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UNESCO aids Notre Dame emergency plan

UNESCO pledged to help French authorities do a rapid damage assessment of the inferno that tore through Notre Dame Cathedral for more than 12 hours.

PARIS (AN) — The U.N.'s educational, scientific and cultural agency pledged to help French authorities perform a rapid damage assessment of the inferno that tore through Notre Dame Cathedral for more than 12 hours.

The Roman Catholic cathedral, an iconic symbol of Paris, is considered the finest example of French Gothic architecture. Its construction — which began in 1160 and continued over a century — is famed for its innovative use of rib vaults and buttresses, stained glass rosettes and sculpted ornaments.

"We are all heartbroken,” UNESCO's Director-General Audrey Azoulay said as she watched firefighters battle to save the cathedral, part of a World Heritage site with bridges, quays and river banks along the River Seine.

“UNESCO stands by France in safeguarding and rehabilitating this invaluable heritage,” she said. “We are already in contact with experts and ready to send an emergency mission to assess the damage, preserve what can be preserved and plan short and medium-term measures."

The fire toppled the cathedral's elegant 93-meter spire, an architectural masterpiece of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc that was built of wood and lead in the 19th century, and wrecked the world-renowned cathedral's roof, made of enormous oak wood beams hewn from timber harvested a millennium ago.

But its twin medieval bell towers, famous 18th century organ with more than 8,000 pipes and many of the most priceless treasures survived — including the Crown of Thorns held by tradition as the one worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion, fragments of the cross and a nail and the 13th century linen tunic worn by Saint Louis when he was King of France. An emblem of France — the spire’s bronze rooster — also was recovered.

Some 500 firefighters were dispatched to Île de la Cité, the island in the heart of Paris along the Seine where Notre-Dame is situated. About a fifth of them set about saving the cathedral's cultural and religious treasures, according to Paris firefighters spokesperson Gabriel Plus.

Twenty firefighters prevented the flames from reaching the two 69-meter belfry towers that house the cathedral bells. A fire chief said the twin bell towers, like much of the rest of the cathedral, was probably only a half-hour away from being consumed by flames.

'The power of heritage'

The rapid damage assessment would be carried out with national and local authorities, the cathedral's site management and church authorities, the United Nations agency said. The aim was to develop a plan for avoiding more damage and to recover as many original elements of the cathedral as possible from the debris.

Plus, the firefighters' spokesperson, said they were "satisfied and grateful that in risking their lives, [the firefighters] safeguarded the structure of the two belfries, the towers — and the works of art. Now I can confirm the fire is completely out.”

It was not immediately known what had caused the fire, which started in the attic, but it was being investigated as an accident, authorities said. The spire that collapsed had been surrounded by scaffolding during construction work.

Investigators determined the cathedral remained structurally sound overall. But the roof was left with gaping holes where the ancient vaulted ceiling collapsed into the nave, and French interior ministry officials said the cathedral remained under permanent surveillance because of some vulnerabilities in its structure.

UNESCO said it would both accompany and support the French authorities in the cathedral's rehabilitation. Azoulay said Notre Dame represents "a historically, architecturally, and spiritually outstanding universal heritage" not only for the French and for Catholics, but for people around the world.

"It is also a monument of literary heritage, a place that is unique in our collective imagination," she said. "Heritage of the French — but also of humanity as a whole. This drama reminds us of the power of heritage that connects us to one another."