Rebecca Rosman, Brian Hester and John Bacon, USA TODAYPublished 1:34 p.m. ET April 15, 2019 | Updated 5:48 p.m. ET April 15, 2019
A fire erupted at the famed Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France. USA TODAY
PARIS – A massive fire was raging at the famed Notre Dame cathedral and threatened to gut large sections of the 800-year-old landmark, but city officials said late Monday that they were optimistic the church’s iconic main towers could be saved.
The blaze collapsed the cathedral’s spire and spread to one of its landmark rectangular towers, but the city’s mayor said firefighters believe they could salvage parts of the building. That was a more hopeful prognosis from what officials said earlier, when they predicted the structure would burn to the ground.
“Everything is burning. Nothing will remain from the frame,” Notre Dame spokesman Andre Finot told French media earlier in the day. The 12th-century cathedral is one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions, immortalized by Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
Throngs of spectators watched in horror from nearby buildings, bridges and streets. Video footage showed fire and smoke spewing from the architectural marvel, home to priceless works of art. The flames appeared to be shooting out of the roof behind the nave of the cathedral.
The fire burned for hours, virtually unabated despite the efforts of hundreds of firefighters. The flames raced on as darkness fell.
“I don’t have the words for this,” said Anastasia Collas, 29, an advertising worker who watched and took video of the conflagration from the Hotel de Ville across the river from Notre Dame. “I live nearby. I want to cry. I don’t know if we’re going to lose it entirely, but this is devastating. I’m going to stay here until it ends.”
Salvage efforts were underway to recover precious artifacts, and city prosecutors announced they were opening an investigation. Preliminary accounts said the fire appeared to be accidental.
“A special mission has been launched to try to save all works of art that can be saved,” Emmanuel Grégoire, first deputy to the mayor of Paris, said on French TV.
Finot told the Le Figaro newspaper that the “treasure” of the cathedral has not been touched so far. “We must see if the vault, which protects the cathedral, will be touched,” he said. “The sacred objects are preserved in the sacristy; normally there is no risk of things being burned.”
At least one firefighter was seriously injured, officials said.
Tourists and others in the area tapped social media to notify friends and relatives that they were not harmed. The blaze comes during Holy Week, an important event for the Catholic Church with Easter six days away.
Firefighters blasted the inferno with water from ladder trucks but did not tackle it from above. Some could be seen laboring inside the structure itself.
Officials said the blaze could be linked to renovation work. The cathedral was in the midst of a $6.8 million renovation project.
French President Emmanuel Macron postponed a televised speech to the nation Monday evening and rushed to the scene. French historian Camille Pascal told French TV the fire was destroying “invaluable heritage.”
“It’s been 800 years that the Cathedral watches over Paris,” Pascal said. “Happy and unfortunate events for centuries have been marked by the bells of Notre Dame.”
The renovation project was part of an effort to save the deteriorating building, which dates back almost 1,000 years. Weather and pollution have taken their toll on the stone structure.
“Pollution is the biggest culprit,” Philippe Villeneuve, architect in chief of historic monuments in France, told Time magazine in 2017. “We need to replace the ruined stones. We need to replace the joints with traditional materials. This is going to be extensive.”
Construction of the cathedral took about 300 years to complete. The result is that, although it is predominantly French Gothic, there are areas that reflect the Renaissance and the Naturalism era of construction.
Still, the cathedral is widely considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture in the world. The name Notre Dame means “Our Lady” in French and is frequently used in the names of Catholic Church buildings around the world.
Elias Cohen, 21, a business student in Paris, was among the throngs of people who stared at the spectacle and tried to put it in perspective.
“I just saw on the news and I wanted to stay here to look at this because I’m a bit surprised and shocked,” Cohen said. “It’s a symbol of Paris and I’m a Parisian so … I don’t know what to say. I think it’s historic and I wanted to be here and I want to see it and remember it.
“It’s very hard for me and every Parisian I think and every French person (watching this). I have no words to describe this. It’s very simple … in Paris everyone knows the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It’s not even about French culture, it’s European culture.”
Rosman and Hester reported from Paris. Bacon reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard in London; The Associated Press