Tourists and Parisians, united in their shock at the damage to one of the great monuments of human heritage, watched from the safety of the opposite bank of the Seine, kept away by a police cordon.
But journalists could witness the extent of the damage through one of the great doors which opened to reveal the piles of rubble and charred debris inside.
– ‘It was hell’ –
Cathedral clerics who saw the damage to the interior said they were struggling to believe what they witnessed.
Philippe Marsset, the vicar general of Notre-Dame, was among the first to enter the cathedral.
“It felt like I was looking at a bombing,” Marsset said of the cathedral, where he was ordained a priest 31 years ago.
But the blaze kept springing up as globs of molten lead fell from the soaring heights of the church.
“All night long I saw men going past with tears in their eyes. I described it this way: It was total chaos, but we can’t let it knock us down,” Marsset said.
“This church was built 850 years ago. It withstood the wars, it withstood the bombings, it resisted everything,” he said.
– ‘History of my life’ –
Onlookers from France and abroad remained transfixed by the sight of the cathedral, relieved that its main structure had been saved but worried about how it could be rebuilt.
“I’m devastated, even if I haven’t been a Catholic for a long time,” 88-year-old Claire told AFP at the scene on Tuesday morning. “I was baptised here.”
“Notre-Dame, it’s like the Eiffel Tower, it’s like my grandmother. It’s like the Colosseum in Rome had burned down. I had to go,” she said.
But onlookers also worried about how the spirit of the building could be kept through a restoration.
“Those who built it are no longer with us. Do we know all its details, all its secrets?” asked Christelle, a 27-year-old Congolese student.
– ‘Miraculous and heroic’ –
But in the end there was relief that a lot was able to be saved, with much of the stonework as well as the two massive square bell towers largely unscathed.
“We’re all just dumbfounded. It’s more than miraculous, it’s heroic,” Marsset said, calling the firefighters who toiled throughout the night “heroes.”
But he appeared lost for words when asked about what would happen now, as Christians worldwide prepared to celebrate Easter next Sunday.
“We had things planned for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. We don’t yet know where to do these. It’s as if our mother has been wounded,” he said.