Paris’ most visited tourist attraction – the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral – caught fire Monday afternoon. By nightfall the 850 year-old jewel of Gothic architecture turned into blazing inferno.
The fire broke out at Notre-Dame around 18:50 local time (16:50 GMT), according to a member of the cathedral’s administrative staff. Huge plumes of thick smoke were seen billowing over rooftop of the 35-meter tall building. The exact place where the blaze started is unknown so far, although initial reports placed it amid the restoration scaffolding on the roof, near the spire.
Over 400 firefighters were called to fight the inferno. They rushed to the scene and tried to contain the blaze with water hoses, yet their efforts were in vain as the flames continued to march across the roof.
Authorities evacuated all buildings near the iconic landmark located on the Ile de la Cite – an island in the River Seine, marking the ancient heart of Paris. Meanwhile, huge crowds of people froze throughout the area, mesmerized and shocked by the fire.
In less than an hour, large spurts of flame were bursting through the roof near the spire of the cathedral. In mere minutes the wooden structure was engulfed in flames while the fire continued to rage across the roof.
A large part of the roof between the spire and the bell towers collapsed and the spire soon followed, crashing down into the burning abyss that was the interior of the cathedral.
The spire, made of wood and covered with lead, was built during Notre Dame’s restoration in the 19th century. It was by weather and time in many places, and renovation work was underway to shore it up.
French President Emmanuel Macron cancelled his scheduled address to the nation because of what he called a “terrible fire” less than an hour after the blaze broke out. “I am sad tonight to see this part of us burn,” he tweeted as the church’s spire and the roof went down.
Cathedral spokesman, Andre Finot, said that the entire wooden interior of the 12th century landmark was burning and would be destroyed. “Everything is burning, nothing will remain from the frame.”
The cathedral was home to numerous pieces of art as well as some Christian relics, such as what is believed to be a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, as well as the Crown of Thorns he wore. Both relics, obtained from the Byzantine Empire back in the 13th century, were reported safe.
Deeply shocked and saddened by the tragic event, many French residents were seen praying and singing hymns right on the streets leading to the banks of the Seine River not far from the Notre-Dame. Some people were kneeling in the streets.
“Basically the whole rooftop is gone. I see no hope for the building,” a witness, Jacek Poltorak, who watched the fire from a fifth-floor balcony two blocks from the southern facade of the cathedral, told Reuters.
“Everything is collapsing,” a police officer near the scene said.
“The Holy See has seen with shock and sadness the news of the terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame, symbol of Christianity in France and in the world,” the Vatican said. Meanwhile, condolences from the foreign leaders started to pour in.
While the firefighters desperately sought to contain the fast-moving fire, they ruled out the use of flying water tankers to extinguish the flames, saying that it could lead to the entire structure collapsing.
“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,” the French Civil Security Service said in a tweet.
Some two hours after the start of the fire, flames were seen inside one of the bell towers of Notre-Dame. As the dusk fell upon Paris, the 12th-century cathedral was still burning, with the spurts of fire still raging above its walls, illuminating the towers with the dark orange light and casting an eerie glow through its stained-glass windows.
Nearly three hours after the fire started, a Fire Department spokesman said the next 90 minutes would be crucial in seeing if the blaze could be contained. Later, the Paris Fire Chief, Jean-Claude Gallet admitted that he was “not sure we are capable of stopping the spreading” of fire to Notre-Dame’s second tower and belfry. At the same time, the firefighters reported that were trying to do their best to save the northern tower, which had caught fire.
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