STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
One striking thing about the fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is the pictures on social media - not just the pictures of the cathedral in flames, though it was hard to look away. It was people posting their own old images of the cathedral. Maybe they lived in Paris once. Maybe they made the one visit of their lifetimes to France and stood for the camera in front of the stone facade.
Many tourists came from nations, including the United States, that did not even exist when stonemasons began working on that cathedral more than 800 years ago. Nobody was killed in yesterday's fire. But French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the building as more than wood and stone.
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PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).
INSKEEP: The president said the cathedral is part of France's history, its literature and its psyche. NPR Paris correspondent Eleanor Beardsley witnessed the fire unfolding yesterday and has lived in Paris for years. Eleanor, hi.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: What has it been like over the years to share this - to be in this city with this cathedral?
BEARDSLEY: This cathedral is really an intimate part of everyone's life, really. You know, it's like your Notre Dame. Everyone has a piece of it, like you were saying. And, you know, every time there's a celebration or something big in Paris - I don't know - Olympic win or games, they ring the bells. And then, you know, the church celebrated its 850th birthday a couple years ago, and everyone came out. And it got new bells, and they all had names. And we knew all the names and the history.
And, you know, the zero point of all French roads - you know, if you're on the road, it says, you know, 800 kilometers to Paris - that's all from one little point in front of Notre Dame, so all roads in France lead to Notre Dame. It's our friend. And I woke up this morning with this feeling like, oh, God, our friend is damaged. It's hurting. And it was a different day today because of that.
INSKEEP: What was it like, then, having that connection, to be standing in the crowds outside of the cathedral as it burned?
BEARDSLEY: It was surreal. I mean, there was just, you know, thousands of people lined up. It was so quiet. I mean, you had to be very quiet. And people were singing hymns. People were saying prayers. Some people were kneeling. And everyone was so deeply sad. No one wanted to talk. I mean, no one wanted - people were crying. And there was also this panic because the flames did not subside. They even seemed to get bigger at one point, and it seemed everyone was just - could barely breathe. They could barely stand the tension. And it was just tragic. It was dramatique, dramatic, as the French would say.
INSKEEP: Well, from outside - let's talk about this - from outside, it looked like everything might be lost but the stone walls. But then images began emerging from the inside, where it seems that some large amount of this giant building has survived.
BEARDSLEY: Yes. I mean, I'm sitting here right now looking at it. And the spire is gone. It collapsed. It weighed 250 tons, and they said that it pierced the nave and went through. But the bell towers are still there. Those iconic, square, you know, Quasimodo, "The Hunchback Of Notre-Dame" bell towers are there. And, you know, the stained glass windows are gone, and there's some charred stones, but the structure is there.
And as President Macron said, the structure is here. It's still with us, and we have hope now. The inside has been damaged. I saw footage on TV of smoldering, you know, piles of rubbish, and it's open partly to the sky. So there's been a lot of damage, but Notre Dame is still here.
INSKEEP: You know, it's amazing to think about the fact that you're in that ancient city, Eleanor. And as with many ancient cities, there are landmarks that survive for centuries and centuries. And this is a moment, I suppose, to think about how almost random it is what comes down through the generations to us and what lasts for us to see from some other generation.
BEARDSLEY: It is. And people have told me, you know, I walk by Notre Dame every day, and I just barely notice her, they say. And she's beautiful, and what a precious thing we've lost now. And another person said, I was going to - I haven't been in 15 years. You know, I'm not a practicing Catholic. But I was going to go the other day, and I regret so that I didn't because now I don't know when I'll be able to go back in and see it. So yes, people realize the importance. This is the history of France, the history of Europe, the history of humanity, really.
INSKEEP: Do people give the cathedral a gender when they talk about it?
BEARDSLEY: Yes. They're saying her. Notre Dame de Paris, la dame - the great Notre Dame. Yes, it's a woman.
INSKEEP: Eleanor, thanks so much.
BEARDSLEY: Female. Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Paris correspondent Eleanor Beardsley today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.