Saturday 21 September 2019

Workers who left minutes before fire questioned but 'nothing indicates deliberate act'

Devastation: the outside of the building. Picture: PA
Devastation: the outside of the building. Picture: PA

David Chazan

French detectives investigating the Notre-Dame fire yesterday questioned workers who had been restoring the cathedral and left the site minutes before the blaze broke out.

The inferno that consumed most of the roof was probably started accidentally, said Remy Heitz, the Paris prosecutor, possibly as a result of restoration work on crumbling upper sections of the cathedral and the spire.

"Nothing indicates a deliberate act," he said.

Some 50 investigators from the Paris police criminal division - half of its detectives - have been assigned to the case. Among those they have interviewed are 12 employees of the firm which was leading the €150m four-year restoration, Le Bras Brothers, based in Jarny, north-eastern France.

The highly respected specialist company has restored cathedrals and churches in Strasbourg, Reims, Poitiers, Verdun, Amiens and other French cities. It had recently started restoring the 300ft wooden spire of Notre-Dame, which was added to the 850-year-old cathedral in the 19th century and collapsed in Monday's fire.

"All I can tell you is that at the moment the fire began none of my employees were on the site. We respected all procedures," said Julien Le Bras, head of the family firm.

Another firm, Europe Echafaudage, erected 250 tons of scaffolding and installed a lift.

"Detectives have been talking to some of the restoration staff to see if they can help with pinpointing the exact location where the fire started, probably in the roof," a source close to the investigation said.

"They're also looking at what equipment was being used, especially power sources and lighting that may have contributed to starting a fire."

Mr Le Bras was full of pride when he gave an interview in 2017 about his firm being chosen to restore Notre-Dame. "No one has touched it in 150 years, it's really quite something to say we will be the ones getting involved. We won't be offering a guarantee of 10 years, but 150 years," he said.

When a French reporter called Mr Le Bras on the night of the fire to ask what was happening, he said in a panicked voice, "I don't know, I don't know," before hanging up.

Bernard Fonquernie, an architect who worked on Notre-Dame from 1978 to 1990, said: "The inquiry will show what happened.

"A building like this has the makings of a disaster. You could never build a cathedral like this today - the rules have completely changed.

"In the years I worked here, we never had an accident because we followed the rules so tightly."

Experts said bureaucracy and politics had delayed the much-needed restoration of Europe's most-visited monument, parts of which had been left in a state of disrepair.

Until last year, no major restoration had been carried out since the mid-19th century, after Victor Hugo called attention to the need to repair damage inflicted during the French Revolution.

Irish Independent

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