The banks of the Seine were crowded with people watching in silence as the roof of Notre Dame cathedral, parts of which have stood for 850 years, collapsed in flames.
Vast plumes of yellow smoke billowed and bled into the setting sun above Paris as the city stood still to watch its iconic cathedral burn.
Andrée Gal, a lifelong Parisian, clutched her hands to her mouth as she watched from the edge of Rue de Lobau on the northern bank of the river.
“It’s very sad, it’s terrible. It is so special to the city, to the history of France and the world,” the 68-year-old said.
“Notre Dame is the very heart of the city.”
The howl of sirens began to fill the streets about 7pm local time as crowds of bewildered locals and tourists followed the sound to the banks of the river. People audibly gasped as the flames spread across the roof, flickering angrily through the iconic rose windows, before engulfing the church’s spire.
Sometimes seven or eight people deep, the crowds spilled off the pavements into the roads, with scores of people on the bridges watching in horror.
As many clutched their phones to photograph the fire, others openly wept.
Irene Kabongo, who moved to Paris from Belgium six months ago, learned the news on the Metro and came straight to the scene.
The 26-year-old told The Independent: “It’s just the worst thing. You would never believe it could happen in Paris.
“I was on the Metro and everyone was looking at their phones. I thought it was fake. I had to come and see with my own eyes.
“So many people have come because it’s just to shocking.”
Tim, 23, travelled to the scene when the news broke because he could not believe what he was hearing.
“The cathedral is the heart, the soul of the city. So many people are here in this moment. It has stood for almost 1000 years yet today it is burning.”
Along the river, by the Pont Louis Phillippe, Stephane Charpentier was watching.
“It’s a tragedy. Not only for Paris but for the world. It was more than just a building, it was a symbol of France,” the 63-year-old said.
With tears in his eyes, he recalled watching the spire fall.
“Sometimes words fail me. Even in French, there are no words.”