Man questioned in arson probe into French cathedral fire

Agence France-Presse, Agence France-Presse
Man questioned in arson probe into French cathedral fire

FIRE. A man and his child look at the partially burnt facade of the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral in Nantes, western France, on July 19, 2020. 

Sebastien Salom-Gomis/AFP

Authorities say the blaze destroyed the Nantes congregation's famed organ which dated from 1621

French investigators questioned a man Sunday, July 19, who worked as a volunteer at the gothic cathedral of Nantes which was badly damaged by fire hours after he locked it up for the night.

Prosecutors launched an arson investigation after the Saturday morning blaze which they said appeared to have broken out in three different parts of the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul in Nantes, western France.

Sunday’s questioning sought to “clarify elements of the schedule” of the man on Friday evening, Nantes prosecutor Pierre Sennes told Agence France-Presse.

He was being held as part of “normal procedure” and it would be “premature” to suggest the man was a suspect in the case, he added.

The blaze, which came just 15 months after a devastating fire tore through the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, destroyed the Nantes congregation’s famed organ, which dated from 1621 and had survived the French revolution and World War II bombardment.

Also lost were priceless artefacts and paintings, including a work by 19th century artist Hippolyte Flandrin and stained glass windows which contained remnants of 16th century glass.

About 100 firefighters managed to save the main structure of the cathedral, which was constructed over more than 450 years starting in 1434.

Sennes said experts from a police unit specialised in fire investigations were at the scene Sunday, awaiting authorisation from firefighters to examine the platform on which the grand organ had stood.

‘Unimaginable loss’

On Saturday, Sennes said a preliminary examination had found no signs of forced entry at the cathedral.

Investigators did find three separate fire outbreaks, at “a substantial distance” from one another and at opposite ends of the church, he said, which led to the opening of an arson probe.

One of the fires started near the organ which was on the first level of the cathedral and accessible by 66 steps.

Catholic official Father Francois Renaud, who oversees the cathedral, said the organ console had “completely disappeared”, and described 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.

The cathedral’s rector, Hubert Champenois, told AFP on Saturday that “everything was in order last night,” and “a very close inspection was made before it closed, like every other evening.” 

The volunteer was being questioned about “the conditions of the closing of the cathedral” on Friday evening, Sennes said Sunday.

Lay volunteers

The cathedral website states that lay people, all volunteers, help with administrative tasks such as account-keeping, cleaning, security, and opening and closing the cathedral on a daily basis.

The building was last hit by fire in 1972, requiring 13 years of large-scale reconstruction.

Regional fire chief Laurent Ferlay said the latest damage was not comparable to the 1972 blaze, nor to last year’s blaze at the Notre-Dame.

Much of the Paris cathedral’s roof and wooden structure was destroyed, its steeple collapsed and fumes containing toxic molten lead billowed into the air.

Prime Minister Jean Castex, visiting the Nantes cathedral on Saturday, promised the state would “play a major role” in its reconstruction which “I want to happen as quickly as possible.”