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A Fort William family has told how onlookers stood in tension-filled silence, with many elderly Parisens in tears, as they witnessed the inferno that engulfed the world famous Notre Dame Cathedral in the French capital on Monday evening.
Hundreds of firefighters had rushed to the cathedral to battle the blaze which took 15 hours to finally extinguish, leaving large sections of the 850-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site as blackened ruins.
The cause of the fire is not yet clear but a mammoth investigation has been launched into what happened at the cathedral, which was partially clad in scaffolding for renovation work.
Among the throng of visitors late on Monday afternoon were Martin Stewart, girlfriend Siobhan Innes and son, Lucas, aged eight, who arrived in Paris on Monday for a week’s holiday that was to take in the sights before heading to Euro Disney.
The three tourists from Fort William had left their visit to Notre Dame as the last port of call on an enjoyable day’s sightseeing.
Speaking to the Lochaber Times from Paris the morning after the fire, Mr Stewart, who is employed at the BSW sawmill in Corpach, told us what he witnessed.
He said: ‘We were visiting the sights and Notre Dame was the last place on the list – and it was by far the best. It was absolutely stunning attention to detail inside and out.
‘After coming out of the cathedral, we were just about to leave the area when the doors were closed and then we noticed wisps of smoke coming from the roof. I assume now that the doors were closed as a fire precaution to stop people going back in.
‘It was absolutely mobbed with people at the cathedral when we were visiting and as we watched that wee bit of smoke quickly turned into flames coming from the middle of the building and from the side near the two bell towers.
‘It seemed to take ages for the first fire engines to arrive, it was certainly at least 20 minutes. I don’t know if that was because it is such a busy area, but it seemed quite bad response to me to be honest.
‘We watched for about an hour but the police eventually moved us back as hot ash was falling everywhere, dropping on top of everybody.
‘We were at the front of the building, so couldn’t quite see all of the fire but what we did see was frightening. The intensity of the fire was astonishing and the huge clouds of black smoke were just billowing out across the city.’
Mr Stewart said there was a palpable air of shock among the crowds watching alongside him and his family: ‘Everyone was pretty quiet, either taking photos or just watching.
‘All you could hear were sirens. And a lot of the more elderly French people were in tears. They just couldn’t believe it.’
Just hours after the last flames were doused, pledges to donate hundreds of millions of euros to rebuild the shattered cathedral were already flowing in from around the world.
Emergency workers had managed to save precious artworks and religious artefacts, including what is reputed to be the crown of thorns worn by Jesus before his crucifixion.
Asked if he thought so much money should be spent on restoring the iconic place of worship, which sits on a small island in the Seine river – much of which was built in the 12th and 13th centuries – Mr Stewart had no doubts.
‘They should definitely rebuild it. Absolutely. It was an amazing place and hopefully will be again.’
Another of the photographs of the burning cathedral taken by Fort William tourist, Martin Stewart, on Monday.
NO F16 extra Notre Dame pic 03