PARIS – The iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the culmination of Gothic architecture, suffered on Monday a devastating fire that destroyed part of its structure and threw France into turmoil.
Some 500 firefighters managed to prevent the entire 850-year-old cathedral from being reduced to ashes using water cannons that halted the spread of the fire, although not before two-thirds of the building’s roof and its celebrated spire had been destroyed.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who – along with other top government officials – went to the scene to monitor the work of firefighters and promised to rebuild the portion of the cathedral that was damaged or destroyed.
The fire, which erupted for as yet unknown reasons about 7 pm, also damaged a large portion of the interior works of art, although not the relics that adorn the church, including Christ’s crown of thorns.
When the first flames were detected, the cathedral’s bells were sounded, a clamor that has been much linked to both joyful and sad events in French history.
Given that the cathedral stands on an island in the middle of the River Seine, which runs through the heart of Paris, firefighters had difficulty accessing the site and then working there.
Although initially authorities feared that they might not be able to save the building, junior Interior Minister Laurent Nuñez sent out a message of hope late on Monday night saying that, although it was best to remain cautious, everything was pointing to the fact that the cathedral’s structure could be saved.
A huge portion of the French public was glued to the television sets on Monday evening during the course of the fire, and Macron tweeted that “I’m sad to see how a part of all of us is burning.”
“We will rebuild it,” said the president, on the verge of tears, from the cathedral’s esplanade, where he issued a call for donations to pay for the reconstruction work that will be needed to restore Notre Dame to its former splendor.
Msgr. Chauvet, the rector of the church, said that the cathedral’s main relics had been preserved.
Earlier Monday night, Paris firefighters battling the blaze said that they were not sure they can stop the flames from spreading across the roof, adding that if the fire reached the towers the consequences could be predicted.
Deputy Interior Minister Nuñez, who was at the scene of the blaze, said at the time that saving the cathedral “is not guaranteed.”
A spokesman for the firefighters, Jean-Claude Gallet, said that the priority during much of their work was to prevent the collapse of the north bell tower, which – if it were to topple – could have taken a good part of the overall structure with it.
The fire was reported shortly before 7 pm, after the monument closed to the public for the day.
Macron, accompanied by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, went to the area near the cathedral to follow the work of the firefighters firsthand.
Other members of Macron’s government, including Defense Minister Florence Parly, Culture Minister Franck Riester and the Interior secretary of state also went to the scene
and are supervising operations there.
Before he went to the cathedral, Macron had decided to postpone an important speech he had been scheduled to deliver on television at 8 pm and in which he had been expected to announce measures to try and end the so-called “yellow vest” crisis that broke out five months ago.
Images on social media show thick plumes of smoke billowing out of the top of the Gothic church, which is one of the most popular sites in the French capital.
Flames could be seen billowing around the central spire, which was surrounded by scaffolding, and spreading along the roof.
It is believed the blaze may have been linked to renovation works being carried out on the 850-year-old cathedral, which is visited by thousands of people every day and some 13 million people every year.
Police cordoned off the surrounding area and evacuated tourists from inside the church.
Kaissia Rouan, who was in the park beside the monument, told EFE that “when the firefighters arrived there were already a lot of flames coming from the roof.”
“We have seen a lot of smoke, we thought it was because of the works they are doing, there were more and more, we went to the front and we were evicted to avoid being affected by the smoke, we saw the flames leave the cathedral. Very sad,” the tourist said.