The April 15, 2019 fire that laid waste to much of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral caused shock and heartbreak around the world. The inferno burned vast swathes of one of France’s national symbols, and one of the most iconic churches in Christendom.
Yet as a new ABC documentary illustrates, the fire could have been far worse, potentially destroying the stone structure to its foundations. Only the actions of a group of brave Paris firefighters, who risked life and limb battling the blaze in the cathedral’s rafters, saved the historic structure. In a gripping and dramatic depiction of heroism beyond the call of duty, “Notre Dame: Our Lady of Paris” tells the riveting stories of these firefighters in their own words.
A Series of Errors
Using interviews with eyewitnesses (all conducted in French), illustrations by the sketch artist for the Paris Fire Brigade, and animation showing the inner workings of the cathedral, the documentary depicts the innocent origins of the horrific blaze. Alarms went off during an evening Mass; guards investigated, and, finding nothing, thought the incident a false alarm, perhaps related to ongoing construction in the cathedral.
Fifteen minutes later, guards realized they had searched the wrong area in a costly mistake. In the intervening time, the fire continued to build in Notre Dame’s attic — the area between the cathedral’s lead roof and the stone vaulted ceiling of the church below. The ancient timbers of the attic (aptly called “the forest”) proved easy kindling for the blaze.
Firefighters fought valiantly to limit the damage, racing up narrow stone staircases to fight the fire from Notre Dame’s upper reaches. Marie-Ange, a novice first responder fighting her first actual fire, recalled her supervisor telling her the temperatures they faced greatly exceeded that of a normal blaze — indeed, their helmets were burnt by the searing heat. In a little more than an hour, the timber spire recreated in the 19th century collapsed, some of which fell to the floor of the nave below.
Saving Art and History
As one team of firefighters battled the blaze high above the nave, another crew desperately raced to save priceless artwork in the cathedral itself. In a dark church full of smoke and soot, they formed human chains to hustle the precious artifacts out of the building as quickly as possible.
While the crew ultimately managed to save most of Notre Dame’s treasures, the success did not occur without slightly farcical endeavors. One jubilant firefighter exited the cathedral thinking he had saved what is believed to be the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ during His crucifixion. A conservator told him the bad news: He had not saved the actual relic, but a replica displayed for tourists.
Shortly thereafter, a group of firefighters and church personnel went back into the cathedral, seeking the safe where the crown of thorns and other relics lay. When a conservator reached the safe, he discovered another problem: He had forgotten the combination and had to text a friend for the right codes. After five agonizing minutes, the friend responded with the codes that enabled the team to save Notre Dame’s relics.
Battling the Blaze in the Belfry
The climax of the documentary, and the fire itself, came as the fire spread from the attic to the cathedral’s North Tower. If the fire weakened the timber beams supporting the tower’s massive bells — one of which weighs 13 tons — the bells could fall. Such an event could, in turn, cause the North Tower to weaken, or collapse entirely, jeopardizing the entire stone structure of the cathedral as well.
A brigade of firefighters, led by a lieutenant named Alexis, climbed the stairs of the North Tower to douse the growing inferno. Their efforts seemed to come straight out of Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” — a team of shadowy figures, their faces obscured in the darkness, fighting dread forces in a battle 150 feet above the streets of Paris.
Alexis recounted how he had to venture out on to the wood flooring, which could have collapsed under him. In fact, a wood stair he tried to climb did collapse under him. He turned instead to a metal ladder that, by a fortuitous coincidence, lay in the tower on that particular day.
Standing on top of the metal ladder and struggling to reach as high as he could, Alexis aimed his hose at the fire above him as the flames lapped away at the timbers supporting the bells. In time — miraculously — the flames in the North Tower abated. At nearly the same moment, a shift in the winds helped another team of firefighters take control of the fire on the roof. After a harrowing few hours, thanks to heroic efforts by the Paris Fire Brigade, Notre Dame survived — barely.
Hope and Renewal
The movie’s final scenes provide an inkling of rebirth — both the cathedral’s bells chiming back to life and a nod towards the eventual reconstruction of the roof and interior. Marie-Ange, the firefighter whose first blaze turned out to be one she will never forget, closed with a poignant thought.
She explained that she could not understand the sadness so many Parisians expressed about the fire. The cathedral’s essential structure remained intact. Over time, artisans could rebuild the rest. “We look back on this sadness, and this moment will pass. And there will be a feeling of renewal.”
On one level, those words represent an imperfect analogy to the current coronavirus fright. While man can reconstruct destroyed material possessions, we cannot restore or replace the nearly 1 million lives lost to this disease. But the heroic efforts of first responders in Paris nearly 18 months ago — just like the efforts of first responders in our hospitals and clinics the past six months — provide us a reason for hope and the possibility of renewal.
“Notre Dame: Our Lady of Paris” is available on-demand and on Hulu.