PARIS/NEW YORK (AFP) - Crowds of stunned Parisians and tourists - some crying, others offering prayers - watched on in horror in central Paris on Monday evening (April 15) as flames engulfed the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Gasps and cries of "Oh my god" erupted at 7.50pm local time when the top portion of the church's spire came crashing down into an inferno that 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 attempted to clear 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 kept trying to approach, snarling traffic as they massed on the stone bridges leading to the islands.
Another woman passed by, tears streaming from behind her glasses, too overwhelmed to speak to reporters.
"It's finished, we'll never be able to see it again," said Jerome Fautrey, a 37-year-old who had come to watch.
"Now we need to know how this happened - with everything that's going on in the world, why Notre-Dame? Maybe it's a message from on high," he said.
'HISTORY UP IN SMOKE'
"It's incredible, our history is going up in smoke," said Benoit, 42, who arrived on the scene by bike.
Sam Ogden, 50, had arrived from London on Monday with her husband, their two teenaged sons, and her mother. They had come to Paris specifically to see Notre-Dame.
"This is really sad - the saddest thing I've ever stood and watched in my life," Ogden said.
She said the fire looked tiny at the beginning, "then within an hour it all came down."
A short distance away stood another British family, also from London. "It's devastating," said Nathalie Cadwallader, 42, who had come to Paris two days earlier with her husband and two children for a weeklong visit.
"This is a really historic skyscape and it's horrible this happened, on top of everything else Paris has gone through recently," she said, referring to the deadly terror attacks that struck the city in 2015.
Her family had initially planned to visit Notre-Dame on Monday but opted instead for the Eiffel Tower, intending to go inside the cathedral on Tuesday.
SHOCK AND SADNESS
Live images of the flames ripping through the 850-year-old landmark also prompted shock and sadness around the world.
In New York, 90-year-old writer Judith Gutman recalled the "horror" of seeing Notre Dame burning in images online. "I was in Paris many, many times, I have seen Notre Dame," she said near St Patrick's Cathedral in the heart of Manhattan. "I am not religious, but as an icon, as a building, a structure that is a symbol of Paris, it is shocking."
Amy Sapenoff, 33, a Catholic, said after attending a mass in the capital Washington that the news struck her at a "personal level".
The high school history teacher explained she went on a walking pilgrimage last year from Notre Dame to the Saint James the Great shrine in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in north-western Spain. "I'm extremely grateful, because I was able to go, to see it and to go for mass," she added tearfully.
IT consultant Nicolas Nader, 48, also from Washington, said he was "heartbroken." "My earliest memory of it is reading Victor Hugo novel about it," he added of the cathedral, which he described as a "Catholic treasure."