It’s too easy to say, ‘Bob did it’ — Chicago safety experts on Notre Dame fire

SHARE It’s too easy to say, ‘Bob did it’ — Chicago safety experts on Notre Dame fire
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Workers on the northern side of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Thursday, three days after a fire devastated the landmark in the center of the French capital. - They were securing and stabilizing vulnerable sections of the fire-damaged landmark. Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

Opportunities for do-overs are rare in the column biz. The scribbling finger of Time rushes on, and each new situation tends to be unique.

But sometimes the chance does arise. When Notre Dame Cathedral burned in Paris Monday, I leaped onto social media, with everyone else, saying the first thing to pop into mind, like everybody else.

“How could this happen?” The question answers itself. The scaffolding! It was the roofers. I remembered a column written in 2006 when the Pilgrim Baptist Church burned, inspiring me to flip open my tool box and grab the 2-pound sarcasm drilling hammer.

“… city officials speculated that roofers working on the church just might have touched off the blaze. Gee, ya think?” I wrote, almost gleeful. “You mean the guys with blowtorches working at the exact spot the fire broke out? Now there’s a theory. It’s ALWAYS the roofers …”

OPINION

Chicago is a city of laborers, contractors, masons, pipe fitters, plumbers, iron workers, crane operators, site foremen and, yes, roofers. Perhaps some after-echo of every single one of them looking up from their Sun-Times in 2006 and muttering“schmuck” caused me to set down the hammer, pick up a phone and actually do my job.

“It’s awfully easy to say, ‘Oh, Bob did it,'” said Tim Fisher, director of standards and technical services at the American Society of Safety Professionals, based in Park Ridge. “I was a firefighter. I’ve investigated hundreds of incidents, and very rarely did I find an incident caused because of negligence — usually something went with it, a series of circumstances that compile.”

For example?

Fisher recalled a fire where a cement mixer shorted out and set fire to lumber stacked nearby.

The blame belonged … where? To the guy in charge of maintaining the mixer? The person running it? The worker who stacked the lumber? Or the foreman overseeing them all?

“In this organization, we don’t believe in blaming the worker,” Fisher said. “We believe a lot in identifying what we call the ‘key factor.'”

On Thursday, police in France said an electrical short circuit likely caused the fire, but the investigation will no doubt continue for months, if not years, and a precise cause might never be found. No official cause was ever determined for 2009 fire at Holy Name Cathedral, according to the Chicago Archdiocese.

Much of Notre Dame Cathedral was saved after a 12-hour battle by firefighters at the Paris icon. The blaze claimed its spire and roof but spared its bell towers. | Vanessa Pena/Associated Press

Much of Notre Dame Cathedral was saved after a 12-hour battle by firefighters at the Paris icon. The blaze claimed its spire and roof but spared its bell towers. | Vanessa Pena/Associated Press

While standards might vary in France, safety is a concern on every job site here.

“It’s at the forefront of their minds,” said Harry Dietz, director of enterprise risk management at the National Roofing Contractors Association in Rosemont.

“I grew up in the roofing business,” said Dietz, whose grandfather started Dietz Roofing in Chicago in 1923. “The thing is, with roofing contractors there are rules they are following. There are a lot of requirements for handling flammable materials. One of the things roofing contractors are doing every day is thinking about that stuff.”

Those rules not only keep roofers from burning down their job sites but also keep them safe.

“Most of them are related to worker protection,” Dietz said. “But they also have broader implications.”

The solvency of the company they work for, for instance. In the competitive construction market, too many mishaps can hurt future business.

“Insurance companies set rules for risk control,” Dietz said, adding that the historic nature of Notre Dame might have made fire control even more challenging. Fires can be more likely in such structures, but restrictions also may prohibit some modern materials and techniques.

“The alternate is to put on a roof that doesn’t require heat — with adhesives or mechanical fasteners,” Dietz said. “But you can’t do that in many instances because you destroy the historical nature of the structure. You want to look up and see something from 1250. A lot of things are hazards, and in many cases the hazards can’t be engineered out because you’re trying to recreate something that looks as it did centuries previous to when you’re doing the work.”

It is worth remembering that often the splendid, flawless masterpiece seen in a museum was once a faded, soiled, half-ruined rag in a museum vault until conservators got their hands on it. Whether it takes five or 15 years to reconstruct Notre Dame, 800 years from now this week’s fire will be one line in its long history.

“It can be done,” said Michael Rigali, the fourth generation at Daprato Rigali Studios, a Chicago company founded in 1860 that restores churches. “They will be able to bring it back. They’ll be able to do that. It just takes a lot of time and money. I’m pretty confident in five years, 10 years, it’ll be a beautiful place.”

The interior of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Tuesday, in the aftermath of the fire. Rescuers tried to save as much as they could of the cathedral’s treasures, collected over centuries. | Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

The interior of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Tuesday, in the aftermath of the fire. Rescuers tried to save as much as they could of the cathedral’s treasures, collected over centuries. | Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

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