The Firefighters Who Refused to Let Notre-Dame Collapse

From the south tower of Notre-Dame, firefighters took on the fire in the north

Notre Dame fire
A fire raged through the iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral in April. (Philippe Wang/ Getty)
By Ariel Scotti / July 17, 2019 11:35 am

An investigation by The New York Times has unraveled the mystery of the day the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris caught fire and was irrevocably changed.

How it started remains unknown, but how the fire was able to spread so quickly appears to be due, in part, to a guard’s mistake. After a fire alarm was initiated at the famed cathedral, a security person was sent to check on it but said he found nothing — because he went to the wrong building, according to the Times.

Instead of checking on the attic of the church, where the fire was blazing, the guard looked for flames in the sacristy, a small building adjacent to the cathedral. It took nearly 30 minutes for Notre-Dame staff to realize their mistake, by which point the flames were nearly out of control.

French authorities are still investigating the exact cause of the fire and who, if anyone, is to blame. But what is known is that the firefighters on the scene were able to keep the iconic structure standing, despite the loss of its wooden ceiling, known as the “forest,” and classic spire.

Because the fire went unattended to for so long, it was able to pick up speed and ferocity quickly, forcing most of the first responders on the scene to retreat down the 300 steps they’d climbed to fight the fire. A small group of them, however, risked their lives and charged into the fames as a last-ditch effort to contain them, the Times reported.

“There was a feeling that there was something bigger than life at stake,” Ariel Weil, the mayor of the city’s Fourth Arrondissement, where Notre-Dame resides, told the newspaper, “and that Notre-Dame could be lost.”

After the forest ignited and was beyond saving, the fire quickly spread to the church’s front, but only caught on the north-facing tower. Firefighters realized that if the tower was lost, the rest of the cathedral’s entire structure would fall with it. From the south tower, they took on the fire in the north.

Just over four hours later, deputy Gen. Jean-Marie Gontier, a leader of the fight, was able to breathe a sigh of relief, declaring, “She is saved.”

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