Notre Dame Cathedral fire: Slow reconstruction and new dangers ahead

Here's everything you need to know about what caused Notre Dame to burn, and what's happening next.

Shelby Brown Editor II
Shelby Brown (she/her/hers) is an editor for CNET's services team. She covers tips and tricks for apps, operating systems and devices, as well as mobile gaming and Apple Arcade news. Shelby also oversees Tech Tips coverage. Before joining CNET, she covered app news for Download.com and served as a freelancer for Louisville.com.
  • She received the Renau Writing Scholarship in 2016 from the University of Louisville's communication department.
Shelby Brown
7 min read

The world mourned with Paris as a fire tore through the Cathedral of Notre Dame last month. 

Michel Euler/Getty Images

It's been more than nine months since a fire ravaged the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, consuming its spire and most of the roof. Although the blaze has long since been extinguished, the historic church still isn't safe from the elements as the slow rebuilding process begins.

Notre Dame for centuries has been a landmark wrapped into Parisian identity, and the April 15 fire gripped the internet. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter became key venues for news updates, vented emotions and shows of support. 

The Gothic cathedral, which dates from the 12th century, is a masterpiece with its flying buttresses, breathtaking stained glass windows and carved gargoyles; inside its walls are priceless Catholic relics and artifacts, paintings, statues and other precious artwork. 

The cathedral's facade has been the subject of countless paintings, and its soaring form also inspired Victor Hugo's famous novel, Notre-Dame de Paris or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Aside from being one of the most important religious sites in France, it's also one of the city's most visited monuments.

Experts now plan to fortify what's left of the 850-year-old structure.

A visual history of Notre-Dame de Paris

See all photos

What caused the fire? Was it an accident or arson?

French judicial police believe an electrical short-circuit is most likely what caused the fire. According to an anonymous official who spoke with the Associated Press, investigators still aren't allowed inside the cathedral for safety reasons. 

Authorities continue to investigate the fire as an accident but are taking the cathedral's outdated fire prevention safeguards into consideration, The New York Times reported. Valérie Pécresse, president of the Île-de-France region in which Paris lies, confirmed that the fire was an accident, though officials haven't elaborated on the exact cause. Paris police said it may be linked to the $6.8 million renovation efforts underway.

In addition, elements like firewalls and sprinkler systems were reportedly missing from Notre Dame's attic, where the fire burned, by choice. Electrical wiring reportedly wasn't allowed in the cathedral's attic to preserve its original design and to protect the lead ceiling's timber support beams.

How long did it take to put the fire out?

It took nine hours and more than 400 firefighters to bring the blaze under control and eventually extinguish it altogether. No deaths were reported, but one firefighter was reportedly seriously injured.

How is Notre Dame in danger now?

The greatest danger the cathedral faces is the wind, Paolo Vannucci, the engineer who originally warned about the risks inside Notre Dame in the event of a fire, told La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper, in mid-May. Vannucci said the landmark could withstand winds over 137 miles per hour before the fire. Since the blaze, that strength has diminished by 60%. Vannucci thinks it will take months to begin secure the edifice.

"According to my calculations, the risks of a collapse at the level of the vault are still high," Vannucci told La Repubblica.

What survived the fire?

Though fire crews initially said they "may not be able to save Notre Dame," they were able to preserve the main structure including the outer walls and the two bell towers. Photos from inside the cathedral taken April 16 showed debris still smoldering around the altar. Later, a tweet surfaced showing that the rooster from the iconic spire survived the fire.

Artifacts and artwork were saved by Parisian fire services and the city's deputy mayor for tourism and sports, Jean-Francois Martins, and his team. They were able to salvage the Crown of Thorns, the Blessed Sacrament and other items. The rescued works were transported to the Louvre Museum for safekeeping. Copper statues representing the 12 apostles and four evangelists had been removed for cleaning as part of the restoration project. 

"We made a human chain, with our friends from the church ... to get, as quick as possible, to get all the relics," Martins told CBS News. "Everything is safe and undamaged, and in our really bad day, we had one good news."

Additionally, three beehives -- home to about 180,000 bees -- located beneath the rose window survived the fire. Notre Dame's beekeeper, Nicolas Geant, said he received a call from the cathedral's spokesperson, who said the bees were flying in and out of their hives. Geant posted photos of bees buzzing around one of the gargoyles last month.

What didn't survive?

The building's spire and part of the roof disintegrated in the fire.

What was the timetable of events during the fire?

The fire started shortly after the cathedral closed around 6:45 p.m. local time on April 15 and grew quickly in windy conditions. The narrow streets, the heat of the flames and the cathedral's positioning along the River Seine made it difficult for firefighters to get closer.

At around 7:53 p.m., the spire fell amid the flames. Less than 15 minutes later, part of the roof collapsed, Reuters reported. The island where the cathedral is located, Paris' Ile de la Cité, was evacuated just before 8:30 p.m. 

It looked dire. "Everything is burning; nothing will remain from the frame," Notre Dame spokesperson Andre Finot told CBS News shortly after the blaze began.

US President Donald Trump tweeted that "perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out," but the civil defense agency of the French government responded that firefighters are using all means to combat the blaze, "except for water-bombing aircrafts which, if used, could lead to the collapse of the entire structure of the cathedral."

How did people respond?

Images of the fire quickly swept the globe on social media. In Paris, France 24 reported, people gathered and to sing Ave Maria and Catholic hymns.

"Our Lady of Paris in flames. Emotion of a whole nation. Thought for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our countrymen, I'm sad tonight to see this part of us burn," French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted. France 24 reported that Macron considered the fire a national emergency.

In a tweet, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said firefighters were working to control the flames, and she urged residents and visitors to respect the security perimeter. 

Much like after the terrorist attacks on Paris in 2015, politicians, religious leaders and ordinary citizens from around the world also tweeted statements of support. 

Social media also indulged in one of its favorite pastimes — conspiracy theories — after a US politician tweeted out unverified information when a friend in Europe told him the fire was set intentionally.

Christopher Hale, who ran for Congress in Tennessee and writes opinion columns for Time magazine, quickly noted that his friend's information hadn't been confirmed, and he deleted his original tweet, according to The Daily Beast. But that didn't stop far-right conspiracy theorists from using Hale's tweet as proof that terrorists had started the fire. 

"In retrospect, I absolutely never should have tweeted it in the first place," Hale told the publication. "I don't think I had the foresight about how much the worst parts of the internet will grasp for straws in their conspiracy theories."

Again, French authorities didn't suggest arson as a cause for the blaze.

Last month, firefighters from the Paris Fire Brigade attended a reception in their honor at Macron's residence, the Élysée Palace. According to The New York Times, there was an additional ceremony scheduled for later in the day.

What's being done now?

President Macron vowed to rebuild Notre Dame. Donations poured in from French philanthropists and charities to fund the extensive rebuilding costs.

The University of Notre Dame in the US donated $100,000 to the cathedral's relief and rang campus basilica's bell 50 times the day after the fire. 

IBM has pledged to give 1 million euros, while Apple CEO Tim Cook also tweeted that his company would donate funds. Disney reportedly pledged $5 million to the restoration efforts. Disney produced The Hunchback of Notre Dame, an animated adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel in 1996.

How can I donate to help rebuild Notre Dame?

Here are a few places to get you started if you're interested in being a part of rebuilding the cathedral:

  • Fondation du Patrimoine has collected more than 7 million euros internationally for the Notre Dame Cathedral. Donations can be made once or monthly by credit card, check or bank transfer. The nonprofit is dedicated to preserving historical and cultural sites in France. 
  • The Friends of Notre Dame is a 501c3 public charity. Donations to Notre Dame's restoration can be made by credit card, through PayPal or by sending a check to the address on the website. The charity has broken up its budget into long-term, intermediate and urgent needs for the cathedral. Urgent needs include restoring the fallen spire, the collapsed roof and the sacristy. 
  • The Basilica of the National Shrine, also known as America's Catholic Church, is collecting donations online and prayer requests in the wake of the fire. The National Shrine encouraged the world to unite and rebuild the cathedral that has served as a place of worship for eight centuries. 
  • The French Heritage Society, a public nonprofit, established a fund to collect donations for the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral. You can donate online with a credit or debit card, with PayPal, send checks in the mail, or donate over the phone by contacting Benjamin Wells at the FHS Programs Membership Office, at (212) 759-6846, ext. 201. Donations are tax deductible under US law and eligible for deduction under French law. 
  • Dozens of GoFundMe campaigns have cropped up around the world to help rebuild Notre Dame. While you can donate to these, be aware that they're unofficial fundraisers. It's important to always research organizations to make sure they're reputable.  

How to see Notre Dame Cathedral

You can get a look at renovation efforts in a new VR documentary from Targo called Rebuilding Notre Dame. It's available through Oculus TV and works on Oculus Quest, Oculus Go, and Samsung Gear VR. Facebook announced the new documentary on Jan. 23.

If you want to visit or relive a trip there, you can see virtual tours both inside the majestic halls and from a birds-eye view of the timeless architecture. 

Watch this: The fire truck of the future?

Originally published April 15.
Updates April 16, 17, 18, 22, May 29 and Jan. 27: Adds information about the fire and its aftermath, and what lies ahead.