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Notre-Dame Fire: ‘I never expected to see something like this’

media Thousands of people gather on the Pont de la Tournelle bridge in Paris to watch the fire at Notre Dame cathedral, 15 April 2019. RFI/Mike Woods

As firefighters battled the flames at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on Monday evening, thousands of Parisians and visitors alike gathered in the nearby streets to hold vigils, pay tribute or simply observe one of the French capital’s most treasured monuments.

From the moment fire broke out at Notre Dame cathedral just before 7pm local time until well after midnight, thousands of people circulated in the nearby streets, lining the bridges and quays of the Seine River.

Smoke billows as fire engulfs the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France April 15, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

“I’m very sad tonight, because I’m a Parisian and a Catholic, and Notre Dame is a symbol of France and of faith,” said one bystander among a crowd gathered at the edge of the security perimeter, below the Pont de l’Archevêché bridge.

He and hundreds of others watched pressure hoses shoot water into the glowing structure, struck that a monument that sat in the middle of Paris for more than eight centuries could be affected in such a way.

“When I see this cathedral burning, I realise that all these buildings that we thought would be here for the rest of our lives, well, they can burn and they can die.”

Visitors to the French capital were moved by the scene as well.

“When I first saw [the fire], I actually cried. I’m studying architecture, so for me it’s really sad,” said Camila Tauil, 23, a student on exchange from Brazil.

“It’s a gothic cathedral, it’s really old, and watching this here, at the time it really happens, it’s really horrible. I never expected to see something like this.”

Around Notre Dame, silence prevails

The atmosphere was morose and nearly silent, with people taking photos or talking softly among friends and family members.

“I’ve been here for two hours, walking around and looking from different angles to understand how the flames are spreading,” said 29-year-old engineer Quentin Subtil, who described the moment the cathedral’s spire collapsed.

“There was a huge crowd but everybody was completely silent, and then suddenly when the tower [spire] fell down, there were kids crying, it was very intense.”

The silence prevailed throughout the evening, punctuated only by distant sirens of emergency vehicles and occasional applause that did not appear to be directed at anyone in particular.

“It’s weird, because there are a lot of people, and there’s a complete silence,” Tauil said. All you can hear are the sirens. Considering the number of people here, the silence is the most impressive part.”

Surviving centuries of revolution and war

A majority of onlookers were equipped with cameras and mobile phones, and many climbed on the barriers and closed book stalls lining the quays to take photographs of the cathedral.

Agathe, a 32-year-old tour guide who has been inside the Cathedral many times, the atmosphere had to do with the sudden prospect of losing something so old and so familiar.

“It’s our heritage. We’ve had so many revolutions and war, but no fire. Now it’s just a stupid accident,” she said, expressing concern about what would be left after the fire.

“I’m really worried, because it looks like it spread inside,” she said. “It’s Easter week, it’s really busy, but it’s probably not going to reopen for a while, I bet.”

A vigil began later in the evening on the Pont de la Tournelle bridge farther upriver, with onlookers holding candles and singing hymns.

By that time, there was visible progress in the fight against the fire, but onlookers knew it would be some time before their monument would seem safe and secure once again.

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