Sophomore Zach Davis was sitting in his Paris apartment April 15 when a friend texted him a startling message: “Notre Dame is on fire.”
“I Googled it, but couldn’t find any information,” Davis said. “I didn’t think she was lying, but I thought it was a little exaggerated.”
Davis, a peace studies and political science double major who is studying abroad in Paris this semester, quickly realized that the fire’s gravity was not an exaggeration. After taking the Metro as close to the cathedral as he could get, he understood the extent of the blaze.
“I got as close as I could and watched the flames. I got a news notification from CNN while I was standing watching,” Davis said. “I was there before the news even broke. I wanted to cry. It was the first place I went in Paris when I got here in January. I pass it every morning on my way to class.”
Notre Dame, the iconic gothic cathedral located in the heart of Paris, caught fire April 15. The fire broke out at around around 6:30 p.m. Notre Dame’s two towers, which are visible throughout the city, were saved but about two-thirds of the roof was destroyed, according to The New York Times.
When junior communication studies major Katarina Trifunovic took a selfie in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral with her cousin at around 1 p.m. April 15, she didn’t think that she would be watching the historic structure burn just hours later.
Trifunovic, who is studying abroad in London for the spring semester, took the train to Paris the morning of April 15. She then watched in shock with tourists and Parisians alike as the gothic building was engulfed in flames, its signature spire collapsing.
“I was taking a video on my phone and turned my back to the cathedral quickly. I turned back around and the spire had collapsed,” Trifunovic. “You don’t think twice that something like that would fall.”
Davis said that everyone around him gasped as the spire fell.
“The whole crowd audibly made a noise,” he said. “We could also see all the flames through the stained glass windows.”
The cause of the fire is unknown, but the building has been under construction since September 2017 to repair limestone and its damage from age. The construction was estimated to cost up to 150 million euros, or about $180 million, according to The New York Times.
The fire broke out at around around 6:30 p.m. Notre Dame’s two towers, which are visible throughout the city, were saved but about two-thirds of the roof was destroyed, according to The New York Times.
“Usually when there is news (like this), there’s an article about it. But when you’re there witnessing it, it’s something else,” Trifunovic said.
About 500 firefighters battled the flames, with one sustaining serious injuries. On April 11, 16 statues of apostles and evangelists were removed from the structure so the cathedral’s spire could be renovated. The spire collapsed due to fire damage, while many in the crowd gasped and cried.
Notre Dame was built during the 12th and 13th centuries and is known as a religious and cultural icon of France. It is visited by about 30,000 people per day, averaging at 13 million per year. Its unique location on a small island called Ile de la Cite on the Seine River caused firefighters to struggle in putting out the flames.
The fire drew thousands of people who watched the catastrophe unfold. Trifunovic, who is staying in a hotel about five minutes from Notre Dame, got closer to the cathedral as the fire progressed.
“It was the biggest crowd,” she said. “Parisians around us were distraught. People who clearly were not French or Parisians left (the crowd) around 10 p.m., but the Parisians stayed,” Trifunovic said, calling the fire an “emotional disruption” for those who watched Notre Dame burn.
Trifunovic said that two young people in the crowd, about 13 and 15 years old, played violins while the crowd sang.
“People were crying,” she said, noting that people were still watching the fire unfold at 1 a.m.
Davis returned back to Notre Dame April 16 and was met with “hordes of people” still surrounding the cathedral.
In the wake of the damage, French billionaires have pledged donations to restoration efforts for the cathedral which are estimated to cost between 1.13 billion and 2.3 billion euros, according to USA Today.
The owners of luxury fashion brand Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Givenchy have pledged 200 million euros, while other French families including the Bettencourt Meyers family, owners of cosmetic line L’Oreal, and the Pinault family, owners of French luxury group Kering, have pledged a combined 300 million euro donation, according to CNN.
Donations were pledged within hours of the fire and were met with backlash from French protesters involved in the ongoing yellow vest movement. Some criticized the donors for selectively choosing to help the cathedral rather than social issues like France’s rising taxes, according to the Washington Post.
The cause of the fire is still unknown, as officials are still assessing the damage.