Fuelled by a lattice of centuries-old timbers, the Notre Dame fire moved hungrily across the cathedral’s rooftop toward its iconic spire as firefighters, priests and municipal workers passed treasures hand-to-hand, hoping to outrun the flames.
They had 66 minutes.
The first alarm sounded at 6.20pm local time (5.20pm BST), silencing the priest and a few hundred worshippers and tourists inside.
“Everyone was immobilised by shock for maybe a minute,” said Johann Vexo, who was in the organ loft for Monday Mass.
The rear doors opened and within a few minutes, the cathedral was empty, he told Ouest-France newspaper.
For twenty-three minutes, it seemed like a false alarm. Then at 6.43pm a second smoke detector went off and the fire showed its face.
For the first half an hour, it looked like the fire could not possibly leave more than a small age mark on the nearly 900-year-old building.
Across the Seine in City Hall, Mayor Anne Hidalgo glanced out the window during an evening meeting to see a yellow cloud blotting out the sky. She rushed to the island that is the historic and geographic heart of Paris.
“I came here and felt powerless as the flames overtook the cathedral,” she said on Tuesday.
Sombre onlookers dotted the stone walkways that line the river. They wept as flames overtook the rooftop spire.
Below it, nestled deep in the cathedral, was the treasure chest, keeper of Notre Dame’s most sacred relics.
Firefighters cracked the chest open, pulling out the Crown of Thorns revered as the one worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion.
Made of rushes wrapped into a wreath and tied with gold filament, it had been kept under glass since 1896.
The tunic of St Louis, believed to have belonged to King Louis IX, came out of the chest along with fragments of the cross and a nail, said Patrick Chauvet, rector of Notre Dame Cathedral.
The relics were safe.
Then came the artwork.
“We had to get them, in the smoke, as debris was falling, to protect them,” General Jean-Claude Gallet of the fire brigade told BFM television.
At 7.49pm, the 19th-century spire that was the architectural masterpiece of Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and his post-Revolutionary restoration broke apart and fell through the nave, taking with it three relics sealed inside in 1935.
It had been 66 minutes since the first flames were spotted.
The sky above the cathedral flamed orange, and the fire lurched toward Notre Dame’s iconic towers, then slipped inside.
As darkness fell, 20 firefighters climbed inside the two towers “at great risk to their lives, to attack the fire from the inside and save the building,” said Laurent Nunez, deputy interior minister.
At 11.23pm, the fire chief said the rest of the structure, including the cathedral’s twin bell towers, had been saved. It had been within 30 minutes of collapse.
It took 10 more hours for the last flames to be put out. The spire’s bronze rooster, long a symbol of France, was found on Tuesday, deformed by the heat but recognisable nonetheless.
“Beyond emotion, beyond words, beyond tears,” Christophe Castaner, France’s interior minister, said on Tuesday as he visited the cathedral, “What I want to express is the pride of the men and women who committed to saving Notre Dame.”
- Press Association