Chris Knapp graduated from Staples High School in 2002. He went on to Middlebury College, then earned an MFA in creative writing at the University of Virginia.
He now lives and writes in Paris. Two days after the devastating fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Paris Review published this insightful story of his. It begins:
In September 2016, police found a Peugeot with missing plates parked just steps away from Notre Dame; inside the car, they found seven cylinders of gas. The following week, four women—one of whom was carrying a letter declaring allegiance to ISIS and describing the planned attack as a deliberate act of terror and vengeance—were arrested and charged in connection with a plot to destroy the cathedral.
As it happened, the eldest of these four women, Ornella Gilligmann, a 39-year-old mother of three, had been a close acquaintance of my wife’s from childhood, for which reason these events became especially vivid in our minds. If the women hadn’t removed the license plates, we agreed, no one would have noticed the car, and the plot might have come off without a hitch.
“Can you imagine if they got the Notre Dame,” my wife kept repeating. I understood this as a rhetorical question, posed in the same spirit we often invoked at the prospect of a Trump presidency: it was impossible precisely because it was too horrible to imagine.
The fire that nearly destroyed the eight-hundred-year-old cathedral on Monday (which French authorities are investigating as an accident) is not, of course, a catastrophe in the order of the 2016 election. But looking on from the banks of the Seine, it was hard not to experience the fire as a nontrivial data point on the timeline of a slow-motion apocalypse, which from a Western perspective stretches back (depending on whom you ask) to the 2016 elections, to the Brexit referendum, to 9/11, the paroxysms of the early twentieth century, to the intractable dependence on fossil fuels, to Napoleon’s campaigns in Europe, the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment—through all of which, the Notre Dame cathedral stood intact. What would it mean, at a time when civilization itself was starting to seem like a failed idea, for one of civilization’s signal achievements to burn to the ground.
When news of the fire reached me, at quarter past seven, I was at work in the seventh arrondissement, and it was not yet clear how extensive the damage would be. By the time I went outside, at eight o’clock, the spire had just collapsed, and on the Pont Royal a crowd had gathered in silence to watch the massive tongues of flame that rose in its place, high above the rooftops about a mile upstream. Along the right bank police had cordoned off the bridges onto the Île de la Cité; cars, buses, and trucks stood hopelessly gridlocked as a thickening stream of bikes, motorcycles, and electric scooters wove its way east, and foot-traffic overran the sidewalks and spilled into the street.
The smell of smoke was distinct. Endless lines of police-personnel vans nudged their way along, and inside them fresh-faced young cops pressed their noses to the glass. More than a few times, I heard people around me, astonished by the magnitude and violence of the fire, ask each other in whispers whether this could be the work of terrorists, though officials had been quick to indicate that it appeared to be an accident. In front of Hôtel de Ville, closer to the cathedral, hundreds of people had crowded onto the various tiers of the large, rectangular fountain that flanks the square, so that it seemed almost as if bleachers had been set up for the express purpose of watching the cathedral burn.
Some of these people’s eyes were locked on the flames across the river; many of them held phones and cameras overhead, and many others were following the news on their screens. Some had their phones pinned to their heads, urgently describing what they could see and what they knew. Only a very few of them were crying: a man in paint-stained sneakers with his arms folded across his chest, perched on the saddle of a mountain bike, rocking himself back and forth; a woman in her twenties who let her boyfriend drag her by the hand through the crowd like a child, while she twisted herself backward in order to keep her eyes riveted to the glowing plumes of smoke. But almost without exception, their faces were graven in dismay, their mouths hung open, and their voices observed a general hush, creating a soothing walla from which could occasionally be distinguished a catch-all French expression of dismay: c’est pas possible.
Chris goes on to write about life in France, Catholicism, and explaining Paris to a Staples High friend. Click here to read the full story.
Chris was not the only Westporter to personally see the fire. 2009 Staples grad Rebekah Foley lives next to the cathedral. She was there from beginning to end, and gave a long interview to Sky News. Click below to see:
(Hat tip: Jeff Wieser)