I Watched Notre Dame Burn and Witnessed the Destruction of History

notre dame cathedral fire
Smoke and flames rise from Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019 in Paris, France. A fire broke out on Monday afternoon and quickly spread across the building, collapsing the spire. Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images

"The Notre Dame is on fire." My wife looks up from her phone. We are on the top floor of Galeries Lafayette, an elegant French department store chain, browsing wooden toys for our 18-month old son. I shrug it off with the kind of phone-news skepticism native to someone whose career is phone news.

"Probably some construction thing. It's like a stone fortress," I grouse and return to shopping. Notre Dame on fire? Seems impossible.

But it isn't.

notre dame
Mo Mozuch

That was the first pic I snapped. From six stories up in the Galeries Lafayette, I could just make out flames licking the tip of the 300-foot flèche. The smoke is more obvious, as are the crowds, clustered at windows and corners and sight lines on the street. They thicken as we walk to the 4th arrondissement, the cathedral's neighborhood for 800-plus years. They say time is the fire in which we burn. We know it is history. We have to see it.

notre dame night
Mo Mozuch

My wife took that pic one day earlier. Notre Dame is magnetic, an old stalwart in a city that is itself ancient. Begun in 1163, Notre Dame took more than a century to finish. To us, its gorgeous sculptures are decoration, blandishments in honor of Catholic glory. But to the French peasants, they were the Bible itself. Known as liber pauperum, a "poor people's book," they remind us that Notre Dame's purpose is to connect with people.

Now, crowds of people, a mix of tourists and Parisians, clog bridges that span the Seine and crane their necks (and, yes, selfie sticks) for the best vantage point for consumptive history. My wife and I push on, determined to get as close as we can. We walk the pathways along the riverbank below the bridges to avoid bigger crowds.

It was a literal night and day difference when compared with our walk the night before, when we traipsed along the Seine, a little tipsy after dinner, and marveled at the cathedral's serene majesty. You can't see anything like it in America, including our native New York City. There is no bustle to Paris after midnight; you hear your steps echo on the worn stones and are dazzled by the soft, yellow lights. You stop often to gaze at the Statue of Some Great Man on a Horse, more important than any of us will ever be. Paris cannot help but humble you. So when a part of Paris falls, the world takes notice.

notre dame looky loos
Mo Mozuch

That was the bank of the Seine that day. People lean over the ramparts above. We are closer now. Downriver you see the fire boats and swarms of firefighters working with purpose to save the most important building in their careers. We head up to the street, smack-dab in the middle of a dense crowd, and push our way to the barrier. Then we stop. This is as close to the history as we will get.

We can smell it. One thing all the stunning video and social media shares can't convey to you is the sweet, mournful scent of a church on fire. The musk of incense, a sense memory driven deep in the mind of any Catholic, devout or fallen, permeates the air. We burn it at Mass to symbolize our prayers rising to heaven.

Our prayers, it seems, like to linger in the beams of Notre Dame. Who can blame them? Hardly a better view in all of Christendom. And now they are released once more, a final and fitting tribute. Millions of prayers, offered up across hundreds of years, leave Notre Dame and take one last trip along the Seine before alighting to God knows where.

notre dame smoke
Mo Mozuch

Then we got kebab. History makes you hungry. We wind our way into the 4th and find a gyro shop with free Wi-Fi. History isn't personal anymore, you never keep it to yourself, so we start sharing our photos and thoughts with friends around the world. We finally see the famous footage, the spire collapsing, and read reports that say maybe the marvelous windows could be saved (they were).

When our waiter drops off our food, I ask him how he felt. The impossible is happening. Notre Dame is burning down.

"Eh," he says, nonplussed. "It's not gonna ruin Paris."