It was 6:18 pm on Monday of Holy Week, April 15 2019, and Mass was being celebrated inside the Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris when a warning light on the smoke alarm panel turned bright red with the word “Feu” – Fire.
One of the two security guards on duty inside the Cathedral was 3 days new, and working a double shift because his replacement didn’t show up. He radioed the other guard to investigate for fire. Somehow the guard left the Cathedral to inspect the sacristy in an adjacent building. He messaged back there was no fire. The new security guard assumed it was a false alarm.
A call was made to the manager of the Cathedral’s security department, who quickly realized the source of the alarm was not the sacristy, but the attic at the very top of the Cathedral. The guards clambered up the 300 narrow steps to the top of Notre Dame. Bent double catching their breath, they saw to their horror that the marvelous, intricate lattice of huge wooden beams – many of them centuries old from forests that no longer exist – this incredible workmanship known as “the forest” that had covered and protected Notre Dame for eight centuries was being attacked by a fire growing larger by the moment. Someone finally called the fire department.
It was now 6:48 pm. The flames had a 30 minute head start on arriving fire fighters, who were destined to fight a losing battle from the start. Undaunted, they prepared to use the Seine River for their hoses, and to be tested to their limits.
Truly, if not for the bravery and remarkable courage of Paris’ finest, the entire Cathedral would have collapsed, and most likely destroyed many of the most sacred relics imaginable – like a splinter from the True Cross, and the Crown of Thorns said to have been jammed onto the Savior’s head during his Passion.
The firefighters resolved to battle the blaze at the very top of Notre Dame. Many wore fifty pounds of fire-fighting gear, along with breathing masks. There were no elevators to the top. The firefighters climbed the 300 steps, faced the inferno, and opened their hoses on it.
Far below the life and death struggle in the attic, a growing crowd watched in shock and horror at mountains of smoke spilling onto the spire, and the glow of a large fire eating its way through the wooden roof.
Paris has long been a secularized city. But what became evident at 7pm on April 15 was that Notre Dame de Paris (literally Our Lady of Paris) – the vast medieval monument to the Age of Faith – was still the heart of the city, and in some ways, the heart of the world as well.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame fits snugly on Ile de la Cite, a small island in the Seine River at the exact geometric center of Paris. Notre Dame existed at the birth of Paris, and over the centuries changed shape and size just as the city of Paris did. Like many Parisians of the day, Notre Dame was damaged and scarred by the Revolution in 1789. The Cathedral continued to weather all the storms that blew through the city, including two world wars. Today’s fare is calmer: the Cathedral hosts more than 30,000 visitors every day from all around the world.
Yes, the world comes to see Our Lady of Paris, in all her weathered, spectacular glory: to marvel at the vast stained glass windows; to view centuries of artwork by the masters; to ponder the flying buttress system of arched exterior supports; and finally, to sit in a pew and feel peace. Notre Dame de Paris had always been there for its people, and for everyone. Until now.
At 7:50 pm Parisians and people across the world on social media, where the fire was being streamed live, watched in horror as the huge spire of Notre Dame collapsed and crashed through the roof down to the Cathedral floor. The sound was described by one firefighter as “a giant bulldozer dropping hundreds of stones into a dumpster.”
The gigantic spire consisted of 750 tons of heavy oak and lead. Its crash through the burning roof caused a tremendous fireball to shoot through the attic. The firefighters were crouched behind a wall when the fireball zoomed by and scorched everyone. How graced they were not to have been incinerated on the spot. It was time to retreat.
Some firefighters wept as they descended. Outside there was a wail of grief, and cries of horror at the sight and sound of the spire collapsing into the church, destroying everything in its path. It seemed to all that the Cathedral was doomed. There was no way an 850 year old building could withstand the agonizing tortures it was being subjected to without totally collapsing.
The tears of Paris were shared around the world. Social media is often a sheer pestilence, but at times it can unite people of all different races, languages, and beliefs, into the best humanity can offer. Such was the case with Our Lady of Paris during Holy Week of 2019. In a moment of bitter unity Notre Dame itself seemed to weep, but they were tears of black ash and flakes of fire sent skyward when the huge steeple crashed through the heart of Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris. Slowly they descended, like snowflakes from hell, to confirm everyone’s darkest fears.
As night descended police drones from the air showed that the fire on top of the Cathedral was in the shape of a fiery cross, with a hole in the middle where the spire used to be.
Ariel Weil is the mayor of the portion of Paris that is home to the Cathedral. He spoke for many when he said, “There was a feeling that there was something bigger than life at stake. It was like an end of the world atmosphere.”
The firefighters regrouped from their defeat in the attic. They saw the wind was blowing the flames north across the Cathedral, towards the wooden supports that held the eight huge bells in the north tower. If the fire caused the bells to fall, their weight and size would make them gigantic wrecking balls that would cause the northern tower, the adjacent southern tower, and probably the rest of the Cathedral to collapse.
The plan was to climb the southern tower, and train their hoses on the nearby northern tower to prevent the bells from falling. But the northern tower was already on fire, and the firefighters were still on the ground. Here the hoses drew water from the Seine but the pressure was not strong enough to successfully battle the flames in the towers.
Not all the firefighters were willing to try the desperate plan. The small group of firefighters volunteering for the task entered the blazing Cathedral knowing they probably wouldn’t have an escape route. As they began a second, slow ascent, Parisians in the crowd began singing devotional hymns.
It was a desperate plan, a real “Hail Mary.” If the firefighters could reach the southern tower and find secure footing, they could use hoses hooked directly into the fire truck, thus giving them increased water pressure. Then they could try to contain the flames in the north tower to prevent it from collapsing and the nightmare event of eight multi-ton bells free rampaging through the 850 year old Cathedral.
They reached the top of the southern tower and established a working platform. Some of the team trained their hoses on flames licking at their boots from below. Others kept the fire on the roof at bay. This allowed remaining team members to train the last two hoses on the fire engulfing the north tower.
The platform they were fighting on weakened from the weight of the firefighters and the effects of the fire. Things can’t get much more dangerous than what the firefighters were attempting. In fact this act was not merely dangerous. It was supremely reckless: behavior from the heart and not the head, aided perhaps with courage supplied from above. And somehow, some way, the firefighter’s heroism and resolve in the face of death carried the day. The flames in the north tower were quenched. The bells stayed in place. Although many grim hours of firefighting lay ahead, at 9:45 pm the Cathedral Notre Dame was saved from its gravest threat.
Beneath the firefighters on the south tower another courageous contingent formed a line on the floor of the Cathedral, now full of charred wooden beams and covered with thick gray and black ash. A group of firefighters, police, and citizens worked to remove the sacred relics stored on the main floor. They succeeded.
Although the firefighters saved the Cathedral from immediate collapse, it was several more hours until Prime Minister Marcon went on television in front of the Cathedral to announce victory, and to vow: “We will rebuild this Cathedral together.”
Three days after the final flames were put out, Paris’ firefighters were formally and publicly honored for their outstanding public service. For weeks afterwards grateful Parisians – and world travelers – showered the Fire Department with gifts and heartfelt thanks.
As for Notre Dame itself, a very slow and painstaking repair job is beginning. People still come by to pay their respects to the grand old building. In the words of the New York Times, “that sense of the cathedral as a living wounded entity has only intensified since the fire.”
As a temporary measure, Notre Dame parishioners celebrated Mass at the church of St. Sulpice. Ironically, St. Sulpice had suffered from a fire in March, a month before Notre Dame’s inferno.
True, the fire at St. Sulpice was not as devastating. However, damage is estimated at over one million dollars. The fire at St. Sulpice is downplayed by the Church, and by its rector. The reticence over discussing the fire at St. Sulpice may be because police have determined the blaze was caused by arson.
Truth to tell, arson and vandalism is commonplace among French churches. The International Business Times reported that 875 Catholic churches were vandalized in France in 2018. During the week St. Sulpice was set on fire, eleven other Catholic churches were also vandalized. One church had the Eucharist desecrated, and a cross drawn on the wall out of human excrement. According to Republican MP Valerie Boyer, “Every day at least two churches are profaned.”
Yet to hear investigators of the Notre Dame fire tell it, the only thing they are sure about is that arson is not the cause. In fact this assertion was announced before the official investigation into the fire had even started. Seven months after the Notre Dame fire, investigators remain uncertain about a number of different theories as causing the fire. The only thing they are absolutely sure of is that arson was not the cause.
Investigators opine that perhaps an electrical short circuit, or a smoldering cigarette left by a construction worker caused the fire at Notre Dame. Perhaps they are correct that the cause of the fire was benign. But the destruction of so much of Notre Dame Cathedral reminds Paris – and perhaps the world – of hundreds of other acts of arson and vandalism to Catholic churches in France that are not accidental. The ministry of the Interior calculates that 1,063 anti-Christian acts were committed in 2018 alone (the figure includes vandalisms of Catholic cemeteries).
Church officials have consistently downplayed the anti-Catholic violence. This sort of prudence might be safer in the long run than inflaming passions. One wonders, however, how much longer passions will remain restrained, and how much longer churches will be the prime targets of vandals and arsonists.
Emily Bowden, New York Post July 11 2019 “Notre Dame Cathedral Fire went undetected for 30 minutes because of mistakes.”