Barbara Starr: Amid disaster, the human spirit shines through

CNN correspondent reflects on fire, recovery

By Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent

Paris - When the cathedral's spire fell into the fire at Notre Dame I felt physically sick. All night long, I watched social media videos of the smoke and flames, of the people of Paris standing in horror, some on their knees singing to the church -- images that brought tears to many eyes around the world.

Early accounts from French authorities indicate that this was likely an accidental fire, not a terror attack. But for me, the images, despite the tragedy they depicted, also evoked memories of much of the good that happened at the Pentagon after it was attacked on 9/11.

As always, first respect must be paid to the 184 people who were killed in the attack on the Pentagon. Thankfully, no one is reported to have died at Notre Dame. But consider this: As both buildings burned, it was the passion of the human spirit that captured the world's attention. Few may remember, but hundreds of people stood on a small hill next to the Pentagon, watching it burn. As a reporter, I was stationed closer, just past the area where emergency services were fighting the blaze and I saw, first hand, the military personnel heroically searching for survivors.

At the Pentagon and at Notre Dame, firefighters risked their lives to save what they could. Both are technically just buildings. But, of course, both are icons -- so different, but also symbolic: Notre Dame -- a centuries-old center of faith and peace and the essence of France. The Pentagon -- born of war, but enduring as a headquarters for the American ideal of the defense of freedom. The morning after each suffered a devastating catastrophe, each became a center of international conversation about rebuilding, renewal and remembrance.

Rebuilding Notre Dame will certainly be a complex project that will likely take decades.

My sister and I attended a mass at the cathedral a few years ago and sat in awe at what surrounded us. Recreating its history and grandeur will be quite a task.

But from the Pentagon perch, the mini-miracles of human determination to restore the building were inspiring. Its destroyed section was rebuilt within a year by construction crews that worked around the clock in what was named the Phoenix Project. When I toured the final results, one project manager pointed to the roof, now rebuilt after its collapse. He said with teary eyes, "She held, she held 'til people could get out." One of the Pentagon miracles was indeed that the "she" -- the roof, on fire -- had held long enough for many to escape before it collapsed into the burning wreckage.

At Notre Dame, the damage was also massive, but the centuries of faith breathed into stone, wood and glass did not falter. The morning after the blaze, priceless relics were still intact, and a crucifix bathed in the morning light. One cannot dispute that here too in Paris, "she" -- Notre Dame -- held the line against the fire.

No, I don't believe in miracles. I am of a different faith group than Catholicism. But "miraculous" is perhaps the best word to describe the goodness that can prevail in the midst and aftermath of such tragedy. One was a terror attack, the other an apparently accidental disaster. But it is, in fact, the same human spirit that took over at the Pentagon -- and that we have seen come to the forefront in so many disasters -- that rose on the streets of Paris where a community church survived plague, revolution, two world wars and occupation. It is that spirit that remains unravaged on this day after.

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