“Our Lady on fire, France in tears”—Notre Dame blaze horrifies world
Flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris, April 15. | Thibault Camus / AP

One of the greatest cultural and religious icons on Earth, Notre Dame Cathedral, was turned into a raging inferno on April 15. As millions watched in horror and tears, a fast-moving enormous fire of unknown origin tore through the world-famous symbol of Paris. The blaze started at around 6:30 pm Paris time, barely an hour after closing time, and left the 865-year-old church a gutted shell.

People gasped, prayed, sang hymns, and cried from the banks of the Seine. Other millions worldwide tuned into instantly beamed videos as the blaze destroyed the cathedral’s wooden roof and consumed and collapsed its equally wooden 19th century spire into its nave.

The fire destroyed its wooden interior, including priceless Gothic-era carvings there and other works of art. Television images showed a gutted stone-only interior, with only the altar and the cross above it surviving visibly through smoky haze. Notre Dame’s art, architecture, carvings, and choir were gone.

And the fire left a nation in shock.

This photo provided by the Paris Fire Brigade shows fire fighters working at the burning Notre Dame cathedral April 15. | Benoit Moser / BSPP via AP

Some 400 fire fighters, including every fire company in Paris and all those from each town, suburb, and village within 50 miles, rushed to battle the blaze. Some fire fighters scaled the perilous heights of Notre Dame’s front façade to fight the flames. They saved Notre Dame’s exterior stone walls, their flying buttresses, and its great and graceful front stone towers. The fate of its rose windows is uncertain.

One U.S. tourist and his wife told U.S. television stations they had just left Notre Dame at closing time, 5:30 pm, and were strolling along the Seine just blocks away an hour later when they turned back to look at the cathedral…and gasped in horror. French men and women told interviewers that losing Notre Dame was like losing a family member.

French President Emmanuel Macron, extremely emotional and upset, promptly vowed to rebuild Notre Dame as “a project of French destiny.” A worldwide fundraising drive was launched April 16. The New York-based French Heritage Society also announced a Notre Dame Restoration Drive.

Though officially Notre Dame is a Catholic cathedral, Macron called Notre Dame “the heart and soul” of France. Notre Dame is French for “Our Lady” refering to Mary the mother of Jesus. A repository of priceless art—and its own architecture—Notre Dame was also the scene of many notable events in continental and especially French history.

The French Communist Party said in a statement that the cathedral was “a collective work, bringing together architects, workers, craftsmen, and builders” who over centuries had “carved a jewel.”

Many parties and politicians in France are temporarily suspending their campaigning for the upcoming elections to the European parliament—a political truce in the wake of the loss. Ian Brossat, deputy mayor of Paris and head of the French Communist Party’s national election list, expressed the immense emotion that affects “all French” and “all Catholics” with the ravaging of Notre Dame. In a statement to the newspaper l’Humanite, he called on all French people to “roll up our sleeves together to save Our Lady.”

Last night, Fabien Roussel, national secretary of the French Communist Party, tweeted: “Our Lady on fire, France in tears. It is a monument linked to our history as much as a place of worship. Tribute to the Christian community. We are all sad, collapsed, speechless.”

This morning, the central office of the French Communist Party said in a statement that the cathedral was “a collective work, bringing together architects, workers, craftsmen, and builders” who over centuries had “carved a jewel.”

Though the fire’s cause is unknown, it occurred as Notre Dame was undergoing a massive reinforcement/reconstruction project, due to what Catholic News Service reported as “crumbling,” last year. In another irony, some of the most-precious statues were moved out of Notre Dame the week before to make way for the reinforcement scaffolding, itself made of wood.

Jim Bullock, a retired Fire Department of New York assistant chief, told CNN cathedrals are particularly vulnerable to such huge conflagrations. The smoke from Notre Dame quickly beclouded bright skies over Paris and could be seen for miles, just as the smoke from the burning Twin Towers—whose flames FDNY union members fought—could be seen for miles after the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. Those 110-story towers collapsed, too.

“Churches have their own problem, especially large cathedrals,” Bullock said. “There’s a large open-air space, so there’s lots of air to feed the fire” and “a lot of combustible stuff in the ceiling. And once it’s in the ceiling it’s hard to get up there—it could be 300 feet in the air.” News reports from Paris said the fire started at the base of the spire.

Expressions of sorrow and dismay rolled in from around the world. Alessandro Gisotti, interim director of the Vatican’s press office, said Pope Francis “received with shock and sadness the news of the terrible fire that devastated the Notre Dame Cathedral, the symbol of Christianity in France and worldwide. We express our closeness to the French Catholics and the population of Paris and assure you of our prayers for the firefighters and how many are doing their best to cope with this tragic situation.”

Nobody died, but one fire fighter was reportedly badly injured. The fire came at the start of Christians’ Holy Week leading to Easter.

Not surprisingly, the first union statement in the U.S. came from the International Association of Fire Fighters: “The IAFF is thinking about fire fighters in Paris as they battle this most difficult fire at the historic Notre Dame Cathedral.”

“Notre Dame is one of the world’s great treasures,” former President Barack Obama tweeted, over a picture of him lighting votive candles. “It’s in our nature to mourn when we see history lost, but it’s also in our nature to rebuild for tomorrow, as strong as we can.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is Catholic, added in a tweet: “@NotreDameParis has stood as a beating heart of religion & culture for centuries, inspiring all who have visited her. The footage of today’s fire is nothing short of heartbreaking. To the people of Paris and France: Know that America stands with you.”

President Donald Trump tweeted it was “so horrible to watch” the fire. He also drew a rebuke from France. Trump’s tweet added one way to fight the fire would be to use “perhaps flying water tankers” to drop liquid from above.

France’s Sécurité Civile, its civil defense and crisis agency, quickly replied, in English: “All means are being used, except for water-bombing aircrafts which, if used, could lead to the collapse of the entire structure of the cathedral.”

C.J. Atkins contributed to this article.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.