Carlos Solis never knew he was driving with a “shrapnel bomb” inside his steering wheel.
The 35-year-old father of two was waiting to make a left turn on a suburban road outside Houston when another car struck the front end of his Honda Accord, triggering its airbags.
Instead of protecting Solis, the defective airbags shot a piece of metal into his neck and severed his carotid artery, killing him within minutes.
Solis knew nothing about the danger: A used-car dealer sold him the car without fixing the airbags or warning him that Honda had recalled the vehicle three years earlier, according to a lawsuit filed by his family.
By the time Solis was killed in 2015, similar accidents were piling up nationwide amid an unprecedented series of recalls for an array of dangerous defects – from shrapnel-flinging airbags to ignition switches that shut off engines.
For auto dealers, the string of accidents was a warning sign of what was to come: a barrage of lawsuits filed against them for selling recalled used cars without fixing them first.
Auto dealers came up with a plan to pre-empt the problem.
They crafted what’s known as “model legislation” that would allow them to continue selling recalled used cars, so long as they disclosed open recalls to customers somewhere in a stack of sales documents. They then turned to their army of lobbyists – more than 600 on call in 43 states – to help get the measure passed, one state at a time.
The effort is paying off.
In the past five years, versions of auto dealers’ copycat bill have been introduced in at least 11 states – California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia. So far only Tennessee and Pennsylvania have adopted them, but Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey and New York still have measures under consideration.
The success of auto dealers’ effort is a case study in how special interest groups with deep pockets go from state to state with model legislation – copy-and-paste measures that can be handed to friendly lawmakers in any state – to get the policies they want, often with little public scrutiny and sometimes with tragic consequences.
During a two-year investigation, the Center for Public Integrity, USA TODAY and the Arizona Republic found thousands of similar pieces of legislation and retraced a number of them to their root. Many were written by corporations or special interest groups that stood to benefit directly. Some are pitched as public-service measures.
Their true intentions, however, are often difficult, if not impossible, for the public to understand.
That’s what has been happening with auto dealers’ recall disclosure bill.
Lawmakers have been touting the bill as a consumer-safety measure. But it was written by the Automotive Trade Association Executives, an industry group in Washington, D.C., that represents more than 100 executives from regional auto dealer associations.
Consumer advocates say the bill is a cynical ploy: It requires the bare minimum of responsible behavior on the part of auto dealers – to disclose open recalls to customers – while leaving out any requirement for them to actually fix the defects that led to the recalls.
The bill also gives auto dealers a potent new legal argument when trying to fend off lawsuits by implying that, with recall disclosure, it’s legal to sell recalled used cars.
Yet the bill has allowed lawmakers to say they were addressing a high-profile problem.
In California, the bill was called the Consumer Automotive Recall Safety Act. In a statement announcing his 2015 measure, then-Assemblyman Rich Gordon, a Democrat, promoted it this way: “California already has the strongest car buyer protection laws in the nation, but we need to enhance those laws to improve the information provided to consumers.”
In the face of opposition, Gordon’s bill was eventually amended, and the final version that passed doesn’t address the sale of recalled used cars.
In Tennessee, the bill that passed, the Motor Vehicle Recall and Disclosure Law, replaced a far more aggressive measure championed by Jay and Gerri Gass, who lost their daughter in a crash caused by a faulty ignition switch. Instead of “Lara’s Law” in honor of their daughter, the Gasses ended up with something they felt they couldn’t support – a law that mandates only recall disclosure, not a sales ban.
“Lawmakers were more influenced by lobbyists than they were by citizens trying to do the right thing,” Jay Gass said.
Jim Appleton, a New Jersey-based lobbyist who once chaired the Automotive Trade Association Executives, said there’s nothing questionable about auto dealers’ push for their bill. The measure, he said, simply clarifies that they should disclose open recalls to customers while avoiding more stringent requirements that could devastate their businesses by sidelining much of their inventory for months on end until recall repairs are completed.
“We think that’s a good, positive step,” Appleton said.
But Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, a California-based consumer advocacy group, said auto dealers are interested only in protecting their bottom lines, not the safety of customers.
“If the dealers can get the bill passed, they will be able to say the only duty they have is to ‘disclose’ that there is a safety recall, which can be hidden in a stack of documents and presented to the consumer only after they have already test-driven several cars, chosen a car, negotiated the price, applied for credit and signed a purchase or lease contract,” Shahan said. “Too late to be effective or meaningful as a form of disclosure.”
Protecting the used-car loophole
Under federal law, it’s illegal for auto dealers to rent, loan or sell new cars with open recalls. But that ban doesn’t apply to most used cars, which gave dealers little to fear when they sold defective used cars under recall.
That began to change about five years ago when a series of recalls, the likes of which the U.S. had never seen, sent shock waves through the auto industry.
First, General Motors recalled more than 2.7 million cars in 2014 for faulty ignition switches, which have caused more than 120 deaths and 250 injuries nationwide.
The following year, Takata Corp. admitted that the parts inside its airbags could turn into deadly shrapnel – like the one that killed Solis in Texas – and began the biggest auto recall in U.S. history.
By the end of 2015, the pace of recalls was so frantic that about 18 percent of cars on U.S. roads had been subject to them, according to an estimate by CARFAX, which compiles vehicle history reports.
As recalls piled up, auto dealers found themselves under increasing scrutiny.
The Federal Trade Commission, for instance, began investigating auto dealers who were selling recalled used cars as “certified pre-owned” or claiming the vehicles had gone through a “rigorous” inspection.
In California, Bakersfield resident Tammy Gutierrez sued CarMax for selling her a recalled used car. The landmark case was initially dismissed by the court, but an appeals court reinstated it last year, ruling that Gutierrez had a valid claim under state laws.
As the pressure grew, auto dealers launched their lobbying campaign for the recall disclosure bill.
The first bill surfaced in New Jersey in September 2014, when Assembly Deputy Speaker Paul Moriarty introduced a measure that included a $20,000 fine for failing to disclose open recalls to customers.
Moriarty, a Democrat who chairs the consumer affairs committee, said his initial inclination was to propose a ban on the sale of recalled used cars – until he realized that auto dealers often face a lengthy delay for recall repairs, which can only be completed by a manufacturer-authorized facility.
The delay can sometimes take months, even years, when critical parts are in short supply, or when manufacturers haven’t figured out a fix for the defects.
“You could have some small dealer that has 20 cars on his lot – there’s a lot of those people – and they could have their entire lot taken up by cars that are under safety recall,” Moriarty said. “They wouldn’t be able to sell them. And they’d be out of business.”
Behind the push for Moriarty’s bill was Appleton, the lobbyist who heads the New Jersey Coalition of Automotive Retailers, an influential Trenton lobbying group whose political action committee has given more than $1.6 million to state legislative candidates – including $14,400 to Moriarty – since 2000.
Appleton said a sales ban would be “an exceptionally bad idea” because it would force auto dealers to shoulder the financial burden for manufacturers’ mistakes.
“If automakers were to fairly compensate us for holding recalled vehicles, then we’d gladly hold the vehicle and wait until the fix is made available,” Appleton said. “But the fact that they aren’t paying us means they’re in no rush to find a fix. So placing the burden on the dealers is wrong-headed.”
Driving for a state-by-state solution
As Moriarty’s bill made its way through the legislative process, Appleton was helping craft model legislation at Automotive Trade Association Executives.
What Appleton and his colleagues came up with has two parts: one requiring manufacturers to fairly compensate auto dealers for holding on to used cars awaiting recall repairs; the other requiring auto dealers to disclose open recalls to customers – but not to actually fix the defects that led to the recalls.
Jennifer Colman, president of the Automotive Trade Association Executives, said the model legislation was never intended to be a copy-and-paste exercise. The measure, she said, is better described as “suggested language.”
Architects of the recall disclosure bill in some states did craft their own language, with the assistance of regional auto dealer associations.
In Virginia, Anne Gambardella, chief counsel of the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association, said she was aware of the model legislation but worked independently to craft a bill with then-Del. Greg Habeeb, a Republican who raised $30,000 from auto dealers in his seven years as a delegate.
“We draft our laws here,” Gambardella said.
Still, Habeeb’s bill ended up aligning closely with the model legislation, having both fair-compensation and recall disclosure provisions. The measure eventually was stripped of the recall disclosure provision before then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, signed it into law in 2016.
In other states, the model legislation played a more prominent role.
In Pennsylvania, then-Rep. James Santora worked closely with Pennsylvania Automotive Association to craft his 2017 bill using the model legislation as a starting point. The measure went on to win unanimous approval in the Pennsylvania General Assembly the following year and was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
In May 2017, Tennessee became the first state to pass the recall disclosure bill.
The winding path that led to the bill’s passage dates back to 2014, when Lara Gass, 27, died in a crash caused by a faulty ignition switch in her Saturn Ion, which had been recalled just weeks earlier by GM.
Gass’ parents, Jay and Gerri, then embarked on a crusade for a law in Tennessee that would ban the sale of recalled used cars. They sat down with Mark Green, a Republican who represented their district at the time, and persuaded him to introduce a bill, dubbed Lara’s Law, on their behalf.
But it turned out that, when crafting his bill, Green consulted other stakeholders – including Bob Weaver, an influential Nashville lobbyist who heads the Tennessee Automotive Association. The result: Lara’s Law was watered down to require only recall disclosure, not a sales ban.
“To say the least, we were very upset,” Jay Gass said. “We could not have our daughter’s name associated with a bill that included a disclosure requirement.”
Green, who has raised at least $56,000 in contributions from auto dealers, later withdrew the bill. He did not respond to requests for comment.
The next year, Green again introduced Lara’s Law, this time calling for a sales ban. On the House side, state Rep. Rick Staples, a freshman Democrat, sponsored an identical bill.
But both bills stalled in the business-friendly Tennessee General Assembly.
Then came a surprise: At the end of the legislative session, with Staples’ help, auto dealers succeeded in adding their bill as a last-minute amendment to an unrelated measure regulating rickshaws. It was quickly passed and signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
The Motor Vehicle Recall and Disclosure Law allows auto dealers to continue selling recalled used cars – unless they’re subject to “do-not-drive recalls” or “stop-sale orders,” which are issued on rare occasions for serious safety defects.
All auto dealers have to do is to disclose open recalls to customers and have them sign a form acknowledging that they were notified.
Staples said he introduced his bill because the only alternative was the status quo.
“Nothing was in place as far as protecting consumers dealing with those recalls,” Staples said. “I didn’t want to live with not having done anything to deal with the issue.”
In a statement, Weaver said the feedback from a number of stakeholders led to changes in the law’s language. While no stakeholders got everything they wanted, he said, “there was widely shared consensus that this law achieved a major step forward to benefit Tennessee automotive buyers.”
For the Gasses, however, a law that mandates only recall disclosure, not a sales ban, is a bitter disappointment. “This is absolutely the one thing that we did not want,” Gerri Gass said. “I feel so sorry for the people of Tennessee.”
Andy Spears of Tennessee Citizen Action, a consumer advocacy group, said the whole experience was a sober reminder of how much sway auto dealers – who have collectively given more than $1.4 million in contributions to state legislative candidates in Tennessee since 2000 – hold over lawmakers.
“They were more inclined to follow Weaver and protect unscrupulous dealers than to work to protect the lives of used-car buyers in our state,” Spears said.
A national ban?
For consumer advocates, one of the ultimate goals is to secure a federal ban on the sale of recalled used cars – through Congress or by regulatory means. Either approach would neutralize the laws now in place in Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
But a long road appears to lie ahead. A case in point: In 2017, a coalition of six advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against the FTC after it reached settlements with CarMax, GM and its franchisees that allow them to continue selling recalled used cars, so long as they disclose open recalls to customers.
The case is pending before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which held oral arguments in September.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., co-sponsored a bill in 2017 to propose a sales ban, saying consumers should be protected “from driving a ticking time bomb off the lot and onto our roads.”
But Blumenthal’s bill soon faced opposition from the National Automobile Dealers Association, which represents about 16,000 auto dealers, and stalled without getting a single hearing.
Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy organization, said getting Congress to act on a sales ban is daunting.
“One would hope that more education of policymakers about the dangers would be sufficient,” Levine said. “One fears that more deaths and serious injuries will be necessary.”
GM quiet about Cruise driverless taxi fleet as deadline looms
As the self-imposed deadline for the self-driving taxi service from General Motors Co.’s autonomous vehicle development unit looms this year, the San Francisco-based GM Cruise LLC has gone quiet.
Hype for Cruise’s potential built up in late 2017 and into 2018 as the former start-up laid the groundwork for a commercial launch of its autonomous technology. Increasingly, however, company leaders have said a launch of Cruise’s driverless taxi service would be “gated by safety,” a hedge that has been repeated since October when GM’s self-driving unit partnered with Honda Motor Co.
Meantime, the industry at large has started pulling back on some of its autonomous-vehicle optimism. A fatal accident involving one of Uber’s self-driving test vehicles spurred an industry-wide reassessment of how to best validate the complex technology required to make a car navigate public roads without the help of a driver. As investors and industry observers wait to see Cruise’s robo-taxi service in action, experts say the 2019 deadline is hardly a deal-breaker for the driverless-vehicle unit’s future.
“The real question is not whether Cruise is on track for 2019 or not — it’s whether GM has the stomach to gut this thing out to completion and do everything it’s really going to take to get there,” said Mike Ramsey, an automotive analyst for research firm Gartner Inc. “Does GM have the stomach to spend money — that they don’t have a ton of — and sacrifice areas that make money now to stick this out?”
GM is trying to prove as much. The company is executing a sweeping restructuring that includes stopping production at five North American plants and cutting 15 percent of its salaried workforce. The goal is to cut costs and redirect precious capital toward expensive autonomy, electrification and mobility efforts.
The rollout of the technology has always been guided by safety, a Cruise spokesman said, reiterating what GM and Cruise executives have said in recent months. Leaders also say the quiet period for Cruise is a result of the Silicon Valley workforce’s focus on getting the technology right.
GM is planning to spend roughly $1 billion on Cruise in 2019 after spending about $700 million last year. That includes hiring another 1,000 people over the next nine months. Cruise has also garnered some $5 billion in outside investments from Japan’s SoftBank Investment Advisers and Honda.
And executives say a change in leadership ushers in a new phase for the self-driving car unit. Former GM President Dan Ammann took over as CEO of Cruise effective Jan. 1. He replaced co-founder Kyle Vogt who moved into the role of chief technology officer. Ammann and Vogt say the shuffle allows both executives to focus on their strengths as Cruise moves toward deployment.
But Cruise’s original vision of a driverless taxi fleet of cars without steering wheels or pedals is still stuck in neutral more than a year after the company asked NHTSA permission to put the cars on public roads. It took NHTSA about 14 months to respond to the petition, advancing it to the public review stage last month.
GM’s long wait for a response is evidence that gaining the necessary federal approval is no small step, nor is it guaranteed. Federal safety regulation language revolves around human drivers and vehicles engineered to be piloted by a human driver — as opposed to artificial intelligence.
GM CEO Mary Barra has said the San Francisco team could proceed without federal approval of the steering wheel-free models by launching the service with the safety driver-piloted test vehicles already on public roads. But even if GM Cruise doesn’t start ferrying customers in one of its lidar-equipped Chevrolet Bolt EVs by the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, experts seem to think the company will be forgiven.
“If GM were to potentially recast its projected time horizon for the launch and rollout of its GM Cruise unit’s service at a later time (i.e. significantly beyond 2020),” Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas wrote in a recent note, “we believe the stock market would be largely understanding.”
Sam Abuelsamid of Navigant Research, which recently ranked Cruise as one of the leaders in the autonomous vehicle race, said the company’s self-imposed 2019 deadline is largely arbitrary.
“If we don’t see a driverless taxi service from Cruise by the end of this year, it will not be the end of the world,” Abuelsamid said. “In the long term it’s better to delay and do this the right way — and Uber made the case last year for what happens when you rush this technology.”
Uber suspended all testing of self-driving cars last March after one of its autonomous test vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. The ride-hailing giant was rushing its autonomous vehicle development to keep up with leaders like GM’s Cruise and Alphabet’s Waymo LLC.
What followed was an industry-wide reckoning with autonomous-vehicle testing practices. Many companies took their driverless test vehicles off the roads while they revamped testing practices. Uber wouldn’t resume autonomous vehicle testing for another nine months. Waymo walked back promises to take human safety drivers out of its autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans. And GM appeared to quietly abandon plans to begin testing autonomous vehicles on the busy streets of New York City.
“This is normal,” Ramsey said. “None of what changed in the last year constitutes failure. This is just what happens when something that is really hard, but has a lot of promise, comes around. This is how new technologies get commercialized.”
Yemeni-Americans in New York City are boycotting the New York Post after a damning Ilhan Omar cover story
Yemeni-American shop owners across New York City are denouncing the New York Post in light of a controversial cover image put forth by the publication featuring the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a stand alone quote from Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar.
“Here’s your something. 2,977 people dead by terrorism,” read last Thursday’s headline, appearing to suggest Omar, a Somali American congresswoman from Minnesota, was dismissive of the attack on the Twin Towers.
The cover was in reference to a speech Omar delivered last month at an event for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“For far too long we have lived with the discomfort of being a second-class citizen, and frankly I’m tired of it, and every single Muslim in this country should be tired of it,” Omar said. “CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” (CAIR was founded in 1994, and an Omar spokesperson later told the Washington Post that the freshman lawmaker misspoke and meant to refer to the fact that the organization had doubled in size after 9/11).
Omar has faced backlash in recent weeks from the media, commentators, and politicians alike. Last Friday, President Donald Trump shared a video on Twitter blasting Omar for the speech. In the days since Trump’s tweet, Omar said she has experienced an increase in death threats. As of Monday, the video remains on his Twitter page.
New York City’s Yemeni-American community says they are worried that the New York Post’s front page will encourage anti-Muslim violence and rhetoric. As of Saturday morning, ten well-known Yemeni store owners had agreed to stop selling the tabloid, while Yemeni taxi drivers passed out fliers about the boycott to other Yemeni-owned establishments across the city, according to The New York Times.
In an open letter, the Yemeni American Merchants Association said the New York Post’s front page “provoked hatred against Rep. Omar,” and lambasted its decision to publish as “cheap and sensational tabloids that undermine national unity and entice violence and hate for the sole purpose of circulation and sales.”
“This rhetoric threatens the safety and wellbeing of Rep. Omar, Muslim leaders, and the larger Muslim American community at a time when Islamophobia is at an all-time high,” the letter added.
INSIDER reached out to the News Corporation, the New York Post’s parent company, for comment. On Sunday, the Yemeni American Merchants Association announced its formal boycott at a news conference outside of the News Corporation’s building in Manhattan. People in attendance displayed signs that read “boycott hate” and “New York Post take your paper back.”
The association has issued a set of demands, including a public apology to Omar by the Post, and a request that the publication’s editor-in-chief, Stephen Lynch, step down from his position.
Yemeni-American store owners have previously turned toward political activism: after the president issued a ban on travelers in 2017 from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen, thousands of Yemeni-Americans closed shop and gathered together to rally against the policy.
“It’s not the first time that the New York Post basically spreads hate and fear in their newspapers,” Ayyad Algabyali, the association’s director of advocacy, told the Guardian, adding that there is “no end date” to the boycott and “this might be for good.”
Fire Mauls Beloved Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris
Notre-Dame cathedral, the symbol of the beauty and history of Paris, was scarred by an extensive fire on Monday evening that caused its delicate spire to collapse, bruised the Parisian skies with smoke and further disheartened a city already back on its heels after weeks of violent protests.
The spectacle of flames leaping from the cathedral’s wooden roof — its spire glowing red then turning into a virtual cinder — stunned thousands of onlookers who gathered along the banks of the Seine and packed into the plaza of the nearby Hôtel de Ville, gasping and covering their mouths in horror and wiping away tears.
“It is like losing a member of one’s own family,” said Pierre Guillaume Bonnet, a 45-year-old marketing director. “For me there are so many memories tied up in it.”
Around 500 firefighters battled the blaze for nearly five hours. By 11 p.m. Paris time, the structure had been “saved and preserved as a whole,” the fire chief, Jean-Claude Gallet, said. The two magnificent towers soaring above the skyline had been spared, he said, but two-thirds of the roof was destroyed.
“The worst has been avoided even though the battle is not completely won,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a brief and solemn speech at Notre-Dame on Monday night, vowing that the cathedral would be rebuilt.
“This is the place where we have lived all of our great moments, the epicenter of our lives,” he said. “It is the cathedral of all the French.”
The cause of the fire was not immediately known, officials said. But it appeared to have begun in the interior network of wooden beams, many dating back to the Middle Ages and nicknamed “the forest,” said the cathedral’s rector, Msgr. Patrick Chauvet.
No one was killed, officials said, but a firefighter was seriously injured.
The fire broke out about 6:30 p.m., upending Mr. Macron’s plans to deliver an important policy speech about trying to heal the country from months of “Yellow Vest” demonstrations that had already defaced major landmarks in the capital and disfigured some of its wealthiest streets.
The tragedy seemed to underscore the challenges heaped before his administration, which has struggled to reconcile the formidable weight of France’s ideals and storied past with the necessity for change to meet the demands of the 21st century.
A jewel of medieval Gothic architecture built in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre-Dame is a landmark not only for Paris, where it squats firmly yet gracefully at its very center, but for all the world. The cathedral is visited by about 30,000 people a day and around 13 million people a year.
For centuries France’s kings and queens were married there. Napoleon was crowned emperor in Notre-Dame in 1804, and the joyous thanksgiving ceremony after the Liberation of Paris in 1944 took place there, led by Charles de Gaulle.
World leaders congregated at the cathedral in a memorial service for Mr. de Gaulle in 1970, and then again for President François Mitterrand in 1996.
On Monday evening, as the last rush of tourists were trying to get in for the day, the doors of Notre-Dame were abruptly shut without explanation, witnesses said. Within moments, tiny bits of white smoke started rising from the spire — which, at 295 feet, was the highest part of the cathedral.
Billowing out, the smoke started turning gray, then black, making it clear that a fire was growing inside the cathedral, which is currently covered in scaffolding. Soon, orange flames began punching out of the spire, quickly increasing in intensity.
The French police rushed in and started blowing whistles, telling everyone to move back, witnesses said. By then, the flames were towering, spilling out of multiple parts of the cathedral.
Tourists and residents alike came to a standstill, pulling out their phones to call their loved ones. Older Parisians began to cry, lamenting how their national treasure was quickly being lost.
Thousands stood on the banks of the Seine river and watched in shock as the fire tore through the cathedral’s wooden roof and brought down the spire. Video filmed by onlookers and shared on social media showed smoke and flames billowing from the top of the cathedral.
Jean-Louis Martin, 56, a native of Dijon in eastern France who works at the university in Geneva, gasped as the flames leapt up. “It hurts me,” he said. “There are no words. It’s just horrible.”
The crowd gasped and cried in horror when the spire fell. “Paris is beheaded,” said Pierre-Eric Trimovillas, 32.
Vincent Dunn, a fire consultant and former New York City fire chief, said that fire hose streams could not reach the top of such a cathedral, and that reaching the top on foot was often an arduous climb over winding steps.
“These cathedrals and houses of worship are built to burn,” he said. “If they weren’t houses of worship, they’d be condemned.”
The city’s prosecutor’s office said it had opened an investigation.
Monsignor Chauvet said firefighters were able to save some of the cathedral’s artworks but did not say how much was damaged inside the building. A linen fabric associated with Saint Louis, the Holy Crown of thorns and the cathedral’s treasury were saved.
Mr. Gallet, the fire chief, said firefighters were still rescuing artworks in the building, hours after the fire had started. The main risk, he said, was the smoke within the cathedral, and the fall of materials, including melting lead.
The cathedral had been undergoing extensive renovation work. Last week, 16 copper statues representing the Twelve Apostles and four evangelists were lifted with a crane so that the spire could be renovated.
The cathedral had been in dire need of a thorough and expensive restoration, André Finot, the cathedral spokesman, told The New York Times in 2017.
Broken gargoyles and fallen balustrades had been replaced by plastic pipes and wooden planks. Flying buttresses had been darkened by pollution and eroded by rainwater. Pinnacles had been propped up by beams and held together with straps. In some places, limestone crumbled at a finger’s touch.
Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York, said construction work and renovations had long been a dangerous combination.
“There’s a history of churches and synagogues and other houses of worship falling victim to construction fires,” he said, adding that one of the reasons for the peril was the proximity of open flames on torches, sparks from welders and other hazards on scaffolding to other flammable materials.
In recent years, the Friends of Notre-Dame, a foundation based in the United States, estimated that the structure needed nearly $40 million for urgent repairs. The French state, which owns the cathedral, already devotes up to 2 million euros a year in upkeep, or about $2.4 million.
The fire came during Holy Week, six days before Easter Sunday. For Roman Catholics, the cathedral has been a spiritual pilgrimage site for generations. France has a deep Catholic history, and nearly two-thirds of its population is Catholic, even though fewer and fewer attend Mass.
“It’s apocalyptic,” said Eleanor Batreau, 45, who organizes pilgrimages to Lourdes and sometimes works at Notre-Dame. “It reminds me of Dresden burning. I’m a Catholic, and Notre-Dame is a symbol of Mary.”
The risk of the fire is not just to the cathedral itself, but also to the gargoyles that cover its walls and to the stained glass, particularly its “rose” windows.
The largest of its bells, which dates to 1681, managed to survive the French Revolution and has been rung at some of the most important events in French history, including both World Wars.
Bernard Fonquernie, the architect in charge of the cathedral’s restoration in the 1980s and 1990s, said that he believed much of the building, its furnishings and its stained glass could be saved. “The stone vaulting acted like a firewall and it kept the worst heat away,” he said.
Yet the fire is likely to be just the latest, if most dramatic, insult to a landmark that has endured decades of neglect and damage, some at the hands of French revolutionaries, through its more than 850-year history.
Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, “Notre-Dame of Paris,” noted even then that “one cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile, both by the action of time and the hand of man.”
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