In Paris, people gathered in plazas and street corners, eyes trained on the all-consuming fire. The rest of the world gathered via screens big and small. United in helplessness. Unsure of what to say. But compelled to watch.
Monday’s outbreak of fire at the Notre Dame cathedral was first captured by the camera phones of tourists and local journalists.
One of the first social media posts came from a user named Ally, who tweeted a video of the smoke and wrote, in French, “Smoke escapes from Notre Dame ?! A fire ??” The question marks reflected the day’s disbelief.
Eyewitness videos showed the progression of the fire as newsrooms scrambled to send staffers to the scene. One of the most-shared posts about the fire on Twitter had a one-word caption: “Horrible.”
Parisians held their phones aloft, so they’d have their own copies of history burning, or so that they’d have something to do besides just watch in dismay. Some called loved ones. But mostly it was “eerily quiet as all these crowds watch Notre Dame burn,” CNN’s Hadas Gold said.
Beyond Paris, word spread from person to person, mostly digitally, through text message chains and Facebook groups and emails.
In South Carolina, a man asked, “Is it ok to cry for a building?”
“What an uncanny, horrible feeling: history about to disappear on a livestream,” BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen wrote on Twitter.
“We’re not used to seeing a historic icon, something of so much significance in this world, no matter what your belief system, literally being destroyed before our eyes,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo said as he anchored the network’s live coverage.
People shared links to close-ups of the spire’s collapse. The tragic moment was recorded from seemingly every angle.
Others shared photos from their past visits to Notre Dame. Sophie Gilbert, a staff writer at The Atlantic, said she had been there just a day earlier. She posted a snapshot of the cathedral and said “we were just walking around marveling at how something can be so extraordinary and so enduring. I feel sick.”
People reached for ways to say that they were at a loss for words.
Social media abhors a vacuum, of course. So there was lots and lots said.
Dawna Friesen, one of the top TV news anchors in Canada, tweeted, “I don’t want to sound too dramatic…but why do these flames destroying 700 years of history feel like a representation of the times we are living?”
The whole world was able to watch live — but, sadly, that was all we were able to do.