Millions in China watched in shock and sadness Tuesday morning as firefighters thousands of kilometers away battled to douse the flames that consumed parts of the iconic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.
As videos of the massive fire and billowing smoke overtaking the medieval Gothic structure circulated on microblogging platform Weibo, tens of thousands of Chinese netizens mourned the loss with a hashtag translating to “Me and the Notre Dame in Paris.” Many reminisced about their first time seeing the landmark in the French capital — a popular destination for Chinese tourists — and grieved over the damage done to large parts of the historic monument.
“I was fortunate to witness its exquisiteness and magnificence with the people I love,” one Weibo user wrote alongside photos of the cathedral. “I first saw it in 2015 and it was breathtaking, the second experience from 2018 was still lingering in my mind, I hope you will reappear,” another user wrote, referencing a possible rebuilding of the cathedral.
A screenshot of the images under a hashtag translating to “ Me and the Notre Dame in Paris” on Weibo.
French President Emmanuel Macron called the fire a “terrible tragedy” but added that the “worst had been avoided.” He said the nation is committed to restoring the cathedral to its former glory. “I’m telling you all tonight — we will rebuild this cathedral together,” Macron told reporters.
The Notre Dame, which means “our lady” in French, was completed in 1345 and has been the site of multiple historic events, including the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte. Today, it’s one of Paris’s major tourist attractions, drawing some 13 million visitors annually.
The fire that started around 6:30 p.m. local time Monday has destroyed the roof and spire of the cathedral, a UNSECO World Heritage site. While there were initially concerns that firefighters might not be able to save the structure from collapsing entirely, a French official later said that the colossal landmark had been saved from total destruction.
“We can consider that the two towers of the north belfry of Notre Dame have been saved,” Paris fire chief Jean-Claude Gallet told reporters. “The structure of Our Lady is saved as a whole.”
Nearly 400 firefighters worked for nine hours to extinguish the flames, according to the Paris Fire Brigade. A firefighter and two police officers reportedly suffered minor injuries in the process.
The Paris prosecutors’ office said it is treating the fire as an accident, and police will investigate the “involuntary destruction caused by fire,” the Associated Press reported.
Xu Xiaofei, a graduate in European history from the southern Guangdong province, said that the Notre Dame fire not only evokes harrowing cultural losses from the past — such as a historic gate in Seoul ravaged by flames in 2008 and a centuries-old Brazilian library reduced to ashes last year — but also points to the vulnerabilities of many ancient Asian structures, which are primarily made of wood. The “ruthlessness” of such disasters, he wrote in a commentary for Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, should be a wake-up call for other nations to work toward better protecting their historic buildings.
“We cannot stay away from Paris, though we are thousands of miles away from it,” said Xu, currently a research assistant at the University of Chicago. “The fire at the Notre Dame in Paris is not only a loss for mankind, but more importantly, it once again rings the alarm bell to protect ancient buildings from fire.”
Meanwhile, some online considered the incident contemplatively, saying that nothing is eternal and everything is replaceable. Most of these conversations led to one particular, somewhat prophetic scene from the 2004 American movie “Before Sunset.” In the film, the character Jesse speaks of the legend of Notre Dame, saying “but you have to think that Notre Dame will be gone one day.”
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: Flames and smoke rise as the spire of the Notre Dame cathedral collapses in Paris, April 15, 2019. IC)