ROBERT HARDMAN is one of the first witnesses in the destroyed Notre Dame

Sparks and pieces of flaming woodwork still run from the remains of the 12th-century roof.

The scent immediately sears the back of your throat like a dose of smelling salts and my feet are soaked. The old black and white tiles that lead down the aisle are located beneath a gently flowing snake water river of the firefighters pumping what looks like much of the River Seine from their elevated platforms.

Yet I can faithfully report that the Cathedral of Notre Dame has not been completely destroyed. Because I am beside it – beside the French Prime Minister.

An aerial view of the cathedral shows the famous structure completely stripped of the roof and still burning on the inside

An aerial view of the cathedral shows the famous structure completely stripped of the roof and still burning on the inside

Smoke rises around the altar before the cross in the cathedral of Notre-Dame, while there is still fire burning in Paris

Smoke rises around the altar before the cross in the cathedral of Notre-Dame, while there is still fire burning in Paris

Smoke rises around the altar before the cross in the cathedral of Notre-Dame, while there is still fire burning in Paris

Smoke rises around the altar before the cross in the cathedral of Notre-Dame, while there is still fire burning in Paris

Smoke rises around the altar before the cross in the cathedral of Notre-Dame, while there is still fire burning in Paris

When darkness fell on Paris on Monday evening, the destroyed cathedral was illuminated by the still burning flames in the roof while firefighters fought against the inferno

When darkness fell on Paris on Monday evening, the destroyed cathedral was illuminated by the still burning flames in the roof while firefighters fought against the inferno

When darkness fell on Paris on Monday evening, the destroyed cathedral was illuminated by the still burning flames in the roof while firefighters fought against the inferno

Firefighters were still fighting to control the fire when the night passed over Paris and the roof of Notre Dame was still on fire. The glass window also appeared to have been destroyed by the heat of the fire

Firefighters were still fighting to control the fire when the night passed over Paris and the roof of Notre Dame was still on fire. The glass window also appeared to have been destroyed by the heat of the fire

Firefighters were still fighting to control the fire when the night passed over Paris and the roof of Notre Dame was still on fire. The glass window also appeared to have been destroyed by the heat of the fire

In the early hours of this morning, I was one of the first people to be admitted to the ruins of one of & # 39; s world's best cathedrals after the fire, which shocked not only the entire French nation, but much of the planet.

An eruption starting in the loft of the cathedral at 6.30 pm had turned into a devastating catastrophe at nightfall. Officials reported that the wooden interior of the medieval cathedral was almost completely destroyed.

Certainly, the spire of Notre Dame is no longer. Large parts of its eastern end are no longer. The world famous stained glass windows are in shattered elements and the whole building is open to heaven.

But Paris will wake up today to see that the cathedral that has defied world wars, hostile occupations, revolutions and crowds in abundance, still heads above the Paris skyline.

And at 1 o'clock today, at the far end of the cathedral, illuminated by persistent embers and equipment of firefighters, I was able to distinguish a stunning symbol of resistance through the darkness: the unmistakable view of a crucifix of what remains of the altar.

Notre Dame is badly damaged. Yet its most spectacular features – the 850-year-old twin towers – are still present. For centuries these were the tallest buildings in Paris until the Eiffel Tower was added. To this day, they are immediately recognizable throughout the world. And last night, although they felt very sorry for themselves, they were in one piece while I was standing next to them, alongside a group of firefighters and prime minister's assistants.

A shard of the spire of the cathedral plunges through the sky as it collapsed on Monday evening after the fire was chewed through the ground

A shard of the spire of the cathedral plunges through the sky as it collapsed on Monday evening after the fire was chewed through the ground

A shard of the spire of the cathedral plunges through the sky as it collapsed on Monday evening after the fire was chewed through the ground

Within a few hours speculation was widespread about the cause of the fire. For now, it seems that what an official has a & # 39; stray flame & # 39; – linked to a £ 5 million restoration project – started the inferno.

Experts have been warning for years that the cathedral is in poor condition, and that the French state has been reluctant to finance renovations in recent decades.

Experts said the building needed a repair of £ 129.5 million (€ 150 million), but the state had only offered € 40 million.

The cathedral was looking for private donations to make up for the rest.

The flames were first noticed just after the building was closed to the public for the day. Following the fears of his entire country, French President Emmanuel Macron immediately declared a national emergency. & # 39; Our dear wife of Paris in flames & # 39 ;, he stated on Twitter. & # 39; Like all our countrymen, I am sorry tonight to see this part of us burn. & # 39;

He has promised to rebuild Notre Dame and says: & Notre Dame is our history, our imagination, where we have lived all our great moments, and is the epicenter of our lives.

& # 39; It's the story of our books, our paintings. It is the cathedral for all French people, even though they have never been. But it burns and I know that this sorrow will be felt by all our citizens.

Teams of firefighters from all over the city were called in to try to turn off the fire after it quickly spread through the cathedral on Monday evening

Teams of firefighters from all over the city were called in to try to turn off the fire after it quickly spread through the cathedral on Monday evening

Teams of firefighters from all over the city were called in to try to turn off the fire after it quickly spread through the cathedral on Monday evening

A large part of the top of the structure fell victim to the inferno, including the famous spire and a part of the dome in the back of the church

A large part of the top of the structure fell victim to the inferno, including the famous spire and a part of the dome in the back of the church

A large part of the top of the structure fell victim to the inferno, including the famous spire and a part of the dome in the back of the church

The position on top of the church and the wooden frame of the building would be completely on fire by a spokesperson for the cathedral

The position on top of the church and the wooden frame of the building would be completely on fire by a spokesperson for the cathedral

The position on top of the church and the wooden frame of the building would be completely on fire by a spokesperson for the cathedral

The fire spread quickly over the roofline of the cathedral and left one of the towers behind and another part of the roof was flooded with flames.

The fire spread quickly over the roofline of the cathedral and left one of the towers behind and another part of the roof was flooded with flames.

The fire spread quickly over the roofline of the cathedral and left one of the towers behind and another part of the roof was flooded with flames.

& # 39; A national subscription will be launched tomorrow for people across the country to help rebuild this great Notre Dame. Because that's what the French want. That is what their history requires. Because that is our destination. & # 39;

Questions were immediately asked about how a fire could quickly grab one of & # 39; the world's most visited – and most loved – sights. The reaction to fire fighting was also questioned because in the first hour few or no high-pressure water hoses could reach the roof. It is crucial that the Paris prosecutor has already launched an investigation.

I arrived last night to find a dumb-up City of Light that still bathed in a nasty afterglow. Here, on the banks of the Seine, tens of thousands of people – of all nationalities – stared in disbelief at the slow death of part of the soul of France.

Describing Notre Dame Cathedral as a national monument is a serious understatement. Imagine Westminster Abbey, St Paul & # 39; s Cathedral and the Tower of London all going up in smoke and you begin to appreciate the magnitude of this loss, except that Notre Dame attracts twice as many visitors as three London monuments in the past put together.

That is why, when the news started spreading last night, the Parisians flocked to the Seine. They did not come here as voyeurs but as grieving people. They came to pay their last obeisances. Some sang hymns. Many were in tears. Some brought flowers and cards to the place they didn't know where. It is understandable that someone might not think it was appropriate to light a candle.

Photos from inside the ancient church show the stone roof of the structure partially collapsed after the huge fire

Photos from inside the ancient church show the stone roof of the structure partially collapsed after the huge fire

Photos from inside the ancient church show the stone roof of the structure partially collapsed after the huge fire

A view from the cathedral shows flames in the roof, while firefighters submerge it with snakes from below. A shocked fireman looks back at the camera, because the bright burning orange glow rages on Monday evening in Paris

A view from the cathedral shows flames in the roof, while firefighters submerge it with snakes from below. A shocked fireman looks back at the camera, because the bright burning orange glow rages on Monday evening in Paris

A view from the cathedral shows flames in the roof, while firefighters submerge it with snakes from below. A shocked fireman looks back at the camera, because the bright burning orange glow rages on Monday evening in Paris

Firefighters extinguish flames from the roof while trying to prevent the flames from spreading. Nobody was injured, Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said on the spot and added: & # 39; It's too early to determine the causes of the fire & # 39;

Firefighters extinguish flames from the roof while trying to prevent the flames from spreading. Nobody was injured, Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said on the spot and added: & # 39; It's too early to determine the causes of the fire & # 39;

Firefighters extinguish flames from the roof while trying to prevent the flames from spreading. Nobody was injured, Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said on the spot and added: & # 39; It's too early to determine the causes of the fire & # 39;

Firefighters unpack the fire on Monday evening while flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral while it burns in Paris

Firefighters unpack the fire on Monday evening while flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral while it burns in Paris

Firefighters unpack the fire on Monday evening while flames and smoke rise from Notre Dame cathedral while it burns in Paris

Since the Middle Ages, Notre Dame has marked the eras in the story of this proud country and inspired one of the most famous literary masterpieces in the French language, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This August marks the 75th anniversary of the day that General Charles De Gaulle marked the liberation of Paris within his walls, even as sporadic guns remained outside.

This is a city that has been spared in a famous way for the destruction that history has caused to so many other European capitals. It really felt blessed; almost forever. Not anymore. The twin towers are now blackened and wide open for the elements. By midnight, however, the flames had disappeared, when here and there the first glimpses of fire fighters could be seen in the remains.

I joined what I can only describe as a requiem mass of Parisians singing prayers on the Pont de Notre Dame. All entrances to the island location of the cathedral were closed to the public, but the crowds continued to catch a glimpse from all directions.

& # 39; At least the two towers are still standing, and they have to stay up so that Notre Dame can be reborn & # 39 ;, said official Pascal Boichut, 52. There was a glimmer of hope when the Paris fire brigade, Jean-Claude Gallet, reporters told: & # 39; We believe that the main structure of Notre Dame has been preserved. & # 39;

A man holds his hands on his head in despair as the smoke ripples from the cathedral tonight while firefighters desperately fight the fire

A man holds his hands on his head in despair as the smoke ripples from the cathedral tonight while firefighters desperately fight the fire

A man holds his hands on his head in despair as the smoke ripples from the cathedral tonight while firefighters desperately fight the fire

A woman with tears in her eyes grasps her hands as she watches the flames spread across the cathedral and a man desperately lays his head in his hands.

A woman with tears in her eyes grasps her hands as she watches the flames spread across the cathedral and a man desperately lays his head in his hands.

A woman with tears in her eyes grasps her hands as she watches the flames spread across the cathedral and a man desperately lays his head in his hands.

A woman reacts in shock when she sees the flames being flooded by the roof of Notre Dame in Paris tonight

A woman reacts in shock when she sees the flames being flooded by the roof of Notre Dame in Paris tonight

A woman reacts in shock when she sees the flames being flooded by the roof of Notre Dame in Paris tonight

Parisians gather tonight on the Seine to watch the flames spread through the cathedral. The fire started in the late afternoon

Parisians gather tonight on the Seine to watch the flames spread through the cathedral. The fire started in the late afternoon

Parisians gather tonight on the Seine to watch the flames spread through the cathedral. The fire started in the late afternoon

People watch as firefighters fight the fire that has flooded the historic building. A dark smoke filled the evening sky of Paris while the fire continued to rage

People watch as firefighters fight the fire that has flooded the historic building. A dark smoke filled the evening sky of Paris while the fire continued to rage

People watch as firefighters fight the fire that has flooded the historic building. A dark smoke filled the evening sky of Paris while the fire continued to rage

Parisians cry and fall to their knees while the flames trickle through the roof of Notre Dame on Monday evening

Parisians cry and fall to their knees while the flames trickle through the roof of Notre Dame on Monday evening

Parisians cry and fall to their knees while the flames trickle through the roof of Notre Dame on Monday evening

I was able to confirm that an hour later when I managed to enter the Seine, his reputation has always increased. Last night this meant that the suffering of France became all the more visible.

Even worse than the sea of ​​fire last night, however, will be the cold light of dawn – while France wakes up and discovers that it is not only missing a beloved monument. It lacks a limb.

The eruption in the attic of the church is believed to have broken out, near renovation work, before it spreads to the steeple and roof. It is suspected that a & # 39; stray flame & # 39; the inferno has lit local time at 6:30 pm. It started just minutes after the building was closed to the public.

A statement for a national emergency, Macron said the fire destroyed not only the historic place of worship, but also a part of every citizen of France. & # 39; Our Lady of Paris in flames & # 39 ;, he tweeted. & # 39; Emotion of an entire nation. Thought for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our countrymen, I am sad tonight to see this part of us burn. & # 39;

The blaze was reported for the first time at 6.50 p.m., while the spire fell over just over an hour later.

Crowds watch the flames flood the building on Monday night. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit invited priests throughout France to ring church bells in a call to prayer for the beloved cathedral of Paris

Crowds watch the flames flood the building on Monday night. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit invited priests throughout France to ring church bells in a call to prayer for the beloved cathedral of Paris

Crowds watch the flames flood the building on Monday night. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit invited priests throughout France to ring church bells in a call to prayer for the beloved cathedral of Paris

French fire crews check the hoses in the streets of Paris on Monday evening. While the cathedral continued to burn, Parisians gathered to pray and sing hymns outside the church of Saint Julien Les Pauvres over the Notre Dame river as the flames lit the sky behind them

French fire crews check the hoses in the streets of Paris on Monday evening. While the cathedral continued to burn, Parisians gathered to pray and sing hymns outside the church of Saint Julien Les Pauvres over the Notre Dame river as the flames lit the sky behind them

French fire crews check the hoses in the streets of Paris on Monday evening. While the cathedral continued to burn, Parisians gathered to pray and sing hymns outside the church of Saint Julien Les Pauvres over the Notre Dame river as the flames lit the sky behind them

People sit and watch in disbelief, while the roof of Notre Dame burns on Monday afternoon and into the evening

People sit and watch in disbelief, while the roof of Notre Dame burns on Monday afternoon and into the evening

People sit and watch in disbelief, while the roof of Notre Dame burns on Monday afternoon and into the evening

Flames licked over the upper part of the building, with smoke and ash billowing in the air. The roof crashed shortly thereafter, causing the blaze to spread to the entire frame of the building. At 8.30 pm firefighters with invaluable works of art were brought to safety.

& # 39; I'm devastated by it & & # 39 ;, said Elizabeth Caille, 58, who lives near the cathedral. & # 39; It is a symbol of Paris. It is a symbol of Christianity. It is a whole world that is collapsing. & # 39;

Ed Kelly, from Canada, said: & # 39; This is the first time I've seen the cathedral up close and it's on fire. It is heartbreaking. & # 39;

Jacek Poltorak, who saw the disaster from a balcony on the fifth floor south of the cathedral, said: “In fact, the entire roof has disappeared. I see no hope for the building. & # 39;

At 10.30 pm firefighters said the famous stained glass windows from the Rose Glass from the 13th century had been destroyed. & # 39; They exploded due to the heat of the fire, & # 39; said one. The French police added that a firefighter had been seriously injured. The counter-terrorism department of the New York police station said last night it was watching the fire closely – but French officials claimed it was caused by an accident.

Officials say the fire may be accompanied by renovation work, as the spire is undergoing a $ 6.8 million renovation this year

Officials say the fire may be accompanied by renovation work, as the spire is undergoing a $ 6.8 million renovation this year

Officials say the fire may be accompanied by renovation work, as the spire is undergoing a $ 6.8 million renovation this year

World leaders have expressed their devastation over the destruction of the 850-year-old cathedral with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who says: & Tonight we pray for the firefighters tackling the tragic fire of Notre Dame - and for everyone in France and beyond looking and crying for this beautiful, holy place where millions of Jesus Christ have met & # 39;

World leaders have expressed their devastation over the destruction of the 850-year-old cathedral with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who says: & Tonight we pray for the firefighters tackling the tragic fire of Notre Dame - and for everyone in France and beyond looking and crying for this beautiful, holy place where millions of Jesus Christ have met & # 39;

World leaders have expressed their devastation over the destruction of the 850-year-old cathedral with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who says: & Tonight we pray for the firefighters tackling the tragic fire of Notre Dame – and for everyone in France and beyond looking and crying for this beautiful, holy place where millions of Jesus Christ have met & # 39;

The fire spread quickly over the roofline of the cathedral and left one of the towers behind and another part of the roof was flooded with flames. Firefighters using cranes are trying to compete tonight

The fire spread quickly over the roofline of the cathedral and left one of the towers behind and another part of the roof was flooded with flames. Firefighters using cranes are trying to compete tonight

The fire spread quickly over the roofline of the cathedral and left one of the towers behind and another part of the roof was flooded with flames. Firefighters using cranes are trying to fight tonight

The bright orange of the flames can be seen from miles away while the darkness descends to Paris. Fire crews work hard to extinguish the flames

The bright orange of the flames can be seen from miles away while the darkness descends to Paris. Fire crews work hard to extinguish the flames

The bright orange of the flames can be seen from miles away while the darkness descends to Paris. Fire crews work hard to extinguish the flames

Sparks fill the Parisian air on Monday night while firefighters spray water to try and stop the fire. The Louvre described the fire as & # 39; a World Heritage tragedy & # 39;

Sparks fill the Parisian air on Monday night while firefighters spray water to try and stop the fire. The Louvre described the fire as & # 39; a World Heritage tragedy & # 39;

Sparks fill the Parisian air on Monday night while firefighters spray water to try and stop the fire. The Louvre described the fire as & # 39; a World Heritage tragedy & # 39;

The white-hot flames can be seen furiously in the center of the cathedral. Both sides of the gothic cathedral firefighters can be seen spraying water to try and steal the flames

The white-hot flames can be seen furiously in the center of the cathedral. Both sides of the gothic cathedral firefighters can be seen spraying water to try and steal the flames

The white-hot flames can be seen furiously in the center of the cathedral. Both sides of the gothic cathedral firefighters can be seen spraying water to try and steal the flames

However, France experienced a wave of attacks on Catholic churches this year, with disastrous actions ranging from vandalism to arson.

Last month, the iconic church of St. Sulpice in Paris was set on fire just after the Sunday afternoon mass. Firefighters said they were sure that the fire was burning.

And in February, a statue of the Virgin Mary was deposited in the Saint Nicholas Church in Houilles, in the north of central France, while an altar rug was burned and crosses and statues of saints in the Saint-Alain cathedral in Lavaur, in the south-central region. Notre Dame – what & # 39; Our Lady & # 39; means – is visited by 12 million people every year. Located on the Ile de la Cite, the Gothic cathedral is one of the most famous from the Middle Ages and was built on the ruins of two earlier churches.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby tweeted: & Tonight we pray for the firefighters who tackle the tragic fire of Notre Dame – and for everyone in France and beyond who watches and cries for this beautiful, holy place where millions of Jesus Christ have met. & # 39; Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, said: & The shock at the outbreak of this fire is spreading all over the world.

& # 39; It is an iconic building that is visited by millions of people, but more importantly, it is a symbol of faith that forms the core of Europe. & # 39; A spokesman for the Vatican said: “The Holy See has seen with shock and sadness the news of the terrible fire that has destroyed the Cathedral of Notre Dame. & # 39;

Additional reporting: Courtney Bartlett