PARIS—It was Holy Week and nearing end of day, and the setting sun was as fierce red-orange as the terrible blaze engulfing Notre-Dame—Notre-Dame!—when the spire, spindly and delicate during its long life and now consumed by flames, collapsed. It was near 7:50 p.m. The sky was still light.
I was standing in a hushed, pained throng along the Quai d’Orléans of the Ile Saint Louis facing the back of the basilica, and when I watched the spire fall, I gasped and choked back tears. In this, I was not alone. Billows of pale yellow smoke rose from the nave. They became iridescent against the sky. The firefighters spraying plumes of water onto what was once the roof seemed tiny against the enormity of the structure.
How could Notre-Dame be burning? How could Notre-Dame, which had survived for eight centuries—survived plague and wars of religion, survived the French Revolution, survived the Nazis—be falling? Notre-Dame, the heart of Paris, not only a Catholic site but the preeminent symbol of European cultural consciousness, the heart of France, the kilometer zero from which all its farthest villages are measured—how could this majestic structure collapse so fast? I looked around at the faces with me in the crowd. Written on them was sadness, and pain. But also curiosity. A few giggles, as if the enormity of the loss had not yet quite settled.