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Notre Dame Cathedral fire: What caused it and what happens next

Officials speculate that a possible electrical short-circuit is responsible for the fire, in tandem with the cathedral's lack of fire-prevention safeguards.


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

Michel Euler/Getty Images

French judicial police believe an electrical short-circuit is most likely what caused the devastating fire that blazed through Paris' historic Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday. According to the anonymous official who spoke with the Associated Press on Thursday, investigators still aren't allowed inside the cathedral for safety reasons. 

Authorities are still investigating the fire as an accident but are taking the cathedral's outdated fire-prevention safeguards into consideration, The New York Times reported

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. 

Valérie Pécresse, the president of the Île-de-France region in which Paris lies, confirmed Tuesday 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 the aftermath of the fire, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the landmark. Experts now plan to fortify what's left of the 850-year-old structure, and donations have already started coming in from French philanthropists and charities to fund the extensive rebuilding costs.

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

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 Tuesday morning showed debris still smoldering around the altar. On Tuesday, a tweet surfaced showing that the rooster from the iconic spire survived the fire.

Additionally, three beehives -- home to about 180,000 bees -- located beneath the rose window also 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 week.

People in France and around the world were in mourning over the damage, including the loss of the building's spire and part of the roof. Artifacts and artwork in the cathedral 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. 

"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."

'Everything is burning'

The fire started shortly after the cathedral closed around 6:45 p.m. local time and grew quickly in windy conditions. The narrow streets, the heat of the flames and the Parisian landmark'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. 

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

Though President Donald Trump tweeted that "perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out," 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."

A city united

Images of the fire quickly swept the globe on social media. And 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," Macron tweeted. France 24 reported that Macron is treating the fire as a national emergency.

In a tweet, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said firefighters were working to control the flames from the "terrible" fire 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 also tweeted statements of support. 

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

Christopher Hale, who ran for Congress in Tennessee and writes opinion columns for Time magazine, quickly specified that his friend's information hadn't been confirmed and 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 on Tuesday. "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."

French authorities haven't suggested arson as a cause for the blaze.

On Thursday, 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's an additional ceremony scheduled for later in the day.

The race to save history

While the Gothic cathedral, which dates from the 12th century, is a masterpiece itself 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. Fortunately, some of the the treasures were safely retrieved as the fire unfolded, including a centuries-old crown of thorns made from reeds and gold. And just days ago, copper statues representing the 12 apostles and four evangelists were removed for cleaning as part of the restoration project. 

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 sights in France, it's also a symbol of Paris and one of the city's most visited monuments.

How to see Notre Dame Cathedral

It's too soon to say when restoration on the cathedral will begin. For now, if you want to visit or relive a trip there, check out these virtual tours both inside the majestic halls and from a birds-eye view of the timeless architecture. 

Originally published April 15, 1:09 p.m. PT.
Updates, 3:50 p.m., 11:52 p.m. and 4:09 p.m.: More details added; April 16 at 6:32 a.m., 10:39 a.m. and 3:45 p.m.: More details added; April 17 at 11:28 a.m. and 12:27 p.m.: More details added; April 18 at 12:52 p.m. and 1:17 p.m.: More details added; April 22 at 12:21 p.m.: More details added.