UPDATE: Both towers of the Notre Dame cathedral “are safe,” said Laurent Nunez, French Secretary to the Interior Minister, hours after a massive fire toppled its spire, burned its roof, and threatened the centuries-old art and architecture inside.
“The fire is now weaker. We are now in a time of cooling but both towers of the cathedral are safe. We’re still working to save the cathedral’s work of arts,” Nunez told reporters at the scene.
One firefighter has been seriously injured, said Paris Fire Brigade Commander General Jean-Claude Gallet. Gallet added that two-thirds of the cathedral’s roof has been destroyed.
Paris (CNN) – The spire atop the iconic Notre Dame cathedral collapsed amid a devastating fire at the Paris cathedral on Monday that has been burning for several hours.
Flames and thick plumes of smoke billowed from the cathedral, including at the bell tower and up the spire, which is surrounded by scaffolding. The fire rapidly spread and took over the iconic cathedral as onlookers scrambled to get a view of the destruction, even as soot and cinder fell onto them.
Consumed by flames, the spire leaned to one side and then collapsed onto the burning roof.
Firefighters atop cherry picker cranes sprayed water onto the church in an attempt to calm the flames, and the smell of smoke emanated through the air. The French Interior Ministry said 400 firefighters have been mobilized to deal with the blaze.
The firetrucks had difficulty getting to the scene, located on an island in Paris, amid the daily afternoon rush hour. Police said on Twitter the public should avoid the area and allow emergency vehicles into the scene.
French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said exceptional measures are being taken to try to save the cathedral.
It was not immediately known what caused the fire and whether anybody was injured. The cathedral has been surrounded by scaffolding and construction work was being done.
The fire, just days before Easter, was met with horror by Parisians and tourists.
Thibaud Binétruy, who lives in Paris, said he saw the smoke while walking home with a colleague and was gripped by the sight.
“When the spire fell, the crowd reacted with ohhh and ahh, but I guess most of them were just shocked silently,” Binétruy said. “It’s awful to see such a symbol disappearing in front of you. It’s been there for so many years and in a few minutes half of it disappeared … crazy. Paris without Notre Dame, madness.”
Patryk Bukalski was at a café near the cathedral when he started smelling smoke.
“A bartender said the Notre Dame is on fire, so I left and saw this horrible picture,” he said over Instagram.
He said people are standing outside, watching and crying.
“It’s horrible. It’s a symbol of Paris,” Bukalski said. “It’s just sad. I don’t know what more to say.”
Another witness, Anne Marie, spoke with tears in her eyes.
“In Paris, it’s a monumental symbol — every person with different religions are really moved and saddened,” she said. “Paris without the cathedral is not Paris anymore.”
The Vatican said the Holy See learned with “shock and sadness the news of the terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, symbol of Christianity, in France and in the world.”
“We express our closeness to the French Catholic and to the people of Paris. We pray for the firefighters and for all those who are doing everything possible to face this dramatic situation,” the Vatican said.
A symbol of France
Notre Dame’s foundation stone was laid in 1163 by Pope Alexander III, and the cathedral was completed in the 13th century. Today, with its towers, spire, flying buttresses and stained glass, Notre Dame is considered a feat of architecture as well as a major religious and cultural symbol of France.
Located in Île de la Cité, a small island in the middle of the city, the cathedral is one of Paris’ most popular attractions, drawing an estimated 13 million visitors a year.
Even as it fell into disrepair over the centuries, it was the site of Napoleon Bonaparte’s coronation as emperor in 1804. The central spire was built in the 19th century amid a broad restoration effort, partly buoyed by the success of Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” in 1831.
The cathedral also houses the grand organ, one of the world’s most famous musical instruments, as well as the Crown of Thorns, a relic of the passion of Christ.
French President Emmanuel Macron postponed a planned speech Monday night because of the Notre Dame fire, a spokesperson for the Elysee Palace said.
“Notre Dame of Paris in flames. Emotion for a whole nation. Thoughts for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our countrymen, I’m sad tonight to see this part of us burn,” Macron said on Twitter.
Macron arrived at the scene, accompanied by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and first lady Brigitte Macron, as well as the Paris prosecutor, who has opened an investigation into the fire.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Notre Dame “is not only a majestic church, it is also a world treasure,” he said.
“Noble in architecture and art, it has long been a symbol of the transcendent human spirit as well as our longing for God,” he said.
US President Donald Trump said it was a “terrible, terrible fire” and lamented the damage done to the historic cathedral.
“That’s beyond countries, that’s beyond anything,” he said. “It’s a part of our culture.”