Paris was struck in its very heart on Monday as flames devoured the roof of Notre-Dame, the medieval cathedral made famous by Victor Hugo, its two massive towers flanked with gargoyles instantly recognisable even by people who have never visited the city.
Thousands of Parisians poured into the streets to watch as the fire spread, overwhelmed by the catastrophic damage to a global heritage site visited by nearly 14 million tourists and Catholic faithful each year.
The sense of loss was etched on onlookers’ faces, many wiping away tears as they contemplated the prospect that the Notre-Dame they knew might now only been seen in history books.
Flames ravaging the roof illuminated the outline of the monument’s two square towers in a fiery glow and were reflected in the waters of the Seine. Along the Pont au Change bridge, which connects the Ile de la Cite with the Right Bank, the atmosphere was one of a vigil as hundreds of people watched in hushed silence as smoke rose into the night sky.
Many were quietly singing an Ave Maria in Latin, including Stephane Seigneurie, 52, who said he has lived in Paris for the past 25 years.
“I come often, and go in even where there’s no mass because it’s an extraordinary place, entwined in the history of France,” he said.
“Politically, intellectually and spiritually, it’s a symbol of France.”
When Seigneurie says that he’s very sad, an elegant woman with dark bobbed hair who is crying whispers to him, “We have to pray.”
Jeanne Duffy, 62, had travelled from New York to Paris with her twin daughters to see her nephew run the Paris marathon on Sunday.
The girls had wanted to climb the church’s towers Monday evening but at the last minute, the three decided to go to Disneyland Paris instead.
“We were heartbroken because as New Yorkers we’ve been through this,” Duffy said, referring to the September 11, 2001 attacks which destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
“In terms of heritage, this is much worse. This is a world treasure. Everyone knows Notre-Dame,” she said.
Gasps and cries of “Oh my god” erupted at 7:50 pm (1750 GMT) when the top portion of the church’s spire came crashing down into an inferno that had spread to the entire roof.
More gasps came a few seconds later when the rest of the spire collapsed, caught on the cameras of thousands of mobile phones.
“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 after being alerted of the fire by a friend.
“I’m a Parisian, my father was a Parisian, my grandfather as well — this was something we brought our sons to see,” he said. “I won’t be showing this to my son.”
“It’s a tragedy,” he added. “If you pray, now is the time to pray.”
Police cleared pedestrians away from the two islands in the river Seine, including the Ile de la Cite which houses the soaring Gothic church, one of Europe’s best-known landmarks.
But throngs of onlookers remained behind police cordons on the stone bridges leading to the islands and along the banks of the Seine river as darkness fell.
“It’s finished, we’ll never be able to see it again,” said Jerome Fautrey, a 37-year-old who had come to watch.
‘We will rebuild Norte-Dame together’
“We will rebuild Notre-Dame together”, an emotional French President Emmanuel Macron vowed on Monday evening as he visited the famed Paris cathedral which was partly ravaged by fire.
With tears in his eyes, Macron said that “the worst has been avoided” thanks to the work of firefighters who battled for hours to save the Gothic cathedral’s two towers and facade.
He vowed to draw on “the best talent” to rebuild what had been destroyed.
“What happened tonight in Paris and at Notre-Dame Cathedral is a terrible tragedy,” Macron said.
“The worst was avoided even if the battle has not been completely won yet and the next few hours will be difficult.”
The 41-year-old president described the 850-year-old monument at the heart of Paris as “the epicentre of our life” and the cathedral of “all the French”, whether religious or not.
He said that “starting tomorrow” he would launch an international appeal for the restoration of the beloved church.
“And we will rebuild Notre-Dame because it is what the French expect,” he said, flanked by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit.