Fueled by a lattice of centuries-old timbers, the fire moved hungrily across Notre Dame's rooftop toward the cathedral's iconic spire. It belched yellow smoke, spitting out gritty particles of wood, stone, lead and iron and wanted more. Far below, their vision obscured by fumes and tears, firefighters, priests and municipal workers passed treasures hand-to-hand, hoping the speed of desperation could outrun the flames.
They had 66 minutes.
The first alarm sounded at 6:20 p.m., silencing the priest and a few hundred worshippers and tourists inside.
"Everyone was immobilised by shock for maybe a minute," said Johann Vexo, who was in the organ loft for Monday Mass. Shock, but no panic. The rear doors opened and within a few minutes, the cathedral was empty, he told Ouest-France newspaper.
For 23 minutes, it seemed like a false alarm. Then at 6:43 p.m. a second smoke detector went off and the fire showed its face, flickering in the wooden timbers and visible to anyone looking north from Paris' Left Bank.
The first firetrucks lumbered through rush-hour traffic, blasting their two-tone sirens at full volume to reach the island that is the historic and geographic heart of Paris. For that first half-hour, it looked like the fire couldn't possibly leave more than a small age mark on the nearly 900-year-old building - more akin to the inevitable wear on stone's rough edges than the fury of the French Revolution that left it in ruins for decades.
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