘cool with’ the Notre Dame fire because you have already seen it, I am happy for you but desperately sorry for the people of Paris and the many others around the world who loved the building whether for religious reasons or simply because it was a beautiful part of their cultural heritage.

      1. Modern edifices are not so safe as all that though are they? Over 70 people killed in Grenfell Tower and goodness knows how many die every year in house fires.

        Steady on – we do know how many fatalities there are in residential fires & it’s good news mostly.

        Fire fatality rates have halved in most of the high income countries in a 20 year period since 1992 [strangely enough not Torbjörn’s Sweden as far as I can tell, but the rate there isn’t high] & the improvement has very little to do with materials or type of construction – the latest raft of improvements are due, in the main, to reduced poverty, regulation & changes in human behaviour:

        Cheap & plentiful fire alarms, emergency lighting, elimination of open fires in the home, reduced smoking, reduced flammability of furnishings [particularly bedding & curtains], furniture & clothing, more intelligent building design standards on fire doors, extinguishers, signage, replacement of fire trap pre-60s building stock, restrictions on venue entry numbers to reduce overcrowding and so on.

        Public & residential building stock in high earning countries is a LOT safer than what it was even allowing for Grenfell [& I fear – the potential Grenfells lying in wait]

        There are interesting anomalies such as Holland but here’s some fatalities per 100,000:

        Russia 7.94
        SA 4.91
        India 4.15
        Romania 1.43
        Poland 1.28
        Bulgaria 1.02
        Finland 0.86
        USA 0.73
        Denmark 0.63
        Ireland 0.62
        Sweden 0.49
        France 0.47
        NZ 0.33
        UK 0.31
        Netherlands 0.17


        1. Undoubtedly there have been great improvements but those figures still mean about 1400 people killed by fire annually in the US! A small fraction of the overall population but not a trivial number of people all the same.

          It would be astonishing if with all of our technology we had not worked out ways to make buildings safer but your statistics show that there is still a way to go and there is no room for complacency.

          As you point out, poverty is an important factor in fire risk and is associated with many of the other factors (higher levels of smoking, cheap furniture and furnishings that are more likely to fail to meet fire-resistance standards, lower likelihood of having properly maintained smoke alarms, less well-maintained electrical appliances etc). sadly even in highly developed countries such as the US and the UK there are still many people who live with unacceptable levels of poverty.

        2. When living in Amsterdam long ago, we asked the fire department to make an assessment of the house we were living in, from a fire safety pov. They made a huge list of improvements to be made (twenty IIRC), in order of urgency.
          The first eight or so were all about improving the means of escape.

  11. Not sure on “forever lost” if there is will then anything can be restored/rebuilt Shure is may well be mostly replica – or not… #Frauenkirche

    1. Also, St Martin’s cathedral in Ypres. In fact, pretty much all of Ypres. And Dresden and Cologne.

      They could have rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, but chose to leave the ruins of old one as a memorial.

      I’ve seen people bemoaning the “fact” that the skills required to build a cathedral have been lost. Well I disagree. I think the means by which cathedrals fail to collapse are well understood by modern structural engineers and, in terms of stone masons, every significant cathedral that is still maintained has a team of stone masons. Notre Dame, a cathedral barely standing: we can rebuild her. We have the technology…

    1. It must be so satisfying for you to keep track of everything he says, or even that you imagine he might say.

  12. Several people stated as a fact that the cathedral held Jesus’ crown of thorns. Really? Was the material C14 dated?

  13. Don’t worry too much. Catholic Church is one of the wealthiest organizations on earth. They have plenty of $$ to make any repairs. But, much more difficult to repair the psyches of all the children they have abused over the decades.

    1. I would think that many here are not concerned primarily about how this affects Catholicism. To me, it is part of our shared history. The technology and creativity that went into the structure are a big part of us being who we are.

  14. When I heard that the fire hoses couldn’t reach the top, I thought that in future this problem could be solved using drone technology. If they had say 20 drones that were each big enough to carry a remote controlled fire extinguisher, then the drones could fly to places that were too high or too dangerous for firemen to reach. They could then empty their extinguishers, then fly back out for them to be refilled or replaced. Also the drones themselves are easy to replace if any were damaged or destroyed in doing so.

    1. DRONES: No need to fly to & fro for chemicals/water + recharging. This AREONES DRONE can ascend 300 metres in six minutes with attached slim fire hose & power cable going back to a ground-based fire engine. Although due to the expanse & ferocity of this fire I doubt such a device would contribute much to the effort, especially as it must remain outside the perimeter of the church to steer clear of the rising hot air.

      1. Presumably the drone is height-limited by the weight of dangling hose (and water inside, which is considerably heavier than the hose). If its target height were reduced to say 100 metres, presumably it could lift a bigger hose.
        Since it’s mains-powered, it doesn’t have the battery limitations of a ‘true’ drone and those motors can be really grunty. I don’t imagine it’s silent.

        The other consideration of course, is the reaction from the nozzle. Which will be proportional to flowrate and jet velocity. However, since it can get much closer to the fire, it doesn’t need the range or nozzle velocity of a ground-based hose.


        1. Just watched their video. 98 litres/minute, 40 bar.

          Wouldn’t make much impression on Notre Dame, I think.

          However, I can imagine that it would be extremely useful in e.g. house fires in older parts of any European city where the streets are very narrow and the buildings are 5 or 6 stories high. And it’s still small enough – unlike a helicopter – that if it did bump into an adjoining building it wouldn’t be a major danger to surrounding residents.


  15. The organ will likely be a total loss, due to smoke, heat, and water damage. The historic Thierry/Cavaille-Coll instrument is one of the world’s best and most iconic.

    Signed, an organist.

    1. “Paris’ deputy mayor says Notre Dame’s organ, among the world’s most famous and biggest, remains intact after a devastating fire at Paris’ main cathedral.”

  16. ‘. . .Vincent Dunn, a fire consultant and former New York City fire chief, said that fire hose streams could not reach the top of such a cathedral, and that reaching the top on foot was often an arduous climb over winding steps.

    “These cathedrals and houses of worship are built to burn,” he said. “If they weren’t houses of worship, they’d be condemned.”’

    Not to be too snarky, but since he comes from New York – his comment could equally well apply to many skyscrapers. Especially since the first thing in a fire is that the elevators stop working.


  17. Very sad. Reminds me of the last chapter of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. I only hope that the cause was not someone as crazy as Jorge; time may tell.

  18. I predict that Pat Robertson will claim that this is God’s retribution for the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests .

    1. Oddly, I find that more logical than the Catholics flocking to church to pray. What the heck are they praying for? The God they believe in could have stopped the fire if He wanted. So he LET it burn, meaning He must have wanted it to burn. Instead of praying they should be saying “Praise the Lord.”

      1. I think they are not logical, they are emotional. They want to gather together to mourn the lost heritage and to encourage the hopes for restoration. Like us in this thread.

    2. Perhaps, but he may decide to keep silent, what with sexual abuse in Baptist churches having made the news in the last few months.

  19. This makes me so, so sad. France lost a national treasure, the world lost a treasure, Western civilization lost one of its greatest monuments, and I never even got to see it.

    I know they’ll rebuild what was lost, but, no matter how good a replica it is in the places that were burned out, it won’t be the same when I finally go there. To touch the wood nearly 1,000 years old, to stand there inside that history…Just knowing it’s not the same will make the experience a lesser one.

    A very sad day for France and for all of us.

    1. This would be an excellent time for an American president to empathize and offer some token assistance in the restoration a cultural icon, blather a bit about the Statue of Liberty, blah, blah, etc.

      Pity the current one has acquired neither language nor culture.

      1. If there is one thing that the USA currently has (and France does not) is trees of sufficient stature to replace the roof. I think in this instance it might be worth sacrificing 800 year old trees to restore an 800 year old building of artistic and cultural merit.

        1. Gosh, I think that is a terrible idea. As mentioned by several people below, these buildings have long been repaired using the technology of their times. The spire was a recent addition, for example, and used materials of the day. While the repairs should be harmonious with the original design, they should use the technology of our own age. And right now, a forest of 800 year old oaks is as valuable as a man-made cathedral. I will protest loudly if someone wants to cut down vast numbers of 800 year old oaks to make a new roof.

          1. Vast numbers? I don’t know much about architecture, but it couldn’t take more than a few trees, right? It’s not like we’d be cutting down a forest.

            1. I’m with Lou on this. It’s 1,300 mature oaks [52 acres of them] or perhaps double that number for half grown. That’s a LOT of oak in today’s world & old mature forest is an ecosystem we shouldn’t mess with. Other reasons it’s a bad idea:

              [1] The oak structural frame supporting the roof is not visible from the ground & will not be appreciated by 99% of visitors who don’t climb up above the vault [assuming that’s allowed] – it’s high up above the vaulting facade that you can see in photos taken from the nave.

              [2] You can’t use oak straight from the tree – even an old tree. It has to be laid up to dry out before it’s fashioned. Glulam would save a fortune on the project & would be an ecosystem blessing [although I accept glulam isn’t an option for traditionalists].

              1. Carbon is light weight and strong, which is nice. Sadly, carbon has the tendency to oxidize rapidly at a relatively low temperature. As a gas, it loses load bearing capacity.

              1. It seems the 13,000 oaks estimated in the CNN story I posted is likely a typo. I’m seeing other references to 1,300 (as Michael Fisher said) which seems more reasonable. Should have known better than to trust CNN!

                Either way, far too much old growth to consider cutting down today.

              2. Holy shit! I never would have guessed that. Thanks for the info.

                I wonder how much it would take just to replace the few parts people are able to see.

  20. Realistically, we lost an iconic symbol of western civilization. It had become, in some sense, a world museum. I am reminded of the Acropolis where the Parthenon was blown up during the Great Turkish War In 1687. We are again reminded that the second law of thermodynamics states that the total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease over time.

    1. His bell tower remains, so he will not be homeless.

      I think it a pity they saved the ‘crown of thorns’!

  21. Well… looking at news footage now the fire is out, it looks as if ALL the stonework has survived almost intact. Just from a distance, it looks in much better condition than one would have expected. Quite remarkable, considering the pictures of it burning.

    I’m jumping the gun here, but assuming the stonework is stable, or can be stabilised, I would think the timberwork can be replaced quite quickly. That is, assuming that look-alike treated glue-laminated timber is deemed acceptable and nobody insists on hand-sawn oak.


    1. Glulam is an interesting suggestion given that the original roof structural frame took 1,400 mature oaks [est. 52 acres]. Oaks which I would rather see alive & growing since oak woodland is such a rare commodity.

      The spire that burned & collapsed is not original & there have been many changes to the building over the centuries that used the ‘technology’ of their particular time, thus there’s a case for not slavishly copying the invisible underlying structure in materials & mechanics – glulam being lighter & stiffer than oak we can simplify the invisible [from the nave] elements, while restoring the interior roof ceiling to a close copy of what was there before. Or not.

      1. “there have been many changes to the building over the centuries that used the ‘technology’ of their particular time”

        One of the anomalies of protected historical buildings laws is their tendency to ignore this fact. For example the British ‘listed building’ system may be applied to a building that has been repaired, extended, modified and generally changed about many times over the centuries and from the moment of listing no further change is permitted.

  22. These mediaeval buildings are incredibly strong & many have survived fires & been rebuilt. As long as the vaulting survives, & even if it does not, it will be possible to rebuild.

  23. It appears that all the cathedrals in France are the property neither of the church nor of their respective cities, but of the state. This dates from the separation of church and state in 1905. So my question is, who is going to pay to repair it? As a french resident, I suppose my taxes will go for some of it.

    That said, it is a magnificent monument, god or not, and seeing the images of the fire made me personally very sad.

    I would chuckle, tho, if I heard the crown of thorns, or the piece of the true cross or some of jesus’s toenails had been damaged.

    1. Don’t worry. The Pinault family already promised 100 millions euros and the luxury goods group LMVH another 200 millions.

    2. BBC radio just said that various rich folks are promising funds in the hundreds of millions of euros. This online report agrees & also says some lumber magnate promises the required 1,300 oak trees although he’ll struggle IMO:

      Billionaires and local governments pledged nearly 500 million euros (565 million dollars) on Tuesday to help restore Notre-Dame cathedral, with foundations and crowd-sourcing sites also launching fund-raising drives.

      President Emmanuel Macron has vowed the emblematic monument will be rebuilt after its spire and roof collapsed Monday night in a blaze thought to be linked to extensive renovation work.

      French luxury group Kering, whose brands include Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci, kicked off the campaign late Monday with a promise of 100 million euros ($113 million).

      That was followed Tuesday by a 200-million-euro pledge from its crosstown rival LVMH and the family of its founder Bernard Arnault.

      The chief executive of French oil giant Total said the firm would contribute 100 million euros.

      Other high-profile French donors so far included the investor Marc Ladreit de Lacharriere with 10 million euros, and construction magnates Martin and Olivier Bouygues, also with 10 million euros.


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