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Notre Dame Fire: Paris police chief says cathedral structure has been saved after spire collapse

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PARIS — A massive fire engulfed the upper reaches of Paris’ soaring Notre Dame Cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, threatening one of the greatest architectural treasures of the Western world as tourists and Parisians looked on aghast from the streets below.

The blaze collapsed the cathedral’s spire and spread to one of its landmark rectangular towers, but Paris fire chief Jean-Claude Gallet said the church’s structure had been saved after firefighters managed to stop the fire spreading to the northern belfry. The 12th-century cathedral is home to incalculable works of art and is one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions, immortalized by Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE FIRE

The fire started at 6:50 p.m. local time, according to city fire officials, and quickly spread.

The exact cause of the blaze was not known, but French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying the fire is “potentially linked” to a 6 million-euro ($6.8 million) renovation project on the church’s spire and its 250 tons of lead. The Paris prosecutors’ office ruled out arson and possible terror-related motives, and said it was treating it as an accident.

As the spire fell, the sky lit up orange and flames shot out of the roof behind the nave of the cathedral, among the most visited landmarks in the world. Hundreds of people lined up bridges around the island that houses the church, watching in shock as acrid smoke rose in plumes. Speaking alongside junior Interior minister Laurent Nunez late Monday, Gallet noted that “two thirds of the roofing has been ravaged.” He said firefighters would keep working overnight to cool down the building.

A before photo shows that spire three weeks ago.

Late Monday, signs pointed to the fire nearing an end as lights could be seen through the windows moving around the front of the cathedral, apparently investigators inspecting the scene. The city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, said the significant collection of art work and holy objects inside the church had been recovered. Remarkably, only one of the about 400 firefighters who battled the blaze was injured, officials said.

The fire came less than a week before Easter amid Holy Week commemorations. As the cathedral burned, Parisians gathered to pray and sing hymns outside the church of Saint Julien Les Pauvres across the river from Notre Dame while the flames lit the sky behind them. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit invited priests across France to ring church bells in a call for prayers.

French President Emmanuel Macron was treating the fire as a national emergency, rushing to the scene and straight into meetings at the Paris police headquarters nearby. He pledged to rebuild the church and said he would seek international help to do so.

“The worse has been avoided although the battle is not yet totally won,” the president said, adding that he would launch a national funding campaign on Tuesday and call on the world’s “greatest talents” to help rebuild the monument.

Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit invited priests across France to ring church bells in a call for prayers for the beloved Paris cathedral.

Deputy mayor Emmanuel Gregoire said emergency services were trying to salvage the famed art pieces stored in the cathedral.

PHOTOS: Firefighters battle massive fire at Notre Dame

No injuries or deaths have been reported.

MORE ON THE ICONIC LANDMARK

Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is the most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages as well as one of the most beloved structures in the world. Situated on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the Seine river, its architecture is famous for, among other things, its many gargoyles and its iconic flying buttresses.

Among the most celebrated artworks inside are its three stained-glass rose windows, placed high up on the west, north and south faces of the cathedral. Its priceless treasures also include a Catholic relic, the crown of thorns, which is only occasionally displayed, including on Fridays during Lent.

French historian Camille Pascal told BFM broadcast channel the blaze marked “the destruction of invaluable heritage.”

RELATED: Notre Dame Cathedral: Before and during the fire

“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.”

He added: “We can be only horrified by what we see.”

RELATED: Illinois woman witnesses Notre Dame fire: ‘I was moved to tears’

“It’s heartbreaking,” ABC News Senior National Correspondent Terry Moran reflected. “Notre Dame is not just a church, it’s the heart of France. It is a place that is a testament to the history of France and a place that the French people have rallied around in times of trouble. It is also a place that is built to the glory of God. So this is a tragedy not just for the people of France, but also for the people of the Christian faith around the world.”

ABC News contributor Alastair Bruce said it may take many years for the church to be rebuilt.

“I would imagine that this is the greatest tragedy to the arts of France that we are witnessing now, and it will take almost 100 years to put it right,” he said.

Notre Dame, one of the most well-known tourist attractions in the world, is known for its Gothic architecture with many gargoyles and its iconic flying buttresses. It’s also reverred for its age: Parts of the church were completed in 1250. It is the subject of countless stories and works of art, notably Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was adapted into an animated Disney movie.

REACTIONS FROM PARIS AND BEYOND

Macron posted on Twitter in French with a message that translates to, “Notre-Dame de Paris in flames. Emotion of a whole nation. Thought for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our compatriots, I am sad tonight to see this part of us burn.”

Crowds stopped in their tracks along the Seine River, which passes under the island where the cathedral stands.

Eyewitness John Dickas told ABC News it is heartbreaking for bystanders who are watching the efforts to fight the blaze.

“For me, the most heartbreaking moment was when I saw – about 20 minutes after I started watching the fire – I saw the ladders go up and the hoses start spraying,” he said. “It was just heartbreaking to watch. The ladders were not tall enough. The hoses were not strong enough. This was, just clearly, a fire beyond the capacity of the crews’ capability. I mean, they were clearly doing everything they could. It was just so much bigger and so much more out of control than they had the resources to deal with.”

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said in a Twitter message that Paris firefighters were still trying to limit the fire and urged Paris citizens to respect the security perimeter that has been set around the cathedral.

Hidalgo said Paris authorities are in touch with the Paris diocese.

Reactions from around the world came swiftly including from the Vatican, which released a statement expressing shock and sadness for the “terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame, symbol of Christianity in France and in the world.”

In Washington, Trump tweeted: “So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris” and suggested first responders use “flying water tankers” to put it out.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said he was praying “to ask the intercession of Notre Dame, our Lady, for the Cathedral at the heart of Paris, and of civilization, now in flames! God preserve this splendid house of prayer, and protect those battling the blaze.”

ABC Owned Television Stations and ABC News contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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