In the latticed shadows of the medieval masterpiece that was Notre Dame de Paris, centuries of history unspooled: two calamitous world wars, bubonic plague, revolution, the sprawling, messy intricacies of daily life. Its mighty bells clanged at momentous junctures — when Paris was liberated from the Nazis in 1944, in tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
A massive blaze at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris devastated large parts of the 850-year-old church. The fire is now out, but the cathedral’s iconic spire fell during the hours it took to battle the blaze. French President Emmanuel Macron, in an address to the nation, promised Parisians that they will “rebuild this cathedral together.”
Onlookers wept and gasped in horror as more than 400 firefighters fought the ferocious and fast-moving blaze, which broke out about 6:45 p.m., destroying large parts of the 850-year-old Gothic monument.
Firefighters said the roof had been mostly destroyed, and at one point they feared the entire structure could collapse. Flames licked up the tall spire, which eventually buckled and collapsed in on itself, but by midnight, with the fire’s intensity finally fading, officials at the scene said the cathedral structure, including the two towers on the main facade, had been saved.
On Monday, it was the bells of Paris’ other churches that tolled — in an anguished, prayerful gesture of solidarity and support for the burning cathedral.
The cathedral was minutes away from total destruction, officials say.
But despite Mr Macron’s pledge experts say its reconstruction could take decades.
Fifty people will investigate the cause of the fire. Paris public prosecutor Rémy Heitz said there was no obvious indication of arson and that the blaze was being treated as an accident.
A combined €800m ($902m; £692m) has already been pledged by a number of companies and business tycoons to help rebuild the Unesco World Heritage site.
In a televised address on Tuesday evening, President Macron suggested he wants it rebuilt by the time Paris hosts the Summer Olympics in 2024.
“We’ll rebuild Notre-Dame even more beautifully and I want it to be completed in five years, we can do it,” said Mr Macron, who had already pledged to launch an international fundraising scheme for the reconstruction.
“It’s up to us to convert this disaster into an opportunity to come together… It’s up to us to find the thread of our national project.”
But Eric Fischer, head of the foundation in charge of restoring the 1,000-year-old Strasbourg cathedral, told AFP the Notre-Dame may take “decades” to rebuild.
Frédéric Létoffé, the head of the group of companies for the Restoration of Historic Monuments, put the timescale at between 10 and 15 years, warning substantial work would be needed to secure the site before restoration can begin.
The blaze – which was discovered at 18:43 (16:43 GMT) on Monday and was fully extinguished almost 15 hours later – destroyed most of the cathedral’s roof and led to the collapse of its iconic spire.
Experts have not yet been allowed on site to assess the damage and firefighters have sent a drone to survey the scale of the destruction.
The main structure, including the two bell towers, was saved in a time window of 15 to 30 minutes by a team of 400 firefighters, he said.
In his speech Mr Macron heaped praise on the fire services, saying they took “extreme risks” to tackle the blaze.