A catastrophic fire has ripped through Paris’ iconic Notre Dame Cathedral after a blaze engulfed the upper reaches while it was undergoing renovations.
The fire collapsed the cathedral’s spire and spread to one of its landmark rectangular towers.
Tourists and Parisians watched on aghast from the streets below as one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world was ravaged by flames.
While France’s Interior Ministry initially said firefighters might not be able to save the main structure, authorities announced late on Monday (local time) that the two main towers had been saved from significant damage.
The fire continues to burn into Tuesday morning as some 400 firefighters continue to bring the fire under control.
“We can consider that the two towers of the north belfry Notre-Dame have been saved,” a fire official told French news channel BFMTV.
Yet Paris fire commander Jean-Claude Gallet revealed the extent of the damage, saying two thirds of the roof “has been ravaged”.
The first images from inside the cathedral have begun to emerge, showing firefighters assessing the extensive damage.
Gallet confirmed one firefighter has been injured during attempts to extinguish the blaze. French media are reporting he is in a serious condition.
Preliminary investigations suggest the fire was accidental.
— Notre-Dame Cathedral (@CathedraleNotre) April 15, 2019
A world treasure: Notre Dame’s rich history
- Named Notre Dame de Paris, which means Our Lady of Paris, stands as one of France’s most iconic attractions.
- The building stands on the Île de la Cité, a small island in Paris’ Seine River. Construction was begun in 1163, and its two massive towers were finished around 1245, but the building was not completed until the beginning of the 14th century. Its central spire was added in the 19th century.
- The interior of the cathedral is 130 meters by 48 meters. The main structure is 64 meters high. The three famed rose windows date to the 13th century.
- In the wake of the French Revolution, the cathedral was declared a “Temple of Reason” as part of an anticlerical movement. All of the original bells were destroyed, except for one, called Emmanuel and weighing 13 tons.
- In 2013, the cathedral celebrated its 850 years with a refurbished organ. Each of the nearly 8,000 pipes, some of which date back to the 18th century, was individually cleaned and returned to its place. Meanwhile, nine new, gargantuan bells replaced the 19th century ones.
- An average of 30,000 people a day visit the cathedral.
Authorities initially feared the worst
A spokesman earlier said the entire wooden frame of the cathedral would likely come down, and that the vault of the edifice could be threatened too.
“Everything is burning, nothing will remain from the frame,” Notre Dame spokesman Andre Finot told French media.
The 12th-century cathedral is home to incalculable works of art and is one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions.
While the cause of the blaze has yet been confirmed, French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying the fire is “potentially linked” to a A$9.5million renovation project on the church’s spire and its 250 tons of lead.
Prosecutors opened an investigation as Paris police said there were no reported deaths.
Some 400 firefighters are battling the blaze well into the night.
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 bridges around the island that houses the cathedral, watching in shock as acrid smoke rose in plumes.
Timeline of devastating blaze
6.50pm (local time) – Fire starts in roof of Notre Dame Cathedral, firefighters say.
7.07pm – Witnesses see smoke and flames emerging from structure.
7.40pm – Fire spreads to spire of Notre Dame Cathedral. French President Emmanuel Macron cancels planned TV address to rush to the scene.
7.53pm – Cathedral’s spire collapses.
8.07pm – Entire roof of Notre Dame collapses, according to Reuters correspondent at the scene.
8.25pm – Paris’ Ile de la Cite, the island on which Notre Dame sits, is evacuated by police.
President vows to restore national icon
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 has announced he is committed to rebuilding the ancient structure.
“We will rebuild it. All together. It is a part of our French destiny,” Macron said in a tweet.
Deputy mayor Emmanuel Gregoire said emergency services were trying to salvage the famed art pieces stored in the cathedral.
Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is the most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages as well as one of the most beloved structures in the world.
Situated on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the Seine river, the cathedral’s architecture is famous for, among other things, its many gargoyles and its iconic 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 also include a Catholic relic, the crown of thorns, which is only occasionally displayed, including on Fridays during Lent.
The cathedral was immortalized in Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” published in 1831, and has long been a subject of fascination in popular culture as well as the traditional art world.
French historian Camille Pascal told BFM broadcast channel 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.”
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is in despair at the “terrible fire.”
Hidalgo said in a Twitter message that Paris firefighters are still trying to limit the fire and urged Paris citizens to respect the security perimeter that has been set around the cathedral.
Hidalgo said Paris authorities are in touch with the Paris diocese.
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, Trump tweeted: “So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris” and suggested first responders use “flying water tankers” to put it out.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said 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.”
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