Notre-Dame fire: ‘We were given just minutes to get out’

An American woman living right next to Notre-Dame cathedral has told The Local of the "surreal" moments from the shock of seeing the blaze take hold from her window, to being given five minutes to leave by firefighters and being escorted away by police as the flames raged. She is still unable to return even to grab some clothes.

Notre-Dame fire: 'We were given just minutes to get out'
The photos Quinn took of the burning cathedral

The first thing Quinn, a 37-year-old American national, knew that something was awry was when she noticed a red glow being reflected in the windows of her apartment, directly opposite the historic cathedral.

“The beginning was frightening. I could hear these yells from the street, but when you live in central Paris you get used to that kind of noise. I could also smell something strange, but didn't realise what it was.
“Then I saw this red glow reflected in the window and I just ran outside and saw the fire.
Quinn and her flatmates watched in shock as the flames took hold of one of France's most famous monuments, just yards away.
“We could see the stones and debris falling from the roof, but they fell inside not on the street. You could feel the windows of our apartment getting warmer and warmer. We grabbed towels and soaked them to prevent the fumes coming in,” she said.
She took a quick video to show her husband and it reveals her shock as he looked up to see the flames raging through the famous cathedral almost directly above her. The spire collapsed minutes later.
“I could see the spire burning and turned away for a moment and when I looked back, it was gone,” she said.
It wasn't long until firefighters arrived and decided the apartment building on Rue du Cloître-Notre-Dame in Île de la Cité had to be evacuated. 
Quinn, who has just finished studying and has only been in Paris for around one month, was able to grab some money and her passport, while a flatmate only had time to grab pyjamas. They were escorted out of the building by the pompiers (firefighters) and then by the police to the security cordon where hundreds of people had amassed to watch the drama and tragedy unfold.
“It felt like we had minutes to grab what we could,” she said.
“We were escorted down this quiet street and then we got to the cordon and there was so many people there. It was very intense,” said Quinn.
“There was traffic chaos outside the cordon. We tried to get a taxi for an 88-year-old Parisian lady who only had time to grab her dog and her walking cane but the taxi driver refused to take the dog. We explained that she was 88 years old and had just been evacuated from the apartment because of the fire, but the taxi driver just refused and drove off.
“The atmosphere was surreal. There were so many people on the streets around the area. It felt like New Year's Eve. People were drinking and it almost felt like a party.”
Three days after the fire and Quinn and her flatmates are still not allowed to return to their apartment. The reason given by officials at Paris City Hall is that it the apartment buildings on Rue de Clôitre are considered still too dangerous.
Other neighbours of Notre-Dame who were evacuated on Monday evening have been allowed back in to their homes either to collect belongings or to return to live.
While the structure of Notre-Dame Cathedral was considered to have been saved by heroic firefighters, investigators are still examining if there are any weaknesses.
Quinn and her flatmates have had to stay with friends but have now been offered hotel rooms by the Mairie de Paris (city hall).
Like many who live in Paris, her one regret is that she didn't visit Notre-Dame more often.
“It was amazing living across the street from the cathedral. Not everyone in Paris gets to experience that,” she said.
French president Emmanuel Macron has vowed the cathedral will be rebuilt in five years, but experts believe it could take a decade to restore Notre-Dame to its former glory.
“It was incredible just to be able to look out at it each day through the windows. But we never went inside enough. We kept saying we must visit it, but never did.”

Member comments

  1. American: synonym for “a philistine too grimly peppy to have a life or even notice s/he has one.”

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Notre-Dame restoration work begins as Paris cathedral on track to reopen in 2024

France's Notre-Dame cathedral is finally ready to undergo restoration work more than two years after a blaze ravaged the heritage landmark, and remains on course to reopen in 2024, authorities said Saturday, following months of painstaking work to secure the building.

Notre-Dame restoration work begins as Paris cathedral on track to reopen in 2024

The great mediaeval edifice survived the inferno on April 15th, 2019, but the spire collapsed and much of the roof was destroyed.

The focus until now had been on making the cathedral safe before restoration work could begin, which included the strenuous task of removing 40,000 pieces of scaffolding that were damaged in the blaze.

“The cathedral stands solid on its pillars, its walls are solid, everything is holding together,” said Jean-Louis Georgelin, head of the public entity tasked with rebuilding the cathedral.

Scaffolding in the interior of the building as the restoration phase begins. Photo by Thomas SAMSON / POOL / AFP

“We are determined to win this battle of 2024, to reopen our cathedral in 2024. It will be France’s honour to do so and we will do so because we are all united on this goal.”

The aim is to celebrate the first full service in the cathedral on April 16th, 2024 – five years after the fire – despite delays caused by the pandemic and the lead that spread during the blaze.

The Notre-Dame spire, a later addition to the medieval building, was completely destroyed in the blaze. Photos by AFP

Authorities will now call for tenders to select the companies to carry out the restoration work.

The cathedral’s interior walls and floors will also undergo “a thorough cleaning process” later this month.

Notre-Dame’s famous Grand Organ is already being restored, with its 8,000 pipes dismantled and sent to organ builders all over France.

It is expected to be put together again in October 2023, said Georgelin, the former head of France’s armed forces who was appointed by President Emmanuel Macron to oversee rebuilding efforts.