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. Donations began to pour in, and authorities began to take stock of the damage.
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. By mid-morning, a spokesman for the Paris fire department announced that the flames had been entirely extinguished.
From certain angles, 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.
Engineers, architects and firefighters planned to assess the structural damage first thing Tuesday, officials said. They warned they still did not know the extent of the catastrophe.
“What is necessary now is to examine the structure to determine whether the building is stable,” French junior Interior Minister Laurent Nuñez told BFMTV.
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.
“Parisians lose their Dame,” read one French headline Tuesday morning.
Speaking on French radio early Tuesday, Culture Minister Franck Riester said many priceless works of art in the cathedral were saved and that Notre Dame’s organ had survived. He also confirmed the preliminary reports from firefighters that 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.
These objects are now in safekeeping at Paris City Hall, Riester said.
“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.
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.”
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. Hours later, the family of Bernard Arnault, the CEO of the LVMH luxury conglomerate and the richest man in Europe, pledged a gift of 200 million euros, or $226 million.
On Tuesday morning, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo floated the idea of an “international donor’s conference” that would unite philanthropists and restoration experts in Paris to raise money for targeted purposes in rebuilding Notre Dame.
Officials planned to start assessing the loss later in the day, 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 two police officers and one firefighter were reportedly 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.
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.