Sometimes memories collide across decades.
The comparisons between the fires Monday at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the 1968 blaze in St. Boniface were inescapable to at least one generation.
As the world watched in horror online or on TV, the flames obliterated the French icon, its centuries of standing witness to history erased by fire. In Winnipeg, at least one man who witnessed the St. Boniface Cathedral fire more than 50 years ago found himself struck by memories.
The fire in St. Boniface started near the top of the building, moved to the roof and funnelled into deadly spirals that blew off the bell towers. The blaze started during renovations. Firefighters found it impossible to scale stone walls to attack the flames so high up.
On July 22, 1968, Philippe Mailhot stood in the cemetery in St. Boniface and watched the flames. He was 13.
On Monday, Mailhot, now semi-retired, was watching similar images a half-world away in Paris on CNN.
Mailhot devoted his life to francophone heritage in Manitoba. A former director of the St. Boniface Museum who is still closely involved in charities and boards, he was very much aware Monday of the eerie similarities between the fires.
"It’s very evocative of the St. Boniface Cathedral fire. Obviously, not on the same scale in terms of its historical significance and the like, but the circumstances, even if people are not practicing or don’t go to church, you get a building that is iconic to the city," Mailhot said.
"St. Boniface used to call itself the 'Cathedral City.' And Notre Dame to Paris, people all over the world, it was an image. You saw the facade of that church, or even the rear of it from the river, and you immediately knew what you were looking at."
By mid-afternoon in Winnipeg, it was pretty clear Notre Dame — constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries, and one of the world's most famous monuments — would be left a ruin, only its stone walls still standing.
That realization brought back another moment.
"What’s also hitting me now is they were saying the facade, the bell towers and so on, the front, that still seems to be okay. But now they're starting to get little bits of flame there, too," Mailhot said.
"What happened with the cathedral (in Winnipeg), I remember walking towards it, it was like a ball of flame working its way from the back, eating its way through the roof and finally getting to the bell towers," he said. "What you had was a funnel effect going on... as the heat was going up through the bell towers, it was drawing the flames through there."
When the bell towers collapsed at the St. Boniface Cathedral, there was a moan from the crowd, Mailhot said. "Based on the video I just watched on CNN, that’s exactly what happened when the central spire collapsed."
He said he was grateful to have seen Notre Dame in person.
"I had a chance to visit Paris once and visit the cathedral. It’s a massive stone building but, of course, inside the cathedral, it’s plaster, it’s wood, flammable material... Yes, very evocative, very tragic."
What was left in Winnipeg was the building's facade, the stone walls, the marble altar and the sacristy.
All those decades later, a new cathedral now stands, but the ruins also remain: they are an important cultural centre and still a tourist destination.
"Who knows, what happened to the cathedral here in St. Boniface will be an inspiration to them," Mailhot said.
Gallery: Notre Dame cathedral
PARIS - A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below.
The blaze collapsed the cathedral's spire and spread to one of its landmark rectangular towers.
A spokesman said the entire wooden frame of the cathedral would likely come down, and that the vault of the edifice could be threatened too.
"Everything is burning, nothing will remain from the frame," Notre Dame spokesman Andre Finot told French media.
The cause of the blaze was not known, but French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying the fire is "potentially linked" to a 6 million-euro ($6.8 million) renovation project on the church's spire and its 250 tons of lead. Prosecutors opened an investigation as Paris police said there were no reported deaths. Some 400 firefighters were battling the blaze well into the night.
Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is the most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages as well as one of the most beloved structures in the world.
Situated on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the Seine river, the cathedral's architecture is famous for, among other things, its many gargoyles and its iconic flying buttresses.
Among the most celebrated artworks inside are its three stained-glass rose windows, placed high up on the west, north and south faces of the cathedral.
Its priceless treasures also include a Catholic relic, the crown of thorns, which is only occasionally displayed, including on Fridays during Lent.
The cathedral was immortalized in Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," published in 1831, and has long been a subject of fascination in popular culture as well as the traditional art world.
-The Associated Press