PARIS (REUTERS) - Firefighters doused the smoldering ruins of Notre Dame with water on Tuesday (April 16), the morning after a raging inferno swept through the gothic cathedral in the heart of Paris as investigators tried to establish what started the fire.
Hundreds of firemen battled the blaze which consumed the roof and collapsed the eight-centuries-old cathedral’s spire for more than eight hours before bringing it under control, saving its bell towers and outer walls.
Pockets of fire continued to burn inside the building and thorough checks on the cathedral’s structural soundness would be needed, junior interior minister Laurent Nunez said.
The Paris prosecutor’s office said it had launched an inquiry into the fire. Several police sources said they were working on the assumption for now that the fire was accidental.
“It’s a symbol of our country that risked being destroyed,” Culture Minister Franck Riester told CNews television.
Firefighters who entered the burning cathedral saved many of its treasures, Mr Riester said, although some paintings remained inside and risked smoke and water damage.
The fire tore through the cathedral’s timbered roofing, where workmen were carrying out extensive renovations to collapsed balustrades and crumbling gargoyles and the spire’s wooden frame.
Hundreds of stunned onlookers lined the banks of the Seine river as the fire raged, reciting prayers and singing liturgical music in harmonies late into the night as they stood vigil.
President Emmanuel Macron promised France would rebuild Notre Dame, considered among the finest examples of French Gothic cathedral architecture and visited by more than 13 million people annually.
“We will rebuild it together. It will undoubtedly be part of French destiny and our project for the years to come,” Mr Macron said outside the cathedral shortly before midnight.
France’s Fondation du Patrimoine, a charity which works to protect French heritage, is launching an international appeal to raise funds for the rebuilding that is likely to cost hundreds of millions of euros.
Other campaigns were swiftly launched in the United States as well-wishers around the world pledged contributions via social media.
Two of France’s wealthiest men, Mr Francois-Henri Pinault, chief executive of the Kering group which owns brands including Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, and Mr Bernard Arnault, the main shareholder of luxury group LVMH, said they would donate €100 million (S$153 million) and €200 million respectively.
“This tragedy strikes all the French and beyond all those who are attached to spiritual values,” Mr Pinault said in a statement.
A centuries-old crown of thorns made from reeds and gold and the tunic believed to have been worn by Saint Louis, a 13th century king of France, were saved, Notre Dame’s top administrative cleric, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, said.
Copper statues representing the Twelve Apostles and four evangelists were removed by crane last week as part of the renovation work.
World leaders expressed shock and sent condolences to the French people.
Mr Macron cancelled an address to the nation that he had been due to give on Monday (April 15) evening in a bid to answer a wave of street protests that has rocked his presidency. Instead, he went to the scene of the blaze with his wife Brigitte and some of his ministers. He thanked and congratulated emergency services and firefighters.
The French Civil Security service, possibly responding to US President Donald Trump’s suggestion that firefighters “act quickly” and employ flying water tankers, said that was not an option as it might destroy the entire building.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the cathedral a “symbol of France and our European culture”.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said her thoughts were with the French people and emergency services fighting the “terrible blaze”.
The Vatican said the fire at the “symbol of Christianity in France and in the world” had caused shock and sadness and said it was praying for the firefighters.
Symbol of Paris
The mayor of Paris, Ms Anne Hidalgo, said at the scene that some of many artworks that were in the cathedral had been taken out and were being put in safe storage.
The cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century, features in Victor Hugo’s classic novel The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. It is a Unesco World Heritage site that attracts millions of tourists every year.
It is a focal point for French Roman Catholics who, like Christians around the world, are celebrating Holy Week, marking the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The archbishop of Paris called on all priests in Paris to ring church bells as a gesture of solidarity for Notre Dame.
“I have a lot of friends who live abroad and every time they come I tell them to go to Notre Dame,” said witness Samantha Silva, with tears in her eyes.
“I’ve visited it so many times, but it will never be the same. It’s a real symbol of Paris.”
The cathedral was in the midst of renovations, with some sections under scaffolding, and bronze statues were removed last week for works.
Built over a century starting in 1163, Notre Dame is considered to be among the finest examples of French Gothic cathedral architecture.
It is renowned for its rib vaulting, flying buttresses and stunning stained glass windows, as well as its many carved stone gargoyles.
Its 100m-long roof, of which a large section was consumed in the first hour of the blaze, was one of the oldest such structures in Paris, according to the cathedral’s website.
A centre of Roman Catholic faith, Notre Dame has also been a target of political upheaval over the centuries.
It was ransacked by rioting Protestant Huguenots in the 16th century, pillaged again during the French Revolution of the 1790s and left in a state of semi-neglect. Hugo’s 1831 work led to revived interest in the cathedral and a major – partly botched – restoration that began in 1844.
The wood-and-lead spire was built during that restoration, according to the cathedral’s website.
“I asked our Lord – but why?” Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, the top administrative cleric at Notre Dame, said at the scene. “It’s terrible to see our cathedral damaged like this.”