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Notre Dame in Flames

April 16th, 2019 · No Comments · France, Paris

Because of a little park named after Pope John XXIII, I came to think of Notre Dame from the “wrong” end of Paris’s famed cathedral.

In a silly, selfish way, I thought of Notre Dame as “belonging to me” more than the average tourist way because I was on its grounds for jogging/walking nearly every time I visited the place, maybe 30 times, mostly in this century.

I was just on the back (southeast side) of the building, behind the altar and the curved wall that encloses the church, circling a tree-lined little park offering shade during the heat of the summer and some low-hanging sun in the dark and cold of the winter.

I can identify the 850-year-old building from the “front” but I might be better/quicker at naming it from the back.

That was one of the random thoughts that went through my head as we sat for two hours last night and watched the beloved old church burn.

It was about 7:15 p.m., here in France, when we first heard about the fire, from a journalist friend of ours, who wrote on a social media account:  “Horrible — Notre Dame is on fire!”

At first, it seemed a bit unbelievable. “Notre Dame is built of stone. How does stone catch fire? It can’t spread widely, can it?”

We were about to learn much, much more about the edifice that is at the heart of Paris, at the heart of France, in some ways at the heart of Western Civilization.

In the next few hours, a big fraction of the famed cathedral was reduced to ashes, as we sat stunned, in front of the television.

The fire moved quickly. Its existence was ascertained at 6:43 p.m., authorities said, when the first flames could be seen by anyone with a vantage point of the church’s spire. By the time our former co-worker alerted us to the situation, Notre Dame was in big trouble, with bright yellow flames chasing clouds of gray smoke billowing into the atmosphere.

We searched across the television dial, and the first site we found with video of the cathedral in flames was BFM, a French all-news station. The nation’s leading broadcaster, TF1, was lagging behind. Another local station opened with “there is a fire at Notre Dame” but then went on with the planned newscast.

We switched to NBC, to which we have access, and the Today Show, and on the western side of the Atlantic the crew was trying to figure out what was going on and trying to find someone, anyone on the scene whom they could talk to.

From then on, it was a sort of slow-motion disaster, with the most memorable moment coming when the church’s 300-foot-tall spire lazily tilted and fell. People near the church said an audible communal gasp went up as the spire crashed.

I couldn’t help but think of the last televised disaster to hit famous structures — on 9/11.

That, of course, was profoundly deadly, a terror attack that killed 3,000 people, mostly in the Twin Towers, in New York, and crashed four commercial jets.

Notre Dame had zero fatalities, thanks to smoke detectors that went off, ushering the faithful attending a mass out the door before the fire came near. Also, its disaster appeared to be an accident, compared to the malignant intent of September 11, 2001.

But the notion of something really famous coming down in flames as we stared … yes, that aspect was similar to 9/11.

Happily, the destruction to Notre Dame was apparently limited, mostly, to the spire and to the roof, where yards and yards of oak logged centuries ago burned like matchsticks.

The twin towers of the church were untouched, and experts suggested Notre Dame could be rebuilt; enough of it had survived. And the next day, Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, said Notre Dame would be repaired to its former glory in five years, as donations poured in from the masses of people (13 million, annually) who think of Paris and France and fond memories when they see Notre Dame.

I wonder if the Pope John the 23rd park will be opened sooner than other parts of the church. Probably not, because it is just behind the altar and close to where the fire burned hottest.

But it is nice to think that some joggers or walkers some day will be able to make their way around the little park and make that turn that brings the big old church into view.


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