French firefighters were racing Monday to save Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris after a colossal fire caused the spire of the historic edifice to crash to the ground and wiped out centuries of heritage.
The fire already destroyed the roof of the 850 year old UNESCO world heritage landmark, whose spectacular gothic spire collapsed before the eyes of horrified onlookers on a previously pristine early spring evening.
The fire, which came as Catholics prepare to celebrate Easter, sent orange flames and clouds of grey smoke billowing into the sky as stunned Parisians and tourists watched on in horror.
Some were in tears, others offered prayers from the banks of the river Seine as the inferno devoured the cathedral.
As darkness fell, some 400 firefighters battled against the odds to control the fire and save at least its iconic front towers which were still standing.
“This is really sad —- the saddest thing I’ve ever stood and watched in my life,” said British tourist Sam Ogden, a 50-year-old onlooker, who had come to visit the cathedral with her family.
Gasps and cries of “Oh my god” erupted around an hour after the fire first broke out when the top portion of the church’s spire came crashing down.
– ‘France is Notre Dame’ –
The cause of the blaze was not immediately confirmed. The cathedral had been undergoing intense restoration work which the fire service said could be linked to the blaze.
Last week, dramatic footage had shown workers removing 16 copper statues from the spire which was undergoing a revamp financed by the state and private donors.
Historians expressed incredulity at the collapse of a building that has been a symbol of France for almost a millenium and withstood war and revolution.
“If Paris is the Eiffel Tower then France is Notre Dame. It’s the entire culture, entire history of France incarnated in this monument,” Bernard Lecompte, a writer and specialist in religious history told BFM TV.
Deputy Paris mayor Emmanuel Gregoire told the channel that workers were scrambling “to save all the artworks that can be saved.”
A spokesman for the cathedral told AFP that the wooden structure supporting the roof was being gutted by the blaze.
“Everything is burning,” the spokesman, Andre Finot, told AFP.
Senior Paris fire service official General Jean-Claude Gallet told reporters at the scene it was not certain if the spread of the fire to the northern bell tower could be stopped.
Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez, also speaking at the scene, added that saving the Gothic monument “is not certain.”
– ‘Emotion of a nation’ –
President Emmanuel Macron cancelled a major televised policy speech he was due to give on Monday evening and headed to the scene in person.
In a tweet he expressed the “emotion of a whole nation” on seeing Notre-Dame ablaze.
“Like all my compatriots I am sad to see a part of us burn this evening” he said, expressing solidarity with “all Catholics and all French people.”
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said he felt a “sadness beyond words” but added the fire services “were still fighting… heroically, to save what can be saved”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Notre-Dame cathedral a “symbol of European culture” as the blaze raged.
The Vatican on Monday expressed its “incredulity” and “sadness”, expressing ” our closeness with French Catholics and with the Parisian population.”
– ‘Water bombers not used’ –
There was no immediate indication of any casualties in the blaze.
“The Paris fire service is trying to control the flames,” Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo wrote on Twitter, asking residents to respect the security cordon around the site.
US President Donald Trump in a tweet said: “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!”
But France’s civil security service, which oversees crisis management in the country, tweeted back at Trump that the use of water-bombing aircraft was not being considered.
“If used, (this) could lead to the collapse of the entire structure of the cathedral,” it said.
– ‘Will never be the same’ –
Hundreds of people gathered on the bridges of Paris downriver to witness the scene, many filming the images with their smartphones.
The cathedral was located at the centre of the French capital in the Middle Ages and its construction was completed in the mid-12th century after some 200 years of work.
During the French Revolution in the 18th century, the cathedral was vandalised in widespread anti-Catholic violence: its spire was dismantled, its treasures plundered and its large statues at the grand entrance doors destroyed.
It would go on to feature as a central character in a Victor Hugo novel published in 1831, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and shortly afterwards a restoration project lasting two decades got underway, led by architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc.
It would survive the devastation of two world conflicts in the 20th century and famously rang its bells on August 24, 1944, the day of the Liberation of Paris from German occupation at the end of the World War II.
“Paris is disfigured. The city will never be like it was before,” said Philippe, a communications worker in his mid-30s, who had biked over to the scene after being alerted of the fire by a friend.
“It’s a tragedy,” he added. “If you pray, now is the time to pray.” – AFP