Paris (CNN) –The firetrucks had difficulty getting to the scene, located on an island in Paris, amid the daily afternoon rush hour. Police said on Twitter the public should avoid the area and allow emergency vehicles into the scene.
French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said exceptional measures are being taken to try to save the cathedral.
It was not immediately known what caused the fire and whether anybody was injured. The cathedral has been surrounded by scaffolding and construction work was being done.
The fire, just days before Easter, was met with horror by Parisians and tourists.
Thibaud Binétruy, who lives in Paris, said he saw the smoke while walking home with a colleague and was gripped by the sight.
“When the spire fell, the crowd reacted with ohhh and ahh, but I guess most of them were just shocked silently,” Binétruy said. “It’s awful to see such a symbol disappearing in front of you. It’s been there for so many years and in a few minutes half of it disappeared … crazy. Paris without Notre Dame, madness.”
Patryk Bukalski was at a café near the cathedral when he started smelling smoke.
“A bartender said the Notre Dame is on fire, so I left and saw this horrible picture,” he said over Instagram.
He said people are standing outside, watching and crying.
“It’s horrible. It’s a symbol of Paris,” Bukalski said. “It’s just sad. I don’t know what more to say.”
Another witness, Anne Marie, spoke with tears in her eyes.
“In Paris, it’s a monumental symbol — every person with different religions are really moved and saddened,” she said. “Paris without the cathedral is not Paris anymore.”
The Vatican said the Holy See learned with “shock and sadness the news of the terrible fire that has devastated the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, symbol of Christianity, in France and in the world.”
“We express our closeness to the French Catholic and to the people of Paris. We pray for the firefighters and for all those who are doing everything possible to face this dramatic situation,” the Vatican said.
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The medieval cathedral was completed in the 13th century and today, with its towers, spire, flying buttresses and stained glass, is considered a feat of architecture as much as a religious symbol.
Located in Île de la Cité, a small island in the middle of the city, the cathedral is one of Paris’ most popular attractions, drawing an estimated 13 million visitors a year.
The fire comes just days before the Easter Sunday and the end of Lent.
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 15, 2019