April 15, 2019, was a Monday, two days before I was scheduled to leave for Paris. As it was the first day of the Easter vacation in Land Hessen, I was not teaching that evening, so I was at home in Frankfurt, working at my desk, when a notice popped up in the lower right-hand corner of my computer screen saying that a fire had broken out in the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.
Quickly I found a French news channel that was streaming live (BFMtv, I suppose, though it could have been one of the others) and I left it running in the back- or foreground the whole evening, something I hardly ever do.
They didn’t say where they were broadcasting from, but for most of the evening all we ever saw was the back of the cathedral, so I imagine they must have had a camera set up on the roof of the Institute du Monde Arabe or some other building in that general neighborhood.
Just to give an idea of the angle, here’s a photo I took of the cathedral from the roof of the Institute du Monde Arabe back in 2007. Of course the television people had an adjustable telephoto lens that enabled them to zoom in for a closer look or zoom out again for a broader view, but always from this angle.
At first there was just one visible flame, coming out of the roof near the spire, but gradually the flames spread out until the whole roof was on fire. They kept telling us that the fire had not yet spread to the two towers at the front, but from what we could see on the screen it looked as though the flames were getting very close to the towers.
Soon the Paris fire department, the sapeurs-pompiers, got a pump set up behind the cathedral, near the northeast corner, and started pumping a small but steady stream of river water onto the flames on the roof. Eventually two more pumps started operating on the southeast side, so there were three small streams of water that went on for hours without having any visible effect on the flames.
The reporters, and various experts they asked, explained that the real firefighting was going on in front of and inside the building, but there were no live pictures from there. The television channel had some reporters on the ground, but none of them could get close enough to do anything but interview shocked bystanders.
One of the studio experts was an impressively knowledgeable historian (I neglected to note down his name) who patiently explained the cathedral’s architecture and history hour after hour. Naturally he repeated himself a few times in the course of the evening, and indeed was encouraged to do so by the interviewers. If he had been speaking English or German I would have switched off the repetitions, but since he was speaking French I was thankful for them, since things I hadn’t understood the first time became clear the second or third time around.
At one point when the entire roof was in flames, the news came in that the American president, Donald Trump, had sent off a tweet about it: “So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!” This idea was roundly condemned and ridiculed by everyone who managed to get near a microphone. They all agreed that waterbombing would cause the 750-year-old building to collapse, which was exactly what the firefighters inside were trying to prevent.
Sometime after 11 pm the sapeurs-pompiers announced that the fire was under control and the main structure of the building had been saved. And they released some of their own video footage showing firefighters risking their lives inside the cathedral to fight the flames and rescue some of the priceless works of art that were in danger of destruction. (Later I heard that firefighters, police and other civil servants had formed a line and handed artworks from hand to hand to get them out of the building, but I didn’t see any video of that.)
When I got to Paris two days later, the fire was the big topic of conversation wherever I went. The President — Macron, not Trump — had promised to re-build Notre-Dame by 2024, in time for the Olympic Games in Paris, but hardly anyone considered that a realistic timeline.
After the fire, the authorities quickly fenced off a large security zone around the cathedral. It was Easter Sunday when I finally went over to have a look, and I joined in with hundreds of other people who were walking around the perimeter, trying to get a glimpse of the burned-out building.
At the time, people in Paris were quite concerned about lead poisoning, since large amounts of lead had been used in earlier centuries in the construction of Notre-Dame. The high temperatures of the fire had melted the lead and even blown small particles of it into the air and around the city, especially into the 5th and 6th arrondissements on the Left Bank, where abnormally high concentrations of lead were found in the schoolyards, for example.
Since then, the concern about lead poisoning seems to have subsided, either because the problem was solved or — more likely — because the coronavirus pandemic is now seen to be much more urgent.
My photos in this post are from 2007 and 2019. I wrote the text in 2020.
See also: Notre-Dame de Paris. 1482.