* The 850-year-old famous cathedral has been virtually destroyed in a massive blaze
* The fire may have been accidentally sparked by renovation works
* French President Emmanuel Macron: “I am sad tonight to see this part of us burning.”
* 12 million people visit Notre Dame each year – it also houses famous artworks
* “This is so much history going up in flames”
The famous Notre Dame cathedral in Paris has been virtually destroyed in a massive blaze – its roof and spire have collapsed and firefighters have been struggling to contain the inferno.
The world-famous cathedral, which was built in 1160, was engulfed in flames after the fire broke out about 4.50am (NZT) on Tuesday.
Major parts of the 850-year-old cathedral have been destroyed in the catastrophic fire. Its spire collapsed shortly before 6am and the blaze had spread to one of the two rectangular bell towers about 7am.
“This fire is nowhere under control – it’s getting worse before our eyes,” said CNN correspondent Melissa Bell. “This is so much history going up in flames.”
By 6.30am, firefighters did appear to finally be containing many of the flames – and their efforts were focused on trying to save famous artworks and artefacts inside.
The immediate area surrounding the cathedral was being evacuated amid fears more of the building would collapse.
The cathedral has been undergoing renovation and French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying the fire is “potentially linked” to that work. Officials said the fire was accidental.
According to French newspaper Le Monde, the fire broke out in the attic of the historic monument before spreading to engulf a large section of the roof.
French President Emmanuel Macron arrived at the scene just after 7am (NZT) says the fire is taking part of everyone in France with it.
“I am sad tonight to see this part of us burning,” he tweeted.
He extended “thoughts for all the Catholics and all the French”.
His administration says Macron is heading to Notre Dame.
Pictures posted on social media showed enormous plumes of smoke billowing into the city’s skyline as firefighters rushed to the historic site.
Notre Dame spokesman Andre Finot told French media: “Everything is burning, nothing will remain from the frame.”
Claire Waddington, a Kiwi who has lived in Paris for more than 20 years, said the sight of the fire had broken her heart.
“We’re all in shock,” she said in a series of tweets.
She said the “catastrophic” fire had left her “shaking in shock” and that there was a strong smell of burning in the city.
“The damage that must be done, it’s unthinkable,” she said. “My heart is just broken.”
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo labelled the fire “terrible”.
Hidalgo urged residents of the French capital to stay away from the security perimeter around the Gothic-style church. The mayor says city officials are in touch with Roman Catholic diocese in Paris.
Macron cancelled a speech he was due to give to make his way to the scene.
A spokesperson for the cathedral said the blaze was first reported at 4.50am (NZT) (6.50pm local time) and the building was evacuated soon after.
Christine Moreau, a local resident, broke into tears as she described her horror when she saw smoke and flames coming from the roof.
“It’s tragic. I can’t believe this is happening. Notre Dame is part of the heart of Paris and part of our hearts too. Why couldn’t more have been done to put out the blaze?”
Officials said they had not used helicopters or aircraft to fight the fire because of fears for people’s safety in the immediate area.
On Thursday, 16 religious statues were removed from the peak for the first time in over a century to be taken for cleaning and therefore escaped the blaze.
“The smoke is blowing over the south side of the city towards the Tour Eiffel,” witness Anne-Sophie Faivre, a 21-year-old Warwick University student on her year abroad in Paris, told the UK’s Daily Telegraph.
“You can’t quite smell the smoke but it’s definitely in the air and the doesn’t seem to be any let-up in it coming from the cathedral.
“As you can imagine there are a lot of people both tourists and locals who have gathered to watch.”
The cathedral is one the finest example of French Gothic architecture in Europe, and one of the most visited buildings in the world.
Notre Dame – which means ‘Our Lady’ – was built in 1160 and completed by 1260, and has been modified on a number of occasions throughout the century.
US President Donald Trump tweeted about the fire and made suggestions for how first responders should tackle it:
French police say water planes were not used to douse the flames due to safety concerns, according to Le Monde.
Notre Dame is the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Paris, and is visited by about 12 million people every year.
It’s also famous in literature as the centrepoint of Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The deputy mayor of Paris says the cathedral has suffered “colossal damage”.
Speaking to BFMTV, Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Gregoire said first responders were now trying to salvage the art and other priceless pieces stored in the cathedral.
A cathedral spokesman has said the entire wooden interior of the Notre Dame is burning and likely to be destroyed.
The fire comes after France’s Saint Sulpice church, used in the filming of Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’ thriller, caught fire in March.
French writer and historian Camille Pascal says the fire has caused “the destruction of invaluable heritage” and “we can be only horrified by what we see”.
Pascal told French broadcaster BFMTV: “It’s been 800 years that the Cathedral watches over Paris” and its bells pealed for both “happy and unfortunate events.”
He recalled that Notre Dame’s bells sounded a death knell after the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris.
Ainsley Duyvestyn-Smith, a Kiwi photographer living in Paris about 4km away from Notre Dame, said she had just popped out for takeaway pizza when she saw “clouds and clouds of white smoke” billowing into the sky.
But it was not until she got home and saw the news that she realised the fire was at the cathedral.
Duyvestyn-Smith said she had done lots of photo shoots at the iconic spot.
“It is a really popular spot for photos, especially at the moment because all the cherry blossoms are out,” she said. “It is a really beautiful area.”
The fire was “awful and devastating for Paris because Notre Dame is such a huge part of the architecture and history”.
“From the looks of the photos the fire is in the oldest part of the building and that is almost 1000 years old, and there is also Jesus’ Crown of thorns in there as well.”
“So a lot of religious people are having a freak out about that being destroyed and lots of really important artefacts in there as well.”
Kiwi expat Lydia Laulala, who is living in in France with her husband who plays for a French rugby team, didn’t see the blaze but ran past Notre Dame yesterday as part of the Paris Marathon.
“It is very lucky [the fire] didn’t happen yesterday because there was 55,000 people running around the city on the roads, so the whole city was closed down,” she said.
“It would have been a logistical nightmare if it had happened yesterday.”