Explosion danger: U.S. marijuana oil labs pose deadly, destructive hazard

A suburban home that was the site of a hash oil extraction laboratory explosion is seen in the Mira Mesa area of San Diego, California, U.S., May 5, 2019. San Diego-Fire Rescue Department/Handout via REUTERS

By Andy Sullivan

SAN DIEGO(Reuters) – On the afternoon of May 5, college student John Nothdurft was watching TV at his suburban San Diego home when a series of explosions shook the house. Around the corner, on Sunny Meadow Street, flames billowed from a neighbor’s garage.

A man was running down the street. He was on fire.

Nothdurft, 18, tried to comfort the man as a neighbor sprayed him with a garden hose. “His skin kind of looked like it had melted off,” he recalled.

Investigators quickly determined the cause of the blaze: a butane-gas explosion resulting from an illegal attempt to make a concentrated form of marijuana. Known as hash oil or honey oil, the product can be consumed in vape pens, candies, waxes and other forms that are increasingly popular.

The Sunny Meadow Street explosion illustrates a growing danger as marijuana moves from the counterculture to the mainstream, law enforcement officials told Reuters. With cannabis now legal for medical or recreational use in 33 states and the District of Columbia, users are discovering new ways of consuming the drug.

Nationwide, concentrated products accounted for nearly a third of the $10.3 billion legal market in September 2018, double their share in 2015, according to the New Frontier Data research firm.

In states like California and Colorado, where marijuana use is legal, state-licensed producers of hash oil use sophisticated systems that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But those seeking to make hash oil at home don’t have to spend that much. YouTube videos demonstrate how to strip the psychoactive THC compounds from marijuana using a PVC pipe, a coffee filter and a $4 can of butane.

Production is surging on the black market – especially in California, where the legal market is still dwarfed by an underground network that supplies users across the country.

A “dab” of hash oil can contain up to 90 percent THC – more than four times the strength of typical marijuana buds.

“I will never forget my first time I ever took a dab,” said Sabrina Persona, assistant manager at Harbor Collective, a licensed marijuana dispensary in San Diego. “It’s some pretty strong, pretty concentrated stuff.”

Making hash oil can be lucrative – Persona pointed to a small jar retailing for $45 – but it is also risky. Odorless and heavier than air, butane can build up quickly in enclosed spaces – until a spark from a refrigerator motor or a garage-door opener sets off an explosion that can knock a house off its foundation or destroy an apartment building.

Nationwide, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says it received reports of 260 illegal hash-oil labs in 2017, a 38 percent increase from 2016. A quarter of those labs were discovered because they caught on fire, according to the agency’s annual drug threat assessment.

Those figures are far from comprehensive, as law enforcement agencies aren’t required to provide reports to the DEA’s national database.

Even in California, which accounted for two-thirds of all reported Illegal hash-oil labs in 2017, officials could be undercounting the problem. Child-safety advocate Sue Webber-Brown estimates more than 40 adults and three children were injured from hash-oil lab explosions in the state in 2016 – far higher than the official DEA tally of 16 injuries.

Even so, the DEA reports that at least 19 people have been killed and 126 people injured by hash-oil fires in California since 2014.

“A WHOLE GARAGE OF AMMUNITION”

On Sunny Meadow Street, the inferno blew a garage door 20 feet off its hinges and melted the windshield of a car. Dozens of butane cans exploded. “Boom, bang, boom bang. I thought it was a whole garage of ammunition,” said Ken Heshler, 80, a neighbor. Three people were taken to the hospital with severe burns.

The DEA says it discovered $75,000 worth of hash oil on the scene. The agency says it expects to bring criminal charges against those involved.

According to the DEA, its first report of an illicit hash-oil lab came in 2005, in Oakland, Calif. By 2013, the U.S. Fire Administration was warning that explosions stemming from hash-oil production appeared to be increasing.

Since then, officials say, the problem has grown worse. Narcotics officers in California say that the operations they encounter now tend to be larger than the home labs that proliferated earlier in the decade – with the amount of explosive chemicals measured in barrels, rather than milliliters.

These solvents “want to go boom – they don’t want to be confined, and with the slightest kind of nudge they’re going to explode, said Karen Flowers, special agent in charge of the DEA’s San Diego office.

Less than two weeks after the explosion on Sunny Meadow Street, Flowers’ office responded to another hash-oil fire in the suburb of El Cajon. That operation contained more than a dozen 55-gallon drums of hexane, another volatile solvent. Firefighters were able to control the blaze before the chemicals exploded.

The DEA also raided four other illegal hash-oil labs in the region, including one they said was capable of producing nearly a half million dollars worth of product every two days.

Explosions have been reported across the United States and Canada. In Battle Creek, Michigan, 80 people were left homeless after one destroyed an apartment building in July 2018.

In Michigan’s rural northeast corner, the Huron Undercover Narcotics Team routinely finds hash-oil equipment when it raids illegal growing operations, Detective Lieutenant Stuart Sharp said.

“The more people growing marijuana, the more people are going to experiment with this kind of thing and the more explosions and deaths we’re going to see,” he said.

SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS

Public-safety officials interviewed by Reuters say sales restrictions on butane could limit explosions from makeshift hash oil labs, just as limits on chemicals used in methamphetamine production have helped to curtail domestic production of that drug.

The California legislature voted for statewide limits in 2017, but then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the measure, saying the legitimate hash-oil industry should be given a chance to comply with impending regulations.

Since recreational marijuana sales became legal in 2018, the state has licensed 154 businesses to use butane or other explosive solvents to produce marijuana concentrates. Licensed businesses pay fees of up to $75,000 per year and must use equipment that keeps solvents contained. They must pass a fire-code inspection and train employees on safety standards.

The risk remains. California regulators fined a licensed producer $50,000 in December 2018 after a propane explosion badly burned a worker.

Chris Witherell, an industry consultant, says most of the hundreds of hash-oil operations he has inspected don’t pass the first time he visits. “Equipment is often poorly assembled or operating with incorrect parts,” he said.

Flowers said the DEA has dismantled 18 illegal hash-oil labs in San Diego this year, putting it on pace to nearly double the number in 2018.

“I’m extremely concerned about what the next six months are going to hold,” she said.

(Editing by Kieran Murray and Julie Marquis)

Satellite images show fields in northwest Syria on fire

A satelite overview image of Kafr Nabudah that shows damaged and destroyed buildings, Idlib Province, Syria May 26, 2019. Picture taken May 26, 2019. Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – New satellite images show fields, orchards and olive groves burning in northwest Syria, where the army has waged an assault against rebels in their last major stronghold.

Government air strikes, backed by Russia, have focused on the south of Idlib province and nearby parts of Hama, uprooting nearly 250,000 people. The bombing has killed 229 civilians and injured 727 others, according to the UOSSM medical charity.

In the photos by satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe Inc, plumes of dark smoke rise from the countryside around al-Habeet village in Idlib and the small town of Kafr Nabouda in Hama.

The before and after images, collected at the start and end of last week, show patches of scorched earth, fields blackened by fire, and clusters of destroyed buildings. Some of the fires appear to be still burning.

The civil defense in the northwest, a rescue service in opposition territory, said on Monday that government warplanes had been pounding crop fields in Idlib, setting them on fire.

Syrian state news agency SANA said on Tuesday that militants had shelled villages in the northern Hama countryside, damaging houses and burning wheat fields.

While al-Habeet is in the hands of insurgents, government forces recaptured Kafr Nabouda on Sunday, the third time it changed hands in the latest fighting. State media said the army seized it from Tahrir al-Sham, formerly the Nusra Front until it broke away from al Qaeda.

The army onslaught in the northwest over the past month marks the most intense escalation between President Bashar al-Assad and his insurgent enemies since last summer.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut and Khalil Ashawi in Syria; Editing by Frances Kerry)

U.S. House fails to pass disaster aid bill; second attempt likely next month

FILE PHOTO: Tom Geisler surveys damaged to his farm, following flooding in Winslow, outside Omaha, Nebraska, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Humeyra Pamuk/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday failed to pass a $19.1 billion disaster aid bill supported by President Donald Trump, but is expected to try again early next month.

Following Senate passage of the legislation on Thursday by a vote of 85-8, House leaders had hoped to win quick, unanimous approval of the bill and send it to Trump for his expected signature.

FILE PHOTO: Flood damage is shown in this earial photo in Percival, Iowa, U.S., March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Polansek/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Flood damage is shown in this earial photo in Percival, Iowa, U.S., March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Polansek/File Photo

But since the House did not go through regular, more time-consuming procedures, it needed the consent of all of its current 432 members to approve the bill.

For months, lawmakers have been haggling behind the scenes over the disaster aid bill in response to hurricanes in the southeastern U.S., severe flooding in the Midwest, devastating wildfires in California and other events.

The $19.1 billion in the bill is intended to help farmers cover their crop losses and rebuild infrastructure hit by disasters, including repairs to U.S. military bases.

Representative Chip Roy, a first-term Republican, objected to holding the vote, citing concerns that the legislation did not include $4.5 billion Trump had requested to deal with a surge of Central American immigrants on the southwestern border.

Roy also complained that the cost of the bill was not offset by savings to other government programs.

“This is a $19-billion bill that is not paid for when we are racking up $100 million of debt per hour,” Roy complained.

Congress regularly approves “emergency” disaster aid bills without any cuts to other programs, despite objections from some conservative lawmakers.

When the House returns from a week-long Memorial Day recess it is expected to bring the legislation back to the House floor for likely passage.

Friday’s action played out in a nearly empty House chamber as most of its members have left Washington for a week-long Memorial Day holiday recess.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Nick Zieminski)

Daystar Christian Studio in Jerusalem destroyed by Firebomb

Picture of destruction from firebomb at Daystar studios in Jerusalem

By Kami Klein

On Saturday, May 18th an arsonist’s firebomb was thrown onto the Daystar Studio roof in Jerusalem destroying the studio and much of its facilities.  Daystar, one of the largest Christian Networks in the world, was in the middle of a huge renovation which overlooks Mount Zion and the Mount of Olives. They were set to begin broadcasting in the next two weeks.  Most all of the newest work was destroyed along with the majority of the existing facilities.

According to a Daystar press release, around 2:30 a.m. on Saturday morning in Israel, security cameras revealed that an arsonist set fire to the roof before escaping by rope and fleeing the scene on foot.

“You can’t silence the life-changing truth of the Gospel,” said Marcus Lamb, Founder and President of Daystar Television Network. “From the ashes of this tragedy, we will rise up with help from our partners around the globe and continue reaching across Israel to share God’s love and forgiveness. My prayer is that this message touches the person responsible for this incident and he embraces the hope that can only be found in Jesus Christ.”

According to CBN, Daystar plans on rebuilding.  In the meantime, Christian ministries have reached out in a show of solidarity to offer the use of their facilities.

Marcus and Joni Lamb dedicated the Daystar Jerusalem studio in October of 2009.

Dave Sharett, the contractor overseeing the renovations told CBN News. “I believe that God has a reason and a purpose and at the very least he’ll redeem what has happened here.  So, these ashes will raise up, be raised up and proclaim the glory of God!”

In a time where 11 Christians a day are killed for believing in Christ, where going to worship on Sundays, even in the United States could be met with violence, speaking God’s truth is becoming more and more dangerous.  God be with Daystar as they continue their operations. Please keep all of those believers and those that minister throughout the world in your prayers.

Saudi Arabia says oil facilities outside Riyadh attacked

A technical staff is seen at the Port of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Satish Kumar

By Stephen Kalin and Rania El Gamal

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia said armed drones had struck two oil pumping stations in the kingdom on Tuesday in what it called a “cowardly” act of terrorism two days after Saudi oil tankers were sabotaged off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

The energy minister of the world’s largest oil exporter said the attack caused a fire, now contained, and minor damage at one pump station, but did not disrupt oil production or exports of crude and petroleum products.

Oil prices spiked on news of the attack on the stations, more than 200 miles (320 km) west of the capital Riyadh. Brent crude futures rose 1.38% to trade at $71.20 by 1114 GMT.

Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih, in comments run by state media, said the drone attack and Sunday’s sabotage of four vessels, including two Saudi tankers, off Fujairah emirate, a major bunkering hub, threatened global oil supplies.

“These attacks prove again that it is important for us to face terrorist entities, including the Houthi militias in Yemen that are backed by Iran,” Falih said in an English-language statement issued by his ministry.

Houthi-run Masirah TV earlier said the group had launched drone attacks on “vital” Saudi installations in response to “continued aggression and blockade” on Yemen.

A Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis for four years in Yemen to try to restore the internationally recognized government, in a conflict widely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Houthis have repeatedly launched drone and missile attacks on Saudi cities, but two Saudi sources told Reuters this was the first time an Aramco facility was hit by drones.

State-run Aramco said it had temporarily shut down the East-West pipeline, known as Petroline, to evaluate its condition. The pipeline mainly transports crude from the kingdom’s eastern fields to Yanbu port, which lies north of Bab al-Mandeb.

The attacks occur amid a war of words between Washington and Tehran over sanctions and U.S. military presence in the region.

The Saudi stock index, which suffered two days of heavy losses, opened 1.5% higher but was trading down 0.3% at 1200 GMT. A Saudi-based banker told Reuters that state funds were supporting local stocks to limit the downside.

IRAN IN FOCUS

The UAE has not revealed details about the nature of the attack on ships near Fujairah port, which lies just outside the Strait of Hormuz, or blamed any party or country.

Iran was a prime suspect in the sabotage on Sunday although Washington had no conclusive proof, a U.S. official familiar with American intelligence said on Monday.

Iran has denied involvement and described the attack on the four commercial vessels as “worrisome and dreadful”. It has called for an investigation.

The U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia said Washington should take what he called “reasonable responses short of war” after it had determined who was behind the attacks near Fujairah.

“We need to do a thorough investigation to understand what happened, why it happened, and then come up with reasonable responses short of war,” Ambassador John Abizaid told reporters in the Saudi capital Riyadh in remarks published on Tuesday.

“It’s not in (Iran’s) interest, it’s not in our interest, it’s not in Saudi Arabia’s interest to have a conflict.”

The U.S. embassy in the UAE advised its citizens to maintain a high level of vigilance on heightened tensions in the region.

Washington has increased sanctions on Tehran, saying it wants to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero, after quitting the 2015 nuclear pact between Iran and global powers last year.

The U.S. Maritime Administration said last week that Iran could target U.S. commercial ships including oil tankers sailing through Middle East waterways. Tehran has called the U.S. military presence “a target” rather than a threat.

A fifth of global oil consumption passes through the Strait of Hormuz from Middle East crude producers to markets in Asia, Europe, North America and beyond. The narrow waterway separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards threatened last month to close the chokepoint if Tehran was barred from using it.

U.S. President Donald Trump wants to force Tehran to agree a broader arms control accord and has sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Gulf in a show of force against what U.S. officials have said are threats to U.S. troops in the region.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Cornwell, Asma Alsharif, Aziz El Yaakoubi and Davide Barbuscia in Dubai; Writing by Stephen Kalin and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

Forty-one reported killed after Russian passenger plane crash-lands in Moscow

A passenger plane is seen on fire after an emergency landing at the Sheremetyevo Airport outside Moscow, Russia May 5, 2019. The Investigative Committee of Russia/Handout via REUTERS.

By Maria Tsvetkova and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Forty-one people on board a Russian Aeroflot passenger plane were killed on Sunday, including two children, after the aircraft caught fire as it made a bumpy emergency landing at a Moscow airport, Russian investigators said.

Television footage showed the Sukhoi Superjet 100 crash bouncing along the tarmac at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport before the rear part of the plane suddenly burst into flames.

Many passengers on board SU 1492 then escaped via the plane’s emergency slides that inflated after the hard landing.

The plane, which had been flying from Moscow to the northern Russian city of Murmansk, had been carrying 73 passengers and five crew members, Russia’s aviation watchdog said.

Svetlana Petrenko, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Investigative Committee, said in a statement that only 37 out of 78 people on board had survived, meaning 41 people had lost their lives.

No official cause has been given for the disaster.

The Investigative Committee said it had opened an investigation and was looking into whether the pilots had breached air safety rules.

Some passengers blamed bad weather and lightning.

“We took off and then lightning struck the plane,” the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily cited one surviving passenger, Pyotr Egorov, as saying.

“The plane turned back and there was a hard landing. We were so scared, we almost lost consciousness. The plane jumped down the landing strip like a grasshopper and then caught fire on the ground.”

State TV broadcast mobile phone footage shot by another passenger in which people could be heard screaming.

President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev expressed their condolences and ordered investigators to establish what had happened.

The Interfax news agency cited an unnamed “informed source” as saying the evacuation of the plane had been delayed by some passengers insisting on collecting their hand luggage first.

Russian news agencies reported that injured passengers were being treated in hospitals.

DEBRIS IN THE ENGINES

The Flightradar24 tracking service showed that the plane had circled twice over Moscow before making an emergency landing after just under 30 minutes in the air.

The plane’s undercarriage gave way on impact and its engines caught fire.

Interfax cited a source as saying the plane had only succeeded in making an emergency landing on the second attempt and that some of the aircraft’s systems had then failed.

The emergency landing was so hard that debris had found its way into the engines, sparking a fire that swiftly engulfed the rear of the fuselage, the same source said.

Russian investigators said they were looking into various versions.

Russian news agencies reported that the plane had been produced in 2017 and had been serviced as recently as April this year.

Aeroflot has long shaken off its troubled post-Soviet safety record and now has one of the world’s most modern fleets on international routes where it relies on Boeing and Airbus aircraft.

Russian officials are keen for Aeroflot to buy more Sukhoi Superjets, a regional airliner, for domestic flights to support the country’s fledgling civil aircraft industry. The plane is built in Russia’s Far East.

A Sukhoi Superjet crashed in Indonesia in 2012, killing all 45 people on board in an accident blamed on human error.

The Superjet entered service in 2011 and was the first new passenger jet developed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. It has been hit, however, by sporadic concerns over safety and reliability, including a December 2016 grounding after a defect was discovered in an aircraft’s tail section.

Russian officials said on Sunday it was premature to talk of grounding the Sukhoi Superjet for now. The plane is predominantly used by Russian airlines like Aeroflot, but is also used by a few other foreign operators, including a low-cost Mexican airline.

Dozens of flights at Sheremetyevo were delayed because of the disaster.

(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Andrew Osborn; Additional reporting by Gleb Stolyarov in Moscow and Tim Hepher in Paris; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Frances Kerry and Peter Cooney)

Truck driver who triggered deadly Colorado crash charged with homicide

Police Lights

(Reuters) – Police have charged a truck driver with vehicular homicide after he triggered a fiery multi-vehicle crash that killed a still unknown number of motorists, some of whom remain in the wreckage on an interstate near Denver, authorities said on Friday.

The crash on Thursday afternoon turned a stretch of Interstate 70, a major east-west highway, into a raging inferno that involved at least 28 vehicles and may have damaged the road surface and an overpass, authorities said.

A day after the crash, the death toll remains at “multiple” as responders and investigators inspect the burned-out vehicles, Lakewood, Colorado, police spokesman Ty Countryman told reporters.

“We’re just saying ‘multiple’ at this time,” he said, adding that six people were taken to hospitals.

Asked whether there were still any bodies at the crash site, Countryman said, “Unfortunately, yes, there are.”

Police said the chain-reaction crash started when a tractor-trailer truck collided with slower traffic on the highway.

The driver, who was injured in the crash, but not seriously, was taken into custody after police determined they had sufficient cause to bring “multiple counts of vehicular homicide” against him, Countryman said.

There was no indication that the driver, who was not immediately identified, intentionally caused the crash, Countryman said, adding that “at this time there’s no evidence of drugs or alcohol.”

Despite the criminal charges, Countryman said investigators were also trying the determine if the truck’s brakes failed.

The stretch of Interstate 70, which runs through Denver west into the Rocky Mountains, will remain closed in both directions at least until sometime on Saturday, state Department of Transportation Chief Engineer Josh Laipply told reporters.

Parts of the highway will need to be resurfaced and, while a preliminary check shows that a bridge over the crash site was undamaged, it will need a full safety inspection, Laipply said.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

French President Macron hopes to rebuild Notre-Dame in five years

A view of the damaged roof and debris inside Notre-Dame de Paris in the aftermath of a fire that devastated the cathedral, during the visit of French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner (not pictured) in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via REUTERS

By Richard Lough and Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron pledged on Tuesday that France would rebuild the fire-devastated Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, saying he hoped the work would be done in five years and the French people would pull together to repair their national symbol.

A view of the debris inside Notre-Dame de Paris in the aftermath of a fire that devastated the cathedral, during the visit of French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner (not pictured) in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via REUTERS

Macron devoted a brief prime-time televised address to Monday’s catastrophic blaze in the heart of the capital, again postponing planned remarks on his response to months of anti-government protests.

“We will rebuild Notre-Dame even more beautifully and I want it to be completed in five years, we can do it,” Macron said.

“It is up to us to convert this disaster into an opportunity to come together, having deeply reflected on what we have been and what we have to be and become better than we are. It is up to us to find the thread of our national project.”

“This is not a time for politics,” added Macron, who had canceled a speech planned on Monday evening on the response to the “yellow vest” protests.

He visited the site of the fire late on Monday and promised then to rebuild the cathedral, parts of which date to the 12th century.

French firefighters are seen in the towers inside Notre-Dame de Paris in the aftermath of a fire that devastated the cathedral, in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via REUTERS

French firefighters are seen in the towers inside Notre-Dame de Paris in the aftermath of a fire that devastated the cathedral, in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via REUTERS

The cathedral spire was destroyed and its roof gutted but the bell towers were still standing and many valuable artworks were saved after more than 400 firemen worked to contain the blaze, finally quelling it 14 hours after it began.

As the city and the country grieved for a potent national symbol, billionaires, companies and local authorities were quick to offer donations.

Some 24 hours after the fire started, more than 750 million euros ($845 million) had been pledged, including 500 million from the three billionaire families that own France’s giant luxury goods empires: Kering, LVMH and L’Oreal.

Paris public prosecutor Remy Heitz said there was no obvious indication the fire was arson. Fifty people were working on what would be a long and complex investigation, officials said.

 

The fire swiftly ripped through the cathedral’s oak roof supports, where workmen had been carrying out extensive renovations to the spire’s timber-framed supports. Police began questioning the workers involved, the prosecutor’s office said.

One firefighter was injured but no one else was hurt, with the fire starting at around 6:30 p.m. after the building was closed to the public for the evening.

Firefighters examined the facade, with its spectacular 10-metre filigreed stained-glass rose window still intact. They could be seen walking atop the belfries as police kept the area in lockdown.

Investigators will not be able to enter the cathedral’s blackened nave until experts are satisfied its walls withstood the heat and the building is structurally sound.

“Yesterday we thought the whole cathedral would collapse. Yet this morning she is still standing, valiant, despite everything,” said Sister Marie Aimee, a nun who had hurried to a nearby church to pray as the flames spread.

“CATHEDRAL OF THE PEOPLE”

Messages of condolence flooded in from around the world.

Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, was praying for those affected, the Vatican said, adding: “Notre-Dame will always remain – and we have seen this in these hours – a place where believers and non-believers can come together in the most dramatic moments of French history.”

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth expressed deep sadness while her son and heir Prince Charles said he was “utterly heartbroken”. Chancellor Angela Merkel offered German help to rebuild a part of “our common European heritage”.

Considered among the finest examples of European Gothic architecture, Notre-Dame is visited by more than 13 million people a year. It sits on an island in the Seine, overlooking the Left Bank hangouts of Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso.

“Notre-Dame de Paris is the cathedral of the people, of the people of Paris, of the French people, of the people of the world. It is part of those references of our history, of what we have in common, of what we share,” said Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.

It was at Notre-Dame that Henry VI of England was crowned “King of France” in 1431, that Napoleon was made emperor in 1804, and Pope Pius X beatified Joan of Arc in 1909. Presidents Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand were mourned there.

HUMAN CHAIN

The cathedral is owned by the state and has been at the centre of a dispute between the nation and the Paris archdiocese over who should finance restoration work to collapsed balustrades, crumbling gargoyles and cracked facades.

It was too early to estimate the cost of the damage, said the heritage charity Fondation du Patrimoine.

Paolo Violini, a restoration specialist for Vatican museums, said the pace of the fire’s spread had been stunning.

“We are used to thinking about them as eternal simply because they have been there for centuries, or a thousand years, but the reality is they are very fragile,” Violini said.

The company carrying out the renovation works when the blaze broke out said it would cooperate fully with the investigation.

“All I can tell you is that at the moment the fire began none of my employees were on the site. We respected all procedures,” Julien Le Bras, a representative of family firm Le Bras Freres.

Many relics and artworks were saved. At one point, firefighters, policemen and municipal workers formed a human chain to remove the treasures, including a centuries-old crown of thorns made from reeds and gold, and the tunic believed to have been worn by Saint Louis, a 13th century king of France.

Gold, silver and gem-inlaid chalices, candelabras and many other artefacts survived the blaze.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Inti Landauro, Richard Lough, Sarah White, Emmanuel Jarry, Luke Baker and John Irish in Paris; Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome and Michelle Martin in Berlin; Writing by Richard Lough and Frances Kerry; Editing by Leigh Thomas, Peter Graff and Alison Williams)

No sign of arson in Notre-Dame blaze as nation grieves for symbol

By Richard Lough and Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS (Reuters) – The fire that tore through Notre-Dame cathedral was probably caused by accident, French prosecutors said on Tuesday after firefighters doused the last flames in the ruins overnight and the nation grieved for the destruction of one of its symbols.

Smoke billows as fire engulfs the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Smoke billows as fire engulfs the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

More than 400 firemen were needed to tame the inferno that consumed the roof and collapsed the spire of the eight-centuries-old cathedral. They worked through the night to extinguish the fire some 14 hours after it began.

Paris public prosecutor Remy Heitz said there was no obvious indication the fire was arson. Fifty people were working on what would be a long and complex investigation. One firefighter was injured but no one else was hurt in the blaze which began after the building was closed to the public for the evening.

Firefighters work at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 16, 2019. A massive fire consumed the cathedral on Monday, gutting its roof and stunning France and the world. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Firefighters work at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 16, 2019. A massive fire consumed the cathedral on Monday, gutting its roof and stunning France and the world. REUTERS/Yves Herman

From the outside, the imposing bell towers and outer walls, with their vast flying buttresses, still stood firm, but the insides and the upper structure were eviscerated by the blaze.

Firefighters examined the gothic facade and could be seen walking atop the belfries as police kept the area in lockdown.

Investigators will not be able to enter the cathedral’s blackened nave until experts are satisfied its stone walls withstood the heat and the building is structurally sound.

The fire swiftly ripped through the cathedral’s timbered roof supports, where workmen had been carrying out extensive renovations to the spire’s wooden frame.

The Paris prosecutor has opened an investigation into “involuntary destruction by fire”. Police on Tuesday began questioning the workers involved in the restoration, the prosecutor’s office said.

View of Notre-Dame Cathedral after a fire devastated large parts of the gothic gem in Paris, France April 16, 2019. A massive fire consumed the cathedral on Monday, gutting its roof and stunning France and the world. REUTERS/Yves Herman

View of Notre-Dame Cathedral after a fire devastated large parts of the gothic gem in Paris, France April 16, 2019. A massive fire consumed the cathedral on Monday, gutting its roof and stunning France and the world. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Hundreds of stunned onlookers had lined the banks of the Seine river late into the night as the fire raged, reciting prayers and singing liturgical music in harmony as they stood in vigil.

“Yesterday we thought the whole cathedral would collapse. Yet this morning she is still standing, valiant, despite everything. It is a sign of hope,” said Sister Marie Aimee, a nun who had hurried to a nearby church to pray as the fire spread.

It was at Notre-Dame that Napoleon was made emperor in 1804, Pope Pius X beatified Joan of Arc in 1909 and former presidents Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand were mourned.

Messages of condolence flooded in from around the world.

Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic Church, was praying for those affected, the Vatican said, adding: “Notre-Dame will always remain – and we have seen this in these hours – a place where believers and non-believers can come together in the most dramatic moments of French history.”

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth expressed deep sadness while her son and heir Prince Charles said he was “utterly heartbroken”.

View of Notre-Dame Cathedral after a fire devastated large parts of the gothic gem in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. A massive fire consumed the cathedral on Monday, gutting its roof and stunning France and the world. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

View of Notre-Dame Cathedral after a fire devastated large parts of the gothic gem in Paris, France, April 16, 2019. A massive fire consumed the cathedral on Monday, gutting its roof and stunning France and the world. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

VOW TO REBUILD

President Emmanuel Macron promised to rebuild Notre-Dame, considered among the finest examples of European Gothic architecture, visited by more than 13 million people a year.

Notre-Dame is owned by the state. It has been at the center of a years-long row between the nation and the Paris archdiocese over who should finance badly needed restoration work to collapsed balustrades, crumbling gargoyles and cracked facades.

It was too early to estimate the cost of the damage, said the heritage charity Fondation du Patrimoine, but it is likely to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The rival billionaire owners of France’s two biggest luxury fashion empires, Francois-Henri Pinault of Kering and Bernard Arnault of LVMH, pledged 100 million euros and 200 million euros to the restoration respectively. Oil company Total pledged 100 million. The city of Paris said it would provide 50 million.

Paolo Violini, a restoration specialist for Vatican museums, said the pace at which the fire spread through the cathedral had been stunning.

“We are used to thinking about them as eternal simply because they have been there for centuries, or a thousand years, but the reality is they are very fragile,” Violini said.

HUMAN CHAIN

The company carrying out the renovation works when the blaze broke out said it would cooperate fully with the investigation.

“All I can tell you is that at the moment the fire began none of my employees were on the site. We respected all procedures,” Julien Le Bras, a representative of family firm Le Bras Freres.

Officials breathed a sigh of relief that many relics and artworks had been saved. At one point, firefighters, policemen, and municipal workers formed a human chain to remove the treasures, including a centuries-old crown of thorns made from reeds and gold, and the tunic believed to have been worn by Saint Louis, the 13th-century king of France.

“Notre-Dame was our sister, it is so sad, we are all mourning,” said Parisian Olivier Lebib. “I have lived with her for 40 years. Thank God that the stone structure has withstood the fire.”

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Inti Landauro, Richard Lough, Sarah White, Emmanuel Jarry and Luke Baker in Paris; Additional reporting by Philip Pullela; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Leigh Thomas, Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)

Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris is engulfed by fire

Sparks fill the air as Paris Fire brigade members spray water to extinguish flames as the Notre Dame Cathedral burns in Paris, France, April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

By Sybille de La Hamaide and Julie Carriat

PARIS (Reuters) – A massive fire consumed Notre-Dame Cathedral on Monday, destroying the roof of the historic Paris landmark in a roaring blaze as firefighters battled to prevent one of the main bell towers from collapsing.

Flames that began in the early evening burst rapidly through the roof of the centuries-old cathedral and engulfed the spire, which toppled, quickly followed by the entire roof.

Distraught Parisians and stunned tourists gazed in disbelief as the inferno raged. Thousands of onlookers lined bridges over the River Seine and along its embankments, held at a distance by a police cordon.

“We’re not certain yet that we’ll be able to stop the fire from spreading to the northern belfry,” a firefighting official told reporters.

World leaders expressed shock and sent condolences to the French people. President Emmanuel Macron said the whole nation was distressed. “Like all our compatriots, I am sad this evening to see this part of all of us burn,” he tweeted.

A huge plume of smoke wafted across the city and ash fell over a large area. People watching gasped as the spire folded over onto itself and fell into the inferno.

At around 1930 GMT, nearly three hours after the fire started, a Fire Department spokesman said the next 90 minutes would be crucial in seeing if the blaze could be contained.

“Basically the whole rooftop is gone. I see no hope for the building,” said witness Jacek Poltorak, watching the fire from a fifth-floor balcony two blocks from the southern facade of the cathedral, one of France’s most visited sites.

Firefighters tried to contain the blaze with water hoses and cleared the area around Notre-Dame, which sits on an island in the River Seine and marks the very center of Paris. Witnesses said the whole island, the Ile de la Cite, was being evacuated.

Nobody was injured, junior interior minister Laurent Nunez said at the scene, adding: “It’s too early to determine the causes of the fire.”

The Paris prosecutor’s office said it had launched an inquiry into the fire. Several police sources said that they were working on the assumption for now that the fire was accidental.

“Everything is collapsing,” a police officer near the scene said as the cathedral continued to burn.

Macron, who cancelled an address to the nation that he had been due to give on Monday evening, went to the scene of the blaze and talked to officials trying to contain it.

The French Civil Security service, possibly responding to U.S. President Donald Trump’s suggestion that firefighters “act quickly” and employ flying water tankers, said that was not an option as it might destroy the entire building.

“Helicopter or plane, the weight of the water and the intensity of dropping it at low altitude could weaken the structure of Notre-Dame and cause collateral damage to surrounding buildings,” it tweeted.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the cathedral a “symbol of France and our European culture”. British Prime Minister Theresa May said her thoughts were with the French people and emergency services fighting the “terrible blaze”.

The Vatican said the fire at the “symbol of Christianity in France and in the world” had caused shock and sadness and said it was praying for the firefighters.

Smoke billows as fire engulfs the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Smoke billows as fire engulfs the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

SYMBOL OF PARIS

The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, said at the scene that some of many artworks that were in the cathedral had been taken out and were being put in safe storage.

The cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century, features in Victor Hugo’s classic novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts millions of tourists every year.

It is a focal point for French Roman Catholics who like Christians around the world are celebrating Holy Week, marking the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The archbishop of Paris called on all priests in Paris to ring church bells as a gesture of solidarity for Notre-Dame.

“I have a lot of friends who live abroad and every time they come I tell them to go to Notre-Dame,” said witness Samantha Silva, with tears in her eyes.

“I’ve visited it so many times, but it will never be the same. It’s a real symbol of Paris.”

The cathedral was in the midst of renovations, with some sections under scaffolding, and bronze statues were removed last week for works.

Built over a century starting in 1163, Notre-Dame is considered to be among the finest examples of French Gothic cathedral architecture.

It is renowned for its rib vaulting, flying buttresses and stunning stained glass windows, as well as its many carved stone gargoyles.

Its 100-metre-long (330-foot) roof, of which a large section was consumed in the first hour of the blaze, was one of the oldest such structures in Paris, according to the cathedral’s website.

A center of Roman Catholic faith, over the centuries Notre-Dame has also been a target of political upheaval.

It was ransacked by rioting Protestant Huguenots in the 16th century, pillaged again during the French Revolution of the 1790s and left in a state of semi-neglect. Hugo’s 1831 work led to revived interest in the cathedral and a major “partly botched” restoration that began in 1844.

The wood-and-lead spire was built during that restoration, according to the cathedral’s website.

“Notre-Dame belonged to all humanity. What a tragic spectacle,” tweeted Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Union’s executive Commission.

“What horror. I share the French nation’s sadness.”

(Reporting by Sybille de la Hamaide and Julie Carriat; Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas, Simon Carraud, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Michel Rose, Emmanuel Jarry, Jean-Baptiste Vey, Marine Pennetier, Sarah White, Tim Hepher, Laurence Frost in Paris, Kylie MacLellan in London, Paul Carrel in Berlin, Philip Pullella in Rome; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Frances Kerry)