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After a tense few hours, firefighters announce they saved the landmark from ‘total destruction’
Thousands of Parisians and tourists gathered on the banks of the Seine to witness Notre-Dame Cathedral burn before their eyes in plumes of yellow brown smoke Monday night.
Reporting live from the scene, France 24’s Charli James said the constant refrain on the ground was: “How could this have been allowed to happen?” Many of the onlookers had tears in their eyes.
The alarm was first sounded a little before 7 p.m. local time, right after the cathedral, turning 856 years old this year, closed to the public for the night. The cause of the fire was not immediately clear, according to the New York Times. French media quoting the Paris fire brigade suggested the blaze could be “potentially linked” to recent renovation efforts: When the fire broke out, Notre-Dame was in the middle of a $6.8 million project to restore its towering spire, which is why some sections of the building were under scaffolding.
The spire, added in the 19th century, and the roof have already collapsed in the blaze, and the flames are now spreading to one of the church’s rectangular towers. The medieval woodwork and carpentry of the structure supporting the roof remains aflame, according to France 24. Speaking with the media, André Finot, a spokesman for the cathedral, said the entire wooden interior is likely destroyed.
Firefighters cannot use water-dropping aircraft to douse the blaze because that could cause the entire structure to collapse. However, France’s civil security agency have assured the public it is using “all means” possible to put out the fire.
Jennifer Billock, a travel writer for Smithsonian.com, is on the scene, viewing the fire from Place Saint-Michel, a public square on the left bank of the Seine in the Latin Quarter of Paris. “Water is coming in from every side,” she says at 10 p.m. local time. “The interior is glowing orange.” She reports that she can see firefighters inspecting the front façade of the cathedral, which is still intact, with flashlights.
Billock adds that the crowd at Place Saint-Michel is spontaneously singing hymns. “It’s horrible. I’m Catholic, and this is a very special place for Catholics,” Ruth Esten, who used to live in Paris but was visiting for yesterday’s marathon, tells Billock. Vacationer Forrest Vermillion adds, “The loss, both spiritually and culturally, cannot be calculated. I am heartbroken.”
The historic Notre-Dame, built in the 12th and 13 centuries, is one of the most well-known cathedrals in the world, with some 14 million visitors a year. It is also considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture around. Fine art artists from Cass Gilbert to Ernest Fiene to H. Lyman Saÿen to Morris Henry Hobbs have crafted its spires in watercolor, acrylic and pen, many of them housed in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
In an interview with France’s BFM broadcast channel, Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Gregoire said that first responders are now working to salvage the invaluable pieces of cultural heritage contained inside the chapel. French writer and historian Camille Pascal mourned what was already lost, telling BFM that “we can be only horrified by what we see.”
French President Emmanuel Macron is treating the blaze like a national emergency. “Thoughts go out to all Catholics and all French people. Like all our compatriots, I am sad tonight to see this part of us burning,” he wrote on Twitter.
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