After a long day of traveling, Jeff and Anita French had arrived at an Airbnb in Paris late in the afternoon on April 15. They were looking forward to three days in the City of Light, part of a two-week trip celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary.
Jeff French, a Hinesburg Selectboard member, was sitting and relaxing when he heard a popping noise outside and went to the balcony to see what it was.
He said that he wondered if it was fireworks because there was a fizzing noise followed by a pop. Then he wondered if it was gunshots, but he couldn’t see anything.
Anita French noticed that there were a lot of people down on the street level staring up at something she and her husband couldn’t see.
“I went downstairs and there was a bunch of people standing around,” Jeff said. “And then I saw the steeple.”
The Frenches’ Airbnb was on the Île de la Cité, which is one of two natural islands in the middle of the River Seine and is considered the geographic and historic center of Paris. On the other side of their building was Notre Dame Cathedral. The steeple he saw was the steeple of the over 750-year-old cathedral, burning.
“The weird thing about it was you couldn’t smell it. I’ve seen house fires and you can smell them. There was huge plume of yellow smoke,” Jeff said. Although they were upwind, they were just a block away.
“If we hadn’t seen all those people, we wouldn’t have known,” he said. “The pop-pops, I assume, was the electrical fire, if that’s what started it.”
According to CNN, investigators are looking into whether a short circuit started the fire, although they haven’t ruled out any theories at this point.
Trapped on a city island
The Frenches decided to leave the island to find a restaurant to get some dinner, but the police told them if they left the Île de la Cité they wouldn’t let them back. The only way people were being let onto the island was if they had proof of homeownership, and of course all the Frenches had was a receipt showing that they’d rented the apartment for three days.
Finally, they found a policeman who said if they came back to his post, he would let them back in.
“We went to dinner and were talking to the waiters and waitresses about it,” said Jeff. “They hadn’t seen anything yet.”
The Notre Dame fire was what everyone was talking about, and at the time, Jeff said many were afraid that the fire was terrorism.
The Frenches had been to Paris seven years ago, and Jeff said that this time, because of the terrorist attacks since then, there were many more policemen.
“A little bit more like soldiers than police officers,” he said. “They’re armed with machine guns.”
In spite of that, he said the police “were really, really nice.”
Tuesday, the day after the fire, the Frenches had to stay on the island.
“Spent the day on this empty island,” he said. “It was sort of surreal because there was just a handful of people and journalists. And the mayor of Paris came, so we got to meet the mayor.”
Witness to history
Although it wasn’t the vacation they had planned and was a sad thing to see, Jeff said, he “was sort of happy to be trapped there and witness and watch it unfold.”
The Frenches watched workmen trying to shore up the medieval cathedral. Without the arches of the flying buttress construction, officials were afraid the building fall would in on itself, Jeff said. “They were taking down those statues.”
The next day, he said the police were much more relaxed and they were allowed to leave and return to Île de la Cité.
“Wednesday we did typical tourist thing – the Louvre and things like that.”
Jeff French said an article in the newspaper noted that France doesn’t have as many carpenters, stone masons and other crafts people that it once had. The author said that one good thing to come out of the fire is that the extensive reconstruction will give the country the opportunity to train a new generation. In a nation with so many historical monuments, it will be good to have a new generation with old school craftmanship skills.
“It’s sad, but people seem to be thinking of the positive side,” Jeff said.