PARIS: French firefighters on Monday (Apr 15) won an hours-long battle to save the main structure of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, after a colossal fire caused the spire of the historic edifice to crash to the ground and wiped out centuries of heritage.
French President Emmanuel Macron vowed that "we will rebuild" Notre-Dame and expressed relief that "the worst had been avoided" in a fire that risked bringing the entire edifice down.
The artworks evacuated from Notre-Dame will be transferred to the Louvre Museum, the French Culture Minister Franck Riester told reporters.
French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault pledged €100 million (US$113 million) towards the rebuilding of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.
In a statement sent to AFP the CEO of the Kering group, which owns Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent fashion houses, said the money towards "the effort necessary to completely rebuild Notre-Dame" would be paid by the Pinault family's investment firm Artemis.
Investigations into the cause of the fire began on Tuesday.
"We are favouring the theory of an accident," Paris public prosecutor Remy Heitz said, adding that 50 people were working on what was expected to be a long and complex investigation.
The fire destroyed the roof of the 850-year-old UNESCO world heritage landmark, whose spectacular Gothic spire collapsed before the eyes of horrified onlookers on a previously pristine early spring evening.
The fire, which came as Catholics prepare to celebrate Easter, sent orange flames and clouds of grey smoke billowing into the sky as stunned Parisians and tourists watched on in horror.
Some were in tears, others offered prayers from the banks of the river Seine as the much-loved attraction at the heart of the City of Light was consumed by the inferno.
As darkness fell, about 400 firefighters battled to control the fire and save at least its iconic front towers. They finally gained the upper hand as midnight approached.
Paris fire brigade chief Jean-Claude Gallet said "we can consider that the main structure of Notre-Dame has been saved and preserved" as well as the two towers.
Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez, also present at the scene, said that for the first time "the fire had decreased in intensity" while still urging "extreme caution".
"FRANCE IS NOTRE DAME"
"This is really sad - the saddest thing I've ever stood and watched in my life," said British tourist Sam Ogden, a 50-year-old onlooker, who had come to visit the cathedral with her family.
Gasps and cries of "Oh my god" erupted around an hour after the fire first broke out when the top portion of the church's spire came crashing down.
"It looked tiny to begin with, then within an hour it all came down," Ogden added.
The cause of the blaze was not immediately confirmed. The cathedral had been undergoing intense restoration work which the fire service said could be linked to the blaze.
Last week, dramatic footage had shown workers removing 16 copper statues from the spire which was undergoing a revamp financed by the state and private donors.
Historians expressed incredulity at the collapse of a building that has been a symbol of France for almost a millennium and withstood war and revolution.
"If Paris is the Eiffel Tower then France is Notre Dame. It's the entire culture, entire history of France incarnated in this monument," Bernard Lecompte, a writer and specialist in religious history told BFM TV.
Deputy Paris mayor Emmanuel Gregoire told BFM TV the spire "collapsed inwards" and that workers were scrambling "to save all the artworks that can be saved."
Staff from the fire department, the culture ministry and the city townhall rushed to the Cathedral when the fire started to protect the main artworks that were inside, Riester told reporters.
The artworks, which include relics such as the Christ's crown of thorns and French king Saint-Louis's 13th century tunic, were first moved to the city town hall and will now be transferred to the nearby Louvre Museum, the minister added.
"EMOTIONS OF A NATION"
Macron had earlier cancelled a major televised policy speech he was due to give on Monday evening to respond to months of protests, and instead headed to the scene in person.
Visibly emotional, he said while the "worst had been avoided" and the facade and two towers saved "the next hours will be difficult".
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said he felt a "sadness beyond words" but added the fire services "were still fighting ... heroically, to save what can be saved".
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Notre-Dame cathedral a "symbol of European culture" as the blaze raged.
The Vatican on Monday expressed its "incredulity" and "sadness", expressing " our closeness with French Catholics and with the Parisian population."
Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo in a tweet described it as a "terrible fire".
"The Paris fire service is trying to control the flames," Hidalgo wrote on Twitter, asking residents to respect the security cordon thrown up around the site.
A spokesperson for the cathedral said the fire, which comes as French Catholics prepare to celebrate Easter, broke out at around 1650 GMT.
Fire trucks could be seen speeding through Paris towards the scene on the Ile de la Cite - an island in the Seine at the heart of Paris.
The Paris police department in a tweet called on residents to avoid the area and to "make way for rescue vehicles".
"WATER BOMBERS NOT USED"
US President Donald Trump in a tweet said it was "horrible" to watch the fire but caused controversy by offering advice on how to put it out.
"Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!" he said.
But France's civil security service, which oversees crisis management in the country, tweeted back at Trump that the use of water-bombing aircraft was not being considered.
"If used, (this) could lead to the collapse of the entire structure of the cathedral," it said.
"WILL NEVER BE THE SAME"
Hundreds of people gathered on the bridges of Paris downriver to witness the scene, some filming the images with their smartphones.
The cathedral was located at the centre of the French capital in the Middle Ages and its construction was completed in the mid-12th century after some 200 years of work.
During the French Revolution in the 18th century, the cathedral was vandalised duing widespread anti-Catholic violence: its spire was dismantled, its treasures plundered and its large statues at the grand entrance doors destroyed.
It would go on to feature as a central character in a Victor Hugo novel published in 1831, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and shortly afterwards a restoration project lasting two decades got underway, led by architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc.
It would survive the devastation of two world conflicts in the 20th century and famously rang its bells on Aug 24, 1944, the day of the Liberation of Paris from German occupation at the end of the WWII.
"Paris is disfigured. The city will never be like it was before," said Philippe, a communications worker in his mid-30s, who had biked over to the scene after being alerted of the fire by a friend.
"It's a tragedy," he added. "If you pray, now is the time to pray."