Feu! Feu!

New report details what went wrong the night of the Notre-Dame fire

The New York Times investigated the series of events that caused the April 15th fire at Notre-Dame to grow out of control. (Via manhhai/Flickr)

Apparently, Notre-Dame Cathedral was more likely to collapse than we were led to believe on April 15, when a historic fire sent not only Paris but the world into a state of mourning over the potential loss of a beloved architectural landmark. 

The New York Times has discovered, after reviewing hundreds of documents and completing a series of interviews with church officials and leaders from the fire security company responsible for Notre-Dame, that there was a major miscommunication about where exactly the flames had started. According to the report, when the fire alarm went off at 6:18 p.m., the guard sent to check on the warning went to the wrong building—the sacristy, not the attic—which seriously delayed the response effort. 

It took 30 minutes before anyone realized what was happening. By the time the guard climbed up to “the forest,” the famous attic constructed of aged timber beams holding up the roof, the fire was unstoppable. Failure to identify the location of the blaze in time was only the first misstep in a series of errors that night. 

The NYT found another critical reason why the damage was so bad; the fire warning system was “so arcane that when it was called upon to do the one thing that mattered — warn “fire!” and say where — it produced instead a nearly indecipherable message.” Reporters uncovered archival documents in a Paris library detailing the lengths at which the cathedral staff and fire protection experts had taken over six years to put the alarm in place, but it was simply too old and too slow. Not only that, but Notre-Dame’s attic didn’t contain any sprinklers or firewalls. 

Perhaps one of the most unfortunate causes of the blaze was the newness of the employee who communicated the location of the fire to the guard. The NYT reported that it was only his third day on the job, and he had just started a double shift manning the presbytery room, which contained a complicated control panel that alerted him to smoke anywhere in the complex. There’s debate over whether he understood the alert and whether he communicated it correctly. Recent staff cuts at Notre-Dame had left him solo, according to The Telegraph.

The cathedral’s spire had fallen an hour into the fight against the blaze, and the fire was so all-consuming that all firefighters on site were ordered to return to the ground where, after realizing the wind was pushing the fire towards the northern bell tower, they switched their efforts to save that structure instead. By 9:45 p.m., things were under control. 



This NYT report sheds light on the various elements that caused the fire at Notre-Dame to get so far out of control. By chronicling the night’s events, hour by hour, we can now see how fragile the cathedral truly was, and how close we were to losing it forever—and by some estimates, still are.

An official investigation by the French government is still ongoing to determine the cause of the fire, though it’s believed that no malice was intended. As of yesterday, parliament has approved a bill to reconstruct Notre-Dame by 2024, meaning the $954 million collected in donations following the fire will go directly to the restoration. According to the Senate, the building will be rebuilt to historical accuracy, though it will be a while before that can begin. Work on reinforcing the structure is currently proceeding very slowly and the project’s chief architect says it could still collapse if the flying buttresses aren’t shored up properly, CNN reports

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