Flames and smoke rise as the spire on Notre Dame cathedral collapses in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. Massive plumes of yellow brown smoke is filling the air above Notre Dame Cathedral and ash is falling on tourists and others around the island that marks the center of Paris. Credit: Diana Ayanna | AP

PARIS — The central spire, roof and much of the interior of Notre Dame Cathedral were obliterated Monday as a catastrophic fire spread within minutes through a building that has stood at the heart of Paris for more than 800 years.

Cathedral spokesman Andre Finot told French media that the building had sustained “colossal damage” and that the Medieval wooden interior — an engineering and artistic marvel that has inspired awe and wonder for the millions who have visited over the centuries — had been gutted.

“Everything is burning,” he said. “Nothing will remain from the frame.”

Credit: Thibault Camus | AP

But late Monday night, officials said that the iconic twin towers that frame the building’s grand entry had been saved, and that the exterior structure of the cathedral had been preserved.

The cathedral has been under renovation, and officials said they were considering the blaze an accident relating to construction. The Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation.

No deaths or injuries have yet been reported.

The fire began in the late afternoon, with yellow clouds of smoke billowing into an otherwise perfect blue sky and orange flames assaulting the belfry. As evening began to fall over the city, a gaping hole could be seen where the enormous vaulted roof once had been. Flames continued to lick the night sky as an impromptu chorus in the streets below somberly sang “Ave Maria,” some members falling to their knees.

The heat of the fire could be felt from across the River Seine as firefighters frantically pumped water from cranes and sought to save the priceless works stored and displayed within.

Initial reports in the French press suggested that many of those pieces had already been removed last week during the renovations, and Finot said that the cathedral’s collection of relics and other sacred items, kept in the sacristry, were likely unharmed. “Normally there is no risk of things being burned,” he said.

The rest of the city seemed to stand still as the fire raged, with thousands of passerby watching from the streets below. Many were in tears, looking on in stunned silence. Some filmed the scenes on smartphones and broadcast them across the globe.

Credit: Christophe Ena | AP

Worldwide, scenes of the destruction triggered an outpouring of emotion, with people posting family photos to social media showcasing visits to a building that was built and refined over centuries but burned within hours.

The building, the cornerstone of which was laid in 1163, is the most visited monument in Paris, with more than 12 million people coming each year — nearly double the people who visit Eiffel Tower. Its intricate stone gargoyles, spires, stained glass and flying buttresses make it one of the great masterpieces of architecture.

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “Notre-Dame of Paris preyed by the flames. The sorrow of an entire nation. Our thoughts with all Catholics and French people. Like all our compatriots, I’m sad tonight to see this part of ourselves burn.”

Macron later visited the scene, watching with others as the structure was engulfed.

The church is both a literal and figurative center of the city: It anchors the Île de la Cité, the island in the Seine River where the first settlements emerged that eventually became the city of Paris. The common distinctions of “Left Bank” and “Right Bank” are in reference to this island.

Credit: Michel Euler | AP

Until Monday night, Notre Dame had managed to withstand both the elements and the vicissitudes of history that left their mark elsewhere in the French capital: the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, two world wars and Adolf Hitler’s demolition plans in 1944.

Pope Francis issued a statement late on Monday expressing the Vatican’s “shock and sadness” at “the news of the terrible fire that devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a symbol of Christianity in France and in the world.”

“We express closeness to the French Catholics and the people of Paris and we assure our prayers for the firemen and those who are doing everything possible to face this dramatic situation,” the statement read.

“I do not have a strong enough word to express the pain that I feel,” tweeted Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo.

Credit: Thibault Camus | AP

Many of those gathered at the base of the cathedral Monday were tourists and pilgrims visiting for Easter holidays. Others were local, there to pay their respects.

“I came because we live in Paris and because, well, last week we were all there, having a drink on the steps of the cathedral, enjoying the beautiful flowers in the garden,” said Fatima Marie, a 35-year-old Parisian. “We thought it would be better to be here among friends.”

Donia Hammami, 35, a trade expert in Paris, ran to the scene from her gym nearby when she saw the reports of the blaze. She was in tears in the crowd, watching the cathedral burn.

“For me, this has been an inspiration for so many other churches in Europe from the 14th century onward, in the way it came up with a way to mirror more light,” Hammami said. “It’s been here for all those ages.”

“This is a historic moment for all of us, in the worst possible sense of the term,” she added.

Credit: Thibault Camus | AP

Europe is full of historic structures that have been rebuilt following damage during both war and peacetime. But experts despaired that the loss to Notre Dame was incalculable and unrecoverable.

“It’s not just the medieval features,” tweeted Kate Wiles, a scholar at Kings’ College London. “It’s a palimpsest of work and rework, and building and rebuilding, and we’ve lost all those layers. It’s not just the ‘original’ masterpiece we’re losing, but the culmination of some 900 years of history, which can’t just be rebuilt.”

The spire that collapsed on Monday, for instance, is not an original component of the cathedral. It was added in the nineteenth century, when tastes veered toward a Gothic revival, by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. The gargoyles — immortalized in Victor Hugo’s classic novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” — were likewise added in the nineteenth century.

Throughout French cultural history, Notre Dame has served as a powerful symbol of Paris and of France’s cultural heritage. The writer Anatole France once described it as “heavy as a hippopotamus” but “light as a butterfly.” The painter Marc Chagall depicted it in his canvases, distorted in dream-like haze.

President Trump tweeted his advice to Paris on Monday: “So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!”

French fire services tweeted in apparent reply that “dropping water by airplane on this type of building could result in the collapse of the entire structure.”

Trump said in Monday afternoon remarks that “they don’t know what caused it. They say renovation, and I hope that’s the reason. Renovation? What’s that all about?”

Although there was no evidence of a connection, France has seen a number of attacks on Catholic churches in the past year, including arson and vandalism.

Paris’s Church of St. Sulpice was set on fire after midday mass last month. No one was injured. Police are investigating, but firefighters attributed the blaze to arson.

The possibility that foul play had been the cause for the Notre Dame fire was on the minds of some of those who watched Monday evening as the cathedral burned.

“I was in New York on 9/11 and this reminds me of that,” said Donna Calhoun, 57, a professor of mathematics from Boise who is on sabbatical at the Sorbonne. “I just hope it wasn’t arson.”