Hours after a massive fire engulfed the historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday, a city official said the structure of the building had been saved.
The fire at the cathedral caused the roof to collapse, destroyed a spire and spread to one of the building’s two rectangular towers. The sight brought many onlookers to tears.
Those living near Notre Dame were evacuated as a safety precaution, the mayor’s office said. Meanwhile, Paris prosecutors said they had opened an investigation into the fire’s cause.
“I’m devastated,” Elizabeth Caille, 58, who lives in the neighborhood, said. “It’s a symbol of Paris. It’s a symbol of Christianity. It’s a whole world that is collapsing.”
Flames could be seen near scaffolding — high at the top of the famous church where $6.8 million in renovations were being done — and billowing smoke was seen from miles away in the French capital.
The spire destroyed by the fire contained artifacts considered sacred to Catholics, including a relic believed to be from Jesus Christ’s crown of thorns. Relics from Saint Genevieve and Saint Denis are also feared lost.
The massive blaze, which started at about 6:50 p.m. local time, also spread to one of the church’s landmark rectangular towers. Flames could be seen blazing behind an oblong stained-glass window in one of the towers.
At least 400 firefighters were on the scene, desperately trying to douse the flames that were destroying one of the nation’s most treasured sites.
“Everything is burning, nothing will remain from the frame,” Notre Dame spokesman Andre Finot told French media.
Onlookers were in tears as they witnessed the flames destroying one of Paris’ most famed and popular landmarks.
“A lot of people are crying,” witness Carolyn Marguiles told NBC News in a phone interview moments before she spotted the roof falling. “Oh my God, it just fully collapsed!”
Another witness, Nicholas Marang, was running by the Seine River when he spotted smoke — but didn’t immediately realize Notre Dame was on fire. He whipped out his phone and took footage of the spire’s fall.
“It was an absolute nightmare,” Marang, a 47-year-old consultant, told NBC News. “I ran to the cathedral and saw the spire of the cathedral falling.”
When the spire burned down, Marang said a part of him fell as well.
“Something just collapsed inside me,” he added. “(It was) one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.”
French President Emmanuel Macron canceled a scheduled speech to deal with the ongoing fire. He said this was an emotional night for Catholics and all of France.
“Our Lady of Paris is in flames,” Macron said in a statement on Twitter, before he rushed to the scene to witness the carnage first-hand. “Emotion for the whole nation. A thought for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our countrymen, I’m sad tonight to see this part of us burn.”
French historian Camille Pascal told broadcaster BFM that the fire marked “the destruction of invaluable heritage.”
“It’s been 800 years that the Cathedral watches over Paris,” Pascal said. “Happy and unfortunate events for centuries have been marked by the bells of Notre Dame.”
No deaths were immediately reported from the massive blaze, Paris police said.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said he was praying that “God preserve this splendid house of prayer, and protect those battling the blaze.”
Even President Donald Trump urged Paris firefighters to do everything they could to douse flames.
“It’s one of the great treasures of the world, the greatest artists in the world,” Trump said. “It’s greater than almost any museum in the world and its burning very badly, looks like its burning to the ground.”
“[The cathedral] is beyond countries, that’s beyond anything, that’s part of our growing up, it’s a part of our culture, it’s a part of our lives,” said Trump, who was speaking at an economic roundtable in Minnesota.
Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College in New York, said there is a history of churches, synagogues and temples going up in flames during renovations — as workers use torches or welding or cutting equipment that could be sources of ignition.
“This is a common problem for a lot of churches across the country,” Corbett said.
“If there is a most vulnerable time for a church, it is when it is under construction because we get people who are using torches or welding or cutting that are of course emitting forces,” Corbett.
Despite the massive size of the fire, a water-dropping plane could not have be used, he said.
“You couldn’t use a plane to drop water here because it’s highly unlikely you would hit the fire,” Corbett said. “You would hit everything around it. I don’t see value in doing that.”
The house of worship, with roots dating back to the 12th century, is considered one of the world’s greatest examples of French Gothic architecture.
Construction of Notre Dame began in 1163 under the reign of King Louis VII, and the first stone was laid in the presence of Pope Alexander III.
The landmark was not considered complete until nearly 200 years later, however, with the installation of flying buttresses and a stone fence surrounding the choir and the sanctuary, according to the website for Notre Dame de Paris.
The Associated Press reported that $19 million was set aside in 1991 for a restoration project to replace loose stones on the cathedral.
Nine bronze bells were made in 2013, the church’s 850th anniversary, in order to replace deteriorating artifacts.
Sixteen copper statues were removed from the spire on Friday as part of a restoration effort that was estimated to cost more than $900,000, Agence France Presse reported.