Why you should care

On Monday, Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was devastated by fire. It’s not the first.

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WHAT TO KNOW

What happened? Parisians and non-Parisians alike watched in horror as the famed Notre Dame Cathedral — a world-renowned symbol of religious history, art and Gothic architecture — was devastated by fire on Monday. Flames ripped through its famously gargoyle-lined roof, engulfing the iconic 750-ton wooden spire, which later collapsed. Renovations worth $180 million had been underway at Notre Dame when the fire broke out. Some 400 firefighters worked overnight to contain the flames; at least one was seriously injured. Authorities say they’ve managed to save the cathedral’s two towers, averting complete destruction.

Authorities have launched an inquiry to determine the cause of the fire, which remains unknown. The revered medieval church, constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts 30,000 people daily and 13 million people annually. 

Notre Dame joins national museums in Brazil and India that have suffered devastating blazes over the past few years, prompting experts and the public to question why they’re not better prepared and protected against the risk of fire.

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The spire collapses as flames engulf Note Dame in Paris.

Source Getty Images

Why does it matter? The tragedy in Paris, which struck during Holy Week, will be especially hard for French Catholics, but Our Lady of Paris is an international monument beloved by both believers and nonbelievers. Today’s news sparked a flurry on social media, with people from around the globe sharing their favorite holiday photos featuring the famed cathedral. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo tweeted about not having strong enough words to express her sadness. “This evening, all Parisians and French citizens are crying over our shared history,” she wrote. President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, was on hand at the scene of the blaze, vowing to launch an international fundraising campaign to rebuild Notre Dame. 

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

Treasures at risk. Many of the cathedral’s priceless relics and artworks were pulled out of harm’s way, including the Crown of Thorns relic purportedly worn by Jesus and brought to Paris in the 13th century by King Louis IX, aka Saint Louis. Other works recently had been removed for restoration, including 16 metal statues representing the 12 apostles and four evangelists, which were lowered from the roof just last week. The best-known masterpiece, however, is part of the building: the south rose window, fashioned in 1260 and commissioned by Saint Louis. It remains unknown whether this window was destroyed or severely damaged by the fire.

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An engraving from 1865 shows the front of Notre Dame.

Source Getty Images

It’s survived looting and neglect. The cathedral was brought back from the brink once before by Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which spurred a massive restoration in the 19th century. Much of the current structure, in fact, dates back to that effort. Nicolas Delesalle, a Paris Match journalist, tweeted about how a priest lamented today that the worst loss was the 13th-century wooden framework known as “The Forest.” The building was also ransacked during the French Revolution, seeing its treasures stolen and statues beheaded.

Was the building already in trouble? The ongoing renovations were the tip of the iceberg when it came to Notre Dame’s long-neglected maintenance, authorities say. A year ago, reporters were shown a structure crumbling before their eyes. Some stones had fallen and others were stapled together while flying buttresses that maintain the cathedral’s graceful walls were eroded by weather and pollution — putting the entire structure at risk.

WHAT TO READ

Witnessing the Fall of Notre-Dame by Rachel Donadio in The Atlantic 

“I was standing in a hushed, pained throng along the Quai d’Orléans of the Ile Saint Louis facing the back of the basilica, and when I watched the spire fall, I gasped and choked back tears.”

Notre Dame’s Fame Through the Ages, in the Wall Street Journal

 “The cathedral has suffered severe damage several times in its history, including during the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century.”

WHAT TO WATCH 

President Macron Vows to Rebuild Notre Dame

“Notre-Dame of Paris is our history, literature, our imagination … it’s the epicenter of our life.”

Watch on France 24 on YouTube:

 

Notre Dame Cathedral Suffers Extensive Damage

“[Fighting high urban fires is] not really a tool that urban firefighters have in their belts.”

 Watch on the CBS Evening News:

 

 

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Is this a wakeup call? Devastating fires that sent tens of millions of historic artifacts up in smoke at Brazil’s National Museum last year and India’s National Museum of Natural History in 2016 sparked a reassessment of how museums protect their stores — but their mismanagement and disrepair was often seen as a phenomenon among less wealthy countries. The Notre Dame fire, in the heart of Europe, is a wakeup call for fire safety at historic structures across the continent, particularly those with wooden ceilings.

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