Residents in Paris and visitors have packed the areas around the famed Notre Dame cathedral, expressing shock and disbelief as they watched a massive fire engulf the iconic symbol in the centre of France’s capital.
Some people bore witness to the inferno by chance on Monday evening, others headed to the scene on purpose.
All were horrified by what they saw.
“Notre Dame is the heart of Paris and I came as soon as I heard. This is our heart and it is disappearing in the flames,” Claire, a 15-year-old onlooker, told Al Jazeera, tears streaming down her face.
“What do we have left?”
Police attempted to clear pedestrians away from the two islands in the River Seine, including the Ile de la Cite which houses the soaring Gothic church, one of Europe’s best-known landmarks.
But throngs of onlookers kept trying to approach, snarling traffic as they massed on the stone bridges leading to the islands.
Gasping and crying, they watched in horror as the cathedral’s spire came crashing down.
“There is a feeling of shock everywhere,” witness Timothee Meuret told Al Jazeera, describing the fire as “absolutely huge”.
“Everyone was quiet and some people were in tears. It was really emotional.”
Yvette, a French-American student, told Al Jazeera she rushed to the scene to see the cathedral one last time “while it was still here”.
“I came as soon as I could because I didn’t know how bad the fire was going to be or how much of the structure was still going to be standing,” she said.
“For me, this is Paris. This is such a big part of the city, I couldn’t stand to watch from a distance.”
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. Its architecture is renowned for, among other things, its many gargoyles and 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.
A spokesman said the entire wooden frame of the cathedral would likely come down, and that the vault of the edifice could be threatened too.
“There is nothing left [of the building],” Mary Mahiou, a witness, told Al Jazeera.
“We can see the firefighters, trying to do their best but unfortunately we don’t believe that there’s anything that can be done. It’s really sad.”
Nedjma, another witness, said she saw the fire on her way home from work.
“As we walked, we could feel ashes on our faces. Everyone was really shocked by this,” she told Al Jazeera. “It’s a huge monument and a huge part of Paris’s history.”
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, a French journalist in Paris, call the fire as a “disaster” that took place just days before Easter amid Holy Week commemorations.
“We all have a personal relationship with the cathedral – you’d think that it will always be there and it will outlast you and suddenly you feel that it can destroyed.”
Victoria Baux contributed to the report