Editor’s Note: Junior Louisa Gould bore witness to the historic fire that tore through the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, on Monday, April 15. Gould is participating in the “Hamilton College in France” program, one of the Office of Off-Campus Study’s approved programs. Below, she shares how the experience unfolded before her eyes.
The people on my program were actually some of the first people to hear about the Notre Dame fire because one of the women on my program was there as soon as the smoke started, and sent a message in our group chat around 7 p.m. announcing what she saw. Initially, I thought her message was some sort of joke, and that it couldn’t be true. But then my friend sent us photos directly from the site. We knew we had to get over there immediately.
My friend Ashley Huntington (a Hamilton College student) and I ran from our school to Notre Dame, which is about a mile away, and arrived at 7:15 p.m.
To find our way there, we simply followed the massive yellow cloud of smoke in the sky. As we were running through the street, it seemed like no one around us knew what was going on yet. At that point, there was a fair amount of people at the Cathedral. The fire had only started 30 minutes prior to our arrival, so everyone was slowly starting to discover what was going on.
As soon as we got there, we could feel the heat of the fire on our faces.
Ashley and I pushed to the front of the crowd and we were able to get quite close to Notre Dame. The fire had started on the roof of the back of the church and was spreading quickly. There were a ton of firemen and policemen running around frantically.
The crowd was almost completely silent and in shock. The only noises were sirens and the policemen and firemen yelling commands. A few people were on their phones saying they were safe and explaining the progression of the fire. A lot of people were filming with their phones as well.
Around 7:45 p.m., a group of about 30 policemen started yelling at the crowd to move back, blowing whistles and physically pushing people away from the fire. By this time, there were probably about 2,000 people around where I was standing. We were all bumping into each other and a few even tripped and fell in the crowd. We were pushed so closely up against each other that I could barely move; I was stuck as I stared at the catastrophe unfold.
We watched the fire expand forward from the back of Notre Dame, enveloping the roof, quickly getting larger and approaching the two famous towers. In the windows of the church, all I could see were the flames. When the famous spire of Notre Dame crumbled and fell, everyone in the crowd gasped.
For about an hour and a half, the fire worsened, and everyone was worried the two towers would soon too be engulfed in the flames. Finally, around 9 p.m., the fire started to visibly diminish, and the police announced the towers could be saved.
It was surreal. I think it was hard for people to really pro- cess what was happening. Notre Dame is so deeply ingrained in the history and identity of France. After the initial shock of the fire, a lot of people around me started crying. It was absolutely horrible to just stand in awe of the disastrous event, as 856 years of history just melted in front of our eyes.
Ashley and I stayed there for 3 hours, until about 10 p.m., and met up with another friend as well. It felt like everyone in Paris dropped what they were doing and flocked to the area as soon as word got out. It was as if the only important thing in that moment was for people to just be there, staring in silent solidarity with their fellow Parisians. Walking through the streets on our way home, everyone around us gave off a sense of immense panic and bewilderment, yet in almost complete silence.
It really felt like the whole city stood still and came together to mourn the loss of this monument that is so integral to their country and heritage.
Contact Louisa Gould at email@example.com.