The fire that swept through Notre-Dame de Paris left all of us much poorer. But it could easily have been much worse. 

Every time I go back to Paris, which is often because my father's side of the family is all there, one of the first things I do is to stroll to the center of the city, which is the Ile de la Cité. And there's Notre-Dame, whose name means Our Lady of Paris. You have to walk well into the cathedral, then turn around and look up. No matter how many times you've done it, the beauty of the round stained glass window, the Rose Window, takes your breath away.

There are three of these Rose Windows in the cathedral, one over the gothic arches of the main entrances, one on each side of the structure, and as I write this, there's no word as to whether any of them survived, or will survive, since the fire isn't entirely out yet.

Anyone who's ever visited Notre-Dame--about 13 million people a year--is unlikely to ever forget it. The building is so completely different from any other, even any other giant medieval cathedral. The narrow spire that burned so fiercely, and then tipped over and vanished in horrifying slow motion always seemed like a tail on the stately but friendly two-headed creature that Notre-Dame always looked like to me, standing gravely there on its island, in the middle of the river, in the middle of the city. It was heartbreaking to watch the spire fall. 

And yet, that spire was itself an 18th-century replacement for an earlier, shorter spire that had been damaged many years before. The cathedral was battered during the French Revolution, with many of its statues of kings beheaded. After that, it was neglected and in disrepair--until Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame brought it widespread attention, leading to a 25-year restoration effort. Over the years, Notre-Dame has been altered and rebuilt over and over. And, vows French president Emmanuel Macron, it will be rebuilt again. There's already a reconstruction fund where you can donate and help with that effort.

Though we don't know yet exactly how the fire started, it apparently was an accident related to a restoration project already under way--apparently, fire is always a danger when restoring a very old building, and the frame of Notre-Dame was built out of so many ancient tree trunks it was nicknamed "the forest." It turns out that when giant logs dry for more than 800 years, they become very, very flammable. Given that, and given how quickly the fire spread, it's a miracle that no one was killed. One of the 500 or so firefighters who battled the blaze and saved the cathedral from complete destruction was badly injured; no one else appears to have been harmed. 

It certainly could have been worse--the cathedral usually draws a crowd even when nothing special is happening, and in this case, mass was about to start. The plaza in front of Notre-Dame, and the streets all around it, are nearly always crowded with tourists. But some quick-thinking officials closed the cathedral doors moments after the fire started, and the police quickly arrived to evacuate everyone from the island.

Another miracle is that the main structure of the cathedral, which could easily have collapsed, is standing firm. The two square towers, which are what give Notre-Dame its distinctive look, are still there. So are the statues of saints standing guard outside the door. And so are the bells, especially the Grand Bourdon, Notre-Dame's biggest and deepest bell. It was cast in the 15th century and is only rung on rare and important occasions, such as the end of a war or the death of a president.

They rang it on the Friday after 9/11, a day when every church bell in Europe was rung to mourn the attack on the World Trade Center. My husband and I happened to be on a family visit in Paris on September 11, and we were stuck there an extra week because so many flights were canceled. We were sitting in the plaza in front of Notre-Dame when they began ringing the Grand Bourdon, which gave off a tone so deep you felt it as much as heard it. 

All of us who love Paris lost a great deal when the fire ripped through Notre-Dame. But thanks to the fast action of a huge group of first responders, much of it, perhaps most of it, was saved. And that's a lot to be thankful for.

Published on: Apr 16, 2019
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