AFTER flames took hold of Notre-Dame de Paris on Monday, gutting its interior and collapsing its spire, comparisons were being made to the fire that devastated York Minster almost 35 years ago.
The Minster fire began in the early hours of 9 July 1984 after a bolt of lightning struck the roof of the south transept. More than 100 firefighters were called in from across North Yorkshire to tackle the blaze, which thrived in a hot, airless night.
Only 24 hours before, the Minster had been packed with General Synod members for the Sunday-morning Eucharist during the annual meeting in York. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, visited the Minster almost immediately.
The Church Times reported at the time: “By the time the Archbishop reached the Minster on Monday morning, the fire was out, but the ruins of the south-transept roof lay black and sodden on the floor of the Cathedral. Most of the water had been swept away, leaving the floor throughout the building black with sooty puddles.”
As at Notre-Dame, the main structure of the Minster was saved after part of the roof collapsed, allowing firefighters access to the source of the flames. In contrast, the collapsing of the Minster roof in 1984 was deliberate: firefighters aimed water-jets on the burning timbers to bring them down.
The master mason at York, John David, explained on Tuesday: “At York Minister, there are two roofs: an outside supporting V-shaped roof and a wooden vault underneath. At the Minster, the outside roof and inside vaulting both caught fire; the way they managed to control the fire was by collapsing the roof on to the floor.”
This stopped the fire spreading to the central tower. In Notre-Dame, the fire spread to the north-west tower. If it had not subsequently been contained, “That would have been a huge disaster,” Mr David said.
“The problem with Notre-Dame is that there is a stone vault; so the only way that the firefighters could tackle the fire was at high-level: access is very difficult. I don’t think that scaffolding helped either. There was also the risk that the timber was going to collapse on to the stone vault, which had already been damaged. The stone vault was also filling with water.”
Mr David estimates that Notre-Dame could be restored within ten years, depending on the availability of materials (such as timber), decision-making, the stability of the building, and the number and quality of outside contractors involved.
On Tuesday, French businessmen had already pledged €300 million to fund the restoration — double the initial target of a national appeal.
It took four years and about £4 million to restore York Minster. The first six months had been taken up with decision-making, however, Mr David said. “We just wanted to get on with it; we started the stonework almost straightaway.”
The then newly appointed Dean of York, John Southgate, was given a cheque for £500,000 from Ecclesiastical insurers to cover immediate repair costs.
A spokeswoman for Ecclesiastical said: “Unfortunately, all churches, large and small, are at risk of fire. While major fires like [York Minster and Notre Dame] are rare, we have unfortunately seen significant losses in UK churches over the years.
Most had have been fully restored, despite substantial damage, she said. “We hope that this brings some degree of comfort to the people of Paris.”
On the day of the fire, Ecclesiastical had been hosting representatives from cathedrals and greater churches in the south-west and West Midlands to learn how to reduce the risk of fire.
The one-day fire-safety course was held at Gloucester Cathedral, led by the principal risk-management surveyor at Ecclesiastical, Claire Attenborough. She said: “A major fire at a cathedral or greater church would be a huge loss to the country; so anything we can do to help protect these buildings is very important.”
The insurer is holding three more events in London, Leeds, and Peterborough during April and May.