This article originally appeared on VICE France.
It's 10 PM on the Pont de la Tournelle bridge in Paris. From here you can clearly see the 856-year-old Notre-Dame cathedral, which has now been on fire for more than three hours.
It's mostly silent on the bridge, save for the 100 or so people singing "Ava Maria." From here, you can see the back of the Notre Dame—where it's burning the most and the flames at their worst were almost as high as the building's two famous towers. It feels like everyone in Paris is outside tonight, trying to catch a glimpse of the iconic cathedral just in case it disappears forever.
The singing seems soothing to probably the largest crowd I have ever seen out on a Monday night, fixed on watching almost 1,000 years of history burn down. Fortunately, around 400 firefighters were eventually able to control the fire, saving the two towers. But the flames overwhelmed the roof and spire, and countless historical artifacts that were housed inside.
I spoke to some of the people gathered on the bridge to get their first thoughts on the tragedy and find out why they decided to watch the cathedral burn.
"I live in the 13th arrondissement and we could see the fire from our kitchen. When we used to live near here, admiring Notre Dame was one of our favorite things to do. I am sad, horrified, and shocked. I can’t help but think we didn’t look at it enough and we may always regret that. Even though it’s just a monument, to me it feels like we’re mourning a person. Plus I’m Catholic, so there’s a spiritual element to this as well for me."
"I grew up in the suburbs, and on my only trips to Paris as a kid, we visited the Opéra Garnier and Notre Dame. I am so shocked—it’s terrible. My stomach turned when I heard the news. I could not just sit in front of my TV. I feel like I’ve lost a family member. This cathedral is a part of my childhood, but also of our Republic. It’s my anchor to France. At first, I didn’t believe the news when I heard it. I came here tonight because I was afraid of never seeing her again. And I brought my daughter because I wanted us to be here together."
"I arrived here 45 minutes ago. When I first saw the Notre Dame was blazing, I thought they would get the fire under control sooner, but it’s been almost three hours since it started burning. The main feeling is just sadness. The fact that there are so many people here tonight shows that this is no ordinary fire—it will have a huge impact. It's very serious."
"We live in the 15th arrondissement and as soon as we found out, we came right away. It's been three hours since we've been here. We don’t know if it’s out of morbid curiosity or if it's just because we are Parisians. Or if it's because we only believe what we see. But it hasn’t really hit us yet; this event is incomprehensible. A bit like with the attacks in Paris, we couldn’t understand it—although tonight, luckily, there are no lives directly at stake. Notre Dame is part of the Parisian and French identity. We have exams tomorrow but we expect to stay here for most of the night, at least until the situation stabilizes. And if it collapses, we'll stay.
Théo and Celia, 19
Théo: I've been here for an hour. I saw the news at 7 PM and immediately knew that I had to be here. I'm Parisian—I was born here. And Notre Dame, for me as for everyone, I think, is the greatest monument in Paris. It's a part of Paris. And if they can't extinguish the fire, it's going to be a disaster. It may collapse. I can't even find the words.
Clélia: It's surreal; I thought it was a joke when I received the notification. I didn't even want to come. And besides, it's not over yet! I am devastated.
Scroll down to see more photos of last night's Notre Dame fire.
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This article originally appeared on VICE FR.