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Notre-Dame fire | ‘Inadequate’ firefighting response questioned

Notre dame

A leading British fire engineering specialist has questioned the response from the Paris Fire Brigade following a catastrophic fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral.

Mosen managing director Fathi Tarada told New Civil Engineer that initial efforts to stop the blaze from spreading appeared to be “inadequate”.

The Notre-Dame fire started around 6.30pm local time (5.30pm BST) yesterday and destroyed the entirety of the cathedral’s roof and spire.

Firefighters eventually contained the fire during the early hours of this morning, announcing that the 12th century building’s walls and structure, including its two towers, had been saved after an effort involving 500 firefighters.

Tarada – who was an expert witness for an inquiry into the devastating 2005 fire and explosion at Buncefield oil storage facility – said that on viewing live television footage he believed the fire services initial response should be investigated.

“The Paris fire brigade’s response appears to be inadequate,” Tarada said. “Fire had spread to the northern bell tower, but I could only see two water canons in operation, with one canon trying to protect the northern bell tower and the other canon directed to the cathedral roof.

“The forthcoming public inquiry will no doubt want to consider this issue.”

As firefighters tackled the blaze yesterday evening, the cathedral’s spire collapsed around 8pm local time (7pm BST), followed shortly afterwards by the collapse of a large section the roof. The spire – a 19th century recreation of an earlier version – comprised 250t of lead and was 96m tall.

The fire spread into one of the two iconic bell towers, with firefighters efforts successfully saving this iconic section of the structure.

At 11pm, Paris Fire Brigade commander Jean-Claude Galler announced that “the two towers of the Notre-Dame [had] been saved”.

A spokesperson for the fire service said it had been a “major accomplishment” by hundreds of firefighters and confirmed that around two thirds of the roof “had been ravaged”.

The 12th century cathedral was currently undergoing a renovation project after cracks began to appear in the stone, sparking fears the structure could become unstable.

A €6M (£5M) project to repair the spire was ongoing, with 3m copper statutes removed from around the top of the cathedral only last week ahead of renovation work.

The cause of the fire is currently unclear, but officials have suggested that it could be linked to the renovation work.

A large amount of scaffold remains above the remains of the iconic cathedral, with cranes still in place.

Tarada said that refurbishment work was a plausible cause for the fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral.

“The origin of the fire is still a matter of speculation, but it is well known that refurbishment work presents a fire risk factor. This is because of hot work [welding, for example] and sparks that can be generated by certain processes such as grinding and sawing,” Tarada said.

“It appears that the fire started in the roof, and has spread rapidly. The roof was almost entirely made of wood, which is of medieval origin and not likely to have been treated with fire retardants.

“The old wood was dry and therefore particularly vulnerable to fire. On that basis, the roof material could support rapid horizontal and vertical fire spread.”

He added: “To my knowledge, no sprinklers had been installed in the cathedral […] the roof appears to have completely burnt through.

“Once the roof caught fire, falling embers would have fallen down and ignited the wooden frames, structure and cellulosic contents of the cathedral.”

One firefighter was injured during the operation, but no fatalities have been reported.

French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to restore the cathedral, saying “the worst has been avoided”.

“Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicentre of our lives,” Macron said. “So I solemnly say tonight: we will rebuild it together.”

The Paris prosecutor’s office said it has opened an inquiry into the incident.

Renovation challenge

The cathedral’s façade was restored in the 1990s, giving little indication of the actual fatigue and critical structural issues facing the iconic structure.

The following are just some of the urgent repairs which were needed:

  • The nearly 100m meter high spire and the 12 apostles that crown it have a large number of cracks and fissures that need an immediate restoration
  • The aging stonework of all of the flying buttresses are causing problems for the stability of the whole building
  • Many pinnacles and gargoyles are in disrepair or have fallen down and
  • The lead framework of the stained glass windows is weakened

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Readers' comments (6)

  • I feel comments on the French fire service should be currently limited. Its disappointing that the article does not wait to find out the difficulties in tackling the fire before commenting on what an expert saw on television.

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  • Hindsight gives you 20:20 vision. Suggest that comments by 'experts' at the moment are redolent of 'blowing your own trumpet'!

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  • Richard Palmer

    That was my first thought, but the reality is that access to the structure is very difficult. Given the significance of this edifice to the French, one can be absolutely certain that the fire services did everything in their power to extinguish the fire.

    In France today, where I live and work (on renovating historic monuments) there is a palpable sadness.

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  • Out of tragedy can come opportunity....... If the cathedral is to be rebuilt (as of course it should), we have the opportunity to apply latest construction technologies and skills to create a Notre Dame than demonstrates that our current generation of building designers is capable of inspiring future generations................

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  • The leading British expert and the NCE should maybe have shown some respect and patience with this poorly timed article.

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  • There have been a few instances of calamitous fires during renovation works, including the Glasgow School of Art. The purpose of renovation is to prolong durability, so surely the use of more effective fire repression systems is an essential prior to any renovation works commencing in more vulnerable structures, whatever the cost; this is basic risk management.

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