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Blaze At Centuries-Old Cathedral In Nantes Under Investigation As Arson

French authorities believe that arson may be to blame for a fire that tore through a cathedral in Nantes that dates back to the 15th century. The city's mayor, Johanna Rolland, said officials have launched an investigation into the origins of the blaze, which wrought significant damage to parts of the Gothic structure on Saturday.

"It is a part of our history, a part of our heritage," Rolland told reporters, noting that it took more than 100 firefighters to bring the blaze under control.

Before they managed to do so, though, the fire at the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul consumed its grand organ and blew out several stained-glass windows. Videos posted to social media depicted flames licking the side of the building and sending smoke billowing between its pair of stately towers.

The scene offered uncomfortable echoes of the devastating blaze that destroyed much of Notre Dame in Paris last year. More than a year later, officials are still working to restore what they can of the Paris cathedral, which lost a spire in the catastrophe and remains in danger of parts of its roof collapsing.

The local fire chief in Nantes, Laurent Ferlay, said that the organ at the cathedral "appears to be completely destroyed," but that firefighters largely managed to avoid a full-on "Notre-Dame scenario." According to the mayor, they also avoided a grim encore of the 1972 fire at the St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral, which ravaged much of its roof and shut down church services there for some 13 years.

"We all have these images in mind, this story in our hearts," Rolland said Saturday, "but at this stage the situation does not seem to be comparable to that of 1972."

Still, prosecutor Pierre Sennes said authorities are looking into the fire as a potential crime.

"When we arrive at a place where a fire has taken place, when you see three separate fire outbreaks," he told reporters Saturday, according to the BBC, "it's a question of common sense — you open an investigation."

French Prime Minister Jean Castex saidhe plans to arrive in Nantes Saturday afternoon to inspect the damage, together with Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot.

Begun in 1434, construction on the cathedral took nearly half a millennium to be completed. Not until 1891 was the structure formally inaugurated. By that time, the French government had already listed it as a historic monument for several decades.

In other words, the structure in its various forms has loomed over the city center for centuries and remains a popular tourist attraction as a model of Gothic architecture in western France.

"To the people of Nantes, whose emotion I share," Castex added, "I want to express my solidarity."

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.