A fire broke out inside the cathedral of the western French city of Nantes in the early hours of Saturday, but the authorities quickly said there was no comparison with the blaze that engulfed Notre-Dame in Paris last year despite the ominous images of flames and smoke coming from the building.
Over 100 firefighters were sent to the cathedral in Nantes after they were alerted shortly before 8 a.m., but the “violent fire” was controlled in hours, according to Gen. Laurent Ferlay, the head of the firefighters in the Loire Atlantique area, which includes the city.
“It is not a scenario à la Notre-Dame de Paris,” General Ferlay told reporters, adding that the fire, though contained, was not yet extinguished. “The roof hasn’t been hit,” he noted.
General Ferlay said that the fire had broken out near the organ of the cathedral and had destroyed the instrument entirely. The authorities have opened an investigation amid suspicion that the fire may have been intentional because three separate starting points for the blaze had been detected.
The Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, a Gothic building in Nantes that was built across four centuries and completed in 1891, was also charred by fire in 1972, in a blaze that destroyed much of its wooden framework. It was replaced with a structure in concrete, which General Ferlay said had helped limit the damage this time.
French television stations broadcast images of thick smoke pouring out of a giant stained window, a painful reminder for many of the blaze that devastated Notre-Dame and sent its spire crashing through the roof, bringing the Paris landmark to the verge of collapse.
The fire in the French capital last year started in the attic, ravaging the famed latticework of ancient timbers known as “the forest,” before spreading to the towers, and it left three jagged openings in the vaulted ceiling of Notre-Dame, one of Europe’s most visited monuments.
Workers are continuing to delicately remove about 40,000 pieces of twisted scaffolding from the precarious stone structure that were melted in the Notre-Dame fire.
The blaze changed the face of Paris and prompted a nationwide reckoning over the state of France’s 86 cathedrals and tens of thousands of other monuments, which historians had long warned were being neglected.
The origin of the Notre-Dame fire is still unknown, but investigators have focused on the possibility of a short-circuit in the electrified bells of the spire, or in elevators that had been set up among scaffolding. Cigarette butts, which were found on the scaffolding, have also been suspected.
President Emmanuel Macron, who had vowed to rebuild the cathedral within five years, said this month that the cathedral had to be restored in a way that would be “as true as possible,” to its “complete, coherent and last known state.”
In Nantes, a city of about 300,000 people near the Atlantic coast, it took 13 years to reopen St. Peter and St. Paul after a fire tore through the cathedral’s roof in 1972. Father Hubert Champenois, the rector of Nantes, who witnessed the fire decades ago, told the French television channel BFMTV on Saturday that the blaze on Saturday did not look as devastating.
Johanna Rolland, the mayor of Nantes, said on French television that she had been allowed inside the cathedral with firefighters and saw reasons for optimism, while acknowledging the trauma. “The damages are real, but they are localized,” she said, adding that it was “a sad day for Nantes and its people.”