As the world witnessed the Notre-Dame Cathedral, a marker of centuries of French history, crumble over in fire, one Cornellian was on the ground battling to save the historic structure.
The Cathedral, completed in the mid-14th century as a jewel of Gothic architecture and a cornerstone of Catholicism, caught fire on April 15 while under renovations. But according to Frank Langrais J.D. ’17, who was among over 400 firefighters sent to put out the fire, the significance of the fire was not always at the forefront of his mind.
“I remember wondering for a few seconds whether the whole thing was real, and realizing that this was a crazy historical event,” Langrais told The Sun in an interview on Tuesday.
“Other than that, fighting a fire is physically and mentally strenuous,” Langrais said. “You are so focused on the task at hand, whatever it is, that you don’t really get distracted by random thoughts.”
Langrais, who has dreamed about becoming a firefighter since childhood, joined the French Red Cross at the age of 15. As an undergraduate student at New York University, Langrais volunteered as a dispatcher in Queens.
“Although I didn’t want to fight fires for a career, the idea of responding to emergencies remained one of my teenage goals,” Langrais explained. After coming to Cornell Law School, he joined the Cayuga Heights Fire Department.
Greg Tamborelle, chief of the Cayuga Heights Fire Department, told Ezra Magazine that Langrais was “an enthusiastic volunteer who gave as much of his time as law school would allow.”
“We are proud that he was a part of the heroic effort to save Notre Dame,” Tamborelle said.
Langrais attended both Cornell University and University of Paris I: Panthéon-Sorbonne for Law. He spent two years in law school in Paris from 2015 to 2017, according to his LinkedIn profile.
In 2015, Lagrais worked a one-year stint for the Paris Fire Brigade, re-completing around 200 hours of training to account for the differences between American and French techniques and strategies.
“During my first days of training, I kept setting up ladders the wrong way, because they’re designed differently than the ones in America,” Langrais said.
When the call first came in for the Notre-Dame fire, Langrais reacted quickly. “As with any big fire, the adrenaline goes up the second you know it’s bad,” he said.
Staying calm is key, however. Langrais said that he doesn’t think about the fire when the team is on route to the location. Instead, he “focus[es] on adjusting my gear exactly the way I want it to be. I think about where every piece of equipment … is in the truck, so when the first orders are given, I know exactly where to go.”
While Langrais was unable to provide specifics as to his role in the fire, he said that no matter what happened in the blaze, he would continue to fight.
“Firefighting is addictive. If that’s your drug, nothing will dissuade you,” he said.
“At the end of the day, I put my civilian clothes back on, and I’m just an ordinary citizen, staring at the ashes in disbelief,” Langrais said.