PARIS — Notre Dame Cathedral, the symbol of the beauty and history of Paris, was scarred by an extensive fire Monday evening that caused its delicate spire to collapse, bruised the Parisian skies with smoke, and further disheartened a city already back on its heels after weeks of violent protests.
The spectacle of flames leaping from the cathedral’s wooden roof — its spire glowing red then turning into a virtual cinder — stunned thousands of onlookers who gathered along the banks of the Seine and packed into the plaza of the nearby Hôtel de Ville, gasping and covering their mouths in horror and wiping away tears.
“It is like losing a member of one’s own family,” said Pierre Guillaume Bonnet, 45, a marketing director. “There are so many memories tied up in it.”
Around 500 firefighters battled the blaze for nearly five hours. By 11 p.m. Paris time, the structure had been “saved and preserved as a whole,” said the fire chief, Jean-Claude Gallet. The two magnificent towers soaring above the skyline had been spared, he said, but two-thirds of the roof and its spire were destroyed.
“The worst has been avoided even though the battle is not completely won,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a brief and solemn speech at Notre Dame on Monday night, vowing that the cathedral would be rebuilt.
“This is the place where we have lived all of our great moments, the epicenter of our lives,” he said. “It is the cathedral of all the French.”
The cause of the fire was not immediately known, officials said. But it appeared to have begun in the interior network of wooden beams, many dating back to the Middle Ages and nicknamed “the forest,” said the cathedral’s rector, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet.
No one was killed, officials said, but a firefighter was seriously injured.
The fire broke out about 6:30 p.m., upending Macron’s plans to deliver an important policy speech about trying to heal the country from months of demonstrations by the yellow-vest protest movement that had already defaced major landmarks in the capital and disfigured some of its wealthiest streets.
The tragedy seemed to underscore the challenges heaped before his administration, which has struggled to reconcile the formidable weight of France’s ideals and storied past with the necessity for change to meet the demands of the 21st century.
A jewel of medieval Gothic architecture built in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is a landmark not only for Paris, where it squats firmly yet gracefully at its very center, but for all the world.
The cathedral is visited by about 30,000 people a day and around 13 million people a year.
For centuries France’s kings and queens were married and buried there. Napoleon was crowned emperor in Notre Dame in 1804, and the joyous thanksgiving ceremony after the Liberation of Paris in 1944 took place there, led by Charles de Gaulle.
On Monday evening, as the last tourists were trying to get in for the day, the doors of Notre Dame were abruptly shut without explanation, witnesses said.
Within moments, tiny bits of white smoke started rising from the spire, which, at 295 feet, was the highest part of the cathedral.
Billowing out, the smoke started turning gray, then black, making it clear that a fire was growing inside the cathedral, which is currently covered in scaffolding. Orange flames began punching out of the spire, quickly increasing in intensity.
French police rushed in and started blowing whistles, telling everyone to move back, witnesses said. By then, the flames were towering, spilling out of multiple parts of the cathedral. Tourists and residents alike came to a standstill, pulling out their phones to call their loved ones. Older Parisians began to cry, lamenting how their national treasure was quickly being lost.
Thousands stood on the banks of the Seine river and watched in shock as the fire tore through the cathedral’s wooden roof and brought down the spire. Video filmed by onlookers and shared on social media showed smoke and flames billowing from the top of the cathedral.
Jean-Louis Martin, 56, a native of Dijon in eastern France who works at the university in Geneva, gasped as the flames leapt up. “It hurts me,” he said. “There are no words. It’s just horrible.”
The crowd gasped and cried in horror when the spire fell. “Paris is beheaded,” said Pierre-Eric Trimovillas, 32.
Vincent Dunn, a fire consultant and former New York City fire chief, said that fire-hose streams could not reach the top of such a cathedral, and that reaching the top on foot was often an arduous climb over winding steps.
“These cathedrals and houses of worship are built to burn,” he said. “If they weren’t houses of worship, they’d be condemned.”
The city’s prosecutor’s office said it had opened an investigation.
Chauvet said firefighters were able to save some of the cathedral’s artworks but did not say how much was damaged inside the building. A linen fabric associated with Saint Louis, the Holy Crown of thorns, and the cathedral’s treasury were saved. André Finot, the cathedral spokesman, said the cathedral’s collection of relics and other sacred items, kept in the sacristry, were likely unharmed
Gallet, the fire chief, said firefighters were still rescuing artworks in the building, hours after the fire had started. The main risk, he said, was the smoke within the cathedral, and the fall of materials, including melting lead.
The cathedral had been undergoing extensive renovation work. Last week, 16 copper statues representing the twelve apostles and four evangelists were lifted with a crane so that the spire could be renovated.
The cathedral had been in dire need of a thorough and expensive restoration, Finot told The New York Times in 2017.
Broken gargoyles and fallen balustrades had been replaced by plastic pipes and wooden planks. Flying buttresses had been darkened by pollution and eroded by rainwater. Pinnacles had been propped up by beams and held together with straps. In some places, limestone crumbled at a finger’s touch.
Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York, said construction work and renovations had long been a dangerous combination.
“There’s a history of churches and synagogues and other houses of worship falling victim to construction fires,” he said, adding that one of the reasons for the peril was the proximity of open flames on torches, sparks from welders, and other hazards on scaffolding to other flammable materials.
In recent years, the Friends of Notre Dame, a foundation based in the United States, estimated that the structure needed nearly $40 million for urgent repairs. The French state, which owns the cathedral, already devotes up to about $2.4 million a year in upkeep.
The fire came during Holy Week, six days before Easter Sunday. For Roman Catholics, the cathedral has been a spiritual pilgrimage site for generations. France has a deep Catholic history, and nearly two-thirds of its population is Catholic, even though fewer and fewer attend Mass.
“It’s apocalyptic,” said Eleanor Batreau, 45, who organizes pilgrimages to Lourdes and sometimes works at Notre Dame. “It reminds me of Dresden burning. I’m a Catholic, and Notre Dame is a symbol of Mary.”
The risk of the fire is not just to the cathedral itself, but also to the gargoyles that cover its walls and to the stained glass, particularly its “rose” windows.
The largest of its bells, which dates to 1681, managed to survive the French Revolution and has been rung at some of the most important events in French history, including both world wars.
Yet the fire is likely to be just the latest, if most dramatic, insult to a landmark that has endured decades of neglect and damage, some at the hands of French revolutionaries, through its more than 850-year history.
Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, “Notre-Dame of Paris,” noted even then that “one cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile, both by the action of time and the hand of man.”