PARIS — Jim Costain, a German-based economist taking in the sights with his wife and two young children, thought at first it was just a reflection of the famed lights of Paris he glimpsed through the restaurant window in the heart of the French capital. It took a few minutes for him to realize that the glare was, in fact, the first flames engulfing the Notre Dame Cathedral, which the family had toured just hours earlier.
“We watched for hours,” Mr. Costain said, as did much of Paris, France, and the world as social media and television cameras tracked the red, yellow and orange inferno spreading remorselessly across the roof of the 850-year-old national symbol. “It seems that they’re saving the majority of the cathedral, but I can only imagine how much is lost inside.”
Over the course the next several agonizing hours, when French Catholics thought they would be preparing for Holy Week and Easter observances, Parisian firefighters raced to save what they could of the iconic structure, even as the cathedral’s signature spire and rose window surrendered to the flames. As night fell on the smoldering church, a sober French President Emmanuel Macron announced that on a bleak day for France, the cathedral’s twin bell towers and basic structure had apparently been preserved despite the devastation.
“The worst has been avoided, but the battle has not yet been fully won,” Mr. Macron told French television after he surveyed the scene. The president postponed a major policy speech set for Monday night as his country and the world seemed to stop to track the progress of the fire.
Officials said the blaze apparently was triggered by repair work on the cathedral roof and the spire, hundreds of feet higher than even the most powerful water cannons could reach. The spire, located above the altar at the end of the cathedral’s wood-framed nave, crashed straight down in a shower of sparks and billows of flame roughly two hours after the fire began.
Mr. Macron said it would be France’s “destiny” to rebuild the Catholic church and announced that a national subscription would be inaugurated Tuesday to finance the reconstruction effort.
SEE ALSO: Notre Dame fire out after 12-hour battle but much work ahead for destroyed cathedral
“This will be our project for years to come,” he said.
The Vatican issued a statement saying, “The Holy See has seen with shock and sadness the news of the terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame, symbol of Christianity in France and in the world.”
The statement added that Pope Francis was praying for the firefighters “and those who are doing everything possible to confront this dramatic situation.”
U.S. President Trump called the fire “horrible to watch” and suggested on Twitter that “flying water tankers” be used to reach the highest flames. Parisian officials said later that the force of water dropped from aerial tankers could have destabilized the venerable structure.
The exact cause of the blaze was not known, but French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying it was “potentially linked” to a $6.8 million renovation project on the church’s spire and its 250 tons of lead, The Associated Press reported. The Paris prosecutor’s office ruled out arson and terror-related motives and said it was treating the case as an accident.
SEE ALSO: Emmanuel Macron on Notre Dame fire: ‘Worst has been avoided’
Late Monday, flashlight beams seen through the front windows signaled that the fire was nearing an end. Investigators apparently were inspecting the scene.
By Tuesday, after 12 hours, the fire was finally extinguished.
Those living near the Cathedral were evacuated as firefighters raced to keep the flaming debris from igniting nearby structures.
Paris fire commander Jean-Claude Gallet said a major accomplishment of hundreds of firefighters was stopping the flames from spreading to the north tower belfry, according to the AP.
Remarkably, despite the huge crowds in Paris for the pending Easter celebration and the hundreds of personnel battling the intense flames, just one firefighter was apparently injured as a result of the fire.
In a city famed for its beauty and architectural riches, but one shaken by a string of terrorist attacks and economic protests, the Notre Dame fire at the opening of the Catholic Holy Week was the latest — and perhaps most staggering — blow.
“We have enough chaos here right now,” said Parisian resident Cedric Diallo, watching the inferno from across the Seine on the Right Bank. “I mean, every weekend we have to deal with the protests. Business is down and … this is just crazy, this shouldn’t be happening. It’s Notre Dame.”
Notre Dame officials said the “treasure” of the cathedral did not appear to be damaged. “We must see if the vault, which protects the cathedral, will be touched,” Andre Finot, spokesman for Notre Dame, told Le Figaro. “The sacred objects are preserved in the sacristy. Normally, there is no risk of things being burned.”
The purported Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus Christ was saved, media reports said.
Even so, he said, “everything is burning.”
“Of the frame, which dates from the 19th century on one side and the 13th century on the other, there will be nothing left,” Mr. Finot said.
The fire, which spread with stunning speed, ate through the attic of the cathedral, firefighters said. The Interior Ministry said more than 400 firefighters were mobilized.
“My colleagues would probably prefer to go inside, but the goal is not to lose men,” a firefighter told Le Figaro.
The landmark structure, begun in 1160 and essentially completed a century later, has been under reconstruction. Four days before the fire, 16 bronze statues of the apostles were removed from the roof to make way for construction.
Emergency workers and French security forces cleared the area around the cathedral and the Ile de la Cite — an island in the Seine where Notre Dame is located — but hundreds of people gathered on the bridge, the Pont Saint-Michel, and across the river at the Place de l’Hotel de Ville to watch in horror. The spectacle left many speechless and in tears.
Jin Ha, a tourist from South Korea standing near City Hall, said she was shocked to see the cathedral in flames.
“I was just there two days ago,” she said as one of the cathedral’s millions of tourists a year. “My hotel is near here, and I was walking by and saw it on fire. It’s hard to look at it, but you can’t not look.”
Meanwhile, Deputy Paris Mayor Emmanuel Gregoire told BFM TV that the spire collapsed inward and that workers were scrambling “to save all the artworks that can be saved.”
Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the Conference of Bishops of France and Archbishop of Reims, said he hoped the cathedral could be saved.
“We are in for years of work ahead,” he said in a message on Twitter. “Notre Dame Cathedral is one of the symbols of peace, beauty, hope, faith and even beyond the Christian faith. Without it, we would have an enormous loss.”
Some French lawmakers were echoing Mr. Macron’s call for volunteers and funds to rebuild the cathedral.
Almost four hours after the blaze started, hundreds of people remained on the bridges and the Right Bank watching the fire. Most were quiet. A few prayed or sang songs in tribute to the cathedral such as “Ave Maria” or “Belle” from the musical “Notre Dame de Paris.”
Some chanted Notre Dame softly, and passersby joined in as bells in churches around Paris rang in solidarity with Notre Dame.
• David R. Sands reported from Washington. Dave Boyer contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
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