PARIS – On the night that Notre Dame burned, some filmed, others cried and a few prayed.
And some sang a song, a tribute to the lingering power of a 12th-century cathedral.
"Beautiful – you'd think the word was invented for her," sang some Parisians standing on the Right Bank in the shadows of the flickering blaze across the river. "Then I feel Hell opening up under my feet."
But no one could leave the scene.
"I don’t have the words for this," said Anastasia Collas, 29, standing at the Hotel de Ville across the river from Notre Dame. "I live nearby. I want to cry. I don’t know if we’re going to lose it entirely but this is devastating. I’m going to stay here until it ends.”
The fire at Notre Dame broke out around 6 p.m. local time Monday. News spread fast. Many were caught nearby as emergency workers and police shut off the area. Others, like Elias Cohen, 21, raced to the site to see what was happening.
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"I just saw on the news and I wanted to be here to look at this because I’m a bit surprised and shocked," said Cohen. "It’s a symbol of Paris and I’m a Parisian so… I don’t know what to say… I think it’s historic and I wanted to be here and I want to see it and remember it."
He added, "Two years ago, I was in front of the cathedral and I remember thinking it was very beautiful.It’s very hard for me and every Parisian, I think, and every French person (watching this). I have no words to describe this."
When the spire fell soon after the blaze started, the crowd on the Right Bank and on the Pont Saint-Michel collectively groaned. "No!" and "Oh My God!" could be heard.
Scott Stevenson, originally from California, has lived in Paris since 2000, and was there watching.
"I got a call from my younger brother in Santa Rosa and he said Notre Dame is on fire, that it is burning to the ground ... So I had to rush down here," he said. "I saw 40- to 50-foot flames shooting out from the top of Notre Dame. The fire got so big so fast, it was a bit shocking. It was too big, there was nothing of the firefighters could do."
About five hours after the blaze broke out, firefighters seemed in control of the situation. The Ministry of Interior said on Twitter that the second tower was saved and the structure was intact.
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But onlookers across the water were tired, dispirited and still in shock. A burning smell lingered in the air and bells from other churches across the city pealed in solidarity with Notre Dame, a normal city sound that turned mournful as night descended.
Some standing and watching reminisced how the cathedral marked their lives. Others spoke about tomorrow.
"Notre Dame is part of our life, a part of the lives of all Parisians," Florence Berthout, mayor of the 5th arrondissement (district) of which Notre Dame is a part, said on Twitter. "Many events in our common history have occurred at Notre Dame, the beating heart that brings believers and non-believers together. And we will rebuild, together."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'I don't have words for this': Devastated Parisians watch in shock as Notre Dame Cathedral burns