In Wake of Notre Dame Fire, Many Questions Remain

French investigators say it could take up to two months before the cause of the fire that nearly destroyed Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral on April 15 is known, but a former chief architect of the cathedral who insists that the fire was “incomprehensible” has raised plenty of questions.

According to an interview with a French news outlet in the days following the fire that completely destroyed the roof of one of the world’s most iconic Catholic structures, Benjamin Mouton, who served as chief architect of Notre-Dame cathedral from 2000 to 2013, says he cannot understand how the Cathedral could have burned the way it did.

When asked if he was surprised by how fast the flames spread, he said, “Totally. I am baffled. It is very ancient oak that seems to have burned like matchsticks, as if it was some other type of wood, one very unstable and flammable.”

He went on to explain that the wood on the roof was 800+ years old and it was so hard that it would have required a lot of smaller wood to get the fire hot enough for the oak beams to have burned the way they did. There was no such smaller wood available to feed the fire.

As for whether or not there was a short-circuit in the electrical system, which is another possible cause being investigated by authorities, Mouton again shook his head.

“Just before I retired, around the early 2010s, we renewed the whole electrical system of Notre Dame, so there is no short circuit possible.”

The fire detection system was also state-of-the-art with measurement indicators and aspirating smoke detectors, etc.

In addition, even after-hours, there are always two men in the Cathedral who are trained to investigate anything the moment an alarm goes off and, if necessary, to call in the fire department.

When asked if he thought someone might have caused the conditions for the fire, Mouton would only say, “I will refrain from making any assumptions.”

The subject then turned to inquiring about whether or not the fire was started by something associated with the renovations. Specifically, one of the other participants on the panel asked Mouton if it was true that were initially two separate fires.

Mouton replied, “I heard about this from my colleague, Philppe Villeneuve, who is the Historic Monuments head architect . . . he told me knowing about only one fire outbreak, at the juncture where the nave meets with the juncture of the transept. He told me only that one. And he added: there is not work site at that location.”

The show’s host then reiterated, “So your successor told you that the fire broke at a location where there was no work?”

“Indeed,” Mouton replied.

As suspicious as it all sounds, fire safety experts criticized Mouton and his team, saying they underestimated the risk of how quickly 800-year-old wood would burn, and that the fire response they designed was too slow.

For example, there was a crucial 31-minute gap between when the first alarm sounded in the attic at 6:20 p.m. and a church employee made the steep six-minute climb to check on it. Finding nothing, he returned to the ground floor and gave the “all clear” signal.

Just 23 minutes later, the alarm sounded again. This time, two church employees climbed the stairs to the attic but by then, the flames were too high to do anything about it. They rushed back downstairs, then realized they had locked the door behind them, then had to rush back up to open it.

As a result, it took 31 minutes to put in a call to the fire department. This, coupled with the delays caused by a fire department trying to rush to the scene in the middle of rush-hour traffic, gave the fire that much more time to spread before the first drop of water fell upon the flames.

Investigators looking for answers as to how this fire could have started and spread so rapidly have quite a task on their hands.

But until those answers are found, many people, including Mr. Mouton, will not rest.

As Mouton told the show’s host, ” . . . [E]ven if I tell myself that we haven’t lost everything, I cannot be relieved. Sorry.”

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