Today's must-read story: Linger over the @NYTimes multimedia report on Notre Dame fire

A screenshot from the New York Times feature.  Go here .

A screenshot from the New York Times feature. Go here.

Forget Twitter for a moment.

Forget American politics, in fact and the circular firing squads that both political parties seem anxious to stage at least once a week. Forget You. Know. Who.

What you need to do right now — if you have not, as my colleague Clemente Lisi recommended this morning — is read the massive New York Times multimedia feature that vividly tells the story of the firefighters who risked all to save Notre Dame Cathedral, making decisions in a matter of minutes that kept this holy place from collapsing.

Read and view it all: “Notre-Dame came far closer to collapsing than people knew. This is how it was saved.”

Yes, I know that some readers will say: “You mean the same New York Times that made that embarrassing mistake when covering the fire, confusing a priest’s reference to saving the ‘Body of Christ’ (sacrament) with rescuing a mere statue?

Set that aside for 15 minutes and dig into this piece.

The key to the story is the heroism shown by the firefighters who saved Notre Dame’s north tower, where flames were already threatening the beams that held some of the cathedral’s giant bells.

The equation: If those beams broke, the bells would fall. If the bells fell, the north tower would fall. If the north tower fell it was all but certain that the south tower would, as well.

That would pull down the entire structure of Notre Dame. Here’s a crucial passage linked to that:

A group of about 20 officials, including Mayor Hidalgo, Mayor Weil and Monsignor Chauvet, convened across the plaza at Police Headquarters for a briefing by Gen. Jean-Claude Gallet, the head of the Paris fire brigade.

Clad in firefighting gear, dripping with water, General Gallet, 54, had served in Afghanistan and specialized in crisis management. He entered the conference room and gave them the bad news.

The attic could no longer be saved; he had decided to let it go. He would have his brigades throw all their energy into saving the towers, focusing on the northern one, already on fire.

“He came in and told us, ‘In 20 minutes, I’ll know if we’ve lost it,’” Mr. Weil recalled. “The air was so thick. But we knew what he meant: He meant Notre-Dame could collapse.”

“At that point,” Mr. Weil added, “it was clear that some firefighters were going to go into the cathedral without knowing if they would come back out.”

Monsignor Chauvet wept. The prime minister circled his thumbs nervously.

Some will be miffed a bit, I assume, by the familiar media descriptions of the cathedral’s secular role as the “heart” of secular French identity, or words to that effect.

In a way, that is where the story ends, with this passage. But look who gets the last word.

More than a few wondered why at a time when citizens were taking to the streets protesting inequality and economic hardship, when so many were dying in distant wars and on migrant boats sailing for Europe, should Notre-Dame matter.

But Notre-Dame was more than a building. It rests on Île de la Cité, the island in the middle of the Seine River where Paris was born. Made and remade over the centuries, it remains a focal point of French culture that has responded to the demands of each age it has passed through.

And in the present moment, it represented an unbreakable link with what, for many French, is the essence of their increasingly fragile nationhood.

“Notre-Dame is good and old: Perhaps we’ll even see her bury Paris, whose birth she witnessed,” the poet Gérard de Nerval once said.

That was back in the 19th century.

That sense of the cathedral as a living, wounded entity has only intensified since the fire.

“First off, this is all about our fragility,” Monsignor Chauvet, the rector, said on reflection. “We are as nothing. The fragility of man, in respect to God. We are nothing but — creatures.”

Read it all.

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