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story.lead_photo.caption An aerial view Wednesday from the skies of Paris shows the extensive damage to Notre Dame Cathedral.

PARIS -- Bells of cathedrals across France rang Wednesday in a tribute to Notre Dame as firefighters and experts kept the beloved but weakened landmark under close surveillance.

Restoration specialists questioned President Emmanuel Macron's ambitious five-year cathedral reconstruction timeline, with some suggesting that it could take more than three times that amount of time to rebuild the 850-year-old architectural treasure.

From Sacre Coeur in Paris to the cities of Strasbourg in the east and Rouen in the west, the architectural treasures of France solemnly marked the inferno two days after it ravaged the gothic cathedral.

"I just arrived for the first ring of the bells, and immediately there was an emotion. Incredible, indescribable, I just can't explain it," said Nadia Pascassio-Comte, who witnessed the bell-ringing in Strasbourg. "It was beautiful and sad at the same time. I had tears in my eyes at one point, and I think that this solidarity is magical; it really unites a lot of people."

But as the government turned its focus to the restoration of one of the world's most treasured architectural wonders, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe acknowledged that the process will be difficult.

"This is obviously an immense challenge, a historic responsibility," Philippe said after a Cabinet meeting focused on the restoration.

One issue is whether the French government should seek to re-create the famed cathedral as it was before the blaze, sticking as closely as possible to the structure's pre-fire style and substance. Before Wednesday, many preservationists had assumed that it would.

But Philippe upended expectations with an announcement of an international competition to replace the iconic spire that collapsed in Monday's inferno. He also raised the prospect of a 21st-century twist atop the 12th-century creation.

Philippe questioned whether "we should re-create" the spire as it was or "as is often the case in the evolution of heritage, we should endow Notre Dame with a new spire."

The prime minister's words drew criticism from traditionalists. "The spire is a masterpiece. It must be rebuilt as it was," said Benjamin Mouton, Notre Dame's former chief architect.

But the idea of putting new touches on the cathedral drew support in some circles.

"France wants to show the will to open discussion, the will to innovate," said Gosia Kotula, an architect who has a special degree and designation that allows her to work on the restoration of historic buildings.

"In the coming months, we're going to have a terrible debate," predicted Stephane Berhault, an architect who specializes in restorations of historic structures. "It's always the same in France. Everyone will want to impose their point of view."

The debate already is ramping up because of Macron's timeline.

Experts predict that the rebuilding will take a decade or more, with many warning that nasty surprises lurk as engineers test the stability of the structure's exterior stones. As of Wednesday, the charred cathedral was still considered so hazardous that investigators seeking to pinpoint the cause of the blaze were forbidden from entering parts of the building.

Prominent French conservation architect Pierluigi Pericolo told Inrocks magazine that the restoration work could take "no less than 15 years. ... It's a colossal task."

Pericolo, who worked on the restoration of the 19th-century St. Donatien Basilica, which was damaged in a 2015 blaze in the French city of Nantes, said it could take two to five years just to check the stability of Notre Dame, which dominates the Paris skyline.

"It's a fundamental step, and very complex, because it's difficult to send workers into a monument whose vaulted ceilings are swollen with water," Pericolo told the France-Info radio broadcaster. "The end of the fire doesn't mean the edifice is totally saved. The stone can deteriorate when it is exposed to high temperatures and change its mineral composition and fracture inside."

Macron received support for his five-year restoration goal from his presidential cultural heritage envoy, Stephane Bern, who said it was realistic to reopen Notre Dame to the public in time for the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024. However, Macron did not indicate whether the reconstruction work would be completed by then.

Speaking after a meeting at the presidential palace about the monument's reconstruction, Bern said Macron didn't express his views regarding the rebuilding of the cathedral's lead roof or whether the frame should be restored in wood like the destroyed one, or in metal or concrete.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame's rector said he would close the cathedral for up to "five to six years," acknowledging that a segment of the structure may be gravely weakened.

FIREFIGHTERS HERALDED

According to a French government official, the building would have burned to the ground in a "chain-reaction collapse" had firefighters not acted as they did to battle the blaze racing through the building.

The firefighters acted aggressively to protect wooden supports in the twin medieval bell towers from the flames, averting a bigger catastrophe, said Jose Vaz de Matos, a fire expert with France's Culture Ministry.

"If the fire reached this wooden structure, the bell tower would have been lost," de Matos said at a news conference. "From the moment we lose the war of the bell towers, we lose the cathedral because it's a chain-reaction collapse."

An initial fire alert was sounded at 6:20 p.m. as a Mass was underway in the cathedral, but no fire was found. A second alarm went off at 6:43 p.m., and the blaze was discovered on the roof. No one was killed in the fire, after firefighters and church officials speedily evacuated those inside.

Firefighters acted as quickly as they could to save the cathedral, said senior fire official Philippe Demay.

Despite extensive damage, many of the cathedral's treasures were saved, including Notre Dame's famous rose windows, although they are not out of danger.

Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris fire brigade, told Catholic broadcaster KTO that the trickiest part was reaching the person who held the security codes to open the safe containing the Crown of Thorns, regarded as Notre Dame's most sacred relic.

Philippe said the relics and artwork have been transferred to the Louvre museum from Paris City Hall, where emergency workers had first placed the pieces for safekeeping in the immediate aftermath of the fire.

Paris firefighters spokesman Lt. Col. Gabriel Plus said that even though the gables, or support walls, of the cathedral are in good condition, a "threat" remains because of the heavy stone statues perched on top of them.

"The roof no longer holds [the gables] up. They are holding up all by themselves," he said, adding that some statues must be removed to lessen the weight.

Scaffolding that had been erected for a renovation of the spire and roof must also be properly removed because of its weight and because it is now "crucially deformed," he added.

The Paris prosecutor's office said investigators have been able to access some parts of the building, although others remain too dangerous. No indication of a criminal act had been found, it said.

More than 40 people have already been questioned in the investigation, including workers at the five construction companies that were involved in renovating the church spire and roof. Police also took images of the destruction using drones, in case it is altered by wind or rain.

Nearly $1 billion has been pledged for the cathedral's restoration, coming from ordinary worshippers and wealthy magnates, including those who own L'Oreal, Chanel and Dior. Bern told France-Info that $995 million has been raised since the fire.

Criticism already has surfaced in France from those who say the money could be better spent elsewhere, on smaller, struggling churches or on workers. Others have criticized the billionaires' donations because their pledges make them eligible for huge deductions in taxes.

Next week, the government is to present a bill to give the donation campaign a legal framework, which will ensure security and transparency, Philippe said.

Information for this article was contributed by Sylvie Corbet, Nicolas Vaux-Montagny, Thomas Adamson, Angela Charlton, Samuel Petrequin, Elaine Ganley and Sylvain Plazy of The Associated Press; by Griff Witte, Christophe Chabert and Quentin Aries of The Washington Post; and by Aurelien Breeden of The New York Times.

Photo by AP/THIBAULT CAMUS
A firefighter inspects a gargoyle atop Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Wednesday. Aggressive actions Monday by firefighters averted what one government official said would have been a “chain-reaction collapse” resulting in a total loss of the cathedral.
Photo by AP/FRANCOIS MORI
A worker surveys a wooden support structure installed Wednesday on Notre Dame Cathedral. Restoration specialists cast doubt on a fast reconstruction timeline for the fire-ravaged church as others raised the prospect of modern touches on the ancient landmark.
Photo by AP/FRANCISCO SECO
An artist works Wednesday at a riverside spot on the Seine River to capture Notre Dame Cathedral after the fire.

A Section on 04/18/2019

Print Headline: Thoughts in France turn to restoring Notre Dame

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