A massive fire erupted at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday night, destroying the roof of the 850-year-old building and causing the spire to collapse.
The Catholic church is a world-famous landmark for the French capital, second only perhaps to the Eiffel Tower, and draws about 13 million visitors per year. It has been a center of religious and cultural life there since it was completed around 1365.
Before the blaze, the church had been undergoing an extensive $6.8 million renovation. While no official cause has been named, some reports from local TV station BFM-TV indicate the fire was “possibly linked” to the renovation and began in the rafters, though no workers were scheduled to be there when it broke out.
Because of the restoration project, some pieces of the cathedral were not on site and therefore saved from destruction.
Just last week, bronze statues from the 12th and 13th century were removed from the spire, which has now completely collapsed due to the ongoing blaze. The Chicago Tribune reports that a crane lowered the 12 apostles statues and four animals representing the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John onto a truck. Those statues were scheduled to be sent to southwestern France, which means they likely were spared. Their original position was at the cathedral’s peak, 300 feet up.
Innumerable artworks and relics are located inside the building. Workers were trying to rescue as many as possible as of Monday evening. The crown of thorns, a Catholic relic believed to be a piece of the item worn by Jesus when he was crucified, is just one of the items that is stored within the church.
The building itself may not be so lucky.
Notre Dame spokesperson Andre Finot told French media outlets that the entire wood frame of the building would likely be lost and the structural integrity would be compromised, according to the AP. “Everything is burning, nothing will remain from the frame,” he said.
The French Gothic-style cathedral is located on an island in the center of Paris called the Île de la Cité, which is surrounded by the River Seine.
The imposing building was completed around 1260, but has been modified over the centuries. It’s remarkable for its stained-glass rose window, flying buttresses and, until Monday, it’s towering spire.
The latter has now collapsed along with the roof after being consumed by flames. That spire replaced the original, which was damaged by wind and removed in the 18th century. The current one was made of oak covered with lead and weighed 750 tons.
Since its completion, the cathedral has seen its fair share of trials. It was the site of a Huguenot riot in the 1500s and was damaged in the French Revolution in 1793, when statues mistakenly believed to be of French kings were beheaded.
Notre Dame has enjoyed a special place in literature and film as the subject of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was made into a popular animated movie by Disney in 1996.
It has undergone numerous restoration and cleaning projects over the years, including major efforts in 1963 and 1991. The current $6.8 million restoration was intended to preserve it for future generations.
The blaze at the cathedral erupted around 6:30 p.m. Monday local time. A large security perimeter has been set up by firefighters, who are currently battling the fire. The building was safely evacuated and no lives have been lost, according to the AP.
Pedestrians are flooding the streets to watch, many in tears, one Paris resident tells PEOPLE. Twitter users are also documenting the scene.
“It feels like the end of the world,” one user wrote. “It’s getting worse. But the fire brigade has turned up. Hard to see how [to] tackle this. The plume of smoke is already 100s of feet long.”
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo sent out a message to residents of the city via Twitter: “A terrible fire is underway at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. The @PompiersParis [are] trying to control the flames. We are mobilized on site in close connection with the @dioceseParis. I invite each and every one to respect the perimeter of security.”
“Our Lady of Paris in flames. Emotion of a whole nation. Thought for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our countrymen, I’m sad tonight to see this part of us burn,” French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted. He has reportedly canceled a speech tonight and is on his way to the scene.