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France opens arson probe after fire at cathedral in Nantes

Jul 19. 2020
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By The Washington Post · James McAuley · WORLD, EUROPE 

PARIS - French investigators opened a probe into possible arson Saturday after a fire tore through parts of Nantes Cathedral in northwestern France, bringing scenes reminiscent of last year's inferno that nearly destroyed the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

The blaze was brought under control and the damage at the cathedral in Nantes was mostly concentrated around the church's organ. 

A criminal motive was suspected, said Pierre Sennes, the Nantes public prosecutor, because the fire had three different starting points throughout the large cathedral, whose construction began in the 15th century but was not completed until four centuries later.

"The investigation is opened on the basis of the findings, after the discovery of three outbreaks of fire spaced apart from each other," Sennes said. 

"It's not a coincidence. It's even a signature," he told France's Ouest France newspaper.

But Sennes also noted that "the first observations did not find traces of a break-in." 

Prime Minister Jean Castex said he would provide no further details on the investigation but pledged the cathedral would be rebuilt "as quickly as possible and in which the state will play its full part."

The sight of another French cathedral in flames immediately recalled the spellbinding terror of the Notre Dame fire in April 2019, when its iconic spire snapped like a pencil and fell into the blaze below.

"After Notre Dame, Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral, in the heart of Nantes, is in flames," said President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday, in a statement posted on Twitter. "Support for our firefighters taking all the risks to save this Gothic jewel of the city of the Dukes." 

Castex was due to arrive in Nantes on Saturday afternoon, along with Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot. 

The immediate damage to Nantes Cathedral was not as severe as that to Notre Dame, which lost most of its roof and will require years to repair. The French government announced last week that Notre Dame - especially its spire - would be constructed exactly as it was before. 

"The damage is concentrated on the large organ, which seems to be completely destroyed," Laurent Ferlay, the director general of the Nantes fire department, told reporters. "The platform on which it's located is very unstable and threatens to collapse."

Saturday was not the first time Nantes Cathedral faced a blaze. In January 1972, much of the cathedral's roof caught fire, which was repaired after 13 years of renovation.


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