Back in the aftermath of 9/11, FDNY Captain Liam Flaherty was among the New York City firefighters who visited Paris as guests of their French counterparts, and he stood in wonder inside Notre Dame Cathedral.
“Magical,” he later said.
But as the modern marvel Twitter brought images of the fire in the centuries-old structure on Monday, Flaherty knew that it was not so different from the numerous church fires he had fought in Brooklyn.
“Fires in churches, they’re very difficult fires once they get a hold on,” Flaherty said. “High ceilings, lot of tough little crawl spaces. Once the wood structure is involved... Once they start cooking, it’s very hard to root out. They are very challenging.”
He said of the fire in the cathedral, “The French firefighters were definitely up against it... It looks like by the time they got there it was already too advanced to make an impact.”
FDNY companies have often found themselves in the same situation. A church in Sheepshead Bay burned down twice in 11 years. A big church in Manhattan was gutted last year.
Flaherty himself has always been lucky enough to have arrived with his company in time to save the church in question. He has never experienced a moment in a burning house of worship when it became a losing battle and there was nothing to do but retreat and apply water from the outside.
“Surround and drown,” firefighters call it.
He tried to imagine how agonizing it must have been for the French firefighters when the church was Notre Dame. They had been forced just to stand on the sidewalk and watch it burn as a lone tower ladder applied water that turned some of the roiling smoke white but otherwise had little effect.
“I couldn’t even think,” Flaherty said. “That’s got to weigh very heavy on those guys. I don’t want to call it defeat, but that’s how I would take it. To watch it burn like that, like a candle.”
He added, “A firefighter who is worth his salt would take it personal. We take it to heart.”
He had a hard enough time watching Notre Dame burn on his Twitter feed from Brooklyn.
“It’s kind of an emotional thing,” he said. “I'm thankful I did get to see it in its glory.”
He and the other FDNY visitors had almost missed seeing Notre Dame when their hosts insisted on a prolonged lunch, complete with cheese and wine.
“Hey, brother, can we just grab a slice of pizza and keep moving?” Flaherty recalls asking one of the French firefighters.
“Liam, no, we sit and eat,” the French firefighter replied.
The end of the day was nearing when the final course was done, but Flaherty and his FDNY pals were still able to get to Notre Dame before closing time.
“Just to actually see it and to be able to reach out and touch it,” he said on Monday.
He returned with cause to be glad he had taken French in high school. He had become one more bit of a bond between France and America that dates back to our revolution and is on constant display in New York.
“Look at the harbor, Lady Liberty,” Flaherty later said.
Other bits of the bond came as French fighters continued to visit his Brooklyn firehouse each year on the anniversary of 9/11.
On Monday, he thought of his comrades in Paris as the flames consumed that magical cathedral. The aged wood he had seen inside was now fueling unstoppable destruction.
President Trump suggested on Twitter that the French could use airplanes to drop water on the fire. Liam took the same view as he had when his New York comrades used an aerial ladder to train a hose on a burning structure from above
“You’re hitting a roof that repels water,” Flaherty said,
Nothing was going to stop that fire. And be it Notre Dame or a Brooklyn church, a burning spire presented the same danger.
“The steeples are definitely a watch-out situation for a collapse hazard,” Flaherty said.
Sure enough, he saw the Notre Dame steeple go over. The flames eventually subsided, but the danger was not over.
Then began what is known as the overhaul phase, when firefighters venture in to search for pockets of fire amid walls that had largely lost their wooden buttressing.
”That’s a very dangerous part,” Flaherty said. “Lot of times that's when collapses occur.”
As night fell, casualties had been limited to one injured firefighter and there was hope the stone core for the cathedral had survived.
“Obviously it's a building and a building is not a life, but that building is a special building,” Flaherty said. “I guess you could call it God's house.”