CHARLOTTE, NC: The world nearly lost the cathedral of Notre Dame. In a story that demanded the efforts of six veteran reporters, the New York Times made clear just how close we came to tragedy. We were minutes from losing one of the world’s most endearing and enduring symbols.
Besides the controversy surrounding the cause of the fire was another, more rancorous controversy about the cost of repairs. According to the Times,
“…more than a few wondered why at a time when citizens were taking to the streets protesting inequality and economic hardship when so many were dying in distant wars and on migrant boats sailing for Europe, should Notre-Dame matter?”
The conclusion was simple, direct and poignant:
Notre Dame was more than a building. It rests on Île de la Cité, the island in the middle of the Seine River where Paris was born. Made and remade over the centuries, it remains a focal point of French culture that has responded to the demands of each age it has passed through.
And in the present moment, it represented an unbreakable link with what, for many French, is the essence of their increasingly fragile nationhood.”
In the din of over-analysis, we often fail to remember or understand the lessons of history.
However, these lessons shape the very fabric of our lives and our cultural values. They are embodied in historical structures and institutions. And Notre Dame is such an institution.
Not only the French are questioning their national legacy. So, too, are many other places in Europe. And here in the United States, as well.
Structures like Notre Dame are reminders of who we are and where we came from. They are important purely because they represent something deeper, more meaningful, and far larger than life. They are stronger and more memorable than any individual.
When we lose Notre Dame, we lose part of ourselves and our heritage. And we pay dearly for the loss.
And we nearly lost Notre Dame.
The Times story revealed that in roughly the span of four short hours, the world came closer to losing centuries of history. Far more than anyone realized at the time. The first two hours of the blaze were a tragedy of miscommunication and errors that put firefighters so far behind that, at times, the battle against the conflagration seemed hopeless.
Gen. Jean-Marie Gontier, who was on the front line managing the firefighting operation, summed it up:
“It’s like starting a 400 meters (race), several dozen meters behind.”
According to the Times,
“The first hour was defined by (an) initial, critical mistake: the failure to identify the location of the fire, and by the delay that followed.”
During a Monday evening Mass, a church employee radioed a security guard to go check for a fire. The guard, who had only been on the job for three days, answered the call and reported that he saw nothing.
Unfortunately, the guard went to the wrong building. Before the mistake was realized, the fire had already burned for a half-hour among the ancient timbers of the attic, a structure lovingly known as “the forest.”
Chaos and improvisation cost time.
In a telling commentary on modern society, the Times reported,
“If it took more than half an hour to call the fire department, it took just minutes once smoke appeared for the images to begin circulating around the world on social media.”
The second hour was ruled by chaos. Firefighters scrambled to organize a plan to battle the bonfire. That scramble to improvise cost time. And that lost time ultimately added to the destruction as firefighters struggled to coordinate their efforts.
As the New York Times reports, it was only through the bravery and persistence of the firefighters during hours three and four that Notre Dame was saved.
Carrying 55-pounds of equipment on their backs and climbing 300 steps within the narrow confines of their access point, only a small group of firefighters was able to rush to the scene.
Among them was Master Cpl. Myriam Chudzinski.
A heroic effort to save the cathedral.
Chudzinski was already familiar with her surroundings due to her participation in drills at the cathedral last fall. Thus she was not surprised that “the attic had no firewalls to prevent the spread of a blaze — they had been rejected to preserve the web of historic wooden beams.”
Despite the heroic efforts of the firefighters, the attic was doomed. Firefighters turned their efforts to save the towers, beginning with the north tower, which was already burning. The rescue teams realized they had only 20 minutes before the walls of the church were likely to collapse.
The decision made, the firefighters realized they might go in and never come out.
“Police drone footage showed the cathedral’s roof as a fiery cross illuminating the night sky. At the center was a gaping hole where the spire had stood for more than 160 years,” wrote the Times.
Around 11 p.m., General Gontier descended the stairs, and with three magic words he caused the world to exhale a giant breath of relief:
“She is saved.”
Once the cathedral was saved, the people of France could begin the process of investigating what happened before and during the fire. And, of course, the finger-pointing began. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one Paris police official said,
“We’re not ruling out any scenario, we just know it wasn’t criminal.”
Tragic and devastating as it was, the Notre Dame fire could have been far worse. Perhaps, however, it will still serve as a reminder of the fragility of man and his accomplishments.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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