Did The Design Of The Notre Dame Make It Vulnerable To Fire?

Before the fire. Shutterstock

On Monday, the Notre Dame caught fire. The 850-year-old cathedral – famous for its gothic architecture, star-studded history, and its titular role in the Victor Hugo classic (and Disney's interpretation of) "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" – is now fire-free, after 400 firefighters spent nine hours tackling the flames. But the damage done could take decades to repair. 

The good news is that the building's façade and two main towers have remained intact, while the cathedral's artworks and historical artifacts (including The Crown of Thorns and tunic of St. Louis) have been safeguarded, a spokesperson has confirmed. The not-so-good news is that the roof has been largely destroyed and the Notre Dame's iconic spire – added during a 19th-century restoration project – has collapsed. 


An investigation has been opened to try and establish the cause of the fire. While no one knows how exactly the fire started, certain vulnerabilities may have assisted the flames and exacerbated the damage. Of course, this is speculative and until the investigation is complete, we won't have a full picture of what really happened.


Fire brigade records suggest the fire originated in the attic, which lies above the cathedral's stone arches and is held together by timber structures. The wooden frame already raises some problems from a fire point of view, but as Andrew Tremlett, the Dean of Durham Cathedral in the UK, told The New York Times, this situation is made worse by the (flammable) dust and debris that accumulates here.

From there, it seems the flames quickly ate up the medieval cathedral's oak frame – nicknamed "the forest" because of the many, many trees it took to make. André Finot, a cathedral spokesperson, told journalists the building has sustained "colossal damage", while the 13th-century oak frame has been gutted, The Washington Post reports.

“Nothing will remain from the frame,” he added.


Once the fire took hold, the absence of fire-protection safeguards and the airy architecture made it hard to snuff out the flames, Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire science at John Jay College, told The New York Times

"Very often when you're confronted with something like this, there's not much you can do," he explained.

Fortunately, things are now under control (read: put out) but yesterday's event is not the first time the Notre Dame has set ablaze. In the 13th century, renovation had to take place after a fire destroyed parts of the building. 

Indeed, current renovation may have (ironically) increased the odds of a fire starting in the first place, with firefighters telling The AFP the fire was "potentially linked" to the rejuvenation project. Tools like welders and flammable material at the construction site could have sparked or contributed to the flames.


[H/T: The New York TimesThe Washington Post; The AFP]