PARIS -- A fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris' soaring Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday as it was undergoing renovations, threatening one of the architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on from the streets below.
The blaze collapsed the cathedral's spire and spread to one of its landmark rectangular towers, but Paris Fire Chief Jean-Claude Gallet said the church's structure had been saved after firefighters managed to stop the fire from spreading to the northern belfry. The 12th-century cathedral is home to incalculable works of art and is one of the world's most famous tourist attractions, immortalized by Victor Hugo's 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The cause of the blaze was not known, but French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying the fire was "potentially linked" to a $6.8 million renovation project on the church's spire and its 250 tons of lead. The Paris prosecutors office ruled out arson and possible terrorism-related motives, saying it was treating the fire as an accident.
"It is like losing a member of one's own family," said Pierre Guillaume Bonnet, a 45-year-old marketing director.
"For me, there are so many memories tied up in it," he said of the cathedral.
On Monday evening, as the last tourists were trying to get in for the day, the doors of Notre Dame were abruptly shut without explanation, witnesses said.
Within moments, tiny bits of white smoke started rising from the spire -- which, at 295 feet, was the highest part of the cathedral.Gallery: Fire at Notre Dame in Paris
Billowing out, the smoke started turning gray, then black, making it clear that a fire was growing inside the cathedral, which is currently covered in scaffolding. Soon, orange flames began rising out of the spire, quickly increasing in intensity.
French police rushed in and started blowing whistles, telling everyone to move back, witnesses said. By then, the flames were towering, spilling out of multiple parts of the cathedral. Tourists and residents alike came to a standstill, pulling out their phones to call their loved ones. Older Parisians began to cry, lamenting how their national treasure was quickly being lost.
As the spire fell, the sky lit up orange, and flames shot out of the roof behind the nave of the cathedral, among the most visited landmarks in the world. Hundreds of people lined up on bridges around the island that houses the church, watching in shock as the acrid smoke rose in plumes. Speaking alongside Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez late Monday, Gallet noted that "two-thirds of the roofing has been ravaged." He said firefighters would keep working overnight to cool down the building.
Late Monday, signs pointed to the fire nearing an end as lights could be seen through the windows. The lights, apparently from investigators inspecting the scene, were seen moving around the front of the cathedral. The city's mayor, Anne Hidalgo, said the significant collection of artwork and holy objects inside the church had been recovered.
Only one of the approximately 400 firefighters who battled the blaze was injured, officials said.
The fire came less than a week before Easter and amid Holy Week commemorations. Parisians gathered to pray and sing hymns outside the church of Saint Julien Les Pauvre across the river from Notre Dame while the flames lit the sky behind them. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit invited priests across France to ring church bells in a call for prayers.
French President Emmanuel Macron was treating the fire as a national emergency, rushing to the scene and straight into meetings at the Paris police headquarters nearby. He pledged to rebuild the church and said he would seek international help to do so.
"The worst has been avoided, although the battle is not yet totally won," the president said, adding that he would launch a national funding campaign today and would call on the world's "greatest talents" to help rebuild the cathedral.
"This is the place where we have lived all of our great moments, the epicenter of our lives," he said. "It is the cathedral of all the French."
STEEPED IN HISTORY
Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is the most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. Situated on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the Seine river, its architecture is famous for, among other things, its many gargoyles and its flying buttresses.
Among the most celebrated artworks inside are its three stained-glass rose windows, placed high up on the west, north and south faces of the cathedral. Its priceless treasures include a Catholic relic, the crown of thorns, that is only occasionally displayed, including on Fridays during Lent.
Napoleon was crowned emperor in Notre Dame in 1804, and the joyous thanksgiving ceremony after the Liberation of Paris in 1944 took place there, led by Charles de Gaulle. World leaders congregated at the cathedral in a memorial service for de Gaulle in 1970, and then again for President Francois Mitterrand in 1996.
The cathedral is visited by about 30,000 people a day and about 13 million people a year -- nearly double the number of people who visit the Eiffel Tower.
French historian Camille Pascal told the BFM broadcast channel that the blaze marked "the destruction of invaluable heritage."
"It's been 800 years that the cathedral watches over Paris," Pascal said. "Happy and unfortunate events for centuries have been marked by the bells of Notre Dame."
He added: "We can be only horrified by what we see."
Reactions from around the world came swiftly, including from the Vatican, which released a statement expressing shock and sadness for the "terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame, symbol of Christianity in France and in the world."
In Washington, President Donald Trump tweeted: "So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris." He suggested that first responders use "flying water tankers" to put it out.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, tweeted that he was praying "to ask the intercession of Notre Dame, our Lady, for the Cathedral at the heart of Paris, and of civilization, now in flames! God preserve this splendid house of prayer, and protect those battling the blaze."
The cathedral had been in dire need of a thorough and expensive restoration, Andre Finot, the cathedral spokesman, told The New York Times in 2017.
Broken gargoyles and fallen balustrades had been replaced by plastic pipes and wooden planks. Flying buttresses had been darkened by pollution and eroded by rainwater. Pinnacles had been propped up by beams and held together with straps. In some places, limestone crumbled at a finger's touch.
In recent years, the Friends of Notre-Dame, a foundation based in the United States, estimated that the structure needed nearly $40 million for urgent repairs. The French state, which owns the cathedral, already devotes up to about $2.4 million a year in upkeep.
Vincent Dunn, a fire consultant and former New York City fire chief, said fire-hose streams could not reach the top of such a cathedral and that reaching the top on foot was often an arduous climb over winding steps.
"These cathedrals and houses of worship are built to burn," he said. "If they weren't houses of worship, they'd be condemned."
Information for this article was contributed by Lori Hinnant, Samuel Petrequin, Elaine Ganley, Sylvie Corbet and Danica Kirka of The Associated Press; and by Adam Nossiter and Aurelien Breeden of The New York Times.
A firefighter battles flames burning in the upper level of the cathedral which was undergoing renovations.
A Section on 04/16/2019
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