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As flames engulfed Notre Dame, a fire brigade chaplain helped save the treasures inside

Inside the Notre Dame cathedral on April 16, 2019, in the aftermath of a fire that devastated the site.
Inside the Notre Dame cathedral on April 16, 2019, in the aftermath of a fire that devastated the site. (Pool/Reuters)
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PARIS — There was little time to waste. The wood-and-lead roof was a crackling inferno overhead. Flames were now snaking down the majestic woodwork inside Notre Dame cathedral.

Very soon — in minutes, maybe — the fire would begin threatening the artwork, liturgical array and priceless religious relics tucked throughout the warrens and alcoves of the cathedral.

Firefighters rushed in, looking for whatever they could grab and carry to safety. The fire department chaplain — his glasses reflecting the orange flames — demanded to join them.

Then a human chain took shape, according to accounts by Paris officials and firefighters. It included city workers, church caretakers and the Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier, the fire chaplain who hours earlier had been preparing events for Easter week.

To many Parisians, the Cathedral of Notre Dame has embodied the heart of the French capital for more than 800 years. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

“We have avoided a complete disaster,” Maxime Cumunel, secretary general of France’s Observatory for Religious Heritage, told the Reuters news agency. But perhaps “5 to 10 percent of the artwork has probably been destroyed,” he noted.

“We have to face up to that,” he said.

Among the items salvaged, said French Culture Minister Franck Riester, was the crown of thorns that many worshipers believe was worn by Jesus before his crucifixion. Also recovered was a tunic once donned by Saint Louis in the 13th century — while Notre Dame was being built.

Those items are now in safekeeping at Paris city hall and will join a convoy of others soon to be taken to the Louvre Museum, Riester said.

Etienne Loraillère, editor of France’s KTO Catholic television network, said Fournier had a key role in saving the crown of thorns and other items. Fournier previously served as a military chaplain in Afghanistan, and in 2015 comforted survivors of the terrorist rampage at the Bataclan theater after attacks across Paris that claimed 130 lives.

Damage assessment and investigation begins at Notre Dame

Fortunately, Notre Dame was nearly empty when disaster struck.

A fire alarm was first triggered at 6:20 p.m. Monday, but security officials at the cathedral could not locate a blaze. To be on the safe side, though, the cathedral called off an evening Mass and evacuated the complex.

Twenty-three minutes later, flames were visible — high in the building’s ancient wooden frame.

In another twist of good fortune amid the ruins, 19th-century copper statues of the Twelve Apostles and four other biblical figures had been removed by crane from Notre Dame last week to be cleaned as part of an overall restoration project at the cathedral.

Sophie Grange, a spokeswoman for the Louvre, told The Washington Post that it was not yet clear how many objects the museum would be receiving or how long they would stay. Other immovable pieces that made it through the flames — such as the 8,000-pipe organ originally built in 1403 — will be carefully assessed in place for water damage.

The tally of what was possibly lost, however, is already profound. It includes fragments of the remains of Saint Genevieve and Saint Denis, portions of which were installed in 1935 in architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th-century spire, which collapsed at the height of Monday’s blaze.

Historians emphasized that the cathedral itself was an emblem — and even a crucible — for a certain architectural style and the advancements that came with it. Notre Dame was perhaps the iconic Gothic aspiration, said Samantha Herrick, a historian of medieval France and professor at Syracuse University.

“A lot of features of this church, while not unique, were new at the time,” she said. “Stained glass was new. Flying buttresses were new. Gothic architecture itself was new. This was a site of innovation.”

For the moment, the most pressing question is the state of the cathedral’s stained-glass masterpieces — and particularly the three massive, multicolored rose windows originally installed in the 13th century and heavily restored 600 years later. Despite these subsequent restorations, the windows still contain some of their original medieval elements.

Images showed that the rose windows technically remained intact, but the condition of the materials was far from certain.

“Clearly they were damaged, but to what degree we don’t yet know,” said Karine Boulanger, a specialist in stained glass at Sorbonne University in Paris.

“We can see they are still in place, but we don’t know in which state they are in, at least in a detailed manner,” she said. “Even if the fire didn’t come all the way down into the cathedral itself, the heat itself was very intense. And the heat will have impacted the glass, as well as the material that keeps the glass panels together.”

A body blow to Paris and all it represents

The architect Jean de Chelles designed and constructed the northern transept, or section branching out from the main structure, between 1245 and 1260. He then began construction of the southern transept in 1258, but it was achieved by Pierre de Montreuil in the 1270.

For experts, what makes the monumental rose windows installed in the course of this construction unique is that there are few examples of medieval stained glass in Paris, at least outside of Sainte-Chapelle, a jewel box of a chapel in the shadow of Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cite.

But particularly dazzling is the scale of the rose windows. The north rose, for instance, reaches more than 42 feet in diameter and the south rose more than 62 feet, taking account of its additional skylight.

Herrick noted that the particular way in which portions of the cathedral collapsed was a testament to its medieval identity, particularly vis-a-vis Notre Dame’s lead roof.

“There’s something ironic about that, as medieval sources were constantly complaining about the cost of keeping up the lead roof,” she said. “Fires were constantly happening in the period, and the things most likely to fall in that period were the roofs.”

Late Monday, President Emmanuel Macron called for Notre Dame to be rebuilt. And almost immediately, some of France’s wealthiest families pledged their support, including Bernard Arnault, Europe’s richest man and chief executive of the LVMH luxury conglomerate, and François Pinault, another luxury magnate.

Notre Dame’s spire and the young architect commissioned to rebuild it

But the donation pledges from wealthy private sources led to some criticism of the French state, which some felt should shoulder more of the burden to preserve such an important piece of national and religious cultural heritage.

In the words of Olivier Gabet, the director of Paris’s Musee des Arts Decoratifs: “If Notre Dame is a symbol of France, of its history, of its art, it is also the property of the state. In that sense, if we can only rejoice in the generosity of great donors, we could only be proud that the state undertakes to finance this restoration fully, in these troubled times.”

After the flames were put under control, a gilded cross was still standing alone — but intact — in the chancel surrounded by charred walls and water dripping from what is left of the roof.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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