By James McAuley , James McAuley Foreign correspondent focusing on French and European politics and culture Email Bio Follow Michael Birnbaum , Michael Birnbaum Brussels bureau chief covering Europe Email Bio Follow Griff Witte and Griff Witte Europe-focused correspondent with extensive experience in the Middle East and South Asia Email Bio Follow Reis Thebault Reis Thebault National and breaking news reporter Email Bio Follow April 16 at 2:25 AM PARIS — France rose Tuesday to confront the smoldering remains of the Notre Dame Cathedral, as officials said they were confident they had controlled the inferno that partly destroyed the nation’s symbol.
Adolfo Henrique Ledo Nass
As the first rays of sun drew across the soaring cathedral — whose two rectangular towers stood tall above the nearly-totally destroyed roof and collapsed spire — firetrucks and cranes with flashing blue lights continued to fight remnants of the blaze.
With most of the fire under control, it was almost possible to look head-on at the front of church and see its centuries-old rose windows and carved statues and imagine all was intact. But to stray to any other angle made clear the devastation. The roof was burned away, and there was an aching absence where the spire had been. Char and smoke marks licked the walls out of window frames where once there was stained glass. Water gushed in arcs onto wooden roof beams that once seemed eternal and now looked like used matchsticks.
Adolfo Henrique Ledo Nass
Engineers, architects and firefighters planned to assess the structural damage first thing Tuesday, to decide whether the soaring chapel was safe enough to enter to continue fighting the flames inside, officials said. They warned they still did not know the extent of the catastrophe.
[ All that could be lost in the Notre Dame blaze ]
“It is controlled but not totally extinguished,” French junior Interior Minister Laurent Nuñez told BFMTV. “What is necessary now is to examine the structure to determine whether the building is stable.”
The Gothic cathedral was built over centuries and partially consumed in just hours on Monday, as thousands of Parisians stood sentinel on the banks of the Seine, singing “Ave Maria” and weeping at what was happening. Not just the heart of Paris, or France — although it is — the church has stood tall as a triumph of humanity for eight centuries.
Adolfo Ledo Nass
“Parisians lose their Dame,” read one French headline Tuesday morning.
Firefighters said Tuesday they had been able to save the church’s two most hallowed relics: a tunic worn by Saint Louis, a 13th-century French king, and the crown of thorns that Jesus is said to have worn. Many other artifacts were also believed to be saved.
“It was necessary to bring them out through the smoke,” Paris Fire Commander Jean-Claude Gallet told BFMTV, saying that firefighters had rushed into the chamber of the cathedral at the height of the fire to make the rescue.
But a cathedral spokesman said the awe-inspiring wooden medieval interior had been gutted.
People kneel on the pavement as they pray outside watching flames engulf Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday. (Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images) Even as the flames still burned, France was making plans to reconstruct the church.
In an address to the nation just before midnight, President Emmanuel Macron said the worst had been avoided, that the exterior structure had been preserved and that the cathedral would rise again.
“I tell you solemnly tonight: We will rebuild this cathedral,” he vowed.
“Notre Dame of Paris is our history,” Macron continued, emphasizing the structure’s unique place in the national imagination. “The epicenter of our lives. It’s the many books, the paintings, those that belong to all French men and French women, even those who’ve never come.”
[ The fire at Notre Dame, a Catholic icon, was made even more heartbreaking by the timing ]
French officials planned to launch a national collection drive for the reconstruction. French luxury magnate François-Henri Pinault declared his family would dedicate 100 million euros, about $113 million, to the effort
Officials planned to start assessing the loss later Tuesday, and also to try to determine the blaze’s origins.
“Honestly, we can’t say the causes now,” said Nuñez, the junior interior minister. The fire appears to have started under the scaffolding encasing the exterior of the church’s nave, which was under renovation. The Paris prosecutor’s office launched an investigation. Many officials said they believed it was an accident
At one point Monday night, fire officials said the blaze might continue to rage uncontrollably and that the entire structure could collapse.
But late Monday, after hundreds of firefighters spent hours dousing the building with jets of water, officials said the iconic twin bell towers that stand astride the building’s grand entry had been saved and that the fire was contained
There were no deaths, but a firefighter was reportedly badly injured.
The fire began in the early evening, just minutes after the building closed to tourists.
Yellow clouds of smoke billowed into an otherwise perfect blue sky and orange flames assaulted the belfry. At twilight, a gaping hole could be seen where the enormous vaulted roof once had been. Flames continued to lick the night sky as an impromptu chorus in the streets below somberly sang ” Ave Maria ,” some members falling to their knees.
The heat of the fire could be felt from across the Seine as firefighters frantically pumped water from cranes and sought to save the priceless works stored and displayed within.
The building, the cornerstone of which was laid in 1163, is the most visited monument in Paris, with more than 12 million people coming each year — nearly double the people who visit the Eiffel Tower. Its intricate stone gargoyles, spires, stained glass and flying buttresses have made it one of the great masterpieces of architecture.
[ How Notre Dame inspired Henri Matisse, who depicted the cathedral as a living memory ]
The church is both a literal and figurative center of the city: It anchors the Ile de la Cite, the island in the Seine where the first settlements emerged that eventually became the city of Paris. The common distinctions of “Left Bank” and “Right Bank” are in reference to this island
Until Monday night, Notre Dame had managed to withstand both the elements and the vicissitudes of history that left their mark elsewhere in the French capital: the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, two world wars and Adolf Hitler’s demolition plans in 1944
Throughout French cultural history, Notre Dame has served as a powerful symbol of Paris and of France’s cultural heritage. The writer Anatole France once described it as “heavy as a hippopotamus” but “light as a butterfly.” The painter Marc Chagall depicted it in his canvasses, distorted in dreamlike haze.
Pope Francis issued a statement late Monday expressing the Vatican’s “shock and sadness” at “the news of the terrible fire that devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a symbol of Christianity in France and in the world.”
“We express closeness to the French Catholics and the people of Paris and we assure our prayers for the firemen and those who are doing everything possible to face this dramatic situation,” the statement read.
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