Notre-Dame fire: Firefighters 'lost valuable time after computer glitch signalled blaze in wrong location'

The damage to Notre-Dame cathedral is seen by drone
The damage to Notre-Dame cathedral is seen by drone

Firefighters lost valuable time in reaching the blaze at Notre Dame after a computer glitch sent investigators to the wrong part of the cathedral, according to French reports.

An initial fire alarm sounded at 6.20pm local time but after failing to find a blaze, security services at the landmark dubbed it a false alarm, according to sources cited by Le Parisien.

At 6.43pm,  almost 25 minutes later, a second alarm went off. Only when they returned to the upper area of the edifice did they call in firefighters, after coming across three-metre flames at the base of the spire.

According to Le Parisien, the computer glitch had caused the alarm to signal the wrong location.

The reports came as the fund set up to help rebuild Notre-Dame passed one billion euros.  Emmanuel Macron has pledged to restore the fire-ravaged cathedral in five years.

Donations from worshippers and wealthy French billionaires and corporations have seen hundreds of millions of euros raised since the cathedral was engulfed by flames on Monday.

Contributors include Apple and magnates who own L'Oreal, Chanel and Dior, as well as Catholics and others from around France and the world.

French television personality Stéphane Bern told broadcaster France-Info today: "We are at about 900 million euros and the one billion mark will be exceeded today."

It came after Mr Macron on Tuesday night set a five-year deadline to restore the 12th-century landmark. The president is holding a special cabinet meeting today dedicated to the disaster at Notre-Dame.

"We will rebuild the cathedral even more beautifully and I want it to be finished within five years," he said in the speech from the presidential palace. "We can do it."

Authorities consider the fire an accident.

Pope Francis today thanked Paris firefighters who risked their lives to save the Notre-Dame Cathedral on behalf of the Catholic Church.

During a weekly general audience in Saint Peter's Square, he said: "The gratitude of the whole Church goes to all those who did everything they could, even risking their lives, to save the Basilica."

The damage to Notre-Dame cathedral is seen by drone
The damage to Notre-Dame cathedral is seen by drone

Rebuilding in time for Olympics

Macron's announcement of a five-year restoration timeframe indicates he wants the reconstruction to be completed by the time Paris hosts the Olympic Games in 2024.

"We will rebuild the cathedral even more beautifully and I want it to be finished within five years," he said in the speech from the presidential palace. "We can do it."

Macron said that the dramatic fire had brought out the best in a country riven with divisions and since November shaken by sometimes violent protests against his rule.

It had shown that "our history never stops and that we will always have trials to overcome," he added.

Structural 'weaknesses'

Images from inside the cathedral showed its immense walls standing proud, with statues still in place and a gleaming golden cross above the altar.

However the floor was covered in rubble and scorched beams from the fallen roof and water while parts of the vaulting at the top of the cathedral had collapsed.

Junior interior minister Laurent Nunez told reporters that work to secure the structure would continue into Thursday.

He said the building had been saved within a critical time window of 15-30 minutes by a team of 400 firefighters who worked flat out through the night.

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

Architects challenged to create new spire

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe launched a competition open to international architects to rebuild the spire of Notre-Dame.

Speaking after a special cabinet meeting dedicated to reconstructing the cathedral, Mr Phillipe said the competition is aimed at "giving Notre Dame a spire adapted to techniques and challenges of our times."

He called it "a huge challenge, a historic responsibility."

Shortage of craftsmen 'could delay reconstruction'

One of the architects who helped restore Windsor Castle after a devastating fire said a shortage of craftsmen could hold up the reconstruction of Notre-Dame.

"The supply of craftsmen with the skill to work so much stone, so much timber, so much lead, so much glass for the windows is something which the industry in the whole of Europe may well be challenged to meet at the present moment," Francis Maude, director at the Donald Insall Associates architect firm, told AFP.

"There are other very large projects which are facing the same limitations," he said, giving the example of the Houses of Parliament where his firm is also working.

Mr Maude's firm was called upon by the British royal family to help restore Windsor Castle following a fire in 1992 that also shocked the country.

The fire began in the Queen's Private Chapel when a curtain was ignited by a spotlight pressed up against it. It spread to the State Apartments, including St George's banqueting hall, and engulfed Brunswick Tower.

There were no casualties, also thanks to the quick reaction of the castle's own small fire brigade.

The restoration work began in 1995 and was completed in 1997, costing £36.5 million at the time.

As part of the renovation, a specially commissioned stained-glass window was installed in the medieval surrounding depicting a firefighter battling the blaze.

The castle's grandest rooms were restored to their former state while others were modernised, and the issue of how faithfully to stick to the original design is likely to be the source of "big discussion" when rebuilding the iconic Parisian cathedral.

"There will be some who think the only way we can restore Notre-Dame is to make it exactly the same as it was before," said Maude.

Alternatively, restorers could draw inspiration from the rebuilding of Reims Cathedral after World War One, when a fire-resistant steel roof was installed.

Mr Maude pointed out that "there has already been a process of change at Notre-Dame" with the 19th century restoration work done by French architect Viollet-le-Duc, and that carefully selected parts of the church could be modernised, making it more efficient and less at risk of future fires.

But it is likely to be many months before the mammoth cleaning-up process ends and an assessment made on which parts of the 850-year-old Gothic masterpiece can be salvaged.

"One particular difficulty which I can imagine is the cathedral being largely constructed of limestone," warned Mr Maude.

When limestone is exposed to temperatures of over eight hundred degrees centigrade, it "decays through chemical reaction... and it's then rather difficult to use it again," he said.

"I can imagine that there's going to be a lot of the historic surface of the stonework lost but there may be stone buried deeper within the walls which can be capped."

- 'A symbol of renewal' - The cathedral's relatively bare interior should count in its favour, compared to Windsor Castle, where centuries of redevelopments led to a complex web of empty spaces behind the walls.

Money does not appear to be an issue, with billionaire donors already pledging hundreds of millions of euros.

The director said he would be "delighted to be invited" to help in the restoration, which he believes could end up revitalising the UNESCO world heritage landmark.

"It can be a symbol of renewal," he said of the fire.

"There's also an opportunity in some parts of a rebuilt Notre-Dame to have a new expression of an artistic temperament for our own times."

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