Firefighters battle to extinguish a giant fire that engulfed the Notre Dame Cathedral. Photo by Eco Clement/UPI | License Photo
April 15 (UPI) -- A devastating fire collapsed the roof and spire of Notre-Dame Cathedral on Monday, but fire officials said they managed to avoid the total destruction of one of Paris' most recognizable landmarks.
The blaze broke out around 6:30 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 at around 11 p.m., fire officials deemed the towers safe from the blaze and then at 10 a.m. Tuesday, officials said some 400 firefighters had finally extinguished the fire and multiple artifacts had been rescued from the cathedral. One fire official said the cathedral has been "saved from total destruction."
"Thanks to Pompiers de Paris, the police and the municipal agents the Crown of Thorns, the Tunic of Saint Louis and several other major works are now in a safe place," Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo wrote on Twitter.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the "worst has been avoided" and he promised to rebuild the cathedral through a fundraising campaign.
"We will rebuild it," he said." We will rebuild Notre Dame because that is what the French people are expecting, that is what is our history is worthy of -- because it is our deep destiny."
European Council President Donald Tusk called on all nations of the European Union to come together and help France in its effort.
"You will rebuild your cathedral," he said Tuesday to the European Parliament. "From Strasbourg, the French capital of the EU, I call on all the 28 states to take part in this task."
He said he knows that France could rebuild Notre Dame on its own but there is more at stake than just material help.
"The burning of the Notre Dame cathedral has again made us aware that we are bound by something more important and more profound than treaties," he said. "Today, we understand better the essence of that, which is common, we know how much we can lose. And we want to defend it -- together."
CNN reported firefighters struggled to begin putting out the flames because they were unable to get close enough to the blaze.
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.
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.