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WORLD | 16-04-2019 11:22

Workers questioned over Notre-Dame inferno as donations pour in

Billionaires and local governments pledged nearly 500 million euros on Tuesday to help restore Notre-Dame cathedral, with foundations and crowd-sourcing sites also launching fund-raising drives.

French investigators probing the devastating blaze at Notre-Dame Cathedral questioned workers who were renovating the monument on Tuesday, as hundreds of millions of euros were pledged to restore the historic masterpiece.

As firefighters put out the last smouldering embers, a host of French billionaires and companies stepped forward with offers of cash worth around 600 million euros (US$680 million) to remake the iconic structure.

Most of the roof has been destroyed, the steeple has collapsed and an unknown number of artifacts and paintings have been lost. The main organ, which had close to 8,000 pipes, has also suffered damage. But the walls, bell towers and the most famous circular stained-glass windows at France's most visited tourist attraction remain intact, leading the vicar general Philippe Marsset to call it "more than miraculous."

"We're all just dumbfounded. It's more than miraculous, it's heroic," Marsset said, who paid tribute to the more than 400 firefighters who toiled through the night.

Paris Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Gregoire described authorities' "enormous relief" at the salvaging of pieces such as the purported Crown of Christ, which were transported to a "secret location" after the fire. Statues removed just days ago for restoration work were also spared.

Junior interior minister Laurent Nunez told reporters at the scene that work to secure the structure would be take place into Thursday which would enable firefighters to go inside to remove any remaining artifacts and artworks.

Though "some weaknesses" in the 850-year-old structure had been identified, overall it is "holding up OK," he added.

The Paris fire service announced that the last remnants of the blaze were  extinguished Tuesday 15 hours after the fire broke out. 

Ongoing renovation work on the steeple, where workers were replacing its lead covering, is widely suspected to have caused the inferno after the blaze broke out in an area under scaffolding.

Investigators interviewed witnesses overnight and began speaking to the employees of five different construction companies which were working on the monument, said public prosecutor Remy Heitz.

"Nothing indicates this was a deliberate act," Heitz told reporters, adding that 50 investigators had been assigned to what he expected to be a "long and complex" case.

The architect in charge of the renovation project slated to last until 2022 said that no workers were on the site when the flames first appeared shortly before 7 pm (1700 GMT) on Monday. 

'Epicentre of our life'

French President Emmanuel Macron struck a defiant tone on Monday night as he visited the scene with his wife Brigitte, telling reporters: "We will rebuild Notre-Dame because it is what the French expect." He described the cathedral as the "epicentre of our life."

A public appeal for funds drew immediate support from French billionaires and other private donors as well countries including Germany, Italy and Russia which offered their expertise.

French billionaire Bernard Arnault and his LVMH luxury conglomerate, rival high-end designer goods group Kering, Total oil company and cosmetics giant L'Oreal each pledged 100 million euros or more. 

A communique said the Arnault family was "in solidarity with this national tragedy, and join in the reconstruction of this extraordinary cathedral, a symbol of France, of its heritage and togetherness."

Businessman Francois-Henri Pinault, who is married to Salma Hayek, and his billionaire father Francois Pinault also said they were immediately giving 100 million euros from their company, Artemis, to help finance repairs. Artemis is the holding company owning auction house Christie's and the main shareholder of luxury fashion houses including Gucci.

A statement from Francois-Henri Pinault said "this tragedy impacts all French people" and "everyone wants to restore life as quickly as possible to this jewel of our heritage."

The privately run French Heritage Foundation launched a call for donations on its website  – www.fondation-patrimoine.org – and several pages were also set up on the Leetchi fundraising portal.

Specialised craftsmen and rare materials are expected to be needed to restore Notre-Dame, which is seen as an emblem of France and, more broadly, a symbol of Western civilisation which has survived revolutions and war.

"We have everything to be able to rebuild it in exactly the same way," Culture Minister Franck Riester told France Inter, adding that the government was looking at ways to encourage donations. 

Full losses unknown

Thousands of Parisians and tourists watched in horror from nearby streets on Monday as flames engulfed the building and rescuers tried to save as much as they could of the cathedral's treasures built up over centuries.

Many more travelled Tuesday to the banks of the river Seine to gaze up at where the roof and steeple once stood.

A firefighter suffered injuries during the blaze, which at one point threatened to bring down one of the two monumental towers on the western façade of the cathedral that is visited by around 13 million tourists each year.

The Holy Crown of Thorns, believed to have been worn by Jesus at his crucifixion, was saved by firefighters, as was a sacred tunic worn by 13th-century French king Louis IX.

Rescuers formed a human chain at the site of the disaster on Monday night to bring out as many artifacts as possible which have been stocked temporarily at the Paris town hall.

Some damaged paintings will be sent to the Louvre museum, a world centre for restoration.

The sense of shock at the damage was palpable in France and stirred reactions from governments across the world.

In a rare statement, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II said she was "deeply saddened", while Pope Francis sent his hopes that Notre-Dame "may once again become, thanks to reconstruction work and the mobilisation of all, a jewel in the heart of the city."

The cathedral has figured as a central character through the ups and downs of French history since construction began in mid-12th century – and has featured in countless books and movies.

Bells at cathedrals across France were set to ring out on Wednesday night in tribute.

 

The treasures of Notre-Dame

 

The fire-gutted Notre-Dame cathedral contained some of the most sacred relics of the Christian faith, including the Holy Crown of Thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus at his crucifixion. While firefighters were able to save the crown as Monday's massive blaze tore through the building in the heart of Paris, the fate of other items inside the 850-year-old Gothic cathedral is unclear. Here is an overview of some of the treasures contained in the venerated Notre-Dame ("Our Lady") Cathedral:

Holy relics

Its most precious item, the Holy Crown of Thorns, is about 21 centimetres (eight inches) in diameter and made up of rushes braided together and bound by gold wire.

Firefighters who were directed to the cathedral's most treasured objects rescued the crown as well as a tunic worn by 13th-century French crusader king, Louis IX, who was made a saint.

Notre-Dame also held two other relics said to be from the crucifixion of Jesus: a piece of the cross on which he was nailed and one of the nails.

There were three holy items in the spire that collapsed in flames on Monday: a fragment of the Crown of Thorns and relics from Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve, two of the city's most cherished saints.

The Great Organ

Of the cathedral's three organs, the most impressive is the Great Organ with five keyboards, 109 stops and close to 8,000 pipes.

Built in the 15th century, the organ was progressively added to over the centuries to become one of the largest in France. 

It survived the 18th century French Revolution unscathed, even though the building was vandalised, "thanks no doubt to its use in playing patriotic music," the cathedral website says.

Culture Minister Franck Riester said the organ "seems to be quite badly damaged."

Stained glass

The cathedral's three impressive stained glass circular rose windows were built in the 13th century and renovated several times. 

The one on the south appeared to be in tact on Tuesday, as did another on the western facade which lies between the two stone towers which can be climbed by tourists on the front of the cathedral.

AFP was unable to verify the state of the northern window.

They show prophets, saints, angels, kings and scenes of the daily lives of holy figures. At the centre of each is an image of either the Virgin Mary, Christ as a baby or Christ as king reigning over heaven.

37 figures of Virgin Mary

A mid-14th century statue of the Virgin with Child, placed in the sanctuary, is the most famous of the 37 images of the Virgin Mary contained in the cathedral. 

Another depicts Mary holding the body of her son descended from cross, created by French sculptor Nicolas Coustou between 1712 and 1728 and positioned behind the choir altar.

Paintings

Between 1630 and 1707 the Paris goldsmith guild presented the cathedral with a painting on every May 1. Of these 76 works called "The Mays", 13 were displayed in various chapels in the cathedral.

On the west wall of the Chapel of Saint-Guillaume is the one of the most beautiful paintings in the cathedral, the Visitation by Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet (1716).

13-tonne bell

The largest and oldest of the cathedral's bells is known as the Bourdon Emmanuel. Cast 300 years ago, it weighs 13 tonnes, its clapper alone being 500 kilogrammes (1,102 pounds).

The tenor bell, considered one of the finest examples in Europe, is chimed only on special occasions and important Catholic events, and was joined in 2013 by nine new bells.

It only just managed to avoid being melted down during the revolution and rang out to announce the liberation of Paris from German occupation in 1944.

- TIMES/AFP/AP

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