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They are being called soldiers of fire. Firefighters battled for nine hours Monday to contain the blaze at Notre Dame and keep the cathedral from collapsing. French President Emmanuel Macron gave them the medal of honor for their courage, and NPR's Eleanor Beardsley says they are being celebrated in Paris and throughout France.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Thousands of people came out to Paris's town hall for a ceremony to honor the firefighters. Notre Dame's towers they helped save still stood in view just across the river. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said the city, the country and the entire world was grateful.
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ANNE HIDALGO: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: "We saw you in action, soldiers of fire," she said. "You risked your lives to save what is a part of all of us."
Firefighters arrived at Notre Dame just 10 minutes after getting the call. Twenty-seven-year-old Corporal Myriam Chudzinski was in the first truck.
MYRIAM CHUDZINSKI: (Through interpreter) Coming out of the firehouse, we saw people with their phones up to the sky filming. And we thought, oh, this must be something big. And then we saw Notre Dame. And we understood.
BEARDSLEY: More than 400 firefighters fought the blaze from inside and out and on several fronts, their hoses fed by water pumped from the surrounding Seine River. Quickly, they realized the cathedral's roof could not be saved, so they concentrated on the bell towers. Chudzinski was on the team sent up the belfries.
CHUDZINSKI: (Through interpreter) We had to climb the narrow, spiral staircase. And up on the balcony, we could see the roof and the scaffolding blazing. We battled the flames to the maximum but eventually had to pull back. Then we heard a huge noise. And it was the spire collapsing.
BEARDSLEY: Stephanie Paul is an official tour guide of Notre Dame. She says once the spire fell, the firefighters directed their water and efforts at the cathedral's stone vault and towers.
STEPHANIE PAUL: The danger is that in the heat of the fire - is that the mortar between the stones might crack. If that cracks, then your vault is going to collapse. There is nothing you can do about it. So it was about protecting that mortar, keeping it from getting too hot and therefore maintaining the structure of the building.
BEARDSLEY: Drones flew above the cathedral, sending video footage to guide the firefighters. And when it got too hot inside, they sent in a firefighting robot named Colossus. They were able to get out some precious artworks and relics - like the crown of thorns said to have been worn by Jesus Christ.
ALAIN FONTANILLE: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: Alain Fontanille is the craftsman who laid the gold leaf nameplates on each of Notre Dame's bells hanging in the two towers.
FONTANILLE: (Speaking French).
BEARDSLEY: He chokes up as he tries to talk about what the firefighters did. Parisian Jean Bernard has come out to the ceremony for the firefighters.
JEAN BERNARD: They're very professional, very, very strong, very hard, very true. I'm here for these men and women who reached to close out the fire and to save the towers.
BEARDSLEY: Bernard says he wouldn't have missed it for the world.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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