My social media feeds have been overwhelmed by my friends and colleagues mourning the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral these past two days. As a scholar of medieval studies, I get it — the building had a special resonance for lovers of history, architecture, and art.
But when I read that the fire was most likely caused by restoration workers, my heart broke for them. These roofers and restoration experts do the tireless work of keeping these buildings functional for all of us, and they do it at great personal risk and with little recognition.
My father is a roofer. My brother spent 30 years roofing, while I did it for seven summers. I know how easy it is for a small mistake on any construction site to cause a massive disaster.
I’m sure there are dozens of workers associated with Notre Dame who are thinking and rethinking every single action they took Monday trying to figure out if they are in any way responsible. My heart is shattered for them. They might never know for certain and they may never forgive themselves thinking it’s their fault. I have been in their boots.
One summer when I was roofing, I was ripping cedar shakes off a fancy house. This is especially nasty, hot, itchy work. It’s also extremely flammable. Most of us smoked; one of my dad’s guys who I was working with pulled me over to a spot where a cigarette butt was smoldering and told me that we were probably 10 minutes from the entire million-dollar house burning to the ground. He held it up and showed me the brand: “That’s yours. Be more careful.”
This is just one of thousands of little opportunities to make a mistake on a construction site. 99.9 percent of the time, none of us screw up. But when we do, it can be disastrous.
To this day — despite all the many many regulations, controls and safety measures — building construction is among the deadliest jobs that exist. Roofing in particular ranks just behind logging, fishing, and aircraft operation as the most deadly jobs in the US. Iron and steel workers, the builders of our buildings, are just another step down. This kind of work is dangerous, physically excruciating, and essential. It is also largely invisible. Construction workers are rarely seen as heroes and death or injury on the job are not mourned outside of their families.
In fact, many of us only think of construction workers as a nuisance, especially at places like Notre Dame: Scaffolding messes up our pictures or worksites prevent us from accessing parts of historical structures we had hoped to see. Nobody thanks construction workers for their endless labor. Yet without them, we would not have these buildings at all.
When news broke Tuesday that the damage to the interior of Notre Dame was far less severe than had been feared, we were quick and right to praise the medieval craftspeople who built this phenomenal structure. But it’s not just 13th-century masons who deserve our respect today. Notre Dame and all monuments of its ilk are what they are today because of the continual maintenance and care of thousands of builders, workers, carpenters, roofers, glaziers, artists, masons, and wrights who keep our buildings alive. But none of these people show up in front-page photos the way that firefighters do.
But when the very worst happens, workers like that are going to return to that most dangerous work to preserve our buildings. I wish I could thank every single one of them this week.
Damian Fleming is a professor of English and medieval studies at Purdue University Fort Wayne. The biggest roofer he knows once called him “an okay guy, for a laborer.” He tweets mostly Beowulf and Latin jokes @fw_medieval.