The blaze broke out around 5:50 p.m. and almost immediately, video footage of the cathedral showed flames and billowing smoke rising from the roof and lead spire of the medieval cathedral.
The 750-ton spire, a 19th century reproduction of the original Gothic structure, collapsed through the roof of the church, as did much of the roof. Flames made their way to the two towers that form much of the iconic facade that dates back to the 12th century, causing officials to fear the building would be a total loss.
But around 11 p.m., fire officials deemed the towers safe from the blaze.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the “worst has been avoided” and he promised to rebuild the cathedral through a fundraising campaign.
“The fire is now weaker,” said Laurent Nunez, secretary to the interior minister. “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 works of arts.”
CNN reported firefighters struggled to begin putting out the flames because they were unable to get close enough to the blaze. Notre-Dame
Police in Paris told the public to clear the area so emergency vehicles and firefighters could access the building in the heart of the capital. The cathedral sits on the Ile de la Cite, a natural island in the Seine River in the Fourth Arrondissement.
André Finot, a spokesman for the cathedral, told Le Monde newspaper, “Everything is burning.”
“We have to see if the vault, which protects the cathedral, will be touched or not.”
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo called the blaze “terrible” and called on the public to respect the security perimeter in place.
“I don’t have enough words to express the pain I feel about Notre Dame going up in flames,” she said. “This evening, all Parisians and French people weep for the emblem of our common history. As our motto says, we will find the strength to stand back up. Fluctuat nec mergirur.”
Paris Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Gregoire, speaking to French broadcaster BFMTV, said the entire wooden interior of the cathedral was burning and likely to be destroyed. He said first responders were working to quickly removing artifacts and priceless works of art from inside the structure.
French President Emmanuel Macron postponed a planned speech Monday night and instead visited the site of the burning building with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.
“Our Lady of Paris in flames,” he tweeted. “Emotion of a whole nation. “Thinking of all Catholics and all French. Like all our countrymen, I’m sad tonight to see this part of us burn.”
Crowds of people gathered at a safe distance from the cathedral to watch as it burned. As night fell, many began praying and singing hymns.
Construction on Notre-Dame Cathedral began in 1163 and concluded in 1345. It is considered one of best examples of French Gothic architecture, featuring pointed arches, flying buttress supports, a ribbed vault, two 225-feet-tall towers on the facade, and large, intricate rose windows made of stained glass.
It has undergone a number of restoration projects over the centuries, including one that cleaned the cathedral’s surfaces of soot and dirt in the 1960s, restoring it to its original color.
Among the artifacts kept inside the cathedral is what some believe are Jesus’ crown of thorns. The cathedral, which is still in active use as a church, expected an influx of visitors this week, Holy Week, leading up to Easter Sunday.
About 13 million people visit the building each year.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti called the cathedral a symbol of Christianity across the world.
“We express our closeness with the French Catholics and with the Parisian population,” he said. “We pray for firefighters and for all those who do their best to cope with this dramatic situation.”
The cathedral gained added fame in the early 19th century when author Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame to draw attention to the building and its architectural importance. He hoped the extensive descriptions in the book would prevent officials from inaccurately restoring or even demolishing the church.
“Every surface, every stone of this venerable pile, is a page of the history not only of the country, but of science and art,” Hugo wrote in the book.
The cause of the fire was unknown, though the cathedral was under renovation at the time of the blaze. The Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation to determine the cause.