Sparks and bits of flaming woodwork are still cascading from the remnants of the 12th-century roof.
The smell instantly sears the back of your throat like a dose of smelling salts and my feet are soaked. The ancient black and white tiles leading up the aisle are under a gently-flowing river of hose water from the fire crews pumping what seems like much of the River Seine from their elevated platforms.
Yet I can faithfully report that the Cathedral of Notre Dame is not entirely destroyed. Because I am standing inside it – alongside the French prime minister.
In the early hours of this morning, I was among the first people to be allowed inside the ruins of one of the world’s finest cathedrals following the fire which has shocked not just the entire French nation but much of the planet.
A blaze which begin in the cathedral’s loft at 6.30pm had turned into an all-consuming catastrophe by nightfall. Officials reported that the wooden interior of the medieval cathedral had been almost completely destroyed.
Certainly, Notre Dame’s spire is no more. Great chunks of its eastern end are no more. Its world-famous stained glass windows are in smithereens and the whole edifice is open to the skies.
But Paris will wake today to see that the cathedral that has defied world wars, enemy occupations, revolutions and mobs galore is still poking its head above the Paris skyline.
And at 1am today, at the far end of the cathedral, illuminated by lingering embers and firefighters’ equipment, I could just make out a stunning symbol of defiance through the gloom: the unmistakeable sight of a crucifix on what remains of the altar.
Notre Dame is gravely damaged. Yet its most spectacular features – the 850-year-old twin towers – are still there. For centuries, these were the highest structures in Paris until the Eiffel Tower came along. To this day, they are instantly recognisable the world over. And last night, though looking very sorry for themselves, they were in one piece as I stood beneath them alongside a posse of fire crews and prime ministerial aides.
Within hours, speculation was rife as to the cause of the fire. For now, it seems that it was what one official called a ‘stray flame’ – linked to a £5 million restoration project – which sparked the inferno.
Experts have warned for years that the cathedral has been in a poor condition, with the French state reluctant to fund renovation work in recent decades.
SOURCE: Daily Mail