UPDATE: Fire at iconic Notre Dame Cathedral causes catastrophic damage

Smoke is seen billowing from Notre Dame de Paris, Paris, France., April 15, 2019. Photo courtesy Anne Hidalgo/Twitter.

A fire has devastated large parts of the 850-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

The BBC has reported that a large blaze broke out at at the rear of the famed landmark at around 6:50 p.m. French time Monday, or 12:50 p.m. Eastern time. There has been no official word on the full extent of the damage caused by the fire, but images on social media show the rear portion of the basilica engulfed and significant damage to the spire.

Witnesses reported on social media that the fire gave off large plumes of smoke that could be seen for miles.

The spire collapsed around 2 p.m. Eastern time and the roof caved in soon after. Numerous tweets showed the spire collapsing amid a tower of flames as cries and gasps could be heard in the huge crowds that gathered to watch the fire.  The cathedral’s Twitter account reported late Monday afternoon that Notre-Dame’s main structure had been “saved and preserved”.

There have been no initial reports of injuries but the immediate area surrounding the cathedral was evacuated.

Construction of the cathedral began in 1160 and was largely completed a century later. The French Gothic structure was allowed to crumble following the French Revolution but interest was renewed after it was immortalized in print in Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Notre Dame has survived natural disasters as well as two World Wars.

Authorities in Paris have told the BBC that the fire may be related to a major restoration project taking place at the cathedral. An emergency appeal for restoration funds had gone out last year after cracks were seen in the building. A large tower of scaffolding could be seen surrounded by the raging inferno.

The fire took place as Christians observed Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, and the cathedral is traditionally the centre of Easter celebrations in France. The vast majority of the country is Roman Catholic. A Mass had reportedly taken place earlier Monday but there were no events going on at the time of the fire.

French President Emmanuel Macron declared a state of emergency Monday evening, as reports emerged that the cathedral was in danger of total collapse. Marcon lamented the fire in a tweet as a loss to the French as well as to Catholics, saying “Like all our compatriots, I am sad tonight to see this part of us burn.” The BBC reported that Macron has cancelled a planned nationwide address and was headed to the scene, and a Parisian prosecutor’s office has already opened an investigation into what happened.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump also tweeted reaction to the fire.