PARIS — The rector of Notre Dame Cathedral says the Paris landmark is still so fragile that there's a “50 percent chance” the structure might not be entirely saved because scaffolding installed before this year's fire is threatening the vaults of the Gothic monument.
Monsignor Patrick Chauvet said restoration work isn't likely to begin until 2021 — and described his “heartache” at not being able to celebrate Christmas services inside Notre Dame this year, for the first time since the French Revolution.
“Today it is not out of danger," he told The Associated Press on the sidelines of Christmas Eve midnight Mass in a nearby church. “It will be out of danger when we take out the remaining scaffolding.”
“Today we can say that there is maybe a 50 percent chance that it will be saved. There is also 50 percent chance of scaffolding falling onto the three vaults, so as you can see the building is still very fragile,” he said.
The 12th-century cathedral was under renovation at the time of the accidental April fire, which destroyed its roof and collapsed its spire. One of the toughest parts of the cleanup effort is cutting down the 50,000 tubes of old scaffolding that crisscrossed the back of the edifice.
“We need to remove completely the scaffolding in order to make the building safe so in 2021, we will probably start the restoration of the cathedral,” Chauvet said. “Once the scaffolding is removed, we need to assess the state of the cathedral, the quantity of stones to be removed and replaced.”
He estimated it would take another three years after that to make it safe enough for people to re-enter the cathedral, but that the full restoration will take longer. President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants it rebuilt by 2024, when Paris hosts the Olympics, but experts have questioned whether that time frame is realistic.
Oil company Total signed an agreement in November to pay 100 million euro ($111 million) toward the reconstruction of Notre Dame that it pledged shortly after April's fire. A month earlier, French billionaire Francois Pinault and his son finalized their 100 million-euro donation, a week after rival tycoon Bernard Arnault of luxury giant LVMH finalized his company's donation of 200 million euros.
The agreements follow months of delay that left officials reliant on small charity donations to fund the repairs' first phase.
Unable to celebrate Christmas in Notre Dame this year, its congregation, clergy and choir decamped to the Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois Church across from the Louvre Museum instead.
Parishioners at Christmas Eve Mass shared sorrow about the fire, but also a feeling of solidarity.
“I remember my mother told me that she was watching TV, and that there was a fire at Notre Dame. I told her ‘it’s not possible,’ and I took my bike, and when I arrived I was crying,” said Jean-Luc Bodam, a Parisian engineer who used to cross town to attend services at the cathedral.
“We are French, we are going to try to rebuild Notre Dame as it was before, because it is a symbol,” he said.