Sapeurs-pompiers: France’s unsung heroes

The two young firefighters belonged to the Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris. Nathanaël, already the father of a 4-year-old boy at 27, came from north-central France; 28-year-old Simon was from a small town in the Savoie. Both had been volunteers before joining the ranks of the professional firefighters at the Château d’Eau station in Paris. Sadly, both men were killed in an explosion from a gas leak in a Paris bakery on Saturday morning.

The scenes of devastation around the site of the explosion at 6, rue de Trévise in the 9th arrondissement were impressive. Two more people lost their lives in addition to the firemen and dozens were injured. Residents in neighbouring buildings were shocked into the streets, in pyjamas, not knowing if it was safe to go home. Such was the force of the blast that six buildings are now considered at risk of collapse. Firefighters had to rescue many older and fragile residents who were unable to get out alone.

Living in a country like France where many buildings and the surrounding infrastructure are truly ‘ancient’ (as the French world for old, ‘ancien’, suggests), such accidents happen more often than they should. The recent collapse of several buildings in Marseille also put the emergency services to the test as they spent days searching for people trapped in the rubble.

So often the vital and heroic work they do goes unrecognized, and their praises are rarely sung.

The majority of France’s sapeurs-pompiers, fire and rescue crews, are volunteers. Outside of the major cities most fire services have only one or two paid professionals who head up the local ranks of volunteers. We rely upon them for much more than putting out fires: they are the first on the scene for emergency medical services, roadside accidents, drownings, floods and disasters of all kinds. They provide emergency training to local citizens, advice on dangers like wasp nests and are often on hand at large gatherings to help keep the public safe.

The word ‘pompiers’, as they are most commonly called, comes from the fellow who manned the ‘pompe’ or water pump; ‘sapeur’ is rather more complicated but has to do with the fact that in the past, often the only way to put out a fire was to destroy or ‘saper’ the building. Credit: Wikipedia.

The distinctive ‘pam pom’ of the fire and emergency sirens can be heard with varying degrees of frequency all over France. It is a sound that I used to find terrifying but which now reassures me. It means that help is on its way, and when you live relatively far from a big city or a hospital, that is reassuring indeed.

I hope I never need them but I am grateful that they will be there when I do.

R.I.P. Nathanaël and Simon.

Merci à tous nos sapeurs-pompiers pour vos bons et loyaux services!



  1. · January 17, 2019

    Reblogged this on hus i frankrike and commented:
    Once again one of those rare reblogged posts and this time by our excellent fellow blogger FranceSays…

    • MELewis · January 17, 2019

      Thank you, Husifrankrike! I very much appreciate your reblog and the vote of confidence!

  2. francetaste · January 17, 2019

    I’m not sure they’re unsung heroes–everybody loves firefighters and acknowledges they put themselves at risk to help others. One thing that shocks me here is that drivers don’t pull over to let them (or ambulances) pass. They’ll squeeze to the side in a traffic jam caused by an accident, but not in normal traffic.
    My brother is a fireman in the U.S. He has revived half a dozen people whose hearts had stopped beating, and they continue to contact him to thank him for saving their lives. His wife told me, “I come home from work and feel like I’ve done so much. Then I ask him how his day was, and he tells me about saving somebody’s life.”

    • MELewis · January 17, 2019

      Perhaps not entirely unsung, but in between dramatic events like the one on Saturday, we tend to forget about the hard work and huge risks these men and women take, often for little compensation other than reward of service. As for the drivers’ behaviour, this is definitely cultural but for me hugely shocking as well. We were taught in drivers ed to get out of the way of police and fire services pronto, and in Toronto at least you better do it quick or be either ridiculed or endangered. Your brother is surely one of the good ones to have saved so many lives! 😌

  3. phildange · January 17, 2019

    Like one or two decades ago the pompiers did several other things . I lived in the forest and I called them twice for wasps nests in my attic . Each time they came the same day and removed the nests for free . This is an example of the France we were used to and who disappeared, like punctual trains . Now I think they still can come but it’s not free anymore .
    Another time after a hurricane a big tree had fallen on my roof but was still leaning on the chimney (there even was the photo in the “Sud-Ouest” newspaper). They removed it plus two more that were dangerous with a fast and smart ressourceful that triggered my genuine admiration . All this for free of course . Yes I like those men, and when people have the “chance” to deal with them they always share this feeling .

    • MELewis · January 17, 2019

      Wow, you are indeed lucky to have got all that support — even if less lucky to have a tree fall on your house! I tried them once for a wasp’s nest and another time when our dog drowned in the pool (a very sad day indeed…😭) but both times was told the pompiers could not help. I didn’t hold it against them, though, as I get that they have to keep themselves available to respond to true emergencies. I would have been happy to pay for their services but this didn’t seem to be an option. The wasp’s nest was removed by a professional and for the dog, as there was no one around to help me at the time, I managed to find two kind workers to help me remove the body to the trunk of my car. There are times when you just don’t know who to turn to for help… *sigh* But I do admire the work they do!

      • phildange · January 17, 2019

        This support was normal and expected by everyone until the 90s . I tell you, the “France” you experiment is not what the society I grew in could have accepted and found even possible, in maaany fields .

  4. Garfield Hug · January 17, 2019

    I read this in the news! May they rest in peace. True heroes indeed! I am now reading about the “Yellow Vests” – I hope France will normalize soon. What sparked it to have people angry with Macronn?

    • MELewis · January 17, 2019

      Ah, that’s a whole other complicated and unfortunate story…😤 I posted about back in November, but since then the whole movement took on proportions — and violence — that no one anticipated. While a majority of French citizens more or less agreed with the gilets jaunes at first, they lost support in recent weeks as they have destroyed public property and even lashed out at journalists. They have no leader and no clear demands. Now they’ve lost the respect of many people and the government is finally getting tough (too late, in my view…) Why Macron? Probably because he is a strong leader with bold ideas, unlike our previous president who kept a low profile.

      • Garfield Hug · January 17, 2019

        I see. It is a shame as Paris was always to me a city of romance, love, boulangeries, lattes, expressos and croissants. Paris was peaceful till this civil disorder began. I could not understand what they have against Macron. Thanks for explaining. I hope peace prevails.

      • MELewis · January 17, 2019

        Thanks! Sadly, a lot of people will probably think twice before they come back to visit Paris…

      • Garfield Hug · January 17, 2019

        Exactly as we now avoid it due to civil riots etc. It must adversely impact your economy…sadly😢

  5. Heide · January 17, 2019

    What a lovely (and informative) tribute you’ve written. I do agree with you that firefighters are unsung heroes — even if we praise their heroic actions — because most of us can’t even imagine the perils they willingly face day after day after day. My heart goes out to Nathanaël and Simon, and to their families and friends. I do hope something will be learned from this tragic accident to prevent a similar one in the future …

    PS: On that other matter, even a swarm of “yellow jackets” won’t keep *this* gal from returning to Paris. 🙂

  6. Katherine Wikoff · January 17, 2019

    Lovely tribute to these two brave men. Thank you for telling us about the disastrous event that took their lives and the lives of others. I gain so much insight about what is happening in France from your blog!

    • MELewis · January 19, 2019

      It is indeed very sad and I am sorry that the news isn’t more joyful. Such tragedies are so much worse when the victims are young and engaged in helping others. On a brighter note, it is good know that you find the blog interesting! 🤗 Thanks for the positive feedback!

  7. Dale · January 18, 2019

    It is always so sad to lose such heroes – especially when they are so young.
    A lovely tribute to the hard work of les pompiers…

    • MELewis · January 19, 2019

      Thank you, Dale. Indeed the loss feels all the greater when you look at their young faces…😢 Firefighters the world over do such an amazing job. I’m sure that in Montreal, like Toronto, their services are often called upon and highly appreciated.

      • Dale · January 19, 2019


  8. fatdormouse · January 19, 2019

    It was indeed sad to read about these young men who lost their lives. Thank you for blogging about them. We have several friends in the village who are volunteer Sapeurs Pompiers, and they have had to deal with some very unpleasant things. I always pay over the odds for the SP calendar!

    • MELewis · January 24, 2019

      You are welcome! A sad story indeed but one that deserves to be shared.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s