By Agence France-Presse and Reuters
PARIS – Risking their own lives as they toiled through the night, some 400 firefighters formed a human chain to rescue a swathe of Notre-Dame’s “priceless treasures.”
Oblivious to the danger they faced, the firefighters saw their efforts rewarded as they saved the main structure.
They also brought out many relics by going inside even as the inferno spread quickly on the medieval roof beams – not least the Holy Crown of Thorns and a sacred tunic worn by 13th century French king Louis IX.
Their lack of self regard as they retrieved countless other items prompted President Emmanuel Macron to praise their “extreme courage.”
“We started to panic when we smelt scorching,” even before the flames emerged, said Philippe Marsset, vicar general of Notre-Dame who watched aghast with horrified Parisians and tourists as the drama unfolded.
Within an hour, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo told AFP that “General Jean-Claude Gallet (the commander of the Paris fire brigade) is explaining to us that it will be very difficult to save the (wooden) roofing but that the priority will be to save the relics.”
The firefighters then moved in, seeking out as many of the building’s treasures as they could, forming a human chain to bring them to safety.
Fire brigade Lieutenant-Colonel Gabriel Plus said “everything was against” the first firefighters on the scene.
“Time and the wind were against us and we had to get on top of it fast. We had to make a rapid choice… and the priority we gave ourselves was to save the two bell towers, and both were saved,” he added.
From the outside, the imposing bell towers and outer walls, with their vast buttresses, stood firm, though the insides and the upper structure had been eviscerated. The cathedral’s spectacular 10-meter filigreed stained-glass rose window remained intact.
“Yesterday we thought the whole cathedral would collapse. Yet this morning she is still standing, valiant, despite everything,” said Sister Marie Aimee, a nun who had hurried to a nearby church to pray as the flames spread.
“It is a sign of hope.”
“From the beginning, there was always the possibility that the whole structure might collapse.”
While armchair critics have suggested more could have been done to slow the fire, tough choices had to be made, said Plus, adding they could not have hoped to save the roof by that stage.
“A tremendous human chain formed comprising firefighters, police and municipal workers,” which stretched for some 200 meters (yards) and managed “to save dozens and dozens of artifacts” by passing them along the chain and out to safety, Hidalgo noted.
“They put their lives at risk to protect this priceless treasure,” said Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, Notre-Dame’s chief cleric.
For Christophe Girard, overseeing cultural affairs at the city hall, “it was as if we were transporting a heart destined for a transplant.”
“Policemen were carrying crosses, firefighters enormous candles and tableaux,” another town hall official said, marvelling at the almost superhuman effort.
Bystanders were impressed at how the team acted in the face of such adversity.
“A magical moment,” said one. “Just extraordinary,” added another.
Others recalled in amazement how “some police took pictures of one another to record the memory of what they were carrying” out of France’s most visited monument to be whisked away for storage.
Three lorries headed off with many of the rescued items, initially to the nearby town hall while interior secretary of state Laurent Nunez reflected that “a quarter of an hour, half an hour” more would have been too late – the treasures would have been lost.
“You could smell the burning,” said Justine Heller, 29, a town hall security inspector, as the historic treasures arrived.
She could not disguise her fascination as she contemplated a large chandelier and a valuable painting.
Within hours of their removal, the treasures would be on the move once again, this time to the Louvre, for safe keeping.
Considered among the finest examples of European Gothic architecture, Notre-Dame is visited by more than 13 million people a year. It sits on an island in the Seine, overlooking the Left Bank hangouts of Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso.
“Notre-Dame de Paris is the cathedral of the people, of the people of Paris, of the French people, of the people of the world. It is part of those references of our history, of what we have in common, of what we share,” said Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.
The cathedral is owned by the state and has been at the centre of a years-long row between the nation and the Paris archdiocese over who should finance restoration work to collapsed balustrades, crumbling gargoyles and cracked facades.
It was at Notre-Dame that Henry VI of England was crowned “King of France” in 1431, that Napoleon was made emperor in 1804, and Pope Pius X beatified Joan of Arc in 1909. Presidents Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand were mourned there.
The charred roof of the Cathedral was once a legend that “astounded the Middle Ages” and still fascinates master carpenters, Thomas Buechi of the Charpente Concept group told AFP.
It is possibly one of the greatest masterpieces for French master carpenters. For a painter it would have been as if the Mona Lisa went up in smoke.
The framework (known as “the forest”) was mythical. First of all, it took 50 years to prepare the timber. They began cutting the trees, around 1,500, sometime around the year 1200.
These were laid for a year with the top turned to the North to align them with the energy of the earth.
The bark was then removed and they were immersed in a swamp for 25 years to preserve the wood from fungus and insects.
Around 1225, the wood was removed from the water and the trunks were sawed into beams and allowed to dry for another 25 years.
Given average lifespans at the time, it meant that most of those who cut down the trees never saw the roof structure.
The French revolution left the cathedral in ruins. In the middle of the 19th century the decision to redo the spire was made.
In addition to the architect, Eugene Viollet-Le-Duc, there was a key figure who has been forgotten, Henri Georges, a master carpenter.
He was a master of “operative geometry” and his nickname was “Angevin, the child genius”.
When I saw the spire burn and fall yesterday, he was the one I thought of.
We do not know yet how much the stone has suffered. That everything is still standing is a miracle.
In France there are plenty of oaks, the wood will not be a problem. They could use old trees and leave more space for young ones to grow.
In the Troncais forest (in central France) there are oak trees that are several hundred years old.
They could never prepare the wood the way it was done in 1200. But today’s technology would allow work to proceed faster. You could foresee starting to receive beams two years from now, and replace the roof structure in the next five years.