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In A Matter Of Hours, Fire Ravages Notre Dame Cathedral


Construction began on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris more than 800 years ago. Last night, Parisians gathered near that cathedral, hoping there is enough left to rebuild. They prayed, and they sang.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in French).

GREENE: The cathedral took nearly 200 years to build, piece by piece - stone, wood, glass. In just a matter of hours, yesterday's fire ravaged some of that history, but not nearly all of it. The fire is out now. The spire is gone, but the recognizable bell towers remain, and many historic structures and artwork survived. Notre Dame had been undergoing extensive renovations, thanks, in part, to Bertrand Badre. He's a board member of the Friends of Notre Dame, the foundation that was created to raise money for the cathedral's renovations. And he joins us on the line this morning. Thanks so much for taking the time.

BERTRAND BADRE: You're welcome. Good morning, everybody.

GREENE: Where were you yesterday when you learned about the fire at Notre Dame, and what were your first thoughts?

BADRE: I was, and I'm still in Shanghai, China. And because of the jetlag or because of some premonition, I woke up in the middle of the night, could not resist to check my phone. And then I cried when I discovered - and I cried again when I discovered what had happened. And all our efforts - and in particular, my wife and I made the decision to take for us the renovation of the cross and the rooster on top of the spire, which is the first thing that collapsed. So it was a real tragedy, not only personally, but for our country, for Paris, and to a certain extent, for the world.

GREENE: Talk to me about this place for people who don't know it well or haven't visited. Like, what's your favorite memory from there?

BADRE: Well, my favorite memory - I have many, actually. The last one and probably the most moving one was my first visit to the top, actually - exactly the part that has burned - so to the very top - the spires, the roof. And what's called behind the roof's a forest, which is a wooden support of the cathedral - everything which has been put to ashes yesterday. And it's like walking in the famous novel of Victor Hugo, "Notre-Dame De Paris," which has been popular by movies and by Walt Disney in particular.

But it's also weird to remember that it's not the first time that Notre Dame has to be rebuilt, actually. Napoleon I was crowned in Notre Dame. So everybody remembers the famous painting of Napoleon crowning himself, actually, and then crowning his wife. And then the cathedral kind of fall apart. And that's because of Victor Hugo - created some, you know, buzz around the cathedral in the early 19th century with his novel. And it was for that purpose that he wrote this novel that finally some money was put to restore and renovate and, to a certain extent, rebuild the cathedral. It had become a storage place, so that's what gives me hope. It's not the first time that this vessel, which is the center of Paris, was - has - I mean, was - motto is (speaking French). It floats, but it never sinks. So this vessel was already about to sink. And I think we can make it work again. But it's such a shock. I mean, it's such a shock.

GREENE: It's just amazing to think about some of the stories. I mean, like the "Hunchback Of Notre-Dame" - I mean, think about some of the people and the pull - thinking Joan of Arc - who've had something to do with this place and the history that this cathedral has witnessed, and generations have gone by. It must be hard to imagine this place ever truly being gone. I mean, there's just a resilience there that is incredible.

BADRE: I think we are so lucky that the firemen - and I want to pay tribute to their work - is that they have been capable of stoking the fire, I would say, in due time before the structure itself collapsed. So we are not a repeat of certain collapse. I was in New York on September 11 - you know, this type of humanity - but there is no connection at all. You're afraid that the whole thing will collapse and fortunately, not this time. And that's why I'm confident that we can rebuild it. It will take time, that's for sure. These things don't happen overnight, but it's so central to Paris, you know? It's funny. When I was a kid, we were living 6 kilometers far from Paris. And I asked my dad, what does it mean - 6 kilometers far from where in Paris? Is it from Notre Dame? Every distance in France is calculated out of the center of Notre Dame.

GREENE: All roads lead to Notre Dame.

BADRE: Really the symbol - yes, exactly. It is a symbol. Every city in France - you have a place where you have the kilometers linking the place to Notre Dame in Paris. So it's really the heart of Paris for those who believe in God and for those who don't believe in God. Something more than special - it's really the - that's where our heart beats, I think.

GREENE: It is sounding like the initial reports are this was all an accident. Is that your understanding so far as you talk to people in Paris?

BADRE: Yes, I think it's - I'm glad we can - that's what I hear - that it's not a criminal, not a terrorist - I mean, the usual things we are afraid of when we have this type of accidents. So I suspect investigation will be pursued, and we'll try to see what exactly happens. And we think it's too early days to draw any conclusion, but that - I could only imagine that some criminal or terrorist could target Notre Dame. So I'm glad it's not the case, apparently.

GREENE: What are the important moments or decisions that will have to be made as this process goes forward that will make you feel optimistic that this place will be fully restored at some point?

BADRE: Well, I think compared to my distress in the middle of the Shanghai night, I feel - I still feel immensely sad, but I'm quite hopeful. First, our president was there with the mayor of Paris, the prime minister - everybody was there in the middle of the night to confirm we will rebuild, and we will make it happen. So it's a kind of national project. I mean, this is - again, when you're touched at your heart, you just cannot, I mean, avoid doing the right thing. And it's great. Yeah, I mean, I'm glad to see that gifts are coming. I mean, I was on the fundraising trip for several years, and it was OK. But I'm so relieved to see that, in particular, two French billionaires have committed together more than 300 million euro.

GREENE: Already.

BADRE: So very difficult to say - we are - before the tragedy of yesterday, we had estimated the cost of renovation to be 150 million euros or probably 170 million dollarish (ph). So I suspect it's going to be three or four times this. I mean, it's very early days to say. So it's great that we get these big gift. I suspect more will come. But it's also - it was very moving because I mean, like, many people, like, posted on social networks. And I received so many people, so many friends all over the world, say that, Bertrand, I want to give something small. Where can I go? But I want to be there. So it was amazing to see that Notre Dame was not only something dear to the heart of French and Parisian people like me, but it had some meaning for people spread all over the world, and in the U.S. in particular.

GREENE: Bertrand Badre...

BADRE: That's really something very special.

GREENE: Bertrand Badre, thanks so much.

BADRE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.