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Catastrophic fire engulfs Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris

PARIS — A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris’ soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below. France’s Interior Ministry said firefighters might not be able to save the structure.

The blaze collapsed the cathedral’s spire and spread to one of its landmark rectangular towers. A spokesman said the entire wooden frame of the cathedral would likely come down, and that the vault of the edifice could be threatened too.

“Everything is burning, nothing will remain from the frame,” Notre Dame spokesman Andre Finot told French media. The 12th-century cathedral is home to incalculable works of art and is one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions.

The cause of the blaze was not known, but French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying the fire is “potentially linked” to a $6.8 million renovation project on the church’s spire and its 250 tons of lead. Prosecutors opened an investigation as Paris police said there were no reported deaths. Some 400 firefighters were battling the blaze well into the night.

Flames shot out of the roof behind the nave of the cathedral, among the most visited landmarks in the world.

Hundreds of people lined bridges around the island that houses the cathedral, watching in shock as acrid smoke rose in plumes. The fire came less than a week before Easter amid Holy Week commemorations.

French President Emmanuel Macron was treating the fire as a national emergency, rushing to the scene and straight into meetings at the Paris police headquarters nearby.

Deputy mayor Emmanuel Gregoire said emergency services were trying to salvage the famed art pieces stored in the cathedral.

Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is the most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages as well as one of the most beloved structures in the world. Situated on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the Seine river, the cathedral’s architecture is famous for, among other things, its many gargoyles and its iconic flying buttresses.

Among the most celebrated artworks inside are its three stained-glass rose windows, placed high up on the west, north and south faces of the cathedral. Its priceless treasures also include a Catholic relic, the crown of thorns, which is only occasionally displayed, including on Fridays during Lent.

The cathedral was immortalized in Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” published in 1831, and has long been a subject of fascination in popular culture as well as the traditional art world.

French historian Camille Pascal told the BFM broadcast channel the blaze marked “the destruction of invaluable heritage.”

“It’s been 800 years that the Cathedral watches over Paris”, Pascal said. “Happy and unfortunate events for centuries have been marked by the bells of Notre Dame.”

He added: “We can be only horrified by what we see.”

Associated Press reporters at the scene saw massive plumes of yellow brown smoke filling the air above the Cathedral and ash falling on the island that houses Notre Dame and marks the center of Paris. As the spire fell, the sky lit up orange.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is in despair at the “terrible fire.” Hidalgo said in a Twitter message that Paris firefighters are still trying to limit the fire and urged Paris citizens to respect the security perimeter that has been set around the cathedral.

Hidalgo said Paris authorities are in touch with the Paris diocese.

Reactions from around the world came swiftly including from the Vatican, which released a statement expressing shock and sadness for the “terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame, symbol of Christianity in France and in the world.”

In Washington, Trump tweeted: “So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris” and suggested first responders use “flying water tankers” to put it out.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said he was praying “to ask the intercession of Notre Dame, our Lady, for the Cathedral at the heart of Paris, and of civilization, now in flames! God preserve this splendid house of prayer, and protect those battling the blaze.”

City grants permit for pub in landmark building

A couple seeking to turn a local landmark building into a tavern got city approval Monday over the concerns of a group that is planning a major development on neighboring land.

The Eau Claire Plan Commission approved the permit Monday night in a unanimous voice vote, allowing James and Christie Rolbiecki to reuse the former Kaiser Lumber Co. office, 1004 Menomonie St., as a tavern.

Explaining the Rolbieckis’ vision for the business, attorney Brian Nodolf characterized it as a pub and not a college bar.

“It’s designed to be a place where I would be comfortable taking my children as well,” he said to the commission.

Though it will have a small kitchen, the tavern will serve food such as soups, sandwiches, chicken wings and burgers, Nodolf said.

Prospective clientele for the pub are people visiting the nearby Hobbs Ice Center for skating or hockey games, patrons who would go to other Water Street restaurants and visitors to the future Sonnentag Event and Recreation Center.

The group planning that large event center had sent a letter to the city stating how granting a permit to the Rolbieckis would be premature.

A partnership of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, Mayo Clinic Health System and Eau Claire YMCA is developing the Sonnentag project, which is planned for a large swath of land next to the Rolbieckis’ property.

“I don’t think we have a lot of the answers to the issues the Plan Commission is considering this evening,” Mike Rindo, assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations, said during Monday night’s meeting.

With the Sonnentag complex including a 4,100-seat venue as well as a recreation center with multiple user groups, the development is expected to have a significant impact on Menomonie Street’s traffic, he noted. That could result in the city modifying some intersections or re-aligning roads in the area.

But with that project still years away from happening, commission member Terry Pederson said the future event center can adapt to the tavern and other buildings already in the area.

“It seems their plans are here. The Sonnentag plans aren’t here,” Pederson said. “Maybe the Sonnentag property should take into consideration what’s already here.”

Rindo replied that it was “a fair point.”

Eric Larsen, another commission member, said he appreciated the heads-up from the university that the area could see more traffic in the future. But he added that the Rolbieckis’ plans will preserve the landmark building, which is something he wants to see.

The Historic Randall Park Neighborhood Association wrote a letter in support of the Rolbieckis reusing the local landmark.

“That’s really why the neighborhood supports this. It is the last lumber building existing,” Helene Smiar, a neighborhood association member, said at Monday night’s meeting.

She did add that the association would like to see as much of the landscaping preserved around the building as possible, though plans show most of that becoming parking.

James Rolbiecki previously got a permit to create the tavern in August 2016, but the project didn’t start within a year and that permit expired.

The difference this time, Nodolf said, is that Christie Rolbiecki plans to take the lead role in running the tavern. She has seven years of experience of working in different positions at local restaurants and taverns, Nodolf said.

Other Business

Also during Monday night’s Plan Commission meeting:

• Minnesota-based Sages Prosper Management got a permit necessary to proceed with plans to convert the former downtown Hope Gospel Mission men’s shelter at 8 S. Farwell St. into upscale furnished apartments.

• Plans for a new 107-room Marriott Residence Inn slated for eight acres of vacant land on the city’s northeast side near the North Crossing were approved.

EC school board OKs new virtual charter school

The Eau Claire school district is known far and wide for how exceptional it is in meeting student needs as they change over time, said Eau Claire resident Missie Crisp.

But for some students and families, the traditional brick and mortar school isn’t the right fit — and they’re forced to opt out of enrolling in the district.

But this fall, a new virtual charter school will launch in the district after the school board on Monday voted unanimously in favor of the proposal.

“I think this school district is very well known for its high standards and being top notch in compared to other districts in the area,” Crisp told the board ahead of the vote.

“I’m fully confident that this board and district can take this on.”

Board President Joe Luginbill said he is excited to meet more diverse learning needs and to connect with more students and families.

“I will be enthusiastically supporting the approval of this contract tonight,” Luginbill said ahead of the board’s vote. “This would allow us the ability to connect with a variety of all students with diverse methods of learning. Of course, this would allow us the ability to connect with a variety of students and families who simply aren’t a part of the ECASD. For the many students who opt to open enroll into virtual programs, this would allow them an opportunity to stay locally connected.”

The school will pilot next academic year with a maximum of 28 students in grades six through 12. The following year, 2020-21, the school will expand to serve kindergarten through 12th grades.

“It’s a smaller footprint to begin with, but will allow the staff to work on developing the curriculum for the following year,” said Jim Schmitt, the district’s director of teaching and learning. “And with 28 students, that’s a small enough number that we can really support that group.”

While staff works on curriculum and launching a new charter on a local level, Schmitt said during a presentation to the board that the district will use a contracted instruction service provider.

Another exciting aspect of the program, Schmitt said, is that it has the potential to increase the district’s revenue by $275,380 if students are largely homeschooled or were not previously served by the district.

In response, board member Chris Hambuch-Boyle questioned how much the program could cost the district if most students are from the district. Schmitt said the cost would be minimal and the district would work to redirect those students to other virtual offerings in the district as well.

“With a footprint of 28 students, it wouldn’t be a huge loss,” he said.

The 28 students will be selected through a random lottery that is first open to district residents in late spring. Then nondistrict residents will be able to apply for the remaining seats after June 3 through alternate open enrollment. A random lottery would then be held for those applicants on Aug. 3, if needed.

Grade levels of students applying will not be taken into account, Schmitt said.

Luginbill said reaching new families and students is an exciting aspect of the new charter.

“(The school) would provide a mechanism for the district to virtually open its doors to children and families in all corners of the state, thus expanding our footprint and giving us financial leverage to see a balanced open enrollment system or even a potential financial net-gain open enrollment system,” Luginbill said.

Hambuch-Boyle agreed with Luginbill, emphasizing a long-held desire to serve homeschool students in the area.

“With the number of enrollments out, I’ve always wanted to connect with the homeschooling community,” she said. “I think that’s a strong part of this program.”

Schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck said the program is a win-win for families and the district.

"It's an innovative program that gives parents and families choices, but the greater benefit for the school district is that we get to serve students and families that we normally don't get to work with and it's an opportunity to bring them back into the district and reconnect with them," she said. "To me, that's everything."