On Monday afternoon I was meeting with the former head archivist of the International Herald Tribune in a cafe behind the Louvre, not far from Notre-Dame. She was telling me about her efforts to find a home for the newspaper’s archives when an unusually large number of sirens interrupted our conversation. We paid the bill and made our way to the Seine one block away. Smoke was coming from the heart of Paris, billowing overhead across the sky and obscuring the sunset. Notre-Dame was on fire.
After saying goodbye I rushed along the river to get a closer look. “No, no, no!” I muttered to myself. “Not Notre-Dame...” I alternated between walking and jogging as I drew closer. At one point the crowd began running toward me. Ash had begun to fall on them. I continued on, pushing through the crowd all the way to Saint Michel, the metro stop in the center of Paris where there is a direct view of the church’s facade. I stopped and stood for a long time, just watching.
The sirens continued. Policemen began to yell “Reculez! Reculez!” (“Back up! Back up!”) No one paid them any heed. Small bits of ash continued to fall on us. At one point, something stung my head. I reached up and ran my hand through my hair; it was ash, still hot. Eventually, the police managed to close the bridge over the Seine and began moving us backward toward the far sidewalk. Sirens and ash and smoke and rows and rows of smartphones raised toward the sky. And there, at the center of it all, a burning church.
I looked behind me to find thousands of people going back as far as the eye could see, their faces shocked and solemn, all trying to make out what damage the fire was doing. No one spoke of anything else. Occasionally, flames leapt into view, but otherwise we had to surmise what we could from the color and thickness of the smoke. Someone behind me remarked that dark smoke meant the roof was still burning, but that white smoke would mean it had been extinguished. I followed the train of smoke over me; it was still quite dark. A little before 8 p.m., a large burst of smoke startled us; later I learned that it was the moment that the spire collapsed. We noted that firemen were walking along the bell towers and speculated that they must be stable enough. Surely, this was a good sign.
In such a moment, it became all too easy to speculate. I wondered if the facade would be destroyed or if the entire building would collapse. Was I witnessing the end of Notre-Dame? Would the art and relics be saved? In my anxiety, I ran my hand through my hair, only to find even more ash. I also took pictures, and tried to post some to Facebook and Twitter. But mostly I continued looking at the church as it burned. I suppose I was hoping for some last moment of inspiration, some final surge of aesthetic brilliance, before it crumbled and disappeared forever. But nothing came, and despite the continuing blaze the towers were still standing. The police kept pushing us back. Smoke continued to waft above us. At some point, I realized that I had a splitting headache. It was almost dark, and I was dejected, overwhelmed by the crowd and conflicted by my participation in the spectacle of it all. So I turned, made my way through the mass of people, and took the metro home.