Notre-Dame cathedral in central Paris, one of the world’s best known and most visited monuments, was devastated by fire on Monday evening in a cultural catastrophe with few precedents in peacetime.
The fire appears to have started on the roof at the back of the cathedral, where restoration work was under way with extensive scaffolding, and spread rapidly to send flames and smoke high into the sky above the French capital.
A reporter in the square in front of the famous twin towers of the medieval cathedral saw flames spreading across the roof and was bombarded with a hail of cinders and red-hot fragments of wood.
The 750-tonne spire over the altar at the centre of the cathedral and much of the roof collapsed after it was engulfed in flames. The area around the cathedral, on the Ile de la Cité in the heart of Paris, was evacuated.
President Emmanuel Macron immediately cancelled a television speech to the nation in which he was set to outline his response to mass protests by the anti-government gilets jaunes movement.
Mr Macron said on Twitter that the fire prompted the “emotion of an entire nation”.
“Thoughts for all Catholics and for all the French people. Like all our compatriots, I am saddened to see this part of us burning this evening,” he said.
Television pictures an hour after the blaze started showed firefighters high up in the structure of the cathedral trying to battle the blaze.
The Unesco world heritage site attracts more than 12m visitors every year, and houses priceless works of art. Parts of the roof and building of the 12th century cathedral were clad in scaffolding for the renovation.
Anne Hidalgo, Paris mayor, called it a “terrible fire” and asked people to stay outside a security cordon outside the building.
Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, tweeted: “Notre-Dame of Paris is Notre-Dame of all Europe. We are all with Paris today.”
A witness reported noxious smoke and said that ash was falling on nearby streets, adding that there was gridlock on a bridge opposite the cathedral as onlookers took photos and video of the fire.
One onlooker said the fire was “too, too sad . . . a truly medieval blaze for a medieval building”.
The story of a French national icon
Notre-Dame de Paris built on the Île de la Cité in central Paris, on the site of a Gallo-Roman city known as Lutetia. The building measures 127m by 48m and the main nave is 43m high
French Revolution starts, after which the church was used as a warehouse and fell into neglect
Most of its bells taken down and melted to make cannon balls
28 statues of Judaean kings beheaded by a mob. In 1977 some 21 of the heads were found during excavation work in Paris and sent to the Musée de Cluny
Napoleon Bonaparte returned the building to religious use and crowned himself emperor of France there
Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, brought the church back to public attention and sparked a campaign to preserve it
Big restoration project began, led by architect Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc
Cathedral became property of the French state. It is classified as a French Historic Monument, and the culture ministry is responsible for maintenance and renovation
Pope Pius X beatified Joan d’Arc in the cathedral
Notre-Dame added to the Unesco World Heritage List
facts about Notre-Dame
One of the earliest structures built with exterior flying buttresses, required to support exceptionally tall walls punctured by large windows. The style became a characteristic Gothic design
‘Point zero’, from where all distances to and from Paris are measured, is marked by a plate directly in front of Notre-Dame
Some 12m visit the cathedral annually, making it the most popular tourist attraction within the Paris city limits
Treasures at Notre-Dame include the Crown of Thorns said to have been worn by Christ and a piece of the cross and a nail said to be from his crucifixion
This is a developing story. More to come.