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story.lead_photo.caption 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)

NEW YORK — Is there anything firefighters could have done to control the blaze that tore through Paris' historic Notre Dame Cathedral sooner?

Experts say the combination of a structure that's more than 850 years old, built with heavy timber construction and soaring open spaces, and lacking sophisticated fire-protection systems left firefighters with devastatingly few options Monday once the flames got out of control.

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

Fire hoses looked overmatched — more like gardening equipment than firefighting apparatus — as flames raged across the cathedral's wooden roof and burned bright orange for hours. The fire toppled a 300-foot (91-meter) spire and launched baseball-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.

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, said U.S. Fire Administrator G. Keith Bryant.

With a building like that, it's 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 Bryant, a former fire chief in Oklahoma and past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

"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," Bryant said.

And while there's 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 maneuver large ladder fire trucks, European fire departments don't tend to have as large of ladders as they do in the United States, Bryant said.

And what about President Donald Trump's armchair-firefighter suggestion that tanker jets be used to dump water from above on Notre Dame?

French authorities tweeted that doing so would've done more harm than good. The crush of water on the fire-ravaged landmark could've caused the entire structure to collapse, according to the tweet.

Other landmark houses of worship have taken steps in recent years to reduce the risk of a 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 damage from a 2011 earthquake.

That cathedral faces fire inspections every two years, but D.C. firefighters stop by more often to learn about the church's unique architecture and lingo — so they'll know where to go if there's a fire in the nave, or main area of the church — for instance.

"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," said Jim Shepherd, the cathedral's director of preservation and facilities.

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, when Christians there and around the world prepare to celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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


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  • FireEyes
    April 15, 2019 at 2:01 p.m.

    Such a tragedy and loss.

  • mozarky2
    April 15, 2019 at 2:25 p.m.

    Jihadists are responding to the Notre Dame fire with "smiley emojis" on Facebook.
    “Evil preaches tolerance until it is dominant, then it tries to silence good”.
    Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

  • mozarky2
    April 15, 2019 at 3:03 p.m.

    Seems to be a pattern. This from Newsweek:
    France has seen a spate of attacks against Catholic churches since the start of the year, vandalism that has included arson and desecration.

    Vandals have smashed statues, knocked down tabernacles, scattered or destroyed the Eucharist and torn down crosses, sparking fears of a rise in anti-Catholic sentiment in the country.

    Last Sunday, the historic Church of St. Sulpice in Paris was set on fire just after midday mass on Sunday, Le Parisien reported, although no one was injured. Police are still investigating the attack, which firefighters have confidently attributed to arson.
    Whaddaya think, seitan, white supremacists?

  • Chazz
    April 15, 2019 at 3:51 p.m.

    So said. I never got to see this. I guess Paris DOES MOT have fire boats.

  • 0boxerssuddenlinknet
    April 15, 2019 at 4:01 p.m.

    heart breaking. watching it on t.v now am wondering why the French haven't used any large planes to dump water on this iconic 900 year old church. i haven't been back inside since i was a kid and was sure hoping to take my granddaughter to see. maybe one day when/if they can rebuild.

  • Packman
    April 15, 2019 at 4:03 p.m.

    This is awful. Simply awful. How are there not emergency plans in place to contain a fire in such an incredibly valuable building?
    Hey moz - We must be careful and not make assumptions about the fire’s origin. It may have been a horrible accident. When the first plane hit the World Trade Center we all thought it was a terrible, horrible accident and never remotely imagined a terrorist attack. We must assume the same here until we have reason to believe different. Again, how was there not an emergency fire containment plan?

  • mozarky2
    April 15, 2019 at 4:19 p.m.

    Packy, I made no assumptions at all, but it does seem many of those on the left automatically blame white supremacists for everything. What are there, 200-300 actual white supremacists in the US, total?

  • jumpedcut
    April 15, 2019 at 4:30 p.m.

    Pack - So saw in another news article that talked to firefighters (granted not any involved in Paris), who said that the problem here is that the fire on the roof was too high for ladder trucks, and that the only way to really fight it would be to send the firefighters inside (where burning pieces of the roof were falling). Also the combination of cold water/heat from fire would actually damage the structure more. They were saying that it made more sense to fight to preserve what parts of the structure were salvageable while letting the fire burn itself out.

  • UoABarefootPhdFICYMCA
    April 15, 2019 at 4:32 p.m.

    Wave of attacks against French Catholic churches continue..
    [Catholic News Service Paris, France Canada & World March 28, 2019
    Vandals and arsonists have targeted French churches in a wave of attacks that has lasted nearly two months.

    More than 10 churches have been hit since the beginning of February, with some set on fire while others were severely desecrated or damaged.

    St. Sulpice, the second-largest church in Paris, after Notre Dame Cathedral, had the large wooden door on its southern transept set ablaze March 17. The church is also the mother-church for the Society of the Priests of Saint-Sulpice (aka Sulpicians). The Sulpicians played major role in the founding of the city of Montréal.

  • Packman
    April 15, 2019 at 4:42 p.m.

    Hey jumped - I’m no firefighter and what you say may be true. However, if they knew these things aforehand how did precautions not exist from fire extinguishers and trained personnel inside the building to airborne fire fighting equipment. A plan that essentially says “just let it burn itself out” makes no sense. Unless the fire’s origin was a blast of some shape, form or fashion.