On my way to Lebanon 19 years ago I stopped in Paris for a few days and stayed with a childhood friend who’d done very well for himself. His fifth-floor apartments had a stunning view of the city.
From his dining room window, wider than I am tall and almost floor to ceiling in length, you could see all of Paris: the Eiffel Tower to the right with its hourly light show of shimmers after dark, the Invalides, which used to be a colossal retirement home for veterans and now is, like all things colossal in Paris, a museum, the Panthéon, where those old enemies Voltaire and Rousseau are forever coffined together, the brutally ugly Tour Montparnasse, the second-tallest structure in Paris after the Eiffel Tower, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, which to me has the same effect as looking at my late father because of a black and white photograph he took of the basilica in the early 70s, and that hung in our living room as I grew up.
And of course the twin towers of Notre Dame.
I had asked myself: “Would a French ever excuse Notre Dame’s architecture being linguistically or in any way linked to Manhattan’s World Trade Center?” That was the phrase I wrote in my travel notes at the time, 19 months before the attacks on the towers, 19 years before those two sets of twin towers, each equally magnificent in their own way, each as close to the hearts of millions as if they were living, breathing beings, became tragically linked. Because watching Notre Dame burn live Monday evoked many of the same emotions of September 2001.
There are fortunate differences. Though hundreds of pilgrims and tourists were in the nave of Notre Dame when the fire started, all escaped. With the exception of a serious injury to one firefighter, no one was hurt. There’s no word of mischief or terrorism. It’s improbable that an arsonist would have risked a journey to the roof, where the fire started, to start a blaze. Rather, the fire seems to have originated with the same mysterious, malicious spark that set off the fire that destroyed the roof and much of Canterbury Cathedral in 1174, around the same time when Notre Dame was being built. As in Canterbury, much of the roof was lost, but the structure itself somehow survived, thanks to prudence and no overreactions. Donald Trump was quick to yell a tweet Monday, telling firefighters to dump water from the air. I admit that dunces like me wondered about that at first. But that would have been like dropping bombs on the nearly thousand-year-old structure. It would have collapsed.
Firefighters had their own plan, and it worked.
Just Four hours in, and Paris’s fire chief could declare that the twin towers had been saved, as had the surrounding structure, though with immense damage. The 63,000 square foot church is gutted. The millennial oak roof called “the forest,” made of lumber already hundreds or 1,000 years old when the church was built, and so as old as Christianity when today’s fire started, may be gone. It’s hard to imagine the rose windows of stained glass surviving, though it appears most have, and authorities say the most precious artwork was safeguarded. “The lines and harmonies of Notre Dame make a greater poem than the Divine Comedy,” the historian Will Durant wrote. Not only has the poem survived, but even amid the destruction those firefighters have added new verse.
Notre Dame is a marvel of 13th century architecture. It is now also and forever a marvel of 21st century firefighting. We see it on a small scale all around us routinely, taking it for granted. We rarely see it on a scale global enough for all to see. The firefighters who saved the majority of the cathedral, which could very well have collapsed without their heroism, now stand as tall and as anonymous as the architects and masons of Notre Dame. They deserve their own Victor Hugo.
You don’t have to be a believer or a Catholic to mourn the loss, which is substantial, or to celebrate the regeneration that began even as the flames were going Lucifer on the roof. I think hearts were breaking across the globe Monday whether they were Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Shinto, atheist or pagan. I wouldn’t doubt it if even descendants of the St. Bartholomew massacre were mourning.
Something terrible happened the night of April 16 on Paris’s City Island. But Something awe inspiring happened that night, too. I would not call it a miracle anymore than I’d call the Crown of Thorns an actual relic. But the prayers of human beings for human beings, for one of human beings’ greatest creations, were answered—not by god: she doesn’t have her fire certification. But by firefighters. If Pope Francis is looking for his next saints to canonize, he need look no further than the firehouses of Paris.