A major fire has engulfed much of one of France’s most famous landmarks – the medieval Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Its spire has collapsed.
The cause is not yet clear, but officials say that it could be linked to renovation work.
A major operation to tackle the blaze is under way at the 850-year-old Gothic building.
Last year, the Catholic Church in France appealed for funds to save the building, which was crumbling.
A spokesman for the Paris fire department said the next hour and a half was “crucial” in order to determine whether the fire could be contained.
Loud bangs could be heard as flames burst through the roof of the cathedral, also engulfing its left tower.
Thousands of people have gathered in the streets around the cathedral, observing the flames in silence. Some could be seen crying, while others sang hymns.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has arrived at the scene, said his thoughts were with “all Catholics and all French people.”
“Like all of my countrymen, I am sad tonight to see this part of us burn.”
Mr Macron has cancelled his planned speech to the nation following the fire, an Élysée Palace official said.
A spokesman for the cathedral said the whole structure was “burning”.
“There will be nothing left,” he said. “It remains to be seen whether the vault, which protects the cathedral, will be affected or not.”
Notre-Dame cathedral fire
The blaze broke out on Monday afternoon and huge plumes of smoke could be seen wafting across the city.
Historian Camille Pascal told French broadcaster BFMTV the fire was destroying “invaluable heritage.”
“For 800 years the Cathedral has watched over Paris”, he said.
“Happy and unfortunate events for centuries have been marked by the bells of Notre Dame.
“We can be only horrified by what we see”.
The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo urged people to respect the boundaries set up by fire crews in order to ensure that they remain safe.
“There are a lot of art works inside…it’s a real tragedy,” she told reporters.
A symbol of a country
Analysis by Henri Astier, BBC World Online
No other site represents France quite like Notre-Dame. Its main rival as a national symbol, the Eiffel Tower, is little more than a century old. Notre-Dame has stood tall above Paris since the 1200s.
It has given its name to one of the country’s literary masterpieces. Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame is known to the French simply as Notre Dame de Paris.
The last time the cathedral suffered major damage was during the French Revolution. It survived two world wars largely unscathed.
Watching such an embodiment of the permanence of a nation burn and its spire collapse is profoundly shocking to any French person.
“I have a lot of friends who live abroad and every time they come I tell them to go to Notre-Dame,” eyewitness Samantha Silva told the Reuters news agency.
“I’ve visited it so many times, but it will never be the same. It’s a real symbol of Paris.”
US President Donald Trump suggested “perhaps flying water tankers” could be used to extinguish the fire.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has offered her support to the people of France, calling Notre-Dame a “symbol of French and European culture”.
“My thoughts are with the people of France tonight and with the emergency services who are fighting the terrible blaze at Notre-Dame cathedral”, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said in a tweet.
The Notre-Dame cathedral, a popular tourist attraction is undergoing renovations after cracks began to appear in the stone, sparking fears the structure could become unstable.
The Paris prosecutor’s office said it has opened an inquiry into the incident. No injuries have been reported so far and buildings in the surrounding area have been evacuated.
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Notre-Dame cathedral: Firefighters tackle blaze in Paris