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Notre-Dame fire investigation focuses on safety violations, lack of preparedness

Kenzo Tribouillard, AFP | Scaffolding outside the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 23, 2019

As investigators search for clues as to the cause of the devastating blaze at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, details about staff response to the disaster and the lack of fire-safety measures to protect the building have emerged.

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Authorities are treating the April 15 inferno as an accident. Yet a reconstruction of the events on that fateful evening by French investigative newspaper Le Canard enchaîné has called into question the cathedral staff’s reaction to the fire, as well as a critical lack of safety precautions.

The last Mass of the day was under way at 6:16pm when a light went off on the fire alarm panel at Notre-Dame’s security control centre, indicating that smoke had been detected in the attic. The site manager and a guard were sent to check on the situation.Clergy conducting the service were also notified, in accordance with fire safety protocol.

At 6:21pm a first alarm sounded. Visitors, worshippers and staff were led out of the building. Minutes later, however, they were invited to return after no fire was found. The site manager and guards have since blamed the mistake on a security control centre employee (who had been subcontracted by the consulting firm Elitys), claiming he sent them to the wrong part of the attic.

Elitys has firmly denied the accusation, according to Le Canard enchaîné.

A second alarm went off at 6:30pm and the cathedral was again evacuated. The site manager and guard returned to the attic, where they located the flames at the base of the spire sometime between 6:40pm and 6:50pm. An urgent call was placed to the Paris Fire Brigade at 6:51pm – a full 35 minutes after the blaze was first detected – according to Le Canard enchaîné.

“This is one of the most incendiary discoveries made by investigating police with the criminal brigade in the aftermath of the … disaster,” the newspaper said.

Construction equipment, cigarette butts

Investigators have said they believe the fire was started by an electrical short caused by construction equipment used by workers renovating the 850-year-old building. Le Canard enchaîné, however, reported that none of the equipment in question was kept near the base of the spire.

Another possible theory involves the workers themselves. Police interviews revealed that a number openly flouted a strict ban against smoking on site, according to Le Canard enchaîné, which added that at least seven cigarette butts have been found among the ashes so far.

Le Bras Frères, one of five companies hired to renovate Notre-Dame, confirmed its employees had told police they sometimes smoked on the job but dismissed speculation the fire was caused by their behaviour.

“There are indeed colleagues who would occasionally break the ban, which we regret,” Marc Eskenazi, a spokesman for Le Bras Frères, told AFP on Wednesday. “In no way was the fire at Notre-Dame in Paris caused by a poorly extinguished cigarette butt.

“Anyone who has ever lit a fireplace knows that by putting a cigarette butt to an oak log not much of anything will happen,” he added.

Eskenazi also ruled out suspicions the blaze was sparked by an electrical short from construction equipment, corroborating Le Canard enchaîné’s report that the materials in question were located too far from the fire’s origin to have been the cause.

Lack of fire safety measures

One thing is certain, however, and that is that Notre-Dame was woefully ill-equipped to deal with a blaze.

Despite protocol established by the Regional Office of Cultural Affairs requiring at least two state employees on duty 24/7 at the cathedral’s security post, according to Le Canard enchaîné there was only ever one – the Elitys employee, who was only present from 8am to 11pm. The rest of the night, cathedral fire security was "assured by a concierge, from his bed!" reported the weekly.

The landmark also lacked safety measures such as firewalls or a sprinkler system, which had been omitted in part for aesthetic reasons.

Although the transept and belfries were fitted with hydrants and hoses, they were too small in diameter to carry enough water to extinguish a large fire, Le Canard enchaîné reported, citing firefighters.

It will likely be a while, however, before investigators reach a conclusion on the cause of the fire. Much of the evidence was lost in the disaster, while parts of the remaining structure are too unstable to access.

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