I awoke from what I thought was an hour long nap cursing because it was actually three. I would have slept even longer were it not for the near-constant sirens I heard outside. These are always part of the background noise in Paris. One becomes accustomed to them and their distinct tone. However, on this early evening, Monday, April 15, 2019, it felt escalated. From the bottom living quarters of my boat, I couldn’t see much save a few skateboarders near the dock looking and pointing eastward. It piqued my curiosity. After ascending to the upper level of my boat, I saw it all — a giant plume of smoke filled the air from the direction of Ile de la Cité.
My immediate thought was that a terrorist attack may have occurred. The central island houses the law courts for Paris, in addition to being a major tourist hub because of Notre-Dame Cathedral. I streamed my live line of vision on social media and almost immediately a stranger informed me that the world-renowned church was on fire. I grabbed my keys and joined the thousands of Parisians taking to the streets to observe and pray that it could be saved.
Construction on the Cathedral began over eight-hundred years ago in 1160 and was completed in 1260. It is known for being the finest example of French Gothic architecture in the world, with its iconic stained-glass windows frequently listed as an artistic zenith of human skill and spirit. Over twelve million people per year visit Notre-Dame, making it the most visited site in Paris (exceeding even the Eiffel Tower). Beyond being a bucket-list item to see though, it remains a place of worship in this dominantly Catholic country and is dearly beloved by Parisians as part of their history, part of their being.
Police barricades prevented the growing crowds from getting anywhere near the fire, but with its scale I could clearly see that it was major. The entire roof was engulfed in flames scaling upwards to the clouds and helicopters circling overhead. Some observers stood in shocked silence, others openly wept. Some sang choral hymns. I was acutely aware that this was something I would never forget for the rest of my life, a moment that would be recorded by history. I tried to take everything in: the multi-lingual conversation of strangers in shared shock, the changing hue of the sky as the sun started to set, the smell (and taste) of smoke. After observing for a few hours, I returned to my boat to try and sleep. I was a bit restless with worry as I didn’t know what the extent of damage would be … or even if Notre-Dame would survive the night.
The next day, framed with a sombre overcast sky, I returned to the scene. The crowds were even larger, now met with world media turning their cameras and headlines to what remained of the structure. From the exterior, damage was clearly visible (and extensive) to the back-end and roofing which was all but destroyed. But I feel there was enough of a skeleton still standing that a full reconstruction could be achieved (this would later be confirmed and priced at $5 billion, with $1 billion being donated by France’s elite within the first twenty-four hours of the fire leading to increased fury from the Yellow Vest Movement protesters).
One of the most memorable scenes I encountered took place as I walked the perimeter of Ile de la Cité. A crowd broke out in applause as several firefighters exited the area of Notre-Dame Cathedral making their way for much needed rest. Their task over and a new one about to begin.