Notre Dame fire: Donations flow in as crews assess damage to Paris Cathedral

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France on Tuesday was confronting the scorched remains of Notre Dame Cathedral, as officials announced they had extinguished the inferno that partly destroyed a symbol of the nation. Authorities said their first investigations suggest that the fire started by accident, perhaps in connection with much-needed renovations that left part of the renowned Gothic church encased in scaffolding.

On a Paris day on which smoke no longer hung in the sky, Notre Dame’s two rectangular bell towers stood tall above it heavily damaged roof and collapsed spire. After extinguishing the flames, officials began the long task of determining the extent of the damage, warning that parts of the church, even those that remain standing, may have gravely dangerous vulnerabilities, especially in the soaring vault.

From certain angles on Tuesday, it was almost possible to look head-on at the front of church, see its centuries-old rose windows and carved statues and imagine that all was intact. But to stray to any other angle made clear the devastation. The roof was burned away. Char and smoke marks licked portions of the walls. Wooden roof beams that seemed eternal now looked like used matchsticks.

Along the Seine, Parisians and visitors stood and bore witness to the city’s slightly altered skyline — now absent an iconic spire that had stood since the mid-1800s and then was toppled in less than two hours by flames.

The first video from inside the damaged church showed pews still lining the nave and rubble piled near the altar under a still-hanging cross.

The overall structure of the church appears to be intact, Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nuñez told reporters on the plaza after touring part of the structure. But Notre Dame has “some points of vulnerability,” he said, at the vault, part of the roof of the north transept and part of the southern belfry. 

Investigators said they do not currently suspect foul play.

“The preliminary investigation suggests an accidental hypothesis,” said Paris Prosecutor Rémy Heitz, adding that there were no indications that the blaze was started deliberately. He made clear that the investigation was just beginning, as officials gingerly made their way into the devastated interior of the chapel. The fire appears to have started under the scaffolding that encased the exterior of the church’s nave, which was under renovation.

Engineers, architects and firefighters planned to start by assessing the structural damage, officials said. They warned that they still do not know the extent of the catastrophe.

Workers were visible atop the north bell tower of the cathedral, peering down through the cinders of the roof into the heart of the chapel, which now opens to the sky.

The Gothic cathedral was built over centuries starting in 1163. It was partially consumed in just hours Monday, as thousands of Parisians stood sentinel on the banks of the Seine, singing “Ave Maria” and weeping at what was happening. Not just the heart of Paris, or France — although it is — the church has stood tall as a triumph of humanity for eight centuries.

“Parisians lose their Dame,” read one French headline. In Strasbourg, the city’s great cathedral tolled its bell for 15 minutes Tuesday morning in solidarity.

Speaking on French radio early Tuesday, Culture Minister Franck Riester said many priceless works of art in the cathedral were saved and that Notre Dame’s organ had survived. He also confirmed preliminary reports from firefighters that they had been able to save the church’s two most hallowed relics: a tunic worn by Saint Louis, a 13th-century French king, and the crown of thorns that Jesus is said to have worn.

The objects are now in safekeeping at Paris City Hall, Riester said. Officials said they would be transferred to the Louvre.

“It was necessary to bring them out through the smoke,” Paris Fire Commander Jean-Claude Gallet told BFMTV. He said firefighters rushed into the chamber of the cathedral at the height of the fire to make the rescue.

The cathedral’s most precious stained-glass rose windows, an ensemble that dates to the 12th and 13th centuries, are also likely intact, said André Finot, a cathedral spokesman.

“It’s a bit of a miracle. We’re very relieved,” he told BFMTV.

But images taken inside the cathedral made plain the damage. The gray light of Paris streamed into a chapel that for centuries has been covered. Sopping and burned roof beams lay in a tangle on the floor. The cross atop the altar still gleamed, but it overlooked a scene of devastation.

“The heart of the nave has suffered enormously,” said José Vaz de Matos, a French official in charge of fire safety in cultural landmarks. 

Even as the fire still burned, France was making plans to reconstruct the church. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe convened a crisis meeting. French President Emmanuel Macron visited the devastation during the night and vowed to rebuild.

The effort was supported by Pope Francis, who called the fire a “catastrophe” and described on Twitter a desire that the damage would be “transformed into hope with reconstruction.”

Across the world, money poured in for reconstruction, both from philanthropists and people who had seen Notre Dame only in photos. Some donors said the outpouring showed the importance of a building that had become emblematic of faith, art and of France itself.

French officials planned to launch a national collection drive for the reconstruction. French luxury magnate François-Henri Pinault declared that his family would dedicate about $113 million to the effort. Hours later, the family of Bernard Arnault, the CEO of the LVMH luxury conglomerate and the richest man in Europe, pledged a gift of  $226 million.

On Tuesday morning, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo floated the idea of an “international donor’s conference” that would unite philanthropists and restoration experts in Paris to raise money for targeted purposes in rebuilding Notre Dame. One expert said the reconstruction effort could take decades.

Several French people who had started smaller crowdfunding campaigns described on Tuesday being moved by the gestures.

“I am not religious myself; I’m an atheist,” said Charles Gosse, 23, a business school student who launched an online funding campaign and quickly raised $27,000. “But this is beyond religion. It is a national monument like the Eiffel Tower and the Arch of Triumph.”

France, though, remains a devoutly Catholic nation, and many of the people who came to see the remnants on Tuesday said they were prompted by their faith. This is the holiest week of the year in the Christian calendar.

“I’m a believer,” said Carine Mazzoni, 48, a lawyer who said her son was confirmed at Notre Dame. “It’s Easter week. It’s a symbol of Paris and a Catholic symbol. It’s the history of the world that’s united in this building.”

Longtime city residents said they had a hard time comprehending the destruction.

“I’ve been a Parisian for 62 years,” her whole life, said Alix Constant, a medical secretary. “When I saw the images of the fire, I had the need to see it with my own eyes. And even more so because I’m a practicing Catholic.”

There were no deaths, but two police officers and one firefighter were injured, officials said.

The fire began in the early evening, , with the first call coming in around 6:20 p.m. as rush-hour traffic clogged the banks of the Seine. Firefighters describing their efforts to local media said they first had to get through the crowded streets. The flames quickly spread from the top level of the nave, eating up one beam, then another, in a vast portion of the roof that has been called “the forest” because each massive support was carved from an entire tree. The 750-ton spire, which was originally constructed in the 13th century and rebuilt in the 19th out of oak covered with lead, toppled shortly before 8 p.m.

At the height of the effort to combat the blaze, which raged for about nine hours, about 400 firefighters trained 18 hoses on the church, according to local media accounts. They pumped water straight from the Seine, the grand river that traverses Paris and closely abuts Notre Dame.

As the firefighters worked into the night, hundreds of people gathered to watch the inferno. During Christianity’s holiest week, many sang hymns. Others wept. The heat could be felt on the other bank of the Seine.

Birnbaum reported from Brussels. Reis Thebault in Washington, Griff Witte in Berlin and Quentin Ariès in Paris contributed to this report.

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