Witness to revolutions, and the rise and fall of empires, Notre Dame has watched over Paris for more than 850 years. But on Monday night, in the space of just 63 minutes, the historic cathedral – one of the world’s most visited buildings – was engulfed in flames, its famous wooden spire burnt through and brought crashing down.
Firefighters struggled to control the blaze – thought to have been started accidentally by restoration work on the landmark, which has 12 million visitors a year. As the cathedral glowed orange with flames, one police officer told reporters: “Everything is collapsing.”
It was supposed to be the night Emmanuel Macron addressed the nation about street protests that have rocked his country for months. Instead, the president found himself on the banks of the Seine, watching on as one of the jewels in France’s republican crown burned.
Flames and smoke began billowing from the cathedral’s tower at around 7pm local time, and barely an hour later the spire had fallen, closely followed by the roof.
A Catholic Church spokesperson told French media that the entire wooden interior frame of the 12th century landmark was burning.
A spokesperson for the Paris city government said the area around the place of worship had been cleared to make way for the firefighting operation. Parisians watched on in horror, from a distance.
Even before the blaze was extinguished, emergency services set about trying to rescue artwork stored in the cathedral, said Emmanuel Gregoire, the deputy mayor of Paris. He warned that the building had suffered colossal damage.
Hours after the blaze took hold, a fire chief in Paris said the structure had been saved though parts of the cathedral had been destroyed.
President Macron addressed crowds outside Notre Dame and pledged to rebuild the cathedral.
He announced that the French government would set up a public fund to collect donations for the building works.
"The fire will go on for several days. I would like to thank the firefighters on behalf of the nation," he said.
"At this time, the worst has been avoided. Even if the building hasn't been completely destroyed, the next few hours will be difficult, but thanks to the efforts of so many, the facade has been saved.
"Notre Dame is our history, our imagination, where we've lived all our great moments, and is the epicentre of our lives."
Priceless works housed in the cathedral include a number of the Petits Mays, a series of paintings commissioned once a year by the Paris goldsmiths guild for nearly a century. Tradition holds that the cathedral also contains a piece of the crown of thorns of Jesus.
In an isolated stroke of good fortune, a series of 16 copper statues representing the 12 apostles of Jesus and four evangelists were reported to have been taken down from the building’s roof for renovation just four days before the fire – saving the works from the inferno.
While the fire still raged, the Paris prosecutor’s office was quick off the mark and announced it was opening an investigation into its causes. Though there has been a confirmed spate of arson attacks on French churches in recent months, there is at this time no evidence that the incidents are linked.
Well-wishes for the city flooded in from around the globe. US president Donald Trump was among the first to issue condolences and advice. He tweeted: “So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!”
In the event water planes were not used to tackle the fire, for fear that dropping liquid on the cathedral could make the entire structure collapse, French officials said.
Over the Channel, mayor of London Sadiq Khan described the scenes as “heartbreaking”, adding: “London stands in sorrow with Paris today, and in friendship always.”
Theresa May said: “My thoughts are with the people of France tonight and with the emergency services who are fighting the terrible blaze at Notre Dame cathedral.”
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, also commented: “Notre Dame of Paris is the Notre Dame of all of Europe. We are all with Paris today.”
Meanwhile his European Commission counterpart Jean-Claude Juncker added: “I am minute by minute the fire of which Notre Dame de Paris is the prey. Our Lady of Paris belongs to the whole of mankind. What a sad spectacle. What a horror. I share the emotion of the French nation which is also ours.”
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