Sparks and bits of flaming woodwork are still cascading from the remnants of the 12th-century roof.
The smell instantly sears the back of your throat like a dose of smelling salts and my feet are soaked. The ancient black and white tiles leading up the aisle are under a gently-flowing river of hose water from the fire crews pumping what seems like much of the River Seine from their elevated platforms.
Yet I can faithfully report that the Cathedral of Notre Dame is not entirely destroyed. Because I am standing inside it – alongside the French prime minister.
Smoke is seen around the alter inside Notre Dame cathedral on Monday evening. Miracolously the cross and altar have managed to survive the inferno
An aerial view of the cathedral shows the famous structure completely stripped of its roof and still ablaze on the inside
Robert Hardman was given access to the charred remains of the Notre Dame cathedral in the early hours of Tuesday morning
Pictures taken outside the cathedral and from the entrance hall in the early hours of Tuesday show emergency service personnel still working to make the site safe
As darkness fell on Paris on Monday evening the ruined cathedral was illuminated by the flames still burning in the roof as firefighters battled on against the inferno
Firefighters were still battling to bring the blaze under control as night drew in on Paris and the roof of Notre Dame was still on fire. The stained glass window also appeared to have been destroyed by the heat of the fire
In the early hours of this morning, I was among the first people to be allowed inside the ruins of one of the world’s finest cathedrals following the fire which has shocked not just the entire French nation but much of the planet.
A blaze which begin in the cathedral’s loft at 6.30pm had turned into an all-consuming catastrophe by nightfall. Officials reported that the wooden interior of the medieval cathedral had been almost completely destroyed.
Certainly, Notre Dame’s spire is no more. Great chunks of its eastern end are no more. Its world-famous stained glass windows are in smithereens and the whole edifice is open to the skies.
But Paris will wake today to see that the cathedral that has defied world wars, enemy occupations, revolutions and mobs galore is still poking its head above the Paris skyline.
And at 1am today, at the far end of the cathedral, illuminated by lingering embers and firefighters’ equipment, I could just make out a stunning symbol of defiance through the gloom: the unmistakeable sight of a crucifix on what remains of the altar.
Notre Dame is gravely damaged. Yet its most spectacular features – the 850-year-old twin towers – are still there. For centuries, these were the highest structures in Paris until the Eiffel Tower came along. To this day, they are instantly recognisable the world over. And last night, though looking very sorry for themselves, they were in one piece as I stood beneath them alongside a posse of fire crews and prime ministerial aides.
A shard of the cathedral’s spire plummets through the air as it collapsed on Monday evening after the fire chewed through its foundations
Within hours, speculation was rife as to the cause of the fire. For now, it seems that it was what one official called a ‘stray flame’ – linked to a £5 million restoration project – which sparked the inferno.
Experts have warned for years that the cathedral has been in a poor condition, with the French state reluctant to fund renovation work in recent decades.
Experts said that the building needed a £129.5million (€150million) restoration, but the state had only offered €40million.
The cathedral was seeking private donations to make up the rest.
The flames were first spotted just minutes after the building had closed to the public for the day. Echoing the fears of his entire country, French president Emmanuel Macron instantly declared a national emergency. ‘Our Lady of Paris in flames,’ he declared on Twitter. ‘Like all our countrymen, I’m sad tonight to see this part of us burn.’
He has pledged to rebuild Notre Dame, saying: ‘Notre Dame is our history, our imagination, where we’ve lived all our great moments, and is the epicentre of our lives.
‘It’s the story of our books, our paintings. It’s the cathedral for all French people, even if they have never been. But it is burning and I know this sadness will be felt by all of our citizens.
Teams of firefighters from across the city were called in to try and put out the fire after it spread quickly through the cathedral on Monday evening
Much of the top of the structure fell victim to the inferno including the famous spire and part of the dome at the back of the church
The scaffolding at the top of the church and the wooden frame of the building was said to be completely ablaze by a cathedral spokesperson
The fire spread rapidly across the roof-line of the cathedral leaving one of the spires and another section of the roof engulfed in flames
‘Tomorrow a national subscription will be launched for people around the country to help rebuild this great Notre Dame. Because that’s what the French people want. That is what their history requires. Because that is our destiny.’
Questions were immediately asked about the way in which a fire could take such a rapid hold of one of the world’s most visited – and most beloved – landmarks. The firefighting response was also questioned as few, if any, high-pressure water hoses were able to reach the roof in the first hour. Critically, the Paris prosecutor has already opened an inquiry.
I arrived last night to find a dumbstruck City of Light still bathed in a dismal afterglow. Here, on the banks of the Seine, tens of thousands of people – of all nationalities – stared incredulously at the slow death of a part of France’s soul.
To describe the cathedral of Notre Dame as a national monument is a grave understatement. Imagine Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London all going up in smoke at the same time and you begin to appreciate the magnitude of this loss, except that Notre Dame attracts – or used to attract – twice as many annual visitors as those three London landmarks put together.
That is why, as news began to spread last night, Parisians flocked to the Seine. They came here not as voyeurs but as mourners. They came to pay their last respects. Some sang hymns. Many were in tears. Some brought flowers and cards to place they knew not where. Understandably, perhaps, no one saw fit to light a candle.
Pictures from inside the centuries old church show the stone-built roof of the structure partially caved in after the huge blaze
A view from inside the cathedral shows flames in the roof as firefighters douse it from below with hoses. A shocked firefighter looks back at the camera as the bright burnt orange blaze can be seen raging in Paris on Monday evening
Firefighters douse flames billowing from the roof as they try to stop the flames spreading. Nobody has been injured, junior interior minister Laurent Nunez said at the scene, adding: ‘It’s too early to determine the causes of the fire’
Firefighters tackle the blaze on Monday evening as flames and smoke rise from the Notre Dame cathedral as it burns in Paris
From medieval times, Notre Dame has marked the epochs in the story of this proud country and inspired one of the most famous literary masterpieces in the French language, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This August marks the 75th anniversary of the day that General Charles De Gaulle marked the liberation of Paris within its walls, even as sporadic gunfire continued outside.
This is a city which was famously spared the destruction which history has wreaked on so many other European capitals. It really did feel blessed; almost eternal. Not any more. Those twin towers are now blackened and wide open to the elements. By midnight, however, the flames had died down as the first glimmers of firemen’s torches could be seen here and there in the remains.
I joined what I can only describe as a requiem mass of Parisians chanting prayers on the Pont de Notre Dame. All approaches to the cathedral’s island site had been sealed off to the public but crowds kept on coming from all directions for a glimpse.
‘At least the two towers are still standing, and they must stay up so that Notre Dame can be reborn,’ said civil servant Pascal Boichut, 52. There was a glimmer of hope when Paris fire brigade chief Jean-Claude Gallet told reporters: ‘We consider that the main structure of Notre Dame has been preserved.’
A man holds his hands on his head in despair as the smoke billows from the cathedral this evening as firefighters desperately battle the blaze
A woman with tears in her eyes clasps her hands in front of her as she watches the flames spread over the cathedral, and a man puts his head in his hands in despair
A woman reacts with shock as she watches the flames engulf the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris this evening
Smoke rises around the alter in front of the cross inside the Notre Dame Cathedral as a fire continues to burn in Paris
Parisians gather on the River Seine this evening to look at the flames spreading throughout the cathedral. The blaze started in the late afternoon
People watch on as firefighters battle the blaze that has engulfed the historic building. A dark smoke filled the Paris sky this evening as the fire continued to rage
Parisians cry and drop to their knees in prayer as the flames rip through the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday evening
I could vouch for that an hour later when I managed to enter the Seine has always enhanced its prominence. Last night, it had the effect of making France’s suffering all the more visible.
Even worse than last night’s conflagration, however, will be the cold light of dawn – as France awakes to find it is not just missing a much-loved landmark. It is missing a limb.
The blaze is believed to have broken out in the church’s loft, near renovation work, before spreading to the spire and roof. A ‘stray flame’ is thought to have sparked the inferno at 6.30pm local time. It began just minutes after the building was closed to the public.
Declaring a national emergency, Mr Macron said the fire destroyed not only the historic place of worship but a part of every citizen of France. ‘Our Lady of Paris in flames,’ he tweeted. ‘Emotion of a whole nation. Thought for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our countrymen, I’m sad tonight to see this part of us burn.’
The blaze was first reported at 6.50pm, with the spire toppling little more than an hour later.
Crowds look at the flames as they engulf the building on Monday evening. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit invited priests across France to ring church bells in a call for prayers for the beloved Paris cathedral
French fire crews check the hoses in the streets of Paris on Monday evening. As the cathedral continued to burn, Parisians gathered to pray and sing hymns outside the church of Saint Julien Les Pauvres across the river from Notre Dame, as the flames lit the sky behind them
People sit and look in disbelief as the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral burns on Monday afternoon and into the evening
Flames licked across the upper part of the building, with smoke and ash billowing into the sky. The roof crashed shortly afterwards, causing the blaze to spread to the entire frame of the building. At 8.30pm, firemen were seen carrying priceless works of art to safety.
‘I’m devastated,’ said Elizabeth Caille, 58, who lives near the cathedral. ‘It’s a symbol of Paris. It’s a symbol of Christianity. It’s a whole world that is collapsing.’
Ed Kelly, from Canada, said: ‘This is the first time I’ve seen the cathedral up close, and it’s on fire. It’s heartbreaking.’
Jacek Poltorak, who watched the disaster unfold from a fifth-floor balcony to the south of the cathedral, said: ‘Basically the whole rooftop is gone. I see no hope for the building.’
By 10.30pm, firemen said, the cathedral’s famous 13th-century stained glass Rose windows had been destroyed. ‘They exploded because of the heat of the blaze,’ said one. French police added that one fireman had been seriously injured. The New York Police Department’s counter-terrorism department last night said it was ‘closely monitoring’ the fire – but French officials maintained it was caused by accident.
Officials say the blaze could be linked to renovation works as the spire has been undergoing a $6.8million renovation this year
World leaders have expressed their devastation at the destruction of the 850-year-old cathedral with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby saying: ‘Tonight we pray for the firefighters tackling the tragic Notre Dame fire – and for everyone in France and beyond who watches and weeps for this beautiful, sacred place where millions have met with Jesus Christ’
The fire spread rapidly across the roof-line of the cathedral leaving one of the spires and another section of the roof engulfed in flames. Firefighters using cranes are trying to battle the blaze this evening
The bright orange of the flames can be seen from miles around as darkness descends on Paris. Fire crews are working hard to try and extinguish the flames
Sparks fill the Paris air on Monday evening as fire crews spray water to try and stop the blaze. The Louvre Museum has described the fire as ‘a tragedy for World Heritage’
The white hot flames can be seen raging in the centre of the cathedral. Either side of the Gothic cathedral firefighters can be seen spraying water to try and stem the flames
However, France has seen a spate of attacks against Catholic churches this year, with acts of desecration ranging from vandalism to arson.
Last month, the iconic Church of St Sulpice in Paris was set on fire just after Sunday midday mass. Firefighters said they were confident the blaze was arson.
And in February, a statue of the Virgin Mary was smashed in the St Nicholas Catholic Church in Houilles, in north-central France, while an altar cloth was burned and crosses and statues of saints smashed in Saint-Alain Cathedral in Lavaur, in the south-central region. Notre Dame – which means ‘Our Lady’ – is visited by 12million people every year. Located on the Ile de la Cite, the Gothic cathedral is among the most famous from the Middle Ages and was built on the ruins of two earlier churches.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby tweeted: ‘Tonight we pray for the firefighters tackling the tragic Notre Dame fire – and for everyone in France and beyond who watches and weeps for this beautiful, sacred place where millions have met with Jesus Christ.’ Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, said: ‘The shock at the outbreak of this fire is spreading around the world.
‘It is an iconic building visited by millions, but more importantly it is a symbol of faith which is at the heart of Europe.’ A Vatican spokesman said: ‘The Holy See has seen with shock and sadness the news of the terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame.’
Additional reporting: Courtney Bartlett