What the two catastrophes have in common, and don’t.
On television Monday, Jean-François Colosimo, a French historian of religion, described the burning of Notre Dame as “images of the end of the world.” New Yorkers, too, know that feeling, at least those of us who watched the Twin Towers burn almost 18 years ago.
Of course the national calamities differ. The Notre Dame fire was an accident, not arson, not terrorism. In both Paris and New York, firefighters fought heroically. But in Paris, nobody died. Only one of the 400 who battled the massive blaze was seriously injured.
In New York, the twin towers collapsed in a few hours. In Paris, Notre Dame’s twin towers, the cathedral’s iconic rectangular towers, survived. So, too, did its magnificent stained-glass Rose Window, which I once viewed daily from my apartment on the Left Bank, just across the Seine. Also unharmed were many of its treasures — the huge, historic organ, its gargoyles and flying buttresses, the holy Crown of Thorns which many Christians believe Jesus wore, the linen fabric associated with Saint Louis. The 16 copper statues representing the 12 Apostles and four evangelists had been removed days earlier to permit Notre Dame’s doomed spire to be renovated.
A mass terror attack leaves a deeper scar that even a massive natural disaster. But in many ways, France, and the world, have had a similar reaction to what French call their own “catastrophe” — the monstrous blaze at the 850-year-old Gothic cathedral that for French citizens and foreign visitors alike is the heart and soul of their country, among its most beloved national symbols.