Firefighters declared success Tuesday in a more than 12-hour battle to extinguish an inferno engulfing Paris’ iconic Notre Dame cathedral that claimed its spire and roof, but spared its bell towers and the purported Crown of Christ.
What remained was a blackened shell of the monument immortalized in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a building that had survived almost 900 years of tumultuous French history but was devastated amid renovation works at the start of Catholic Easter week.
Its iconic twin bell towers remained visibly intact. Paris officials said the world famous 18th century organ that boasts 8,000 pipes also appeared to have survived, along with other treasures inside the cathedral, after a plan to safeguard heritage was quickly put into action.
Paris Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Gregoire described authorities’ “enormous relief” at the salvaging of pieces such as the purported Crown of Christ, which were transported to a “secret location” after the fire. Statues removed just days ago for restoration work were also spared.
At dawn, the twin 69-meter towers swarmed with building specialists and architects.
“The entire fire is out,” declared Paris firefighters’ spokesman Gabriel Plus, adding that workers were “surveying the movement of structures and extinguishing smouldering residues.”
“The task is — now the risk of fire has been put aside — about the building, how the structure will resist,” said Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez in front of the cathedral.
One of the city’s five senior vicars, Philippe Marsset, told AP: “If God intervened (in the blaze) it was in the courage of the firefighters.”
“Notre Dame was destroyed but the soul of France was not,” Michel Aupetit, archbishop of Paris, said on RMC radio.
Officials consider the fire an accident, possibly as a result of the restoration work at the global architectural treasure.
Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz said the investigation would be “long and complex.” Fifty investigators were working on the probe, he said, and would be interviewing workers from five companies hired to work on renovations to the cathedral’s roof, where the flames first broke out.
Heitz said an initial fire alert was sounded at 6:20 p.m. Monday but no fire was found. The second alert was sounded at 6:43 p.m. and a blaze was discovered in the roofing at that point.
News that the fire was probably accidental has done nothing to ease the national mourning.
“Notre Dame has survived the revolutionary history of France, and this happened during building works,” said influential former Culture Minister Jack Lang.
French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to rebuild the cathedral that he called “a part of us” and appealed for help to do so.
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As France woke up in collective sadness, its richest businessman, Bernard Arnault, and his luxury goods group LVMH pledged 200 million euros ($226 million) for the reconstruction.
A communique said the Arnault family was “in solidarity with this national tragedy, and join in the reconstruction of this extraordinary cathedral, a symbol of France, of its heritage and togetherness.”
Businessman Francois-Henri Pinault, who is married to Salma Hayek, and his billionaire father Francois Pinault also said they were immediately giving 100 million euros from their company, Artemis, to help finance repairs. Artemis is the holding company owning auction house Christie’s and the main shareholder of luxury fashion houses including Gucci.
A statement from Francois-Henri Pinault said “this tragedy impacts all French people” and “everyone wants to restore life as quickly as possible to this jewel of our heritage.”
The 12th-century church is home to a 18th-century organ, relics, stained glass and other works of art of incalculable value, and is a leading tourist attraction.
“The organ is a very fragile instrument, especially its pipes. It has not burnt, but no one can tell whether it has been damaged by water. Nobody knows if it is a functioning state or will need to be restored,” Bertrand de Feydeau, vice-president of preservation group Fondation du Patrimoine, told AP.
Repairing the cathedral — including the 800-year-old wooden beams that made up its roof — presents challenges.
The cathedral’s roof cannot be rebuilt exactly as it was before the fire because “we don’t, at the moment, have trees on our territory of the size that were cut in the 13th century,” he said, adding the roof restoration work would have to use new technologies.
Religious statues removed last week from the cathedral roof as part of a restoration of the monumental Paris church’s towering spire were spared.
The 3-meter-tall copper figures, which looked over the city from Notre Dame’s 96-meter-high peak, were sent to southwestern France for work that is part of a 6 million-euro ($6.8 million) renovation project on the cathedral spire and its 250 tons of lead.
On Thursday, the public got a first ground-level look at the statues, representing the 12 apostles and four evangelists, when a huge crane lowered them onto a truck.
An outpouring of grief and offers of help have poured in from around the world.
Pope Francis prayed for French Catholics and the Parisian population “under the shock of the terrible fire.” Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said on Twitter the pope “is close to France” and offering prayers “for all those who are trying to cope with this dramatic situation.”
The Vatican’s culture minister, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, described the cathedral as a “living creature” that has been reborn before and will continue to be the “beating heart” of France.
Ravasi, whose office oversees the patrimony of the Catholic Church worldwide, said he was moved by scenes of faithful and tourists weeping as Notre Dame went up in flames, and suggested art experts at the Vatican Museums could play a role in the rebuilding.
Germany and Poland were among countries offering assistance. “We are united in sorrow. Notre Dame is part of the cultural heritage of mankind and a symbol for Europe,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass wrote on Twitter.
In Poland, where Warsaw and many other places were rebuilt from rubble after World War II, President Andrzej Duda offered experts in the reconstruction of historic buildings.
Egypt’s top Muslim cleric expressed sadness, describing Notre Dame as a “historic architectural masterpiece.” Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s seat of learning, wrote on Facebook: “Our hearts are with our brothers in France.”
Egypt’s Coptic Church expressed “profound sadness,” with the head of Egypt’s Copts, Pope Tawadroz II, describing the fire as a “huge loss for entire humanity.”
John Leicester and Samuel Petrequin in Paris, Nicole Winfield in Rome, Colleen Barry in Milan and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed.
Thomas Adamson, The Associated Press