'I was just powerless': A Paris firefighter shared her harrowing account of what it was like inside Notre Dame as they battled the devastating inferno that gutted the famous cathedral

Veronique de Viguerie/Getty ImagesFlames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019 in Paris, France.
  • A firefighter described tackling the fire raging through the fire that gutted Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral.
  • Master Corporal Myriam Chudzinski told The New York Times that she felt “powerless” as the steeple collapsed, and she likely only survived because she was behind a wall when the resulting fireball ripped through the building.
  • Her team were forced to leave the cathedral’s attic due to the strength of the blaze, but they noticed that they needed to protect the north tower to stop the whole cathedral from collapsing.
  • The resulting strategy was then so risky that one group of firefighters refused to go in and a Paris mayor said firefighters who went in knew they may not return – but the cathedral’s structure was ultimately saved.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

A Paris firefighter spoke about the desperate battle against blaze roaring through the centuries-old cathedral, from feeling “powerless” to realising what strategy the firefighters should take to stop the iconic building from collapsing.

Master Corporal Myriam Chudzinski, aged 27, told The New York Times that she and other fighters were in the cathedral when its famous, 750-ton spire collapsed. The team were behind a wall when the fireball that the collapse created ripped through the building – a position that may have saved their lives, the Times reported.

“I felt useless, ridiculously small,” she said. “I was just powerless.”

Read more:
Video footage shows firefighters working through the night to extinguish the Notre-Dame fire

She said that the blast was so strong that it felt like “a giant bulldozer dropping dozens of stones into a dumpster.”

Notre Dame Cathedral fireGEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty ImagesThe steeple and spire of the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral collapses as the cathedral is engulfed in flames in central Paris on April 15, 2019.

Chudzinski’s team was one of the first groups of firefighters to arrive on the scene on April 15, and she said that they couldn’t see the scale of the blaze due to the sheer size of the building.

“We were so small that it was hard to get a proper idea from the bottom of the cathedral,” she said. “But it might have been better like that.”

She compared the 850-year-old cathedral that night to her impression of it on a previous visit: “It was so peaceful, so quiet,” she said.

“But that night, it was more like hell.”

Read more:
Watch the moment the iconic spire on top of Notre-Dame Cathedral collapses

Her team travelled to the cathedral’s attic, where the fire was ravaging the ancient wooden construction, and were forced to come back down as the fire raged and wood began to fall to the cathedral’s floor.

Notre dame fire firefightersFrance Televisions via APFirefighters stand at an entrance and look at the fire damage inside the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Monday April 15, 2019.

Efforts to then fight the flames from the ground, using water from Paris’ river Seine, were proving fruitless, the Times reported.

But the team had noticed something about the fire’s direction that gave them a new strategy, and ultimately saved the cathedral from collapse. This new plan required the firefighters to let the roof burn and focus their efforts on saving the northern tower, which they felt would take down the rest of the cathedral if it fell.

The bells inside the tower could hit the rest of the cathedral and destroy it if the wooden beams that were suspended on broke, the firefighters believed, according to the Times.

Notre dame fireGEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty ImagesA man watches the Notre-Dame Cathedral burn.

The head of Paris’ fire brigade told French leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron, who had arrived at the site, the new plan.

Read more:
Before and after photos of the Notre-Dame Cathedral fire show devastating damage to the iconic site

Ariel Weil, the mayor of the Fourth Arrondissement, which is the region of Paris where the cathedral is located, told the Times that the fire brigade head told them that they would know in 20 minutes if the cathedral was going to collapse.

“At that point,” he told the Times, “it was clear that some firefighters were going to go into the cathedral without knowing if they would come back out.”

Notre dame insideChristophe Petit Tesson/APCharred beams lay on the floor of Notre-Dame Cathedral on Tuesday, the day after the fire.

The plan was to enter through the stairs in the southern tower, and to cross over into the northern tower.

According the Times, the strategy was so risky that one group of firefighters from a neighbouring suburb refused to go, but another team – not Cchudzinskic’s – went in.

The strategy worked, and Macron tweeted that night: “We will rebuild it. All together.”

Read more:
Notre-Dame says the billionaires who pledged to rebuild the cathedral haven’t paid ‘a cent’ yet, and most of the money so far has come from regular Americans

And some of the cathedral’s most prized treasures were also spared from the blaze, including the Crown of Thorns, purported to be on Jesus’ head during the crucifixion; the cathedral’s 18th century organ; and the famous, stained glass Rose Window.

Read The New York Times’ full investigation into the Notre Dame Cathedral Fire here.

Before-and-after photos show how the devastating Notre-Dame Cathedral fire has changed the Paris skyline

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