The Notre-Dame Cathedral went up in flames yesterday in a roaring blaze that devastated the Parisian landmark, a searing loss for the city and for France.
“Like all our compatriots, I am sad this evening to see this part of all of us burn,” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.
Flames that began in the early evening burst through the roof of the centuries-old cathedral and engulfed the spire, which collapsed, quickly followed by the entire roof.
A huge plume of smoke wafted across the city and ash fell over a large area.
Crowds of stunned Parisians and tourists – some crying, others offering prayers – watched as flames engulfed the cathedral.
Gasps and cries of “Oh my god” erupted at 7.50pm (1750 GMT) when the top portion of the church’s spire came crashing down into an inferno that has spread to the entire roof.
More gasps came a few seconds later when the rest of the spire collapsed, caught on the cameras of thousands of mobile phones.
“Paris is disfigured. The city will never be like it was before,” said Philippe, a communications worker in his mid-30s, who had biked over after being alerted of the fire by a friend.
“It’s a tragedy,” he lamented. “If you pray, now is the time to pray.”
Police were attempting to clear pedestrians away from the two islands in the river Seine, including the Ile de la Cite which houses the soaring Gothic church, one of Europe’s best known landmarks.
But throngs of onlookers kept trying to approach, snarling traffic as they massed on the stone bridges leading to the islands.
Another woman passed by, tears running from behind her glasses, too overwhelmed to speak to reporters.
“It’s finished, we’ll never be able to see it again,” said Jerome Fautrey, a 37-year-old who had come to watch.
“Now we need to know how this happened – with everything that’s going on in the world, why Notre-Dame? Maybe it’s a message from on high,” he said.
One police officer, arriving on one of the bridges, turned up to gape, saying “Oh my god.”
“It’s incredible, our history is going up in smoke,” said Benoit, 42, who arrived on the scene by bike.
“Basically the whole rooftop is gone. I see no hope for the building,” said witness Jacek Poltorak, watching the fire from a fifth-floor balcony two blocks from the southern facade of the cathedral, one of France’s most visited places.
Firefighters tried to contain the blaze with water hoses and cleared the area around Notre-Dame, which sits on an island in the River Seine and marks the very centre of Paris.
Buildings around were evacuated.
Nobody was injured, junior interior minister Laurent Nunez said at the scene, adding: “It’s too early to determine the causes of the fire.”
France 2 television reported that police were treating it as an accident.
President Macron cancelled an address to the nation that he had been due to give later in the evening.
A presidential official said Macron went to the scene of the blaze and talked to officials trying to contain it.
The French Civil Security service, possibly responding to US President Donald Trump’s suggestion that firefighters “act quickly” and employ flying water tankers, said that was not an option.
“Helicopter or plane, the weight of the water and the intensity of dropping it at low altitude could weaken the structure of Notre-Dame and cause collateral damage to surrounding buildings,” it tweeted.
The cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century, features in Victor Hugo’s classic novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
It is a Unesco World Heritage site that attracts millions of tourists every year.
The Gothic cathedral is famed for its many carved stone gargoyles, stunning stained glass windows and the flying buttresses that hold up its walls.
“There are a lot of art works inside ... it’s a real tragedy,” Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo told reporters at the scene.
The cathedral was in the midst of renovations, with some sections under scaffolding and bronze statues were removed last week for works.
The wood and lead spire was built during a restoration in the mid-19th century, according to the cathedral’s website.
The United Nations’ cultural agency Unesco said yesterday that it “stood at France’s side to save and restore” Notre-Dame Cathedral, deeming it “a priceless heritage”.
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