Les Pompiers de Paris sont magnifiques.
On September 11, 2001, twelve Pompiers de Paris (Firefighters of Paris) were visiting Montreal, Canada. After the attacks on America, they gathered their firefighting gear, boarded a train and came to New York City. Aquianted with a member of my fire company, Engine Company 5, in Manhattan’s East Village, we weclomed them as guests. They arrived on September 14th. The next morning I was organizing transportation for my men to the World Trade Center site. With limited resources available, I told the French Firefighters that I could not include them in our bus trip to the Trade Center.
There were several security check points around the Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Public transportation to the area was sparse, or non-existent. I told my French counterparts that while walking in fire gear is cumbersome at best, it was the only option I saw for them if they wanted join us at the site. I wished them luck with the police and military check points and sent them off. They arrived at the site before me and my men.
From a time containing so many evocative memories, a prominent, indellible memory stands out. When we arrived at the enormous pile of smoldering rubble, standing four stories up on the pile were a distinctive group of rescue workers wearing slick black protective gear, designed by Yves Saint Laurent, accentuated with silver stripes and a chrome helmet, they were waving:
“Yoo Hoo! Lieutenant Hubbard, we are here”!
Watching the fire at Notre Dame Cathederal yesterday, two important observations triggered the clockwork of my nearly dormant, retired fireman mind: the location of the fire and the presence of scaffolding.
An advanced fire in a church often results in a complete loss of the building. While newer, more modern structures may contain advanced fire protection, centuries old structures such as Notre Dame are not usually protected with sprinkler systems. And the central hall of a big church, the nave, is non-comparmented, a big open space, with plenty of air, an environment where fire thrives and grows rapidly, exponentially.
It was clear yesterday from the ubiquitous internet videos, the fire at Notre Dame Cathederal was in the cockloft, the space between the ceiling of the building and the roof (BTW, for those of you with prurient propensities, the entomology of cockloft has to do with roosters). According to an article in a French newspaper, the cockloft of Notre Dame contained 13000, eight hundred year old oak trees, a veritible forest of dried wood. In a place so meaningful, and valuable, filled with tinder, people tasked with protecting the cathederal would limit access. Certianly the public are prohibitied. As a firefighter inspecting the space above the nave cieling in Manhattan’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, I was shocked at the volitile potential present. The keepers, the protectors, of such a place are mentally ominpresent to the dangers of fire.
That brings me back to the scaffolding. The dramatic collapse of the burning central spire is perhaps the most watched record of the disaster. What caught my eye was that the spire was surrounded with scafoding. Workers not familiar with the dangerous fire potential in such a place may have been present. News reports say workers were renovating the lead joints used in the original construciton. That would mean burners necessary for melting lead may have also been present.
I am not privy to inside details. And while Paris officials are saying the fire origin appears to be accidental, there is no offical word yet as to how the fire started. I am just offering the perspective of a fire officer trained to take note of phenomena that would later help in determining cause and origin. I would begin my investigation with the construction crew.
In his masterpiece, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo eloquently describes many details of Notre Dame Cathederal. Mr. Hugo described much about the lair of the Hunchback, the bell tower. News reports out of Paris today say the bell tower still stands undamaged. Above the fire line of the cockloft, saving anything is an act of magnficence. Pictures appearing online also show that while the nave of the church is damaged, it appears reasonably intact, given the severity of the blaze. The wooden pews and pulpit are not burnt. Firefighters seem to have contained this enormous blaze wtihin a portion of the cockloft, an amazing feat.
The fire at Notre Dame Cathederal was a dreadful event, an enormous loss. But French President Macron has already made a commitment to rebuild. Many people around the world are pledging donations to fund a rebuilding project as well. My purpose in writng is to acknowldege my Paris colleagues:
Les Pompiers de Paris sont magnifiques.