On the evening 15 April 2019, France and the world watched transfixed in horror as flames ravaged the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, fearful that the heritage landmark could be lost forever. Nearly two years on, what’s happening?
While the spire collapsed and much of the roof was destroyed, the efforts of firefighters ensured the great medieval monument survived. Alas the road to restoration has been long and arduous and it is only expected to be returned to its former glory by April 2024, five years after the fire.
The cause of the blaze remains uncertain, although investigators are so far rejecting any idea of foul play and focusing on a short-circuit or even a dropped cigarette as possible explanations.
With at least two TV dramas and one feature film in the pipeline about the events of 15 April, the drama and the race to save the 850-year-old building looks set to be further graven in the public’s memory.
It was President Emmanuel Macron who set the five-year restoration target in the immediate aftermath of the fire, meaning the cathedral would be open again when Paris hosts the 2024 summer Olympics.
Jean-Louis Georgelin, the straight-talking former general handpicked by Macron to lead the restoration efforts, said last month:
We are on course to return the cathedral for worship in 2024. But there is still a lot of work.
The actual restoration work has noy yet begn. Instead the time has been spent on securing the building, including the painstaking task of removing 40,000 pieces of scaffolding calcified in the fire. This should be finished in the summer, allowing the full restoration works to begin early next year.
The aim is to celebrate the first full service in the restored cathedral on 15 April 2024, despite delays caused by the pandemic and the lead that filtered out during the blaze.
The project is aided by some Euros 833 million donated in a national and international campaign launched immediately after the fire, although this alone may not be enough to push the restoration over the finishing line. Of that Euros 70 million came from abroad, half of that sum from the United States.
Already, some 1,000 specially-selected oak trees are drying out in readiness to reconstruct the spire — which Macron had been tempted to replace with something modern but will now be rebuilt as it was — and the crossing of the transept.
The interior of the cathedral is today marked by a web of scaffolding, surrounded by nets and tarpaulins, where carpenters, rope workers, scaffolders and crane operators scurry around.
Along with hundreds of experts seeking to secure and restore the cathedral, investigators have also been at work in the investigation to work out what caused the fire, sometimes using ropes to take samples high up in the building. This phase has now been completed and the long process of analysing all the evidence collected from the site will now begin.
Several shortcomings in the security of the cathedral have already been identified. Notably, in the alarm system and in the electrical system of one of the elevators.
Some one hundred witnesses were interviewed in the space of a two-month period alone. But while an accident remains the likely explanation, the sheer extent of the damage complicates drawing any conclusions.
But even as investigators try and piece together exactly what happened that fateful night, filmmakers are at work on dramatic reconstructions of the events. Streaming giant Netflix is preparing a six-episode miniseries produced in co-operation with the Parisian fire brigade which will look at the impact of the fire on different people across France. A rival English-language series is also expected based on a major investigation into the fire carried out by the New York Times.
And French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who made “The Name of the Rose”, has also started work on a feature film, expected in 2022, about the disaster which will intersperse archive footage with drama. Here the main character is, of course, Notre Dame.