PARIS, France — The main structure of Notre Dame cathedral in central Paris has been saved after hours of fire-fighting to put out a devastating blaze, the city’s top fire official said late Monday.
“We can consider that the main structure of Notre Dame has been saved and preserved,” Paris fire brigade chief Jean-Claude Gallet told reporters outside the cathedral, adding it appeared that the two main towers of the building had now been saved.
Around 400 firefighters had been dispatched to stop the destruction of the Medieval cathedral in Paris on Monday evening, describing the blaze as “difficult” to handle.
Dozens of fire vehicles were at the scene while high-pressure hoses could be seen spraying water onto the collapsed roof and nave area, suspended from cranes.
He said that the main task now was to cool the temperature inside the cathedral, a procedure that would take several hours.
Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez, also present at the scene, said that for the first time “the fire had decreased in intensity” while still urging “extreme caution.”
“We are not sure we can stop the spread to the northern tower,” Nunez warned reporters earlier , referring to the two stone towers at the front of the Gothic masterpiece.
“If that collapses, you can imagine the scale of the damage,” he added.
The fire already destroyed the roof of the 850 year old UNESCO world heritage landmark, whose spectacular gothic spire collapsed before the eyes of horrified onlookers on a previously pristine early spring evening.
The fire, which came as Catholics prepare to celebrate Easter, sent orange flames and clouds of grey smoke billowing into the sky as stunned Parisians and tourists watched on in horror.
Some were in tears, others offered prayers from the banks of the river Seine as the inferno devoured the cathedral.
As darkness fell, some 400 firefighters battled against the odds to control the fire and save at least its iconic front towers which were still standing.
“This is really sad —- the saddest thing I’ve ever stood and watched in my life,” said British tourist Sam Ogden, a 50-year-old onlooker, who had come to visit the cathedral with her family.
Gasps and cries of “Oh my god” erupted around an hour after the fire first broke out when the top portion of the church’s spire came crashing down.
‘France is Notre Dame’
The cause of the blaze was not immediately confirmed. The cathedral had been undergoing intense restoration work which the fire service said could be linked to the blaze.
Last week, dramatic footage had shown workers removing 16 copper statues from the spire which was undergoing a revamp financed by the state and private donors.
Historians expressed incredulity at the collapse of a building that has been a symbol of France for almost a millennium and withstood war and revolution.
“If Paris is the Eiffel Tower then France is Notre Dame. It’s the entire culture, entire history of France incarnated in this monument,” Bernard Lecompte, a writer and specialist in religious history told BFM TV.
Deputy Paris mayor Emmanuel Gregoire told the channel that workers were scrambling “to save all the artworks that can be saved.”
A spokesman for the cathedral told AFP that the wooden structure supporting the roof was being gutted by the blaze.
“Everything is burning,” the spokesman, Andre Finot, told AFP.
President Emmanuel Macron canceled a major televised policy speech he was due to give on Monday evening and headed to the scene in person.
In a tweet he expressed the “emotion of a whole nation” on seeing Notre Dame ablaze.
“Like all my compatriots I am sad to see a part of us burn this evening” he said, expressing solidarity with “all Catholics and all French people.”
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said he felt a “sadness beyond words” but added the fire services “were still fighting… heroically, to save what can be saved.”
In a first official Israeli reaction, Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said on Twitter it was “heartbreaking to see this icon of France and world civilization in flames.”
President Reuven Rivlin and acting Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz also expressed solidarity with France over the blaze.
“On behalf of the State of Israel, I would like to express my deepest solidarity with France and the French nation over the terrible fire at Notre Dame, a world symbol of civilization,” Katz said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Notre-Dame cathedral a “symbol of European culture” as the blaze raged.
The Vatican on Monday expressed its “incredulity” and “sadness”, expressing ” our closeness with French Catholics and with the Parisian population.”
‘Water bombers not used’
There was no immediate indication of any casualties in the blaze.
“The Paris fire service is trying to control the flames,” Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo wrote on Twitter, asking residents to respect the security cordon around the site.
US President Donald Trump in a tweet said: “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!”
But France’s civil security service, which oversees crisis management in the country, tweeted back at Trump that the use of water-bombing aircraft was not being considered.
“If used, (this) could lead to the collapse of the entire structure of the cathedral,” it said.
Nunez later defended the fact that water-bombing planes had not been used, as urged in a tweet notably by US President Donald Trump, saying that such action would have posed a “major danger” for the structure.
‘Will never be the same’
Hundreds of people gathered on the bridges of Paris downriver to witness the scene, many filming the images with their smartphones.
The cathedral was located at the center of the French capital in the Middle Ages and its construction was completed in the mid-12th century after some 200 years of work.
During the French Revolution in the 18th century, the cathedral was vandalized in widespread anti-Catholic violence: its spire was dismantled, its treasures plundered and its large statues at the grand entrance doors destroyed.
It would go on to feature as a central character in a Victor Hugo novel published in 1831, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and shortly afterwards a restoration project lasting two decades got underway, led by architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc.
It would survive the devastation of two world conflicts in the 20th century and famously rang its bells on August 24, 1944, the day of the Liberation of Paris from German occupation at the end of the World War II.
“Paris is disfigured. The city will never be like it was before,” said Philippe, a communications worker in his mid-30s, who had biked over to the scene after being alerted of the fire by a friend.
“It’s a tragedy,” he added.
“If you pray, now is the time to pray.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.