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  • Writer's pictureKate Woodman

Notre Dame:  An Eyewitness Account

Updated: Feb 16, 2020


Tonight around 7:00, as I was walking down the rue Beaubourg toward the rue de Rivoli, I noticed a guy taking a picture with his cellphone. Not so unusual but his phone was aimed upwards, so I looked up and was astonished to see huge plumes of thick white and grey smoke streaking across the sky.

View of Notre Dame from rue Beaubourg

It was coming from the bottom of the street where the magnificent Hôtel de Ville (town hall) is located. “Please don’t let it be Hôtel de Ville” I muttered to myself. I was headed to the Metro stop on the corner of Rivoli and Beaubourg for my weekly choral society rehearsal, so kept walking, but stopped to take a picture of the smoke. I wasn’t the only one. I walked another block, looked up and was horrified to see that the smoke was coming from Notre Dame….and not just smoke, but leaping orange flames. Stupified I kept walking, repeating over and over “Incroyable….ce n’est pas vrai!” “Unbelieveable….this can’t be happening!”

Steeple of Notre Dame in flames

I joined hundreds of Parisians on the parvis of Hôtel de Ville. Of course, everyone was taking pictures and videos, a few calling loved ones telling them to turn on their TVs….Notre Dame is burning. But for the most part, people were standing in place, quiet, hands over mouths, couples with their arms around each other, shocked, unbelieving, some crying, transfixed.

View from Hôtel de Ville parvis

I sent a picture to Patrick….

P: “What?!?!”

M: “Notre Dame….in flames….it’s true….On my way to rehearsal. Can’t move. So sad.”

P: “OMG”

M: “OMG is right. Incroyable. The steeple is going to fall.”

P: “This is heartbreaking….awful…..it’s doomed to fall. ….This could not have been an accident. Be safe!”

M: “I’m fine….steeple still standing.”

P: “Watching on CNN. It’s going from steeple now along the whole part of the roof to the towers.”

M: “I Know. We can’t lose the towers. What are they saying about cause though realize they probably know nothing.”

P: “They aren’t intervening.”

M: “No firefighters? Just letting it burn???

P: “Cause unknown, potentially linked to construction. CNN says no intervention visible. The roof is now entirely burnt.”

M: “Yes I suppose they have no way to fight it. God this is just heartbreaking.”

P: “A cultural and historical catastrophe.”

M: “Steeple just fell….”

Flames where the steeple used to be

P: “No direct feed here, but reporter describing the scene. She’s describing panic.”

M: “No panic here. I’m by Hôtel de Ville. Lots of police and sirens but bystanders are calm shocked horrified. But no panic.”

P: “Drama of television.”

M: “Trying to log on to Le Monde. Macron is saying something. He was supposed to give a speech at 8:00 about the grand debate. It’s almost at the towers.”

P: “He’s going to the site….canceled the national address.”

M: “Hopefully they can save the towers. Gotta get to rehearsal now.”

How to describe the emotions I felt watching the grand dame of Paris burn. This centuries old Gothic masterpiece with its flying buttresses and gargoyles, where 15 years ago I sang with the Greenwich Choral Society at Sunday morning mass, where Saturday nights I can listen to Bach, Purcell and Telleman being played on its magnificent organ, whose double tower and lacy steeple I see from my kitchen window…..How can all this be in flames? I watched in horror as the steeple fell and prayed that the towers would be spared. The hundreds of people around me were quiet and still, while the quai teemed with emergency vehicles, sirens screaming, cars, buses, motorbikes slowly making their way. Everyone shocked, saddened, heartbroken.

After an hour, I had to leave. Went to rehearsal where at break everyone was glued to their phones, desperate for information. Back at Hôtel de Ville around 11. Fire diminished but still burning.

From my kitchen window I see the towers… but the steeple is gone….my heart breaks for Paris, the French people, the Catholic church...but especially for the great lady of this exquisite city, Notre Dame.

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