Firefighters in Paris are battling to put out a huge blaze that has engulfed the iconic Notre Dame cathedral, a centuries-old building in the heart of the French capital.
Footage showed flames coming out of the Gothic cathedral early on Monday evening, with smoke billowing from the roof as stunned Parisians and tourists watched on in horror.
The structure’s soaring spire later collapsed in flames, and a church spokesman said the entire wooden interior of the 12th-century landmark was burning and likely to be destroyed.
The fire also spread to one of the iconic rectangular towers. “A terrible fire is under way at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris,” Mayor Anne Hidalgo said on Twitter. “There are a lot of artworks inside … it’s a real tragedy,” she later told reporters at the scene.
It was not immediately clear what had caused the fire. Local media reported that police were treating the incident as an accident.
The cathedral was in the middle of $6.8m renovations, with some sections under scaffolding, while bronze statues were removed last week for works.
Police urged people to avoid the area and facilitate the passage of emergency vehicles.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who cancelled a national address due to the fire, was expected to head to the scene of the blaze.
“Notre-Dame de Paris in flames. Emotion of a whole nation. Thought for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our compatriots, I am sad tonight to see this part of us burn,” Macron said on Twitter.
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris, said she saw tears streaming down the face of some onlookers.
“The cathedral is a French icon, it is a symbol of Paris all over the world,” she said. “To see it in flames is extremely sad for so many people.”
“Paris is disfigured. The city will never be like it was before,” said Philippe, a communications worker in his mid-30s. “It’s a tragedy,” he added. “If you pray, now is the time to pray.”
A woman passed by, tears running from behind her glasses, too overwhelmed to speak to reporters.
“It’s finished, we’ll never be able to see it again,” said Jerome Fautrey, a 37-year-old who had come to watch.
“Now we need to know how this happened – with everything that’s going on in the world, why Notre-Dame? Maybe it’s a message from on high,” he said.
Notre Dame is distinguished for its size, antiquity and architectural interest.
The cathedral, which is famous for featuring in Victor Hugo’s classic novel the Hunchback of Notre Dame, attracts millions of tourists every year.
It was here that Christian crusaders prayed before going to fight in the Holy Land, where revolutionaries defiled representations of French kings and Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804.
“It’s a devastating image because Notre Dame, Paris and France play a key role in the history of European Christendom, that is second only to Rome and the Vatican,” Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, told Al Jazeera.
“This is really a fire at the heart of Christianity.”