“I thought the whole night was like it can’t be happening. It was so hard to accept that it was happening and that it seemed like it was unstoppable, that fire, it was so ferocious.” – Anelise Borges (Euronews reporter) On April 15, 2019, a horrifying incident embarked upon the architectural marvel of Notre Dame in Paris, France. A fire broke out and severely damaged the historic structure, destroying a major part of its majestic roof, which sent chills down the spine of the Parisian population. The administration and fire department played an instrumental role in combatting the fire, which helped in controlling the damage. A par excellence team of National Geographic documentarians, including Fabrice Gardel, Simon Kessler, and Josselin Mahot, played an important role in preserving history by capturing real-time incidents surrounding the events that took place on that day. This piece of art is known as “Notre Dame: Race Against the Inferno”. Before we dive into the specifics of the incident and how comprehensively the documentary unravels and stitches the different events together, it is important to understand the significance Notre Dame holds in European architecture and for the French people.

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Notre Dame de Paris_The New York times

Serving as a symbol for Paris in the world, Notre Dame de Paris lies at the eastern end of  Île de la Cité, situated on the banks of the River Seine. Under the power of Bishop Marice de sully, the construction of the church began in the 12th century. It was repeatedly modified and renovated in the years that followed. The French revolution did extensive damage to the church. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a novel based on the church published by Victor Hugo, ignited the importance of Notre Dame, and major restoration work was undertaken. A UNESCO Heritage site, Notre Dame de Paris is a Catholic cathedral. One of the biggest examples of french gothic architecture, it is famous for its ribbed vaulted ceiling, rose windows and the use of flying buttresses. It is noteworthy for its size, age, and architectural appeal.

The documentary Notre dame: Race against the Inferno is exactly what the name suggests. It shows minute-by-minute steps taken by the firefighters to save the historical marvel. 

The movie starts by showing a huge cloud of smoke engulfing the sky of Paris, with people panicking and calling the fire services. The movie is a first-hand account of the firefighters and how they gave their blood and sweat to preserve this historic piece of architecture. Interviews with the captain and leaders of the firefighting team help the viewer visualize the struggles they faced during the mission, such as extremely high temperatures and the altitude they had to reach where the fire began.

The interviews of the firefighters are complemented by 3D graphics and animations, which explain and present a clear picture of the origin of the fire and the way through which the firefighters entered the church and tried their best to save the building, all while keeping their lives at stake. These animations help in developing a comprehensive chronological understanding of the events that took place that night, which enhances the experience of the documentary as a whole.

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Notre Dame in flames_The New York times

The movie showed clips of the majestic spire that stood upon the roof of the church, the stained glass windows, the ribbed vaulted stone ceiling, the wooden frames, and the huge bells showing the glorious architectural features for which the church was known. It was because of the wooden frames and lead-based roofs that the fire escalated. Destroying the spire, the fire had to be stopped before it reached the frame where enormous bells were hanging. If they fell, it would definitely destroy everything.

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Notre Dame de Paris_The New York times

There are extensive collections of artwork, furniture, and other priceless things inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame that reflect the Neo-Gothic style. The relics had stood the test of time and were precious pieces of art which commanded a very high value in French culture. The documentary shows the footage of melted lead falling down in the interiors of the cathedral and making all the relics and treasures such as paintings, sacred vases, and the crown of thorns lying there in jeopardy. Taking on a holistic approach, the firefighters developed a closely-knit plan to save these pieces’ historic pieces of European art along with the building.

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Notre Dame de Paris_The New York times
Spire falling_The New York times

As Cheif corporal Myriam puts up that “There’s no way that we can just decide to give up. We just keep going, we keep fighting. I never once wanted to give up”. The brilliant team of firefighters fought the fire at the famous cathedral for seven hours. Even though the edifice suffered severe damage, these heroic men and women were able to salvage portions of it, aiding in the reconstruction of the Catholic church, the city of Paris, and France as a whole.

The moment-by-moment bravery of the Paris fire and police forces as they risked their lives to save this ancient structure is vividly brought to life through exclusive film and interviews.


  1. IMDb. 2022. Notre-Dame: Race Against the Inferno (Short 2019) – IMDb. [online] Available at: <https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11559162/> [Accessed 3 July 2022].

An architect by profession, Soumya is a history enthusiast and an avid traveller who loves to capture buildings and pen down her architectural perspectives. She has a keen interest in analyzing the role of architecture in building a city as a whole. She believes in designing spaces where people can unravel and compose themselves.

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