Notre Dame awaits her resurrection in an induced coma

A huge crane watches over the patient from above. Bandaged and splinted, still trapped by its fire-iron prison, Notre Dame Cathedral wait in an induced coma the beginning of his recovery. Just a year ago, hell unleashed itself on its roof and turned smoke into part of the history of France. Everything that seemed stable for ever and ever went up in flames, and the whole country was united in tragedy and the hope of its reconstruction.

It is possible that the pandemic has updated the meaning of the unreal. But the night that Notre Dame burned had that feeling of unreality great moments in history. The fire started at 6:43 p.m. on that April 15 and, an hour and a quarter later, its needle, Violet-le-Duc’s 93-meter-high masterpiece, succumbed to the flames before the helpless and stupefied gaze of millions of people.

More than 600 firefighters they fought for 15 hours to turn it offBut the crucial moment of the night, as they later recognized, was the 20 minutes it took to control the fire that was beginning to spread through one of its beautiful Gothic towers, and which was about to cause a chain collapse. With dawn came the sighs of relief, and also the promises of reconstruction. Like the Phoenix Bird, Notre Dame would be reborn from its ashes in five years, President Emmanuel Macron then promised.

Since then, a public body has been created to centralize and speed up work, chaired by an enthusiastic retired general, Jean-Louis Georgelin. But the situation of the cathedral remains “Maximum urgency”, according to the teams working on its consolidation, while unforeseen events such as lead contamination or the Covid-19 pandemic have delayed the project.

The burning roof; the remains of the ceiling in the temple transept; and helmeted celebrations of Easter. / EFE / Reuters

Scaffolding is the main obstacle to start the restoration. The 500-ton mastodon – which had been installed months before to renovate the roof – was made a mass of irons by the fire. On March 23, technicians specialized in working at height were going to start dismantling it, sawing piece by piece hanging on ropes. An immense 75-meter-high crane was installed in December to lower the 500,000 tubes that make up the frame, while a sensor system will record the smallest oscillation. The operation, which was to last four months, has been paralyzed by the Covid-19 crisis.

The Lead Threat

Along with the scaffolding, lead has been the another headache of the work. The fire melted the 1,326 five-millimeter lead plates that covered the roof of the cathedral, weighing 210 tons. Some of that lead was released into particulates, which contaminated much of the surroundings of Notre Dame. The works had to be stopped from July to the end of August last year to decontaminate these areas and to put in place a protection device against this heavy metal, dangerous for health.

Cleaning up lead has, however, proved to be a difficult task. Techniques used so far, such as high pressure cleaning or vacuuming have not given the results expected. Last February, the technicians wanted to test a new cold resin cleaning system on the front esplanade, which has had to be paralyzed by confinement.

The reconstruction mystery

Without having yet managed to stabilize the cathedral, the reconstruction plans remain in a phase of debate. It has not even been decided whether the oak structure that supported the roof, known as “the forest” and that was reduced to ashes, will be reconstructed in wood or will be chosen other material. Nor if the needle will rise again in the image and likeness that the one built by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century – as the chief architect of the restoration, Philippe Villeneuve seems to favor – or will the door be opened to new ideas.

How it all started?

From the beginning, the investigation pointed to accidental motives. Either a short circuit in the elevator area installed to repair the roof or a badly extinguished cigarette end. In February, Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz acknowledged that the investigation «it will last, it is complex, colossal». The Police Prefecture laboratory had asked to collect new samples in the area where the fire is believed to have originated, for which it will be necessary to wait for the scaffolding to be removed.

But, if the investigation has not yet been able to prove how the fire originated, it has evidenced human failures that allowed the fire to spread. A misinterpretation of the fire detection system delayed the call to the fire department. The security officer in charge at the time had only been at his post for four days and, by the time he managed to understand where the fire might be – after an 18-minute telephone conversation with his superior – the flames were already devouring part of the wooden structure. that held the roof of the cathedral.

The collected money

The embers of the cathedral had not yet faded when a shower of pledge donations began to fall on the ruins of Notre Dame, encouraged, no doubt, by excitement, but also by the government’s announcement of a 75% tax deduction. . Among them, the great French fortunes of luxury, such as the Arnault family, owners of LVMH, of 200 million euros, and the Pinault, owners of Kering, for 100 million euros.

More than 900 million have already been confirmed by the four foundations in charge of collecting them, although most of them will be disbursed over the years depending on the needs.

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