The fire that tore through Notre-Dame cathedral was probably caused by accident, French prosecutors said on Tuesday after fire-fighters doused the last flames in the ruins overnight and the nation grieved for the destruction of one of its symbols.
More than 400 firemen were needed to tame the inferno that consumed the roof and collapsed the spire of the eight-centuries-old cathedral. They worked through the night to extinguish the fire some 14 hours after it began.
Paris public prosecutor Remy Heitz said there was no obvious indication the fire was arson. Fifty people were working on what would be a long and complex investigation. One fire-fighter was injured but no one else was hurt in the blaze, which began after the building was closed to the public for the evening.
From the outside, the imposing bell towers and outer walls, with their vast flying buttresses, still stood firm, but the insides and the upper structure were eviscerated by the blaze.
Fire-fighters examined the gothic facade and could be seen walking atop the belfries as police kept the area in lockdown. Investigators will not be able to enter the cathedral’s blackened nave until experts are satisfied its stone walls withstood the heat and the building is structurally sound.
The fire swiftly ripped through the cathedral’s timbered roof supports, where workmen had been carrying out extensive renovations to the spire’s wooden frame.
The Paris prosecutor has opened an investigation into “involuntary destruction by fire”. Police on Tuesday began questioning the workers involved in the restoration, the prosecutor’s office said.
Hundreds of stunned onlookers had lined the banks of the Seine river late into the night as the fire raged, reciting prayers and singing liturgical music in harmony as they stood in vigil.
“Yesterday, we thought the whole cathedral would collapse. Yet, this morning she is still standing, valiant, despite everything. It is a sign of hope,” said Sister Marie Aimee, a nun who had hurried to a nearby church to pray as the fire spread.
It was at Notre-Dame that Napoleon was made Emperor in 1804, Pope Pius X beatified Joan of Arc in 1909 and former presidents Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand were mourned.
President Emmanuel Macron promised to rebuild Notre-Dame, considered among the finest examples of European Gothic architecture, visited by more than 13 million people a year.
Notre-Dame is owned by the State. It has been at the centre of a years-long row between the nation and the Paris archdiocese over who should finance restoration work to collapsed balustrades, crumbling gargoyles and cracked facades.