It took more than 12 hours to fully extinguish the flames that ripped through Notre-Dame Cathedral. It will take many years for a shocked nation to restore one of its defining icons.
After the blaze was finally extinguished, authorities were left scrambling to assess the stability of the seriously damaged structure, and counting how many of the ancient relics housed in the monument had been saved.
“We will rebuild Notre-Dame because that’s what the French people want,” President Emmanuel Macron vowed late Monday night. “That’s what our history deserves, because that is our destiny.”
Authorities declared Tuesday morning that the blaze had been contained as firefighters hosed the south side of the transept to cool down the building, and a district around the cathedral was sealed, as military and police patrolled the area.
“We have saved the belfries, the symbols of Notre-Dame,” Lieutenant-colonel Jose Vaz de Matos said. “We need to move toward the heart of the nave.”
Parisians flocked to the site early Tuesday to witness the damage and determine for themselves how the disaster has changed the face of their city.
“Whether or not you’re French or a tourist, whether you are a believer or not, to see Notre Dame burned down is like seeing your own house burned down. It breaks your heart,” said Melanie Reygnaud, a 22-year-old masters student who lives nearby. “Paris without Notre Dame just isn’t Paris.”
As Macron promised to rebuild the cathedral, he said he would draw on the world’s best talents for the task. His call for donations was quickly answered by businesses and French billionaires offering to contribute.
The Paris region has unblocked $11.5 million in emergency funding. The Pinault family of Gucci owner Kering SA announced it was giving 100 million euros and the Arnault family that controls LVMH said it pledged 200 million euros.
The fate of the cathedral hung in the balance for more than four hours before Macron declared the two bell towers and facade had been saved. Flames had engulfed the roof, snaking up the ornate spire before it collapsed as smoke billowed out into the evening skyline of the French capital. More than 400 firefighters battled the inferno.
The cause of the fire is still unknown. Paris prosecutors opened a non-criminal investigation Monday night, a routine step in such a major incident.
The historic church, located on one of two islands in the middle of the Seine River, had been under renovation and scaffolding had covered much of the top structure.
Centuries-old artwork and relics from the cathedral were removed by firefighters, and some stored in a secret location according to a Paris town official. Mayor Anne Hidalgo said the crown of thorns and tunic of Saint Louis had been salvaged. On Twitter, she said she was at a loss for words “to express the pain I feel in the face of the ravaging flames.”
Hidalgo said she would organise a donors’ conference to raise funds to rebuild.
Early Tuesday, it was still unclear what exactly had been saved from inside the church, Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit said on TV channel BFM.
He said the treasury had been saved and that the organ appears to have escaped major damage. “But some things are attached to walls and couldn’t be taken out and I don’t know what shape they are in,” he said.
“What’s really shocking is the whole facade that’s still standing and yet we can see the emptiness behind it,” said Elaine Halle, who traveled from her home on the outskirts of Paris to see the damage. “It’s really moving, because it’s both a physical emptiness and one for reflection.”
The flames lapping the famous landmark is just the latest in a string of tragedies to strike the French capital. In 2015, Paris was the site of two of the worst terror attacks in the country’s post-WWII history. Since last November, the city has also been under siege every Saturday as clashes between the so-called Yellow Vest protesters and police have turned violent. Macron canceled a major policy speech as the extent of the fire became clear.
Notre Dame is a major tourist destination, with the number of visitors swelling to as many as 50,000 a day, especially during periods like holy week in the Christian calendar leading up to Easter.