'It was unbearable': Organist was inside Notre Dame Cathedral when fire started

Photo does not have a caption

PARIS – The Notre Dame organist playing for the choir when the first fire alarm sounded on Monday couldn’t stand to watch his second home burn.

“I stayed there one, two minutes, then I left,” Johann Vexo said quietly in his first sit down interview with U.S. broadcast media since the accident. “I couldn’t [stay]. It was unbearable.”

It only took a few minutes for the 1,000 or so visitors celebrating mass at the time to evacuate, and Vexco was one of the last to leave.

His talents have taken him around the world and across the United States to perform and instruct. His first stop in America was Houston.

“I was there for teaching master class at Rice University, which I think has one of the most beautiful organs in the U.S.,” Vexo said. “It’s a wonderful instrument.”

He also played at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Conroe, and in churches in Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio, and from New York to California.

Vexo started playing the organ at 14 and studied at France’s most prestigious music university. At 25, 15 years ago, he became one of several Notre Dame organists, playing there almost every night and on weekends.

“Playing organ at Notre Dame is just an amazing experience,” Vexo said. “The sound of this instrument, you just, you cannot describe it.”

The "Great Organ," as it is sometimes called, with 8,000 pipes, many of which date back to the 18th and 19th centuries, was not expected to survive the fire.

Realizing it had, along with much of the interior and several relics many consider holy, gave Vexo hope and filled him with gratitude.

“Firefighters did a very impressive job,” he said. “[The organ] didn’t burn. It didn’t melt. ... apparently, no water came into the main organ, which is unbelievable."

Recovery, especially for a now dust-covered, centuries-old organ, will be painstaking.

“An organ is a very complicated instrument with many parts in wood, in metal,” Vexo said. “We have to dismantle the organ to clean everything and it would take two years.”

There are two additional organs at Notre Dame, including the choir organ, built in the 1960s, and a mobile organ. All survived with no visible, extensive damage, but have not yet been evaluated closely.

About the Author:

Emmy and Edward R. Murrow-award winning reporter. Believer, father of five, Ironman finisher. Yo hablo Español.