Notre Dame up close

‘My first thought … was that there was religious significance to the smoke’

PARIS – When you travel to see history and culture, you do not expect to be part of history.

My family and I traveled to Paris on spring break. Our first day after arriving, we wanted to follow the Rick Steves Historic Paris audio walking tour. The walking tour begins right in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Sadly, we were just too late to enter the cathedral. Luckily, we had explored the cathedral on a previous visit to Paris.

We skipped the narrative about the inside and followed the tour around the side into the gardens.

We were listening to the history and enjoying the gardens when we spotted smoke. I have to say, my first thought, which seems foolish now, was that there was religious significance to the smoke. It was Easter week.

Photo/Will Carlton

We continued walking, snapping pictures, wondering about it, but not quite sure what was going on. Soon, large amounts of smoke started billowing out around the spire and out vents in the roof. Clearly there was a fire.

Guards began urgently clearing the gardens. By the time we reached the street and onto the bridge, flames were bursting from the roof. A large crowd had assembled at this point. The assembled crowd spoke in mostly hushed tones, showing reverence for what they were witnessing.

Photo/Will Carlton

We watched with the other shocked onlookers as the fire increased. At one point, a man came and asked how long it had been going on, first in French, which I do not speak, and then in English. As he walked away, I noticed he wore the robes of a priest. I was struck by how powerful an event this must be for him.

Eventually, we were moved completely off the bridge down to the road along the Seine. At this point, the streets were flooded not just with tourists but thousands of Parisians. Boat tours continued to go by and people streamed in by the hundreds.

Photo/Will Carlton

We stood amongst the onlookers taking pictures and watching in shock as the flames consumed first the roof and then surrounded the spire. We all kept thinking the fire was easing up, but then it would explode with renewed energy as new fuel was exposed.

The scaffolding that had been erected to help restore the cathedral was adding fuel to the fire.

When the spire eventually fell, there was a collective gasp amongst the thousands lining the river and the bridges.

Photo/Will Carlton

The fire continued to rage, but the firefighters battled the fire. Some firefighters had been on the roof since they arrived. As darkness came, the fire continued but started to come under control. It was clear the towers at least would be saved and the walls would stay standing.

As we made our way to the metro we saw the side streets leading to the cathedral were also lined with Parisians watching in shock. This was a very emotional experience, one none of us will forget.

I must confess to feeling guilty and macabre watching and photographing this tragic event. I knew we were watching history and history undone.

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