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The dramatic first photos from inside the gutted Notre Dame have been released showing extreme damage, but also revealing much of the interior remains intact.
Flames that began in the early evening burst through the roof of the centuries-old Paris cathedral and engulfed the spire, which collapsed, quickly followed by the entire roof.
But firefighters managed to save the shell of the stone structure and its two main bell towers from collapse.
As it burned into the evening, firefighters battled to prevent one of the main bell towers from collapsing and tried to rescue religious relics and priceless artwork. One firefighter was seriously injured - the only reported casualty.
"We now believe that the two towers of Notre-Dame have been saved," Paris fire chief Jean-firefighters managed to save the shell of the stone structure and its two main bell towers from collapse.
The dramatic first images from inside the cathedral showed severe damage, but also revealed much of the interior remained intact.
A hole left by Notre Dame's fallen spire is still burning and sparks are spilling down from the cathedral's vaulted ceilings more than five hours a fire broke out near the top of the Gothic landmark in Paris.
An Associated Press reporter entered the cathedral late Monday while French President Emmanuel Macron was visiting Notre Dame, getting a glimpse of the immense damage the blaze caused.
No lights were on, but the simmering red hole from the fallen spire provided illumination. Streams of sparks rained from the gap onto the floor where the church choir usually stands during services.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said earlier that most artworks and religious relics were removed from Notre Dame as firefighters worked to control the blaze.
France's culture minister posted photos on social media of people loading art onto trucks.
Firefighters battled smoke and falling drops of molten lead as they tried to rescue some of Notre-Dame's treasures.
A centuries-old crown of thorns made from reeds and gold and the tunic worn by Saint Louis, a 13th century king of France, were saved, Notre-Dame's top administrative cleric, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet said. But firefighters had struggled to take down some of the large paintings in time, he said.
"The worst has been avoided, even if the battle has not been totally won yet," French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters at the scene shortly before midnight, as firefighters worked to further cool some of the interior structures still at risk of collapse.
Macron said France would launch a campaign to rebuild the cathedral, including through fundraising efforts and by appealing to "talents" from overseas to contribute.
"We will rebuild it together. It will undoubtedly be part of French destiny and our project for the years to come," a visibly moved Macron said.
He said the whole nation was distressed. "Like all our compatriots, I am sad this evening to see this part of all of us burn," he tweeted.
Distraught Parisians and stunned tourists gazed in disbelief as the inferno raged at the cathedral, which sits on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the River Seine and marks the very centre of Paris.
Firefighters tried to contain the blaze with water hoses and cleared the area around Notre-Dame, which sits on an island in the River Seine and marks the very centre of Paris. Witnesses said the whole island, the Ile de la Cite, was being evacuated.
France's civil security agency says "all means" except for water-dropping aircraft were deployed to tackle the blaze.
The defence agency said those were unsuitable for fires like the one at Notre Dame because dumping water on the building could cause the whole structure to collapse.
Junior interior minister Laurent Nunez said at the scene: "It's too early to determine the causes of the fire."
"Everything is burning, nothing will remain from the frame," Notre Dame spokesman Andre Finot told French media.
"Like all our compatriots, I am sad this evening to see this part of all of us burn," President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.
"Basically the whole rooftop is gone. I see no hope for the building," said witness Jacek Poltorak, watching the fire from a fifth-floor balcony two blocks from the southern facade of the cathedral, one of France's most visited places.
Firefighters cleared the area around Notre-Dame, which sits on an island in the River Seine and marks the very centre of Paris. Buildings around were evacuated.
"Everything is collapsing," a police officer near the scene said as the entire roof of the cathedral continued to burn.
A firefighter at the scene said all efforts were now being directed at saving the artwork at the back of the cathedral.
Efforts were also being directed at preventing the collapse of the northern tower.
Macron cancelled an address to the nation that he had been due to give later on Monday evening. A presidential official said Macron was to go to the scene of the blaze.
The cause of the blaze was not known, but French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying the fire is "potentially linked" to a 6 million-euro renovation project on the church's spire and its 250 tons of lead. Prosecutors opened an investigation as Paris police said there were no reported deaths.
France 2 television reported that police were treating the incident as an accident.
The cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century, features in Victor Hugo's classic novel "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame". It attracts millions of tourists every year.
Notre-Dame was in the midst of renovations, with some sections under scaffolding and bronze statues were removed last week for works.
The wood and lead spire was built during a restoration in the mid-19th century, according to the cathedral's website.
Deputy mayor Emmanuel Gregoire said emergency services were trying to salvage the famed art pieces stored in the cathedral.
Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, Notre Dame is the most famous of the Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages as well as one of the most beloved structures in the world. Situated on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the Seine river, the cathedral's architecture is famous for, among other things, its many gargoyles and its iconic flying buttresses.
Among the most celebrated artworks inside are its three stained-glass rose windows, placed high up on the west, north and south faces of the cathedral. Its priceless treasures also include a Catholic relic, the crown of thorns, which is only occasionally displayed, including on Fridays during Lent.
The cathedral was immortalised in Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," published in 1831, and has long been a subject of fascination in popular culture as well as the traditional art world.
French historian Camille Pascal told BFM broadcast channel the blaze marked "the destruction of invaluable heritage."
"It's been 800 years that the Cathedral watches over Paris", Pascal said. "Happy and unfortunate events for centuries have been marked by the bells of Notre Dame."
He added: "We can be only horrified by what we see."
Associated Press reporters at the scene saw massive plumes of yellow brown smoke filling the air above the Cathedral and ash falling on the island that houses Notre Dame and marks the center of Paris. As the spire fell, the sky lit up orange.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is in despair at the "terrible fire." Hidalgo said in a Twitter message that Paris firefighters are still trying to limit the fire and urged Paris citizens to respect the security perimeter that has been set around the cathedral.
Hidalgo said Paris authorities are in touch with the Paris diocese.
Reactions from around the world came swiftly including from the Vatican, which released a statement expressing shock and sadness for the "terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame, symbol of Christianity in France and in the world."
In Washington, Trump tweeted: "So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris" and suggested first responders use "flying water tankers" to put it out.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said he was praying "to ask the intercession of Notre Dame, our Lady, for the Cathedral at the heart of Paris, and of civilization, now in flames! God preserve this splendid house of prayer, and protect those battling the blaze."
Notre-Dame Cathedral went up in flames on Monday (Paris time) in a roaring blaze that devastated the Parisian landmark, a searing loss for the city and for France. Here are five facts on the Gothic masterpiece that celebrated its 850th jubilee in 2013:
- The first stone of the Notre-Dame de Paris ("Our Lady of Paris") cathedral was laid in 1163 in the reign of Louis VII, as the medieval city of Paris was growing in population and importance, both as a political and economic centre of the kingdom of France.
- Construction would continue for much of the next century, with major restoration and additions made in the 17th and 18th century. The stonework and stained glass of the edifice recreate images and lessons from the Bible.
- Dominating the structure are its two 13th century bell towers. The so-called "bourdon", the largest bell, goes by the name of "Emmanuel".
- The 387 steps up to the towers take visitors past the gallery of chimeras, mythical creatures typically composed of more than one animal. The most famous of these, the "Stryge" gargoyle sits atop the cathedral watching Paris with its head resting in its hands.
- Victor Hugo used the cathedral as a setting for his 1831 novel, "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame". Quasimodo, the main character, is feared by Parisians because of his deformity but finds sanctuary in the cathedral and is employed as a bell-ringer. Quasimodo has been portrayed by Hollywood actors including Charles Laughton and also in an animated Disney adaptation.
Reuters and AP