A DI photojournalist’s firsthand account of the Notre Dame fire

A DI staffer witnessed the fire that devastated Notre Dame on April 15. Here’s her account of seeing the cathedral ablaze.



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. The cause is yet unknown but officials said it was possibly linked to ongoing renovation work.

Megan Nagorzanski, Photographer

C’est une catastrophe. It had been four years since I had taken a French class, but I knew immediately what this phrase meant. It’s a catastrophe. These three little words were all it took to describe the feeling as I and thousands of others watched the Notre Dame Cathedral engulfed in flames.

I had been studying in London for the past three and a half months and came to France to wrap up my time abroad. I arrived in Paris on the afternoon of April 15, and seeing Notre Dame was the first thing on the agenda. We dropped our bags at the hotel and made our way to the cathedral.

The construction of Notre Dame began in 1163, and it has remained standing despite all the wars and revolutions it has seen over the past 850 years. As we arrived on the Ile de la Cité, there it stood, basking in the sunlight. We got our pictures like all the other tourists and waited to go inside.

The interior of the cathedral was stunning. Its Gothic walls stretched toward the vaulted ceilings, and priceless works of art were scattered throughout. If I had known that I would be one of the last people to see the cathedral before the fire, I would have at least taken a few more pictures.

We left the cathedral at 5:30 p.m. and went to grab dinner right down the street from Notre Dame. As we ate, I saw people running in the direction of the cathedral. The French family sitting next to us abruptly left the restaurant and followed the crowds outside. When they returned, I saw tears streaming down one little girl’s face. She didn’t eat the rest of her meal.

If I had known that I would be one of the last people to see the cathedral before the fire, I would have at least taken a few more pictures.”

We asked our waiter what was going on, and he told us that Notre Dame had caught fire. In a state of disbelief, I went outside to have a look.

A massive cloud of smoke hung above the building. This wasn’t some little fire.

I turned the corner and looked toward the cathedral. The entire roof was on fire. The crowd gathered outside was silent. The only sounds heard were police sirens. Hands overs mouths and flowing tears were the most common reaction. We all just stood there in shock.

I nearly forgot about my dinner. I went back to the restaurant and ate as fast as I could. I returned to the scene and squeezed my way through the even bigger crowd.

This time, the roof was completely gone and the fire was still raging. Everyone’s gaze was fixed on the cathedral, waiting, wishing, praying for it to end. I watched for nearly an hour.

As we walked back to the hotel, it felt as if all of Paris was headed toward Notre Dame. When I went to bed that night, the fire was still burning.

The next day, the fire was officially put out, but the damage had been done. We had started the morning with a bike tour of the city and, at one point, stopped on a bridge overlooking Notre Dame. Before diving into the facts, our guide Swan apologized in case he got emotional.

Swan, who lived in Paris for 30 years, told us about all the time he spent by the cathedral. He wasn’t a religious man, but to Swan and many other Parisians, Notre Dame is much more than a church, it’s a symbol of Paris.

No one knows how long the restoration will take or what the cultural effect a 21st century roof will be, but Notre Dame still stands. It still hasn’t hit me yet, and I don’t if it ever will, but witnessing a moment in Notre Dame’s history is something that will stay with me forever.

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