Friday 19 April 2019

Explainer: How Notre Dame's age and design fuelled flames and hampered firefighters' efforts

A fire fighter uses a hose as Notre Dame cathedral is burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
A fire fighter uses a hose as Notre Dame cathedral is burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Firefighters use hoses as Notre Dame cathedral burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Devastated: Flames engulf the roof of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Parisians kneel and pray as flames engulf Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Firefighters tackle the blaze as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
Flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
A fire fighter uses a hose as Notre Dame cathedral is burning in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
The cathedral is on an island in the Seine. Photo: REUTERS
People watch as fire fighters douse flames of the burning Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Paris Fire brigade members are seen at an entrance that shows a cross inside the Notre Dame Cathedral as a fire continues to burn in Paris, France, April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
Firefighters tackle the blaze as flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Fire fighters douse flames of the burning Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier
Firefighters use hoses as Notre Dame cathedral burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Flames and smoke are seen as the interior at Notre Dame cathedral (AP)
(PA Graphics)
The catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of the Gothic cathedral (AP)
Firefighters are continuing to work at the cathedral (AP)

Michael R Sisak and Seth Borenstein

Experts have said there is little firefighters could have done to control the blaze that tore through Paris' historic Notre Dame Cathedral any sooner.

The combination of a structure that is more than 850 years old, built with heavy timber construction and soaring open spaces, and lacking sophisticated fire protection systems, led to flames spreading quickly.

This jeopardised the entire cathedral before firefighters brought the blaze under control.

Glenn Corbett, a professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York, said: "Very often when you're confronted with something like this, there's not much you can do."

Fire hoses looked overmatched as flames raged across the cathedral's wooden roof and burned brightly for hours. The fire toppled a 300ft spire and launched cricket ball-sized embers into the air.

While the cause remains under investigation, authorities said that the cathedral's structure - including its landmark rectangular towers - has been saved.

US fire administrator G Keith Bryant said some of the factors that made Notre Dame a must-see for visitors to Paris - its age, sweeping size and French Gothic design, featuring masonry walls and tree trunk-sized wooden beams - also made it a tinderbox and a difficult place to fight a fire.

With a building like that, it is nearly impossible for firefighters to attack a fire from within.

Instead, they have to be more defensive "and try to control the fire from the exterior", said Mr Bryant, a former fire chief in Oklahoma and past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

He said: "When a fire gets that well-involved it's very difficult to put enough water on it to cool it to bring it under control."

And while there is a lot of water right next door at the Seine River, getting it to the right place is the problem, he said. "There are just not enough resources in terms of fire apparatus, hoses, to get that much water on a fire that's that large."

Because of narrower streets, which make it difficult to manoeuvre large ladder fire engines, European fire services do not tend to have ladders as big as they do in the United States, Mr Bryant said.

US president Donald Trump's armchair-firefighter suggestion that tanker jets should be used to dump water from above on Notre Dame might have done more harm than good.

French authorities tweeted that the crush of water on the fire-ravaged landmark could have caused the entire structure to collapse.

Other landmark houses of worship have taken steps in recent years to reduce the risk of fire.

St Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, built in 1878, installed a sprinkler-like system during recent renovations and coated its wooden roof with fire retardant. The cathedral also goes through at least four fire inspections a year.

Washington National Cathedral, built in 1912 with steel, brick and limestone construction that put it at less risk of a fast-moving fire, is installing sprinklers as part of a renovation spurred by earthquake damage in 2011.

That cathedral faces fire inspections every two years, but Washington firefighters stop by more often to learn about the church's unique architecture and the terminology involved - so, for example, they will know where to go if there is a fire in the nave, or main area of the church.

Jim Shepherd, the cathedral's director of preservation and facilities, said: "It's really important for us to make sure that those local firefighters are aware of our building and our kooky medieval names that we use for all the different spaces and that they know where to go."

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the New York Archbishop who often visited the Notre Dame Cathedral while studying in Europe, saw significance in the fact that the fire broke out at the beginning of Holy Week, as Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Archbishop Dolan said: "Just as the cross didn't have the last word, neither - for people of faith in France - will this fire have the last word."

Press Association

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