Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

The ethics of cultural heritage
The ethics of cultural heritage

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1.1 The Notre-Dame fire

This is a colour photo taken of Notre-Dame Cathedral from the south. On the left is one of the large square belfries. To the right of centre, the roof above a stained-glass rose window is covered in bright orange flame. The flame has also spread part way up the spire behind the window and is producing plumes of smoke which fill the sky.
Figure 4 Notre-Dame on 15 April 2019 at 19:00, from the Quai de Montebello

On 15 April 2019, tragedy struck. A fire broke out in the attic beneath the roof of Notre-Dame (Figure 4). It is not known what caused the fire – it may have been by a dropped cigarette or faulty electrical equipment but nothing has ever been confirmed. The alarm was first sounded at 18:20 but, by the time the source of the fire was discovered, it was too advanced to be easily extinguished.

The Île de la Cité on which Notre-Dame stands was quickly evacuated, while more than 400 firefighters tried to prevent the fire from spreading across the cathedral’s roof. Simultaneously, teams of other municipal workers formed human chains to evacuate various precious objects and relics from the cathedral.

Initially, much of the efforts to put out the blaze were carried out from inside Notre-Dame itself, a choice which allowed the fire to be fought more effectively. But it increased the danger for the personnel involved, given the weakening roof, smoke and molten lead dripping from the stained-glass windows.

At 19:50 the 91-metre-high central spire of the cathedral, which had been engulfed in flames, collapsed (Figure 5). This created a hole in the ceiling below, forcing the firefighters to retreat from the attic.

This is a colour photo of Notre-Dame cathedral taken from the north-east. The fire on the roof of the church has completely overtaken the spire and some scaffolding arranged around it. The beams of the spire are visible through the smoke and flames.
Figure 5 Notre-Dame Cathedral’s spire on fire, 15 April 2019

Shortly after the spire was lost, the fire also began to threaten the northern belfry (Figure 6). If the eight immense bells inside had fallen, they could have caused a chain reaction, destroying the base of the towers and eventually pulling down the whole cathedral.

This is a colour photo of Notre-Dame from the west. It shows the two square belfries of the cathedral with huge amounts of flame and smoke rising up from the roof behind them. In the foreground, a large crowd of people, standing around a lamp post, look on.
Figure 6 The west end of Notre-Dame Cathedral

Fortunately, the firefighters were able to focus their efforts and prevent the towers from collapsing. By 21:45, the fire had been reduced to a manageable size and the worst of the danger had passed. The last remnants of the fire were extinguished in the early hours of the morning.