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Investigators face ‘long and complex’ quest for cause of Notre-Dame blaze

Philippe Wojazer, REUTERS | Sparks fill the air as Paris firefighters spray water to extinguish flames engulfing Notre-Dame Cathedral burns on April 15, 2019.

As firefighters doused the smoldering ruins of Notre-Dame with water on Tuesday, investigators were busy at work trying to establish what started the raging inferno that swept through the Gothic cathedral in the heart of the French capital.

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Hundreds of firemen battled the blaze which consumed the roof and collapsed the eight-centuries-old cathedral's spire for more than twelve hours before bringing it under control, saving its bell towers and outer walls.

"Now we're in the phase of investigating," fire service spokesman Gabriel Plus told reporters, declaring only at around 10am on Tuesday that the fire had finally been extinguished.

The Paris prosecutor's office said it had launched an inquiry into the devastating blaze, with investigators working on the assumption for now that the fire was accidental.

"We are favouring the theory of an accident," prosecutor Remy Heitz told reporters, adding that fifty people were working on a "long" and "complex" investigation.

>> Read more ‘It’s a funeral’: Tears, prayers and shock as Paris mourns Notre-Dame

The fire began at around 6.50pm local time (16:50 GMT), spreading from the attic and rapidly devouring the roof's wooden frame, which is more than 100 metres in length and nicknamed "the forest".

Investigators are focusing on whether the fire spread from the site of ongoing reconstruction work on the roof of the cathedral, which was covered in scaffolding, a source close to the investigation said.

Construction workers were questioned on Monday night, even as firefighters battled to contain the fire that was threatening the entire structure, some perched on cranes tens of metres off the ground.

Tinder box

Experts said the combination of a centuries-old structure, built with heavy timber construction and soaring open spaces, and lacking sophisticated fire-protection systems, led to the quick rise of flames and hampered firefighters’ efforts.

Using water-bombing aircraft as suggested by US President Donald Trump was not considered, with France's civil security service tweeting that such action “could lead to the collapse of the entire structure of the cathedral".

One firefighter suffered injuries during the blaze, which at one point threatened to bring down one of the two monumental towers on the western facade of the cathedral that is visited by more than 12 million tourists each year.

The inferno destroyed two-thirds of the roof of the UNESCO world heritage landmark, causing its spectacular Gothic spire, a symbol of Paris, to collapse.

After the site was inspected by architects and engineers on Tuesday, Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said the structure was "holding well overall" but that "vulnerabilities" had been detected, most notably in the vault.

Regarding the precious artwork inside, Culture Minister Franck Riester said no one had yet been able to fully inspect the extent of the fire and water damage inside.

"We'll have to wait for a while to do a full inventory," he said, adding that the organ appeared to have been "badly damaged" as had many paintings and frescos.

The Holy Crown of Thorns and a sacred tunic worn by 13th-century French king Louis, two irreplaceable artefacts, had been rescued along with the church's main crucifix, and placed with others at the Paris town hall.

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