A volunteer church assistant has confessed to setting the fire that severely damaged a Gothic cathedral in Nantes, western France, his lawyer said Sunday.
The 39-year-old, an asylum-seeker from Rwanda who has lived in France for several years, was arrested Saturday after laboratory analysis determined that arson was the likely cause of the blaze, the local prosecutor’s office said.
“My client has cooperated,” lawyer Quentin Chabert told the Presse-Ocean newspaper, without elaborating on motives for attempting to burn down the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
“He bitterly regrets his actions… My client is consumed with remorse,” Chabert said.
Prosecutors opened an arson inquiry after the early morning fire on July 18 after finding that it broke out in three different places in the church, which the volunteer had locked up the night before.
He was taken in for questioning the next day but later released without charge, with the cathedral’s rector saying “I trust him like I trust all the helpers.”
But Nantes prosecutor Pierre Sennes said in a statement Saturday that he had been charged with “destruction and damage by fire,” and faces up to 10 years in prison and 150,000 euros ($175,000) in fines.
“He admitted during his first appearance for questioning before the investigating judge that he set three fires in the cathedral: at the main organ, the smaller organ, and the electrical panel,” Sennes told Presse-Ocean on Sunday.
‘Stone by stone’
The blaze came 15 months after the devastating fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, which raised questions about the security risks for other historic churches across France.
While firefighters were able to contain the Nantes blaze after just two hours and save its main structure, the famed organ, which dated from 1621 and had survived the French Revolution and World War II bombardment, was destroyed.
Also lost were priceless artefacts and paintings, including a work by the 19th-century artist Hippolyte Flandrin and stained glass windows that contained remnants of 16th-century glass.
Work on the cathedral began in 1434 and continued over the following centuries until 1891.
It had already been damaged by a more serious fire in 1972 when officials added concrete reinforcements while redoing the roof over the next 13 years.
The French government has said it will ensure the cathedral’s restoration, though very few if any, elements of the main organ are likely to be saved, said Philippe Charron, head of the regional DRAC state heritage agency.
“It will take several weeks to secure the site… and several months of inspections that will be carried out stone by stone,” he said.
Fire erupted in the gothic cathedral of Nantes in western France on Saturday before being brought under control, sparking an arson investigation and leaving Catholic officials lamenting the loss of priceless historical artefacts.
The cathedral’s 17th century organ was destroyed and its platform was in danger of collapsing, said regional fire chief Laurent Ferlay, but added the damage was not comparable to last year’s devastating blaze at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Passers-by saw flames behind the windows of the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul and alerted the emergency services just before 08:00 am (0600 GMT).
Around 100 firefighters rushed to the scene and managed to control the blaze at the gothic structure, built between 15th and 19th centuries, said Ferlay.
Nantes prosecutor Pierre Sennes noted that the fire had started in three different places, meaning a judicial investigation for possible arson was opened, although no conclusions had yet been drawn.
“When we arrive at a place where a fire has taken place, when you see three separate fire outbreaks, it’s a question of common sense, you open an investigation,” Sennes told AFP.
‘An unimaginable loss’
Local Catholic official Father François Renaud, who oversees the cathedral, surveyed the damage with firemen on Saturday morning and told AFP the great organ had “completely disappeared”, describing it as “an unimaginable loss”.
“The console of the choir organ has gone up in smoke along with the adjoining wooden stalls. Original stained glass windows behind the great organ have all shattered,” he said.
While the blaze was still raging, President Emmanuel Macron tweeted his support for “our firefighters who are taking all the risks to save this gothic jewel”.
Prime Minister Jean Castex said he would visit the scene later on Saturday along with other ministers, telling reporters he wanted to know what happened “but first I’m going to show my solidarity with the people of Nantes”.
The building was last hit by fire in 1972 and its roof took more than 13 years to repair.
Ferlay played down any comparison with Notre-Dame, which caught fire during repair work in April last year.
Much of Notre-Dame’s roof and wooden structure was destroyed, its steeple collapsed and fumes containing toxic molten lead billowed into the air. The structure will take years to repair.
Another religious building in Nantes — the Basilica of St Donatian and St Rogatian — was struck by a fire in 2015 that destroyed three-quarters of its roof.
“I would like to stress that following the 1972 fire, the roof was redone with concrete reinforcement,” Ferlay said.
He said emergency crews had tried to make sure that works of art inside the building had been protected.
The cathedral’s organ was first built in 1621 and has undergone five restorations since — the latest one ending in 1971.
During the 18th century revolutionary period the authorities had wanted to melt down its pipes for scrap, but the organist intervened and argued that the instrument could instead be used for “revolutionary ceremonies”, according to historian Paul Chopelin.
Fire erupted Saturday inside a gothic cathedral in the western French city of Nantes, but firefighters brought the blaze under control within hours, emergency services said.
Officials said the cathedral’s organ was destroyed and its platform could collapse, but added that the damage was not comparable to last year’s fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Fire crews were alerted just before 08:00 am (0600 GMT) to the blaze at the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul and around 100 personnel rushed to the scene.
After two hours, emergency teams managed to contain the fire at the gothic structure, built between 15th and 19th centuries, said regional fire chief General Laurent Ferlay.
Prime Minister Jean Castex said he would visit the scene later on Saturday.
“I want to know what happened but first I’m going to show my solidarity with the people of Nantes,” Castex told reporters.
President Emmanuel Macron tweeted his “support for our firefighters who are taking all the risks to save this gothic jewel”.
The building was last hit by fire in 1972. Its roof took more than 13 years to repair.
Another religious building in Nantes — the Basilica of St Donatian and St Rogatian — was struck by a fire in 2015 that destroyed three-quarters of its roof.
In April last year, a fire engulfed Paris’s 13th century Notre-Dame cathedral, causing its steeple to collapse and sending billowing fumes containing toxic molten lead into the air. The structure will take years to repair.
When the Berlin Cathedral Choir gathered for a rehearsal on March 9, the new coronavirus was still a distant concern, with fewer than 50 confirmed cases in the German capital.
But five days later, one of the ensemble’s 80 singers contacted choir director Tobias Brommann to say she had tested positive for COVID-19.
Within two weeks, around 30 members had tested positive and a further 30 were showing symptoms — including Brommann himself, who was struck down with a headache, cough and fever.
“We also can’t be sure if those without symptoms were not infected too, as we have not done antibody tests,” Brommann told AFP.
Hardly considered an extreme activity up to now, singing — especially choral singing — is quickly earning a reputation in the pandemic as about the most dangerous thing you can do.
Similar horror stories have emerged from choirs around the world, including one in Amsterdam where 102 singers are reported to have fallen sick with COVID-19.
– High-risk activity –
Though much is not yet understood about how the new coronavirus spreads, anecdotal evidence has been enough to convince German authorities that singing is a particularly high-risk activity.
Under new freedoms being gradually introduced across the country’s states, Germans can meet friends in the park, dine in a restaurant, play sports, go to church, browse the shops, watch football and even go swimming.
But singing remains broadly off limits, and it looks likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
In recommendations for the resumption of church services published in April, the federal government stated that singing should be avoided “because of the increased production of potentially infectious droplets, which can be spread over greater distances”.
Several states have heeded the advice and banned singing from services.
Even Germany’s revered Robert Koch Institute (RKI) disease control centre has warned against singing, with RKI head Lothar Wieler saying that “droplets fly particularly far when singing”.
– Infectious particles –
The fears are partly based on the fact that when singing, as Brommann points out, “you inhale and exhale very deeply, so if there are virus particles floating in the air then they can get into the lungs relatively quickly”.
But there is also evidence to suggest that singing produces especially high numbers of potentially infectious micro-particles. According to a study published in the Nature journal in 2019, saying “aah” for 30 seconds produces twice as many such particles as 30 seconds of continuous coughing.
Indeed, many choirs fear their future looks bleak. Five German boys’ choirs have written to the government saying their existence is under threat and demanding action to save them from ruin.
At the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Berlin’s Schoeneberg district, there have been no choir rehearsals since early March.
Soprano Heike Benda-Blanck, 59, has been singing there for 10 years.
“I do miss it,” she said. “You can still sing in the shower but it’s not the same.”
Some research has given cause for optimism. The Bundeswehr University in Munich published a study in early May showing that singing only disturbs air flow up to half a metre (1.6 feet) in front of the person.
Freiburg University’s Institute for Performing Arts Medicine has also published guidelines for singing partly based on a study it carried out in the southern city of Bamberg with similar results.
However, institute head Bernhard Richter warns: “Contrary to what was sometimes reported, we did not make any aerosol measurements” — tiny particles that have the potential to circulate much further in a room.
The institute published updated guidelines this week that include limiting the number of people in the room and the length of rehearsals, staying two metres apart, keeping rooms ventilated, screening choir members and wearing masks.
– ‘Work in progess’ –
“This is a work in progress,” Richter said. “Of course singers want clear statements, black and white, but then you have to say, maybe we don’t know yet.”
In proposals to the authorities, Germany’s Catholic Church has endorsed “quiet singing” in services, as well as restricting numbers and requiring people to stand 1.5 metres apart, though the Protestant Church continues to advise a complete ban.
But the potential dangers of singing became clear once again this month after a virus outbreak at a church service in Frankfurt — where the congregation had been singing and not wearing masks. At least 40 people were infected at the service, with 112 affected overall.
It remains to be seen whether singing can be controlled at other events in Germany, such as Bundesliga football matches, which are being played behind closed doors until further notice.
Singing could also potentially spread the virus at large events such as rock concerts and the Oktoberfest beer festival, where rowdy singing is an integral of the proceedings — undoubtedly one of the reasons it has been cancelled for 2020.
A spokesman for the interior ministry told AFP that since all major events are banned until at least August 31 in Germany anyway, this remains a “hypothetical question”.
“It depends on how the infection situation develops,” he said.
The Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris hosted its first mass on Saturday exactly two months after a devastating blaze that shocked the world, with priests and worshippers wearing hard hats to protect themselves against possible falling debris.
Dressed in a white robe and helmet, Archbishop of Paris Michel Aupetit led the service, which was attended by just some 30 people — half of them clergy.
The mass started at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT) in the Chapel of the Virgin on the east side of the cathedral, confirmed to be safe. It was broadcast live on Catholic TV channel KTO.
Aupetit was joined by the rector of Notre-Dame, Patrick Chauvet, other clergy, volunteers, people working on the restoration as well a handful of lay worshippers.
The date was chosen as it is the anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral’s altar, which is celebrated every year on June 16.
The date is “highly significant, spiritually,” Chauvet told AFP, adding he was happy to be able to show that “Notre-Dame is truly alive”.
President Emmanuel Macron has set an ambitious target of five years for restoring Notre-Dame, which was gutted by a fire on April 15 that felled its steeple and consumed the lattice of beams supporting the roof.
The diocese is awaiting a response from the French authorities over whether it can re-open the esplanade in front of the cathedral to the public.
If the authorities approve the plan, the idea is to celebrate evening prayers there, the diocese said.
The church has also floated the idea of erecting a temporary structure in front of the cathedral to welcome worshippers while the building is being repaired.
Up to 150 workers have been working at the cathedral daily since the fire, continuing to remove debris and stabilise the structure.
Two large white canopies have been placed above the nave and the choir to ensure the edifice is protected, including from the rain.
Macron’s call for an “inventive” rather than identical reconstruction of the steeple has left some architects up in arms.
Meanwhile, legislation over the reconstruction has been blocked in parliament over disagreements between the upper and lower houses and is now only expected to be adopted at the end of July.
Pledges of some 850 million euros ($960 million) had been made from prominent French businessmen and ordinary citizens but only around 10 percent of that has been donated so far.
France Info public radio said just 80 million euros had been handed over, with businessmen giving the money in tranches and some private individuals renouncing their pledges due to the apparent success of the campaign.
The International Olympic Committee on Thursday pledged 500,000 euros $562,0000 to help ensure Notre Dame is restored in time for the 2024 Paris Games.
“The aim of completing the reconstruction in time for Paris 2024 will be an extra motivation for all of us,” IOC president Thomas Bach told 2024 Games chief Thomas Estanguet in a letter.
“All the Olympic movement and in particular the IOC have been extremely touched by the instantaneous connection the French have made between Notre Dame Cathedral and the Paris 2024 Olympic Games,” he wrote.
France will invite architects from around the world to submit designs for rebuilding the spire of Notre-Dame cathedral that was destroyed in a devastating blaze, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said Wednesday.
The goal is “to give Notre-Dame a new spire that is adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era,” Philippe said at a press conference in Paris.
Pledges to donate millions of euros in cash and materials poured in Tuesday in the aftermath of a massive fire at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, which firefighters were still fighting to extinguish more than 12 hours after it started.
President Emmanuel Macron has vowed the emblematic church will be rebuilt after its spire and roof collapsed Monday night in a blaze thought to be linked to extensive renovation work.
French billionaire Bernard Arnault announced Tuesday that he and the LVMH luxury conglomerate he controls would give 200 million euros ($226 million) for the reconstruction efforts.
The pledge came after Arnault’s crosstown rival Kering, the fashion group founded by fellow billionaire Francois Pinault, offered 100 million euros to help “completely rebuild Notre-Dame”.
The privately run French Heritage Foundation has already launched a call for donations to help restore a “symbol of French history and culture.”
Valerie Pecresse, president of the Ile-de-France region comprising the greater Paris region, said it would provide 10 million euros.
And the head of a French lumber company told FranceInfo radio that it was ready to offer the best oak beams available to rebuild the intricate lattice that supported the now-destroyed roof, known as the “Forest”.
“The work will surely take years, decades even, but it will require thousands of cubic metres of wood. We’ll have to find the best specimens, with large diameters,” Sylvain Charlois of the Charlois group in Murlin, central France, told the radio.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo on Tuesday proposed organising an international donor conference to coordinate the pledges to restore the gothic architectural masterpiece.
The United Nations’ cultural agency UNESCO has also promised to stand “at France’s side” to restore the site, which it declared a world heritage site in 1991.
Tragedy struck on Monday in France as a fire swept through the roof of the famed Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on Monday evening, sending flames and huge clouds of grey smoke billowing into the sky.
The flames and smoke plumed from the spire and roof of the gothic cathedral, visited by millions of people a year.
Although the fire service said the blaze could be “potentially linked” to ongoing renovations, a spokesman for the cathedral, however, stated that the wooden structure supporting the roof was being gutted by the blaze.
Following the inferno, President Emmanuel Macron was forced to cancel a major televised policy speech he was due to give later in the evening.
Reacting to the development, US President Donald Trump in a tweet said: “So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!”
Many French citizens were still reeling in shock as they watched in disbelief the building consumed by the flames.