France

French officials launch arson probe into Nantes cathedral fire

Firefighters at work to put out a fire at the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral in Nantes, western France, on July 18, 2020.
Firefighters at work to put out a fire at the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral in Nantes, western France, on July 18, 2020. AFP - SEBASTIEN SALOM-GOMIS
3 min

French prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation after a major fire at the cathedral in the city of Nantes, western France. Officials said the fire began in three separate places at the 15th-century building, indicating it was intentionally lit. 

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Prosecutor Pierre Sennes confirmed that the fire at Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul de Nantes was being treated as arson, but gave no further details.

"There are no conclusions to be drawn now because we have a lot of investigating to do, which could introduce new elements," Sennes told AFP.

Massive flames were seen inside the nave of the cathedral around 8am. Dozens of firefighters arrived at the scene shortly after and brought the fire under control.

Around 9am, flames were no longer visible but a plume of black smoke continued to flow from the Gothic structure.

Local fire chief Laurent Ferlay told reporters 104 firefighters were still at the site to ensure the blaze was completely under control.

The fire broke out behind the grand organ, which was completely destroyed, he said. Stained glass windows at the front of the cathedral were blown out. However, the damage was not as bad as initially feared.

Spectre of Notre-Dame

It took firefighters around two hours to contain the blaze, emergency officials said, adding that the damage was not comparable to last year's fire at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris.

"The damage is concentrated on the organ, which seems to be completely destroyed. Its platform is very unstable and could collapse," regional fire chief General Laurent Ferlay told a press briefing in front of the cathedral.

The French prime minister, interior minister and culture minister are due to visit the cathedral later on Saturday.

“I want to know what happened, and to show my solidarity with the people of Nantes", prime minister Jean Castex told French media.

President Emmanuel Macron took to Twitter to declare his "support for firefighters who are taking every risk to save this gothic jewel".

The cathedral was last hit by fire in 1972. Its roof took more than 13 years to repair.

Another religious building in Nantes - the Basilica of St Donatian and St Rogatian - was struck by a fire in 2015, destroying three-quarters of its roof.

In April last year, a fire engulfed Paris's 13th century Notre-Dame Cathedral, causing its steeple to collapse and sending billowing fumes containing toxic molten lead into the air. The structure will take years to repair.

(with wires)

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