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From the ashes


On the night of the fire at Notre-Dame I was with my kids on the balcony of my home near Montmartre when we saw a plume of black smoke in the sky. Later that evening all the church bells of the city started to ring out, one after another, inviting the people to prayer. It was a very moving, very overwhelming night.

“Two days later I began working on a book about the fire. I spoke with firefighters, with the priests of Notre-Dame, with the mayor and police of Paris and above all with the occupants of Île de la Cité, the island in the Seine which is home to Notre-Dame. I spoke to one woman, Florence, whose family had lived there for generations. She told me that on the night of the fire the police and firefighters were evacuating the island, as it was possible that the fire could spread to neighbouring buildings, and she was frantically looking everywhere for her father. Eventually he answered his phone: he had hidden in the attic of their home nearby where he was watching the cathedral burn, overcome with emotion. She begged him to come down, but he wouldn’t leave while Notre-Dame was on fire: ‘If she dies I will die with her’, he said.

“Father Fournier, the chaplain of the firefighters, was praised for entering the burning building and helping to save the Crown of Thorns, the most important relic in Christian history. I discovered in my research that there had been a panic when they arrived at the strong-box in which it was held: no-one knew the code. Fournier showed me the frantic messages on his phone – ‘what’s the code, please, please, quick, quick’ – to someone who did know but was in such a panic that he couldn’t remember. Finally, they got it.

“I’ll always remember the feeling of solidarity. People were dropping to their knees and praying together, like it was the most natural thing in the world”

“There’s a famous quote from Victor Hugo that sums up that night for me: ‘Les grands périls ont cela de beau qu’ils mettent en lumière la fraternité des inconnus’ – ‘Great perils have one beautiful thing about them: they bring to light the brotherhood of strangers’. That’s what happened as locals and onlookers joined police officers and firefighters to form a human chain to save 1,200 precious relics and paintings from the cathedral. Father Fournier had one great personal regret from the night, though – as he was carrying one masterpiece he accidentally pushed his thumb through it and left a hole!

“In the weeks that followed, people were shocked when it was revealed that because of a mistake with the fire alarm system, which had been known about for years, we wasted 25 minutes when we could have been fighting the fire. After one minute you can stop a fire with a glass of water, after two minutes you need a bucket of water but after three minutes you need a tonne of water. We lost 25 minutes because of a simple
naming error.

“A month after the fire, when what felt like the entire population of France had said they would contribute to the rebuilding, we started to see stories about donations dropping out. The problem was not with individual citizens or the rich, but with towns and cities, whose elected representatives decided, for whatever political reason, that they could not go ahead. Other problems started to emerge. The burning spire had released lead into the air and people on Île de la Cité had tested themselves and found elevated levels in their blood. The authorities wouldn’t validate this information, they didn’t want to talk about it.

“It remains to be seen whether Notre-Dame will be rebuilt within five years as the president has promised. But whatever happens in the future, I’ll always remember the feeling of total solidarity that night. France is a secular country, but people were dropping to their knees and praying together, without judgement, like it was the most natural thing in the world. Paul Valéry, a French poet and philosopher, has a quote which for me captures the feeling in Paris as Notre-Dame burned: ‘Que serions-nous sans le secours de ce qui n’existe pas?’ (‘What would we be without the help of that which does not exist?’).”

‘Dans les flammes de Notre-Dame’ by Sébastien Spitzer is published by Albin Michel

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