The view of the spire minutes before it fellAbigail Thellusson

For me, the most surreal moment of the fire at Notre Dame was the very start. The Bateaux Mouches, full of tourists, were still passing right by the cathedral as the roof blazed. The news had yet to pick up on the fire, and even Twitter, which functions in real time, only had a smattering of posts about the curl of smoke spiralling upwards. Without the confirmation of the rest of the world, it was difficult to process the reality of what I was observing from my window last Monday night.

I had, thankfully, never witnessed a fire that large before. It was shocking how the smoke turned from a whisper of grey to thick, yellow clouds within several minutes. 200 meters away, and I could see the ash falling from above, making my eyes water. Even the heat was noticeable as it spread from the back of the roof towards the main towers.

“Having watched it fall before my eyes - and now waking up to cranes, not crowds, in front of the cathedral - I know it will be a moment which will stay with me for years to come.”

The mood in the street emphasised my sense of alienation from reality. It was apocalyptic, with bridges and the quay lined with people vying for the best view. The beauty of the scene was disturbing; it happened to be a very clear evening, and with the sun blaring behind the Eiffel Tower, the fire at Notre Dame only added to the splendid tableau of the sunset. As one friend commented, it was ‘awesome, in the original awe-inspiring sense of the word’. You felt guilty for watching, for taking photos, and yet it was utterly consuming, and frankly, impressive.

It is bizarre living through a moment of history. I knew that I would retell this story, so I could not be sure if I was processing how I really felt, or what I ought to feel. This sense of unreality was exacerbated by a number of interview requests I was receiving from journalists after a tweet I had posted (to my ten followers). “So what do youthink started the fire?” one asked, before it had even been put out.Was anyone qualified to speculate on this, least of all me…?

"The smoke turned from a whisper of grey to thick, yellow clouds within several minutes"Abigail Thellusson

At 11pm we were allowed through the police barrier and back into my flat. Normally, the road is full of tourists, the sound of police sirens and the cheers of passing boats. On this night the silence was eerie; it woke me at 3am and looking outside, I could just make out the silhouettes of firefighters in the towers. It was during these quiet, seemingly undramatic hours that authorities have called the real “make or break” moment.

At the time, I received many messages from troubled Parisian friends asking for updates. My neighbours had refused to leave the building, overwhelmed at the potential loss of the site which had provided the backdrop of their home for the last 30 years. A day later, the general mood was one of relief and pride at the response of the emergency services. Had the two iconic towers fallen, I am sure the ambiance would have been very different. 

Now, a week on, history keeps moving forward. Far bigger tragedies have hit the headlines, such as the Sri Lankan bombings on Easter Sunday, and the Gilets Jaunes riots, which are entering their fifth month. Whilst everyone I have spoken to wants the cathedral to be restored, the government’s idolisation of the building, and particularly the eye-watering donations by billionaires have garnered a fair few eye rolls. To add insult to injury, the Vatican have yet to match such sums, instead offering their ‘technical expertise’. The symbolic importance of Notre Dame - for France’s culture and Catholic community - cannot be played down, but its practical significance? Many French citizens are cynical. 


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Mountain View

A break from the bubble

It is a cliché that holds much truth: everyone knows where they were when the Twin Towers fell. Luckily, this event has not borne the same tragic weight, and, as far as the authorities are aware, does not derive from malicious intent. If the spire is restored before the Paris 2024 Olympics as Macron has promised, Notre Dame will reclaim its place in the heart of the city and the memory of the fire may well fade. But having watched it fall before my eyes - and now waking up to cranes, not crowds, in front of the cathedral - I know it will be a moment which will stay with me for years to come. 

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