PARIS — France paid a daylong tribute Thursday to the Paris firefighters who saved the internationally revered Notre Dame Cathedral from collapse and rescued many of its treasures. As the ceremonies took place, construction workers hurriedly secured key sections of the fire-weakened cathedral, including an area above one of its famed rose-shaped windows.
Fire officials warned that the massive cathedral still remains very fragile and extremely dangerous for construction workers and other specialists. On Thursday, workers using a crane were removing some statues to lessen the weight on the cathedral’s fragile gables, or support walls, and to keep them from falling, since the section lacked the support of the massive timber roof that burned up in Monday evening’s devastating blaze.
They were also securing the support structure above one of Notre Dame’s rose windows with wooden planks.
Several hundred Paris firefighters, who are members of the French military, filed into the presidential Elysee Palace courtyard for a gathering hosted by President Emmanuel Macron to share what his office said were “words of thanks.” Top government ministers also attended.
Paris City Hall was holding a ceremony in the firefighters’ honor later in the day, with a Bach violin concert, two giant banners strung from the monumental city headquarters and readings from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
More than 400 firefighters took part in the nine-hour battle to save the 12th-century Notre Dame on Monday. Its spire collapsed and roof was destroyed, but its iconic towers, rose windows, famed organ and precious artworks were saved.
Remarkably, no one was killed in the fire, which began during a Mass, after firefighters and church officials speedily evacuated those inside.
Among the firefighters being honored Thursday is Paris fire brigade chaplain Father Jean-Marc Fournier, who says he was falsely credited with helping salvage the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus at his crucifixion.
The chaplain says a team of rescuers broke the relic’s protective covering and an official who had the secret code to unlock the protection finished the job. Fournier told France Info on Thursday that his own team arrived on the heels of the salvaging and praised the action “to preserve this extraordinary relic, this patrimony of humanity.”
However, Fournier told the daily Le Parisian that he himself was able to save the most precious thing for Catholics from the fire, the cathedral’s consecrated hosts. The paper said he climbed on altars to remove large paintings, but that he felt especially proud of another personal salvaging operation: “To have removed Jesus” from the Cathedral.
For Catholics, consecrated hosts are the body of Christ.
Among others honored is Myriam Chudzinski, one of the first firefighters to reach the roof as the blaze raged. Loaded with gear, they climbed hundreds of steps up the cathedral’s narrow spiral staircase to the top of one of the two towers. She had trained at the site for hours for just this moment.
“We knew that the roof was burning, but we didn’t really know the intensity,” she told reporters. “It was from upstairs that you understood that it was really dramatic. It was very hot and we had to retreat, retreat. It was spreading quickly.”
She heard a roar, but her focus was on saving the tower. She learned later that it was the sound of the spire collapsing.
Investigators so far believe the fire was accidental, and are questioning both cathedral staff and the workers who were carrying out renovations to the cathedral before the fire broke out. Some 40 people had been questioned by Thursday, according to the Paris prosecutor’s office.
The building would have burned to the ground in a “chain-reaction collapse” had firefighters not moved as rapidly as they did to battle the blaze racing through the building, José Vaz de Matos, a fire expert with France’s Culture Ministry, said Wednesday.
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 to be consuming the roof.
The island in the Seine River housing Notre Dame at the heart of the French capital remained largely empty Thursday and closed to everyone but residents. Businesses were shuttered and the usual tourist throngs were nowhere to be seen.
The lack of tourists was a significant concern for neighborhood merchants. A large swath of the Ile de la Cite is currently inaccessible, with numerous bridges linking it with mainland Paris closed.
Macron wants to rebuild the cathedral within five years — in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics that Paris is hosting — but experts say the vast scale of the work to be done could easily take 15 years, since it will take months, even years, just to figure out what should be done. Nearly $1 billion has been pledged for the cathedral’s restoration.
Benedicte Contamin, who came to view the damaged cathedral from afar Thursday, said she’s sad but grateful it’s still there.
“It’s a chance for France to bounce back, a chance to realize what unites us, because we have been too much divided over the past years,” she said.
Cathedral bells rang out across France in a moving tribute Wednesday to Notre Dame and the firefighters.
Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.