French President Emmanuel Macron has told the nation he wanted Notre-Dame rebuilt within five years.
“We will mobilise for this,” he said in a television address on Tuesday, local time, as firefighters and engineers continued to take stock of the damage to the famous 850-year-old cathedral gutted by fire on Monday.
“We are a people of builders. We have so much to rebuild and we will rebuild – we will make it even more beautiful than before. And I want it done within the next five years.”
The pledge is likely to meet scepticism from restoration experts. Eric Fischer, head of the foundation that recently restored Strasbourg’s 1000-year-old cathedral, had predicted the restoration of Notre-Dame could take decades. Oak merchant Sylvain Charlois predicted that replacing the “forest” of huge oak beams that had held up the roof would “take years, decades even”.
But many have taken heart from developments on Tuesday: news, for example, that the cathedral’s three irreplaceable “rose” stained glass windows survived without catastrophic damage.
In his speech, Macron said the fire had been a traumatic experience for the French and for the world.
He praised firefighters who had taken “the most extreme risks” to save the building.
And he reminded France that in their history “towns, cities, ports and churches have been burnt down or destroyed by wars and revolutions, and every time we rebuilt”.
There were continuing concerns about the cathedral’s structure, and firefighters and engineers were closely monitoring the building’s stability.
Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said “some weaknesses” had been found and engineers were urgently working to prop up the walls.
“Globally the structure is holding up well, but some weaknesses have been identified particularly in the vault and the gable of the northern transept, which have to be secured,” he told reporters at the scene, adding that five neighbouring buildings had been evacuated.
A fire expert told the BBC the restoration work was very likely the cause of the fire, as it involves the use of solvents and heating elements, and there is very little else in a roof that can spark such a blaze.
“Nothing suggests that it was a voluntary act,” prosecutor Remy Heitz told reporters.
He said a fire alarm had been raised at 6.20pm on Monday but a search found no fire – nevertheless the building was evacuated. A second alert 23 minutes later revealed fire in the roof frame, spreading out of control.
A team of 50 investigators have already identified and interviewed around 30 renovation workers who were on site. However for safety reasons their access to the cathedral itself is still limited.
Minister of Culture Franck Riester told radio station France Inter “the main structure has been saved but there is still a lot of instability, the situation is still precarious”.
“Last night, two thirds of the roof burnt, the spire collapsed, creating a hole in the vault, part of the transept collapsed.”
The United Nations cultural agency UNESCO, based in Paris, has already started contacting experts and declared itself ready to “send an emergency mission to assess the damage, preserve what can be preserved and plan short and medium-term measures”, Director-General Audrey Azoulay said.
Riester said the three huge 13th century stained glass roses on the north, west and south transepts “have not suffered catastrophic damage”, though it is unclear how much damage they did sustain. The heat of the fire could have partly melted both the glass and the lead that binds it together.
A church steward told French radio the main organ, some of whose pipes date back to the 15th century, also escaped major damage from either the fire or the firefighters’ water, though it was covered with dust. Another smaller organ suffered some water damage, as firefighters drenched the interior to try to protect old wooden choir stalls.