Images and video showed flames and thick plumes of smoke billowing up and around the spire, which is surrounded by scaffolding. Amid the fire, the flaming spire leaned to one side and then collapsed onto the burning roof.
The fire rapidly spread and took over the iconic cathedral as onlookers scrambled to get a view of the destruction, even as soot and cinder fell onto them.
Firefighters atop cherry picker cranes sprayed water onto the church in an attempt to calm the flames, and the smell of smoke emanated through the air. The French Interior Ministry said 400 firefighters have been mobilized to deal with the blaze.
The firetrucks had difficulty getting to the scene, located on an island in Paris, amid the daily afternoon rush hour. Police said on Twitter the public should avoid the area and allow emergency vehicles into the scene.
French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said exceptional measures are being taken to try to save the cathedral.
It was not immediately known what caused the fire and whether anybody was injured. The cathedral has been surrounded by scaffolding and construction work was being done.
The fire, just days before Easter, was met with horror by Parisians and tourists.
Thibaud Binétruy, who lives in Paris, said he saw the smoke while walking home with a colleague and was gripped by the sight.
“When the spire fell, the crowd reacted with ohhh and ahh, but I guess most of them were just shocked silently,” Binétruy said. “It’s awful to see such a symbol disappearing in front of you. It’s been there for so many years and in a few minutes half of it disappeared … crazy. Paris without Notre Dame, madness.”
Patryk Bukalski was at a café near the cathedral when he started smelling smoke.
“A bartender said the Notre Dame is on fire, so I left and saw this horrible picture,” he said over Instagram.
He said people are standing outside, watching and crying.
“It’s horrible. It’s a symbol of Paris,” Bukalski said. “It’s just sad. I don’t know what more to say.”
Another witness, Anne Marie, spoke with tears in her eyes.
“In Paris, it’s a monumental symbol — every person with different religions are really moved and saddened,” she said. “Paris without the cathedral is not Paris anymore.”
Notre Dame’s foundation stone
was laid in 1163 by Pope Alexander III, and the cathedral was completed in the 13th century. Today, with its towers, spire, flying buttresses and stained glass, Notre Dame is considered a feat of architecture as well as a major religious and cultural symbol of France.
Located in Île de la Cité, a small island in the middle of the city, the cathedral is one of Paris’ most popular attractions, drawing an estimated 13 million visitors a year.
The central spire was built in the 19th century
amid a broad restoration effort, partly buoyed by the success of Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” in 1831.
French President Emmanuel Macron postponed a planned speech Monday night because of the Notre Dame fire, a spokesperson for the Elysee Palace said.
“Notre Dame of Paris in flames. Emotion for a whole nation. Thoughts for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our countrymen, I’m sad tonight to see this part of us burn,” Macron said on Twitter.
Macron arrived at the scene, accompanied by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and first lady Brigitte Macron, as well as the Paris prosecutor, who has opened an investigation into the fire.
US President Donald Trump said it was a “terrible, terrible fire” and lamented the damage done to the historic cathedral.