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Donations flow in as crews assess damage to Notre Dame Cathedral

UPDATED: Tue., April 16, 2019

This image taken from France Televisions video shows the fire damage inside the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Monday April 15, 2019. Firefighters declared success Tuesday morning in an over 12-hour battle to extinguish an inferno engulfing Paris' iconic Notre Dame cathedral that claimed its spire and roof, but spared its bell towers. (France Televisions via AP)
This image taken from France Televisions video shows the fire damage inside the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Monday April 15, 2019. Firefighters declared success Tuesday morning in an over 12-hour battle to extinguish an inferno engulfing Paris' iconic Notre Dame cathedral that claimed its spire and roof, but spared its bell towers. (France Televisions via AP)
By James Mcauley, Michael Birnbaum and Chico Harlan The Washington Post.

PARIS – France on Tuesday was confronting the scorched remains of Notre Dame Cathedral as officials announced they had extinguished the inferno that partly damaged a symbol of the nation. Authorities said their first investigations suggested that the fire started by accident, perhaps in connection with much-needed renovations that left part of the renowned Gothic church encased in scaffolding.

On an overcast Paris day, firetrucks and cranes still surrounded the soaring cathedral after the final flames were extinguished late Tuesday morning, and Notre Dame’s two rectangular bell towers stood tall above the heavily damaged roof and collapsed spire. Officials began the long task of determining the extent of the damage, warning that parts of the church, even those that remained standing, may still have gravely dangerous vulnerabilities, especially in the soaring vault.

From certain angles on Tuesday, it was almost possible to look head-on at the front of church, see its centuries-old rose windows and carved statues and imagine that all was intact. But to stray to any other angle made clear the devastation. The roof was burned away, and there was an aching absence where the spire had been. Char and smoke marks licked the walls out of rose-round window frames where once there was stained glass.Wooden roof beams that had eternal now looked like used matchsticks.

The first video from inside the damaged church showed pews still lined the nave, and smoldering rubble piled near the altar, under a still-hanging cross.

The overall structure of the church appears to be intact, Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nuqez told reporters on the plaza after touring part of the structure. But Notre Dame has “some points of vulnerability,” he said, at the vault, part of the roof of the north transept and part of the southern belfry.

Investigators said they did not currently suspect foul play.

“The preliminary investigation suggests an accidental hypothesis,” said Paris Prosecutor Rimy Heitz, adding that there were no indications that the blaze was started deliberately. He made clear that the investigation was just beginning, as officials gingerly made their way into the devastated interior of the chapel. The fire appears to have started under the scaffolding that encased the exterior of the church’s nave, which was under renovation.

Engineers, architects and firefighters planned to start by assessing the structural damage, officials said. They warned that they still do not know the extent of the catastrophe.

Workers were visible atop the north bell tower of the cathedral, peering down through the cinders of the roof into the heart of the chapel, which now opens to the sky.

The Gothic cathedral was built over centuries starting in 1163. It was partially consumed in just hours Monday, as thousands of Parisians stood sentinel on the banks of the Seine, singing “Ave Maria” and weeping at what was happening. Not just the heart of Paris, or France – although it is – the church has stood tall as a triumph of humanity for eight centuries.

“Parisians lose their Dame,” read one French headline. In Strasbourg, the city’s great cathedral tolled its bell for 15 minutes Tuesday morning in solidarity.

Speaking on French radio early Tuesday, Culture Minister Franck Riester said many priceless works of art in the cathedral were saved and that Notre Dame’s organ had survived. He also confirmed preliminary reports from firefighters that they had been able to save the church’s two most hallowed relics: a tunic worn by Saint Louis, a 13th-century French king, and the crown of thorns that Jesus is said to have worn.

The objects are now in safekeeping at Paris City Hall, Riester said. Officials said they would be transferred to the Louvre.

“It was necessary to bring them out through the smoke,” Paris Fire Commander Jean-Claude Gallet told BFMTV. He said firefighters rushed into the chamber of the cathedral at the height of the fire to make the rescue.

The cathedral’s most precious stained-glass rose windows, an ensemble that dates to the 12th and 13th centuries, are also likely intact, said Andri Finot, a cathedral spokesman.

“It’s a bit of a miracle. We’re very relieved,” he told BFMTV.

But images taken inside the cathedral made plain the damage. The gray light of Paris streamed into a chapel that for centuries has been covered. Sopping and burned roof beams lay in a tangle on the floor. The cross atop the altar still gleamed, but it overlooked a scene of devastation.

“The heart of the nave has suffered enormously,” said Josi Vaz de Matos, a French official in charge of fire safety in cultural landmarks.

Even as the fire burned, France was making plans to reconstruct the church. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe convened a crisis meeting. French President Emmanuel Macron visited the devastation during the night and vowed to rebuild.

The effort was supported by Pope Francis, who called the fire a “catastrophe,” and described on Twitter a desire that the damage would be “transformed into hope with reconstruction.”

French officials planned to launch a national collection drive for the reconstruction. French luxury magnate Frangois-Henri Pinault declared that his family would dedicate about $113 million to the effort. Hours later, the family of Bernard Arnault, the CEO of the LVMH luxury conglomerate and the richest man in Europe, pledged a gift of $226 million.

On Tuesday morning, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo floated the idea of an “international donor’s conference” that would unite philanthropists and restoration experts in Paris to raise money for targeted purposes in rebuilding Notre Dame. One expert said the reconstruction effort could take decades.

France remains a devoutly Catholic nation, and many of the people who came to see the remnants on Tuesday said they were prompted by their faith. This is the holiest week of the year in the Christian calendar.

“I’m a believer,” said Carine Mazzoni, 48, a lawyer who said her son was confirmed at Notre Dame. “It’s Easter week. It’s a symbol of Paris and a Catholic symbol. It’s the history of the world that’s united in this building.”

Longtime residents said they had a hard time comprehending the destruction.

“I’ve been a Parisian for 62 years,” her whole life, said Alix Constant, a medical secretary. “When I saw the images of the fire, I had the need to see it with my own eyes. And even more so because I’m a practicing Catholic.”

There were no deaths, but two police officers and one firefighter were injured, officials said.

The fire began in the early evening, as rush-hour traffic clogged the banks of the Seine. Firefighters describing their efforts to local media said they first had to get through the crowded streets. The flames quickly spread from the top level of the nave, eating up one beam, then another, in a vast portion of the roof that has been called “the forest” because each massive support was carved from an entire tree.

At the height of the effort to combat the blaze, about 400 firefighters trained 18 hoses on the church, according to local media accounts. They pumped water straight from the Seine, the grand river that traverses Paris and closely abuts Notre Dame.

As the firefighters worked into the night, hundreds of people gathered to watch the inferno. During Christianity’s holiest week, many sang hymns. Others wept. The heat could be felt on the other bank of the Seine.

Birnbaum reported from Brussels. The Washington Post’s Reis Thebault in Washington, Griff Witte in Berlin and Quentin Arihs in Paris contributed to this report.

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