France

French police question church volunteer over Nantes cathedral fire

The damage inside the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral in Nantes, western France, 18 July 2020.
The damage inside the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral in Nantes, western France, 18 July 2020. AFP - SEBASTIEN SALOM-GOMIS
3 min

French investigators are questioning a man who worked at the Nantes cathedral following a major fire at the 15th-century Gothic structure on Saturday. 

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The volunteer was in charge of closing the cathedral on Friday evening. Investigators were seeking to clarify the man's activity before the blaze, prosecutor Pierre Sennes told AFP, adding that "any interpretation that could implicate this person in what occurred is premature".

Prosecutors launched an arson investigation on Saturday after the blaze, which broke out in three separate places, indicating that it was lit intentionally.

There were no signs of a break-in, but officials said one fire started near the cathedral's organ, while the other two were at the other end of the cathedral.     

Huge 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.

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

'Unimaginable loss'

Catholic officials mourned the loss of priceless artefacts and paintings as well as the 17th century organ – a star attraction of the cathedral.

Regional fire chief Laurent Ferlay however said the damage was not comparable to last year's devastating blaze at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris.

Passers-by saw flames behind the rosette of the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul and alerted emergency services early on Saturday.           

Catholic official Father François Renaud, who oversees the cathedral, surveyed the damage with firemen and told AFP the organ console had "completely disappeared", describing it as "an unimaginable loss".

"The console of the choir organ has gone up in smoke along with the adjoining wooden choir stalls. Original stained glass windows behind the great organ have all shattered," he said.

While the blaze was still raging, President Emmanuel Macron tweeted support for "our firefighters who are taking all kinds of risks to save this Gothic jewel".

Prime Minister Jean Castex later inspected the damage along with the French ministers of the interior and culture.He set the investigation and subsequent reconstruction as priorities, saying "the state will play a major role" in the latter.

The building was also hit by fire in 1972 and its roof took more than 13 years to repair.

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