Almost nine hours after it started, the blaze that brought down the spire and roof of one of the world’s most iconic religious structures was finally extinguished by firefighters. What was left was a scene of unprecedented destruction in the near 900-year history of the Notre Dame de Paris.
It's a "terrible tragedy," French President Emmanuel Macron said as he vowed to rebuild the 12th-century structure, widely considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture.
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The cathedral was in the midst of a €6 million renovation project to repair damage that had accumulated over eight centuries. The building has been damaged many times in its history—including during the French Revolution, after which it was largely neglected, and during the liberation of Paris in World War II—and the many previous restoration and repair projects have familiarized architects with the cathedral’s makeup. Some have expressed a hope that it will be possible to replicate it, but it will never be what it was.
The repair effort will cost millions of euros, and companies, institutions, and individuals have promised €845 million so far. Billionaires François-Henri Pinault and Bernard Arnault have between them pledged over €300 million to rebuild the landmark.
"The Notre-Dame tragedy strikes all French people, as well as all those with spiritual values," said Pinault, who is the chairman of Artémis and married to Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek. "Faced with this tragedy, everyone wishes to bring this jewel of our heritage back to life as soon as possible," he told The New York Times.
U.S companies are also planning to provide aid—Apple’s Tim Cook tweeted: "We are heartbroken for the French people and those around the world for whom Notre Dame is a symbol of hope. Relieved that everyone is safe. Apple will be donating to the rebuilding efforts to help restore Notre Dame’s precious heritage for future generations."
The French government will also launch a global campaign to gather donations for the reconstruction. Numerous funds have sprung up online including the New York–based French Heritage Society.
"Notre Dame is more than a religious symbol, it speaks of human achievements and great art," said Elizabeth Stribling, chair of the society. "Although it's located in France, it is part of great world art that informs our culture and heritage. We must all spring to action." The France–based Friends of Notre-Dame is also taking online donations.
While the extent of the damage is not yet known, the world watched as the cathedral's picturesque spire collapsed amidst flames. Thankfully, the fire appears to have left the two epic towers—gargoyles and all—relatively unscathed (Quasimodo will be pleased). The timber beneath the roof was the weak point in the stone structure, according to reports. The lead roof was supported by a "forêt" of wooden beams, built from 1,300 oak trees cut from primeval forests in the 12th and 13th centuries. Experts say it's unlikely this can be rebuilt as before, as there aren't any trees that large left in the country.
Despite the destruction, some treasures were saved—the fire department prioritized getting the people and art out. Notre Dame houses countless priceless religious and historical artifacts, and while the extent of the damage is not yet known, firefighters were able to rescue the cathedral's most sacred piece, the crown of thorns—said to have been worn by Jesus Christ before the crucifixion—and a tunic belonging to King Louis IX.
The fire's cause hasn't been revealed, but authorities say nothing so far indicates it was anything other than an accident. The BBC reported that it could be linked to the renovation work.
How the church—which took hundreds of years to be built—will be rebuilt will likely be a long debate. Replacing stone walls chiseled by the hands of man hundreds of years ago with those carved by machines, would forever change the aesthetics of this historic building—but it would also add to its long and storied history.