Completed in 1345, the Notre Dame cathedral has a storied history that dates back more than 800 years. It was the coronation site for several historical figures, such as Henry VI and Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1991, UNESCO designated the cathedral a World Heritage Site.
But on April 15, 2019, a perfect storm of human errors would lead to the Notre Dame Cathedral collapse. By the end of the day, the spire and vaulted ceiling lay in singed pieces. The event received media attention for weeks.
Since then, new investigations have revealed the whole story about what happened to Notre Dame. This overview will cover the day of the tragedy, as well as what the future holds for Notre Dame.
What Happened to Notre Dame?
Originating from the attic of the cathedral, a small fire would eventually become a raging inferno. But the first mishap that led to the disaster didn’t happen that day. It occurred more than ten years earlier.
1. Notre Dame’s Faulty Fire Protection System
At the turn of the century, Notre-Dame didn’t have a fire protection system. A team of architects and firefighters worked together to create standard safety measures.
They decided against installing an automatic sprinkler system or fire barriers in the attic. These systems would increase safety in the case of a fire. However, it would also mean destroying sections of the historic attic.
A fire detection system was in place, but it didn’t immediately contact firefighters. Instead, it would first alert the security guards. The guards would then have to take a long trek to the source of the fire to confirm if there was an issue.
This is where the second mistake occurred.
2. Detecting the Fire
On the evening of April 15, a security guard was told to investigate the cause of a smoke alarm. It was his first week on the job. When he went to the right part of the cathedral, everything seemed fine.
He gave his boss a call to be safe, but nobody picked up on the other end. Fifteen minutes later, his boss finally got back to him. He told the security guard that he’s in the wrong section of Notre Dame.
He’s supposed to be in the attic. Thirty minutes had passed since the initial alarm. An inferno was waiting for him when he arrived.
Finally, Notre Dame security alerted the fire department. It’s unclear if the security personnel monitoring the alarms gave the guard bad information, or if the guard errored and investigated the wrong area.
3. Firefighters Arrive on the Scene
The firefighters saw fire licking Notre Dame’s roof. At first, they entered the cathedral to battle the fire from the attic. However, they weren’t having any luck.
The fire had weakened the foundation of Notre Dame’s spire. It sunk through the roof and collapsed into the cathedral below. At this point, all the firefighters were told to evacuate.
Beside Notre Dame sits the Seine river, which the firefighters used to combat the blaze from the outside. A constant breeze pushed the fire towards one of Notre Dame’s lattice-work towers. If the fire weakened that structure, the firefighters feared it would destroy the entirety of Notre Dame.
They wrote off the attic and focused their attention on the fire around the tower. A group of firefighters volunteered to enter the tower to fight it from within. The plan worked.
Near midnight, Notre Dame still stood, though it had lost its spire and roof, and falling rubble had damaged the altar below.
4. What Caused the Notre Dame Fire?
An investigation in the weeks following the Notre Dame disaster suggests an electrical issue is to blame. Multiple safeguards were in place. However, there’s a possibility that a short-circuit occurred during the ringing of Notre Dame’s bells.
At the time, workers were restoring a section of Notre Dame. Investigators discovered cigarette butts in the work zone, which could also have caused the fire. However, the workers had no reason to be in the attic.
5. Notre Dame After the Fire
There was no clear direction for the future of Notre Dame. Would it be rebuilt with the same design? Or would a new, modern aesthetic be adopted?
A variety of restoration proposals made waves in the media. One popular proposal suggested the use of polycarbonate translucent wall panels. The mockup reveals a Pavillion with luminous lighting.
The polycarbonate panels are flexible and sturdy. These would allow the structure to unfold into an open-air gathering space after mass.
Several months after the fire, however, French officials put these proposals to rest. They passed legislation that promised the Notre Dame renovation would restore the building to its former design.
And the clock is ticking. French President Emmanuel Macron has set a 2024 deadline so Notre Dame is restored for the 2024 Olympics.
The restoration project is slated to begin in early 2020. Some have raised concerns about its price, which has been speculated to be up to $670 million. Fundraising may help offset at least some of the project’s cost.
Billionaires and individual donators pledged a combined $1 billion to rebuild the cathedral. It remains to be seen how many of these pledges will actually be carried out.
Notre Dame Lives On
What happened to Notre Dame was a national tragedy. But it could have been worse. Thanks to the efforts of the Parisian fire department, Notre Dame still stands.
After its restoration, Notre Dame will appear as it once did. However, the historic materials used in its construction are long gone. Instead, it’ll likely use modern practices to ensure the monument is even more resilient than before.
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