Flames rise from the Notre Dame Cathedral as it burns in Paris on April 15, 2019. SIPA VIA AP IMAGES
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Why Notre Dame fire feels personal to this Atlantan

David Waldrop and his wife, Grace, were finishing up lunch and still reading the morning newspaper last week when news broke that the Notre Dame Cathedral was on fire. When they finally looked up toward their muted television set across the room and saw flames leaping through the cathedral roof, they were horrified.

“We couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” David Waldrop told me.

He was in his early 30s when the two of them first visited Paris, and from the moment they stepped off the Metro, David said, Notre Dame beckoned.

“I climbed the towers and walked the huge oak beams that I had seen Quasimodo scamper about on like a cat,” he remembered. “I was mesmerized by the enormous bells that the deaf hunchback clung to while they rang.”

They’d visit at least three more times, a decade separating each stay on the Ile St. Louis, the island directly behind Notre Dame in the middle of the Seine.

The hotel where David and Grace Waldrop always stay on their visits to Paris. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Waldrops were in love. With the City of Light. With its historic cathedral, Notre Dame, black from hundreds of years of grime.

“When I returned at 50, her stone face was clean and fresh from restoration,” David said. “I went back at 60.”

RELATED: Notre Dame Cathedral: How you can donate to help rebuild it

Now the 850-year-old Catholic church was engulfed in flames. For the next several hours, the Midtown couple would sit glued to their television set, hoping against hope the cathedral would be saved.

David Waldrop, 66, of Midtown has visited the Notre Dame Cathedral three times since he was in his 30s. He’s hoping he’s still around to visit again once the reconstruction is complete. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“When the spire fell, it was like watching the 9/11 towers coming down,” David, 66, said. “I had that same feeling of helplessness. Thank God nobody died.”

By Tuesday (April 16), the fire was out. French President Emmanuel Macron promised Parisians that they’d rebuild. Together.

Not unlike its other 13 million annual visitors, in the Waldrops’ minds, Notre Dame is more than just a cathedral; it’s a symbol of the French capital and an integral part of European history. Its foundation stone was laid in 1163 by Pope Alexander III, and the cathedral was finally completed in the 13th century.

Although the cause of the fire is still under investigation, authorities have said that little was in place to prevent the flames from speeding through the cathedral’s attic, a lattice of ancient wooden beams underneath a lead-covered roof.

Firefighters said at a news conference last week that they had always known the lattice was at risk. Also last week, Macron set a five-year goal to rebuild the landmark.

RELATED: Over there: Two AJC writers share their Paris experiences

Not surprisingly, more than $900 million in donations or pledges had poured in from around the world within a few days to help with the reconstruction.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Waldrops planned to give, too, in hopes that they’d live long enough to see Notre Dame back in all its glory.

They realize, of course, that Cologne, Chartre, Reims and St. Patrick’s are all said to be much better examples of Gothic architecture, but even they don’t compare to Notre Dame.

“They are not in the heart of France,” David said. “They did not have a Quasimodo, an Esmeralda, a Victor Hugo, a Napoleon Bonaparte or a St. Joan, ‘the Maid of Orleans,’ to assure them a historical, literary, religious, artistic and social place in history.”

When his wife asks what he wants to do for his birthdays, David’s answer is always the same: get a baguette, a round of cheese, a bottle of wine and a view of Notre Dame de Paris along the Seine.

“Perhaps I can go back to Notre Dame in my early 70s,” he said.

Yes, perhaps.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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