Dramatic scenes from the night of the fire: the Chapel Bridge is alight.
Shock and deep sadness
The Chapel Bridge fire came as a great shock to the local population. Thousands of people gathered on the banks of the Reuss, on the Seebrücke (Lake Bridge) and on the Rathaussteg (Town Hall Footbridge) to witness the impossible with their own eyes. They looked on in horror, disbelief and sadness, many with tears in their eyes. The reactions, which the local newspaper, the LNN, printed in a special dedicated issue, revealed the pain the people felt: “You can see just by looking at the people what this loss means to them. Many were in tears.” And: “It’s such a sad sight to see. It pains me greatly.” And: “It’s like a death in the family – and a real catastrophe for Lucerne.”
Headlines around the world
The fire quickly turned into a media event. Journalists from all corners of the globe descended on Lucerne. The LNN distributed a special dedicated issue within hours of the fire. Interest in the story extended beyond the Swiss border: media around the world reported on the destruction of Lucerne’s most prominent landmark. France Inter, radio stations from Dubai, Hong Kong and Johannesburg, as well as ABC from New York called, to name just a few. It was such a dramatic event that it made the front pages of national and international newspapers and magazines. The Swiss tabloid Blick ran the headline “Lucerne is weeping!” On the other side of the planet, a popular Japanese daily carried a picture of the burning bridge with the headline “A piece of Swiss history in flames.”
A piece of Swiss history in flamesJapanese newspaper
Did a cigarette cause the fire?
The exact cause of the fire remains unknown to this day. The investigation was terminated on 20 July 1994 due to a lack of evidence. A carelessly discarded cigarette is considered the most likely cause. It set a boat beneath the Chapel Bridge on fire, triggering a chain reaction. Even if it were possible to trace the perpetrator, they would not be prosecuted. Crimes such as arson, the contingent, intentional or negligent causing of a conflagration, have a statute of limitations of 15 years.
Reconstructed within eight months
An investigation into the history of the bridge’s construction began the day after the fire. Since the planning documents that still remained were not detailed enough to be able to reconstruct the bridge, researchers spent around two months photographing, listing, drawing and describing every element of the bridge. Each beam was inventoried. Construction approval was given in the middle of November 1993. Elements that were damaged and could not be repaired were removed, and intact tiles were salvaged for reuse. A small topping-out ceremony following an old carpenters’ tradition was held on 10 February 1994. Two months later on 11 April 1994 the construction work, which cost CHF 3.4 million, was already completed.
Kurt H. Illi’s tears of joy
The re-opening of the Chapel Bridge on 14 April 1994 was accompanied by much celebration. Around 200 journalists from around the world attended the celebrations, and Swiss television broadcast live from Lucerne. Another unforgettable image is the then Director of Tourism for Lucerne Kurt H. Illi being overcome with emotion at the re-opening of the Chapel Bridge. He was so moved to see Lucerne’s most prominent landmark restored to its former glory that he broke out in tears in front of the running cameras. This time it was tears of joy that were broadcast around the world and made the Chapel Bridge even more famous.
Work is immediately started on the reconstruction of the Chapel Bridge.
The highest level of fire protection
Particular attention was paid to fire protection when reconstructing the bridge. The measures provided the highest level of fire safety on the bridge. Today, smoking on the Chapel Bridge is strictly prohibited. More frequent cleaning reduces the risk of heat accumulation through spider’s webs. Smoke detection systems, heat cables and lightning protection provide additional safety. In addition, the police use video cameras to monitor every section of the bridge. Another measure that is barely noticeable with the naked eye is the use of fire-resistant glass between the triangular paintings: two paintings are always separated by one sheet of glass. This is to prevent the rising heat and fire from spreading under the roof in the event of a fire.