About the time I was picking up my bags at Nice Airport, fire broke out at Notre Dame in Paris. By the time we had checked into a hotel for the night the spire had collapsed and it was clear that this was a serious blaze.

Social media alerted me to the blaze and to the scant details repeated in every news article/broadcast about what little was known. When we woke this morning we learned just how bad things were and, fortunately, the summary of the damage is bad but not as bad was was initially feared. Yes the roof is completely gone, yes at least some of the windows have gone, but … The three major rose windows are reported to have survived (see this confusing Daily Mail report), the stone vaulting over the nave did not completely collapse, the west end and towers appears to be more or less intact and unburned (though undoubtedly suffering from smoke and water damage), the roof statues had been removed a few days earlier for restoration and most of the critical treasures were safely removed

Sparks and flames are seen through a stained glass window as the Notre Dame Cathedral burns in Paris - Credit: Reuters

Now of course we get to see the blaming and finger pointing and so on. And to rebuild as much as possible.

Regarding the former. Even while news of the blaze was still being passed around the first suggestions that this might be deliberate arson caused by “youths” made their way around too. There’s reasonable justification for this given that numerous other churches in Paris have indeed been damaged by said “youths”. But, fortunately for French civil society, this rumor seems to be completely false and readily verifiable as such, because I suspect that if it were true then the anti-muslim backlash that we are so frequently warned about whenever some gentleman goes looking for the Aloha Snackbar might actually occur.

Somewhat relatedly on the other side of the tracks lots of people on twitter did manage to show all the tact and sympathy for which twitter is famed (/sarc). e.g.

Going back to the blamestorming, Tim Newman has an excellent post pointing out that the most likely cause is a renovation induced fire. This seems highly plausible given the time the fire started – an hour or so after all the workers had knocked off the for the day – and the reported location, right where all the workers were doing things. Tim points out that:

in the offshore oil industry, someone must stand watch for an hour after work stops to make sure nothing spontaneously combusts

And it seems very clear that this did not happen here. Given that fires caused during renovations are extremely common and given the historical and cultural importance of the building, the question of why there was no one on site checking is sure to figure prominently in any investigation. Though, as Tim also notes, it seems also highly likely that a lot of “passive voice” language will be used to explain that “mistakes were made” and “lessons have been learned” but without actually pointing the finger at any individual executive or manager who should have actually ensured that the renovation effort included a night watchman.

Update: a comment at Tim’s post linked above really nails the societal/cultural fail here:

” {In the oil industry] someone must stand watch for an hour after work stops to make sure nothing spontaneously combusts”

Exactly! We take precautions, because we know mistakes happen and things go wrong. This fire may have been started by an individual making a mistake, but the fire getting out of hand was a system failure — a management failure. But we know that no manager will pay any significant price.

Strange that, in an age when China has flooded the market with cheap electronics, there were not IR detectors and smoke detectors all over the construction site. Strange that there were no temporary dry risers erected as part of the scaffolding to work on the roof — especially when the height of the roof was known to exceed the reach of fire department ladder trucks. Strange that there were no foam generators standing by at the base of those non-existent dry risers, since everyone knows that fire department water often does more damage to structures than the fire itself. And where were the night watchmen on such a unique site?

All of that would have cost money, of course. Bureaucrats who spend their lives in air-conditioned offices think about the money, not the risks. And then they escape blame when the predictable risks come to pass. Maybe this fire does crystallize what has gone wrong in our society.

The lack of any of these preparedness features is definitely telling, IMHO about the priorities placed on the importance of the historic building. If some (any?) of the features mentioned in the comment had been implemented than fires from all sorts of causes – from intentional arson to worker having a sneaky smoke break to electrical fire or any of the other 1001 ways fires get started by accident on a building site could have been mitigated without so much loss. And the costs of most of them would have been – in the context of the millions of Euros for the original renovations, let along the hundreds of millions or billions needed now – trivial.

Future Restoration

Even though things are not completely destroyed there is obviously an huge amount of work to be done to restore Notre Dame to its former glory. It will be interesting to see whether the restoration includes the 19th century spire, but even without that, restoring the roof, let alone all the rest of the damaged building is going to need a lot of skilled craftsmen. Even with those craftsmen the restoration effort is going to take years, possible decades.

That in turn leads to an interesting question. Where are they going to get all these skilled craftsmen? The number of wood workers who can build in the styles of the past are extremely limited, ditto stonemasons, glaziers etc. I’ve seen someone opine on Facebook that Notre Dame could employ every single craftsman with the required skills in France for a decade simply because there aren’t very many of them. Given that France has a lot of historical buildings that need maintenance and renovation (albeit not quite to the same level as Notre Dame does now), that’s a potential problem because if they are all working at Notre dame then they aren’t going to be working at any of the other places.

Mind you though I suspect the craftsmen who were involved in the restoration that caused the blaze may not be quite so eagerly hired for future work on the place so I guess they’ll be available

If France is smart (and they may be) they will take the opportunity to apprentice a lot of young people to the Notre dame restoration effort so that the number of appropriately skilled craftsmen increases significantly. Perhaps the various billionaires and other private individuals pledging large sums of money to pay for the restoration will insist on it if it does not occur to the oh so smart enarques in the various government bodies that will oversee the work. I have little doubt that if they do these new apprentices will be able to find work when they are done with Notre Dame, if nothing else because a lot of the existing craftsmen are middle aged and may want to retire in 10-20 years from now.

If we do see an increase in appropriately skilled craftsmen then, just possibly, the Notre Dame disaster will turn out to have some kind of a silver lining.