Sparks and bits of flaming woodwork are still cascading from the remnants of the 12th-century roof.
The smell instantly sears the back of your throat like a dose of smelling salts and my feet are soaked. The ancient black and white tiles leading up the aisle are under a gently-flowing river of hose water from the fire crews pumping what seems like much of the River Seine from their elevated platforms.
Yet I can faithfully report that the Cathedral of Notre Dame is not entirely destroyed. Because I am standing inside it – alongside the French prime minister.
In the early hours of this morning, I was among the first people to be allowed inside the ruins of one of the world’s finest cathedrals following the fire which has shocked not just the entire French nation but much of the planet.
A blaze which began in the cathedral’s loft at 6.30 pm had turned into an all-consuming catastrophe by nightfall. Officials reported that the wooden interior of the medieval cathedral had been almost completely destroyed.
Certainly, Notre Dame’s spire is no more. Great chunks of its eastern end are no more. Its world-famous stained glass windows are in smithereens and the whole edifice is open to the skies.
But Paris will wake today to see that the cathedral that has defied world wars, enemy occupations, revolutions and mobs galore is still poking its head above the Paris skyline.
And at 1 am today, at the far end of the cathedral, illuminated by lingering embers and firefighters’ equipment, I could just make out a stunning symbol of defiance through the gloom: the unmistakable sight of a crucifix on what remains of the altar.
Notre Dame is gravely damaged. Yet its most spectacular features – the 850-year-old twin towers – are still there. For centuries, these were the highest structures in Paris until the Eiffel Tower came along. To this day, they are instantly recognisable the world over. And last night, though looking very sorry for themselves, they were in one piece as I stood beneath them alongside a posse of fire crews and prime ministerial aides.
Within hours, speculation was rife as to the cause of the fire. For now, it seems that it was what one official called a ‘stray flame’ – linked to a £5 million restoration project – which sparked the inferno.
Experts have warned for years that the cathedral has been in a poor condition, with the French state reluctant to fund renovation work in recent decades. Experts said that the building needed a £129.5 million (€150 million) restoration, but the state had only offered €40 million.
The cathedral was seeking private donations to make up the rest.
The flames were first spotted just minutes after the building had closed to the public for the day. Echoing the fears of his entire country, French president Emmanuel Macron instantly declared a national emergency. ‘Our Lady of Paris in flames,’ he declared on Twitter. ‘Like all our countrymen, I’m sad tonight to see this part of us burn.’
He has pledged to rebuild Notre Dame, saying: ‘Notre Dame is our history, our imagination, where we’ve lived all our great moments, and is the epicentre of our lives.
‘It’s the story of our books, our paintings. It’s the cathedral for all French people, even if they have never been. But it is burning and I know this sadness will be felt by all of our citizens.
‘Tomorrow a national subscription will be launched for people around the country to help rebuild this great Notre Dame. Because that’s what the French people want. That is what their history requires. Because that is our destiny.’
Questions were immediately asked about the way in which a fire could take such a rapid hold of one of the world’s most visited – and most beloved – landmarks. The firefighting response was also questioned as few, if any, high-pressure water hoses were able to reach the roof in the first hour. Critically, the Paris prosecutor has already opened an inquiry.
I arrived last night to find a dumbstruck City of Light still bathed in a dismal afterglow. Here, on the banks of the Seine, tens of thousands of people – of all nationalities – stared incredulously at the slow death of a part of France’s soul.