Paris, France – Parisians are grappling with the aftermath of a night of anguish, when a fire tore through Notre Dame Cathedral, gutting its roof and toppling its iconic spire as thousands watched on in dismay from the streets.
This morning crowds thronged the banks of the Seine to witness the damage for themselves, after hundreds of firefighters battled the inferno through the early hours of Tuesday.
Locals were relieved the damage was not as extensive as they had feared when flames engulfed the medieval masterpiece on Monday evening, billowing smoke across the skyline of the French capital.
Just before midnight firefighters announced that the bulk of the structure had been preserved, including its stone face and distinctive bell towers, though the ribbed oak roof had been reduced to ash. “We consider the two towers of Notre Dame to have been saved,” said Jean-Claude Galler, chief of the Paris fire service.
A full investigation has been launched into the cause of the fire, which prosecutors say was started accidentally. Authorities are examining whether it began on the roof, which construction workers were renovating. Engineers will conduct a full assessment of the damage and the integrity of the surviving structure.
“The worst has been avoided,” said French president Emmanuel Macron, who rushed to the scene, pledging to restore the 850-year old cathedral he said was integral to the country’s heritage and identity.
“We will rebuild this cathedral together and it is undoubtedly part of the French destiny and the project we will have for the years ahead,” he said.
The Foundation for French Heritage has launched a national collection to raise funds for the restoration, while two of the country’s wealthiest men, billionaires Bernard Arnault and Francois Pinault, pledged 300m euros ($340m) from their fortunes.
Most of the priceless relics and treasures inside, which included the purported crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ and its 8,000 pipe organ, were also spared from destruction.
One of its celebrated rose windows, whose ornate stained-glass designs date to the 13th century, has been confirmed as saved, though there are conflicting reports about the fate of those on the south and west sides of the building.
WATCH: Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral ‘saved, preserved’ after massive fire
Churches across the country rang their bells in mourning and solidarity last night, signalling a profound loss that transcends France’s strict division between religious and secular life.
Notre Dame has survived centuries of war, plague and revolution, surveying Paris from its island perch on the river Seine as it grew from a provincial city to the capital of European culture and politics. It was the scene of Napoleon’s coronation as emperor, the inspiration for Victor Hugo’s classic novel ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, and today draws 12 million tourists each year, almost twice the number that visit the Eiffel Tower.
“Notre Dame is burning, France is crying and the whole world, too, is extremely emotional,” the Archbishop of Paris Michel Autpetit told reporters last night.
“I’ve received message from all over the world… The first message I received was from the Chief Rabbi of France, Haim Korsia, who said to me, ‘this is our place and I am crying with you’.”
Sorbonne student Margaret Sos told Al Jazeera she was in shock when she heard the news. “I thought it’s fake news, it’s not possible,” she said. “I cried because I’m Catholic and for me it’s not [just a] beautiful building, it’s also a spiritual place so it’s very hard.”
Parisian Thierry Nico was relived to see the familiar facade of Notre Dame greet him when he arrived this morning. “We know that probably she will be like before yesterday in 10 years, 15 years, maybe five years, but anyway the structure seems quite solid. I’m emotional but happy,” he told Al Jazeera.
“I think it’s a big deal for all countries. It’s not only a Parisian church, a French church, it’s a kind of monument which belongs to the world.”
The Notre Dame fire as it happened
On Monday evening 16:50 GMT the fire broke out in the attic of the cathedral.
The blaze consumed the roof and the eight-centuries-old cathedral’s spire before fire fighters brought it under control, saving its bell towers and outer walls.
- The destroyed roof was one of the oldest such structures in Paris.
By the early hours of Tuesday, at 10:00 local time (08:00 GMT) the fire service said the fire was extinguished.
- About 500 fighters battled the blaze. One firefighter was seriously injured – the only reported casualty.
|Smoke billows as fire engulfs the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris [Benoit Tessier/Reuters]|
What was saved?
Paris fire brigade chief, Jean-Claude Gallet, said the structure, including its two front towers were saved “and perserved as a whole”.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said at the scene that some of many artworks that were in the cathedral were rescued and were being put in safe storage.
The Holy Crown of Thorns and a sacred tunic worn by 13th-century French king Louis, two irreplaceable artifacts, were rescued.
- French President Macron said the worst has been avoided, but warned the fire would likely continue to burn for several days, saying: “The battle is not yet totally won.”
|The Holy Crown of Thorns is displayed during a ceremony at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris [FIle:Philippe Wojazer/Reuters]|
What happens now?
- Groups and individuals are mobilising to help rebuild the damaged parts of the cathedral. Hundred of millions have already been pledged.
The Fondation du patrimoine, a hertitage organisation, will launch a “national collection” for the reconstruction of Notre Dame, Anne Le Breton, deputy mayor of the French capital’s 4th arrondissement, said.
French President Emmanuel Macron said a “national undertaking” would be launched, and that “far beyond our borders, we will appeal to the greatest talents… who will contribute, and we will rebuild”.
- French billionaire businessman Bernard Arnault’s family and his LVMH luxury goods group will donate 200 million euros ($226m) to help repair Paris’ Notre –Dame cathedral.
People from all around the world reacted, and shared their thoughts on social media:
US President Trump said it was horrible to “watch”:
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 15, 2019
UN Secretary Antonio Guterres said that he was “horrified” by the images coming out of Paris.
Horrified by the pictures coming from Paris with the fire engulfing Notre Dame Cathedral – a unique example of world heritage that has stood tall since the 14th century. My thoughts are with the people and government of France. https://t.co/KnLegnlRFH
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) April 15, 2019
EU Council President Donald Tusk expressed his condolences after the fire broke at the cathedral.
Notre-Dame de Paris est Notre-Dame de toute l’Europe. We are all with Paris today.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) April 15, 2019
Former US President Barak Obama said that Notre Dame was one of the world’s great treasures.
Notre Dame is one of the world’s great treasures, and we’re thinking of the people of France in your time of grief. It’s in our nature to mourn when we see history lost – but it’s also in our nature to rebuild for tomorrow, as strong as we can. pic.twitter.com/SpMEvv1BzB
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) April 15, 2019
UK Prime Minister Theresa May also expressed her support.
My thoughts are with the people of France tonight and with the emergency services who are fighting the terrible blaze at Notre-Dame cathedral.
— Theresa May (@theresa_may) April 15, 2019
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent his condolences.
Saddened that Notre Dame—that iconic monument dedicated to the worship of our one God & that brought all of us closer through Hugo’s literary masterpiece—is partially destroyed after standing through wars & revolution for 800 yrs. Our thoughts are w/ the French & all Catholics.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) April 16, 2019