Paris, Oct 10 (AFP/APP): Monday, April 15, 2019. When an alarm goes off in the early evening at Notre-Dame cathedral in central Paris, there is no immediate sense of panic.
Security exercises and false alerts are frequent at the historic place of worship, which has stood on the Ile de la Cite in central Paris for over 850 years.
Andre Finot, a communications official working for the cathedral, is waiting on the esplanade in front of Notre-Dame for a work meeting. It’s 6:23 pm.
He goes back inside the cathedral and helps evacuate worshippers, according to a well-rehearsed procedure that was only practised once again 10 days before.
Evacuation messages sound out in several languages but there is no sense of trepidation. Even the priest who is leading the pre-Easter service does not even leave the cathedral.
Fifty metres away, in her souvenir stall, Florence Mathieu is also not in the least worried.
She thinks she has heard police whistles around 6:30 pm but assumes that “maybe it is just another abandoned package or just a drill.”
“We waited around 10 minutes outside and then we were told ‘you can go back inside’,” says Michele Chevalier, a 70-year-old and regular worshipper at Notre-Dame.
The service resumes in the darkness, without any microphone.
Electricity has been cut.
“And then all of a sudden, we heard the cry ‘You need to go out! You need to go out!'” says Chevalier.
Andre Finot had gone back out of the cathedral, reassured that nothing was wrong.
But around 6:46 pm he notices grey smoke coming from behind Notre-Dame’s famed twin towers. Worried, he looks around the cathedral and sees “smoke that is actually quite thick coming from the spire.”
– Coded warning –
A security guard first notices that something is wrong at 6:18 pm when he sees a warning message on his computer. “Roof of nave-sacristy”, it says, followed by a code in letters and numbers.
The guard sends a Notre-Dame employee to have a look.
There is no sign of any fire, although the automatic alarm goes off at 6:23 pm, at which point the cathedral is evacuated.
The security guard then contacts his superior by phone and over the course of an 18-minute-conversation, they decide to send someone up to investigate the lattice of wooden beams holding up the roof above the nave.
It’s 6:45 pm when the flames are detected.
The security alarm is sounded and the fire brigade summoned at 6:51 pm, with the first firefighters arriving on the scene at 7:05 pm.
By then the fire has already reached the roof. Fanned by a wind from the east, it devours the wooden beams which date from the 13 century and begin to melt the 210 tons of lead in the roof.
– ‘Keep going back’ –
The fire engine has to force its way through the crowds on the banks of the Seine River where tourists and stunned Parisians have gathered, united in astonishment and horror at the sight of Notre-Dame burning.
“It was completely full of people taking pictures with their cameras and their phones and we thought ‘something is really happening here'” remembers Paris fire brigade corporal Myriam Chudzinski.
She then sees that Notre-Dame is “totally aflame”.
Chudzinski, 27, starts to climb up the narrow spiral staircase into the cathedral with 20 kilos of material on her back. She pushes open a door and finds herself staring at “a vision from hell.”
“The roof was completely ravaged by flames. By the time we got the hose in place, in less than a minute, the fire had already advanced by a few metres. We had to keep moving back”.
Ariel Weil, mayor of the fourth district of Paris, home of Notre-Dame, has just come out of a meeting at Paris city hall on the other side of the Seine river. He sees the smoke rising over the island on which the cathedral is situated and starts to run.
He is accompanied by Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris and the rector of the cathedral, Patrick Chauvet, then joins them. He is in tears.
Weil’s first thoughts are for the people living in the narrow street, which runs alongside the north side of the cathedral.
“We’re running to tell the people who are at their windows ‘Come down! Get out of the building’. We are hit by a hail of objects, probably glass from the stained-glass windows that have shattered,” says Weil.
On the other side of the building, Andre Finot is on the receiving end of “a rainstorm of ash”. He has what he admits is a “stupid idea”.
“I told myself, I can’t let this happen, I’m going to fetch a bucket of water'”.
But his mobile telephone won’t stop ringing.
“The whole world is calling me but unlike everyone else we cannot see a thing. From where we are the main facade looks completely fine.”
What he does not see is that the spire, the highest point of the cathedral, some 96 metres high, is now enveloped by flames.