In the early evening of Monday April 15, 2019, while a mass celebrating Holy Week was being held at Notre-Dame de Paris, a fire alarm went off in the cathedral’s security room. It was 6:17 p.m. The fire safety officer, who was working a double shift on his first day on the job, read the sign and radioed one of the guards. He went to investigate what he understood to be a fire in the vestry attic, and found nothing. An evacuation announcement was deemed a false alarm and worshipers were urged to return to the building.
However, the fire had settled, not in the sacristy, but in the attic of the nave, an area called the “forest”, where a trellis of 900-year-old oak beams supported the roof. After a crucial half-hour delay, during which smoke was photographed rising above the cathedral by tourists outside, the source of the fire was discovered.
Without a sprinkler system or fire walls to slow the spread, it quickly burned out of control. President Emmanuel Macron arrived in time to see the 19th century spire collapse and slam into the vault of the nave. As the world watched, the flames spread to the belfries and the complete destruction of one of Europe’s most visited buildings seemed inevitable.
Miraculously, thanks to a small group of firefighters who volunteered to head back out into the intense heat – temperatures peaked at over 1,200°C – Notre Dame was saved, and no lives were lost.
Now, with his new film Notre Dame on Fire, director Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Name of the Rose) has turned those real events into one of the most gripping dramas of the year. Approached with the idea of making a documentary, the 78-year-old Oscar winner, whose other films include Enemy at the Gates and Seven Years in Tibet, saw the dramatic potential in recreating the fire when it started to find out precisely what had happened.