Notre-Dame blaze being treated as accident, not arson: French prosecutors

Notre-Dame blaze being treated as accident, not arson: French prosecutors

View of Notre-Dame Cathedral after a fire devastated large parts of the gothic gem in Paris
View of Notre-Dame Cathedral after a fire devastated large parts of the gothic gem in Paris, France April 16, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

PARIS: The fire that tore through the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was probably caused by accident, French prosecutors said on Tuesday (Apr 16) after firefighters doused the last flames in the ruins overnight.

"We are favouring the theory of an accident," Paris public prosecutor Remy Heitz said, adding that 50 people were working on what was expected to be a long and complex investigation.

More than 400 firemen were needed to tame the inferno that consumed the roof and collapsed the spire of the eight-centuries-old cathedral. They worked through the night to bring the fire under control some 14 hours after it began.

"The whole fire has been extinguished. Now we're in the phase of investigating," said Gabriel Plus, a spokesman for the fire service. He added that the fire had spread "very quickly" through the wooden roof of the world-renowned monument.

Briefing reporters in front of the cathedral in Paris, Mr Plus said firefighters had focused on the cathedral's two massive bell towers on Tuesday morning and making sure they had not been damaged.

The task now is to monitor the structure to see if it has moved at all and to put out remaining hot spots, he added. About 100 firemen will remain on site for the whole day.

READ: 'We will rebuild Notre-Dame together', says France's Macron

READ: Pledges pour in to help rebuild Notre-Dame after fire

READ: Notre-Dame ‘part of heritage of mankind’: PM Lee after fire devastates iconic cathedral

INVESTIGATIONS UNDERWAY

The Paris prosecutor has opened an investigation into "involuntary destruction by fire".  Police on Tuesday began questioning the workers involved in the restoration, the prosecutor's office said.

Firefighters said the renovation work could be to blame, and the fire started in an area of the roof that was below the scaffolding.

One firefighter suffered injuries during the blaze, which at one point threatened to bring down one of the two monumental towers on the western facade of the cathedral that is visited by more than 12 million tourists each year.

Paris Notre-Dame Cathedral fire
Graphic on what we know of the Notre-Dame Cathedral fire as of 0300 GMT Tuesday. AFP/Kun TIAN

Late Monday night, Paris fire brigade chief Jean-Claude Gallet declared that "we can consider that the main structure of Notre-Dame has been saved and preserved", as well as the two bell towers.

But Culture Minister Franck Riester warned that the structure remained unstable and that no one had yet been able to fully inspect the extent of the fire and water damage inside.

"We'll have to wait for a while to do a full inventory," he said, adding that the organ appeared to have been "badly damaged" as had many paintings.

READ: Notre-Dame fire: What we know so far

READ: The damage to Notre-Dame in pictures

Firefighters who entered the burning building saved many of its treasures, Riester said, although some paintings remained inside and risked smoke and water damage.

The Holy Crown of Thorns and a sacred tunic worn by 13th-century French king Louis, and two irreplaceable artifacts, had been rescued along with the church's main crucifix. They have been placed at the Paris town hall, along with other artifacts.

They will be transferred to the nearby Louvre Museum, Riester told reports later.

DONATIONS POUR IN

A public appeal for funds was launched by the privately-run French Heritage Foundation to help restore a "symbol of French history and culture".

French billionaire Bernard Arnault announced on Tuesday that he and the LVMH luxury conglomerate he controls would give €200 million (US$226 million), after luxury rival Kering offered €100 million.

"We have everything to be able to rebuild it in exactly the same way," Mr Riester told France Inter radio, adding that the government was looking at ways to encourage donations.

Thousands of Parisians and tourists watched in horror from nearby streets as flames engulfed the building and officials tried to save as much as they could of the cathedral's countless treasures, which were built up over centuries.

The inferno destroyed two-thirds of the roof of the 850-year-old UNESCO world heritage landmark, whose spectacular Gothic spire collapsed as orange flames and clouds of grey smoke billowed into the evening sky.

"FRANCE IS NOTRE DAME"

The sense of shock at the damage was palpable in France and stirred reactions from governments across the world.

"Notre-Dame survived all the wars, all the bombardments. We never thought it could burn. I feel incredibly sad and empty," said Stephane Seigneurie, a consultant, as he watched the fire from a nearby bridge.

Gasps and cries of "oh my god" erupted around an hour after the fire first broke out, when the top portion of the church's spire came crashing down.

Historians expressed dismay at the collapse of a building that has been a symbol of France for almost a millennium.

"If Paris is the Eiffel Tower then France is Notre Dame. It's the entire culture, entire history of France incarnated in this monument," Bernard Lecomte, a writer and specialist in religious history told BFM TV.

Construction of Notre-Dame began in the 12th century
Construction of Notre-Dame began in the 12th century AFP/Kun TIAN

The cathedral has figured as a central character through the ups and downs of French history since construction began in mid-12th century.

During the French Revolution in the 18th century, it was vandalised and plundered, but would go on to feature as a central character in Victor Hugo's 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which is credited with helping to save it.

It survived the devastation of two global conflicts in the 20th century and famously rang its bells on August 24, 1944, the day of the liberation of Paris from German occupation at the end of the World War II.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Notre-Dame Cathedral a "symbol of European culture" as the blaze raged. The Vatican expressed its "incredulity" and "sadness" over the fire.

Source: AFP/Reuters/na/hm(mi)

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