Thousands of onlookers lined bridges over the Seine and along the river’s embankments, held at a distance by a police cordon as the blaze engulfed the cathedral’s roof.
Others gathered to say prayers and sing hymns In front of the nearby Saint Julien Les Pauvres church, only a few hundred metres away.
Flames and smoke rose in the sky behind the singers.
“I’m devastated,” said Elizabeth Caille, 58, who lives close to the cathedral. “It’s a symbol of Paris. It’s a symbol of Christianity. It’s a whole world that is collapsing.”
As dark fell over the French capital, orange flames rising through the heart of the 12th century Gothic cathedral cast an eerie glow through its stained-glass windows and against its stone towers.
Dumbstruck observers stood rooted to the spot as the scale of catastrophe sunk in, questioning whether the cathedral would survive the night as clouds of acrid-smelling smoke rose into the sky. Some were visibly moved.
“It will never be the same” said 30-year-old Samantha Silva, tears welling in her eyes as she explained how she would always take foreign friends visiting Paris to the cathedral.
Built over a century starting around the year 1160, historians consider Notre-Dame to be among the best examples of French Gothic cathedral architecture.
Notre Dame survived being ransacked by rioting Huguenots in the 16th century, pillaging during the French Revolution of the 1790s and being left in a state of semi-neglect until Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which led to renewed interest in the cathedral and a major restoration which began in 1844.
The cathedral continued to be used as a place for national mourning in modern-day France. World leaders attended memorial services held there for former presidents Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand.
“It’s horrible, it’s 800 years of history gone up in smoke,” said German tourist Katrin Recke.
As firefighters raced to save priceless artworks, centuries-old gargoyles and the cathedral’s northern tower, world leaders expressed sorrow and grief in messages to the French people.
“Notre-Dame belonged to all humanity. What a tragic spectacle. What horror. I share the French nation’s sadness,” tweeted Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Union’s executive Commission.
Australians are likely to be given an opportunity to contribute to rebuilding the cathedral, with both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten expressing sadness over the blaze.
Morrison recalled visiting Notre-Dame with his wife Jenny nearly 30 years ago.
“It’s a pretty special place and to see it in flames today was just really sad,” he told Adelaide’s 5AA radio.
“Paris is an eternal city and it will rebuild and it will restore.”
Shorten noted the “brooding, gothic cathedral” had been an important landmark in the days before GPS when he visited Paris as a young backpacker, and again during early morning runs on a more recent visit.
There is bipartisan support to allow Australians to contribute to the building’s restoration.
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull suggested the idea on Twitter, saying there was precedent for a charitable fund that individuals and foundations could contribute to, along with a possible direct government contribution.
Both Shorten and Morrison believed Australians would want to contribute in some way.
“I think Australia should contribute to a restoration fund,” Mr Shorten told reporters in Melbourne.
“Notre-Dame doesn’t just belong to Paris or France, it belongs to the world. I think we, all of us who’ve enjoyed that architecture, that history, we too should perhaps rally around and help Paris and Notre Dame.”
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said he had no doubt many Australians would want to chip in.
“Absolutely, if money is going towards the restoration and Australians who want to contribute can, that is to be supported,” he told ABC TV.
“Every Parisian will dig deep as well, no doubt. I don’t think there will be a shortage of funds for this to happen.”
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