PARIS (AFP, DPA) - The huge blaze that devastated Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was extinguished on Tuesday (April 16) around 15 hours after it first broke out, as investigators worked to identify the source of the massive blaze.
“The whole fire has been extinguished. Now we’re in the phase of investigating,” Paris fire service spokesman Gabriel Plus told reporters, adding that the fire had spread “very quickly” through the wooden roof of the world-renowned monument.
Briefing reporters in front of Notre Dame in central Paris, Mr Plus said firefighters had focused during the morning on the cathedral’s two massive bell towers and making sure they had not been damaged.
The task now is to monitor the structure, to see if it has moved at all and to put out remaining hot spots, he said, adding that about 100 firemen will remain on site for the whole day.
Shards of stained glass from priceless medieval windows, and a gaping hole above the choir area where the spire crashed down: daylight reveals the extent of damage at Notre Dame on Tuesday morning as firefighters put out the last smouldering remains of the fire.
Mr Philippe Marsset, the vicar general of Notre Dame, was among the first to enter the storied Gothic cathedral whose sculpted arches have been blackened by smoke and pews destroyed.
“It felt like I was looking at a bombing,” Mr Marsset said of the church where he was ordained a priest 31 years ago.
“It was hell,” he said, describing the moment when the blaze was discovered on the soaring roof shortly after evening mass ended shortly before 7pm (1700 GMT) on Monday (April 15).
Attention was expected to turn to the source of the fire, which occurred during renovation work to overhaul the spire that had suffered damage inflicted by weather and pollution.
Investigators began interviewing witnesses overnight and are treating the case as an “involuntary fire”, not arson.
Firefighters have said the renovation work could be to blame, and the fire started in an area of the roof that was below scaffolding.
One firefighter suffered injuries during the blaze, which at one point threatened to bring down one of the two monumental towers on the western facade of the cathedral that is visited by more than 12 million tourists each year.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced her intention to hold a donor conference for the cathedral’s reconstruction after the first multimillion-euro pledges started rolling in.
European Council President Donald Tusk calls on all 28 European Union member states to help rebuild the cathedral, while recalling his home city of Gdansk in Poland, which was rebuilt after World War II following widespread destruction.
“You will also rebuild your cathedral," Mr Tusk said during a European Parliament session in the French city of Strasbourg.
“I call on all the 28 member states to take part in this task," he adds.
“I know that France could do it alone, but at stake here is something more than just material help,” Mr Tusk says, adding: “We are bound by something more important and more profound than treaties.”
As the fire spread on Monday, church officials raced to remove as many artefacts, paintings and other cultural treasures they could before being evacuated by firefighters.
But the blaze kept springing up as globs of molten lead fell from the soaring heights of the church.
Firefighters managed to save the 850-year-old building’s main stone structure, but the roof and other parts of the cathedral were destroyed in the blaze overnight to Tuesday.
“All night long I saw men going past with tears in their eyes. I described it this way: It was total chaos, but we can’t let it knock us down,” Mr Marsset said.
“This church was built 850 years ago. It withstood the wars, it withstood the bombings, it resisted everything,” he said.
Yet not all was lost: the crucifix standing over the main altar was one of several objects which escaped destruction.
“I’m devastated, even if I haven’t been a Catholic for a long time,” 88-year-old Claire told AFP at the scene on Tuesday morning. “I was baptised here.”
On the banks of the river Seine, hundreds of Parisians and tourists stopped by on Tuesday morning to take pictures or gaze at the disaster site, many still stunned by the damage.
“This isn’t some little church that was damaged – it’s the symbol of the history of France and of Paris,” Mr Marsset said, noting that all distances from Paris are calculated from the square in front of Notre Dame.
But in the end there was relief that much was able to be saved, with much of stonework as well as the two massive square bell towers largely unscathed.
Most of the emblematic rose windows of medieval stained glass were also spared, including the huge round window dominating the church’s intricately carved western facade.
“We’re all just dumbfounded. It’s more than miraculous, it’s heroic,” Mr Marsset said, calling the firefighters who toiled throughout the night “heroes”. But he appeared lost for words when asked about what would happen now, as Christians worldwide prepared to celebrate Easter next Sunday (April 21).
“We had things planned for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday – We don’t yet know where to do these. It’s as if our mother has been wounded,” he said.
“My bed was right there,” he adds, pointing towards the cathedral, where smoke continued to rise into the sky Tuesday morning.
“It’s not the Notre Dame (Our Lady) of Catholics. It’s Notre Dame of France, Notre Dame of the world,” he adds.
“The church is burning, and the entire world is crying.”