WATCH: Major blaze rips through Notre Dame Cathedral

Authorities said late Monday evening that they believed they had saved the two bell towers.
Flames and smoke rise from a fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday. The historic church had been under renovation and scaffolding had covered much of the top structure. Bloomberg photo by Martin Barzilai
Flames and smoke rise from a fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday. The historic church had been under renovation and scaffolding had covered much of the top structure. Bloomberg photo by Martin Barzilai

A massive fire ripped through Notre Dame Cathedral in central Paris, toppling the spire on the 850-year-old Gothic monument and leaving France in shock over the extensive damage to one of the nation's most iconic landmarks.

Flames jumped up the ornate spire before it collapsed onto the blaze-engulfed roof, sending smoke billowing out into the evening skyline of the French capital. Authorities said late Monday evening that they believed they had saved the two bell towers. The historic church, located on one of two islands in the middle of the Seine River, had been under renovation and scaffolding had covered much of the top structure. The blaze began around 7 p.m. local time.

Live television images transfixed viewers around the world and French President Emmanuel Macron postponed a major speech as flames ravaged the cathedral that has towered over Paris for centuries. It had come through long-range German bombardment during World War I and was spared damage during World War II.

After battling the blaze for hours, officials still weren't sure the monument could be saved. But a decision to focus on safeguarding the two towers forming its facade proved decisive, allowing the overall structure to remain and the fire to be brought under control.

French Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said hours of cooling would be needed and it's too early to say what caused the fire. Paris prosecutors have opened an investigation. The Associated Press reported that the preliminary probe suggested it was an accident.

People watch as fire and smoke rise from a fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday. The fire left many in shock over the damage to one France's most famous landmarks.  Bloomberg photo by Martin Barzilai
People watch as fire and smoke rise from a fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday. The fire left many in shock over the damage to one France's most famous landmarks. Bloomberg photo by Martin Barzilai

Bystanders were cordoned off from the blaze, with many singing and praying, or standing by in silent disbelief. Thousands of people were evacuated from the building after the fire broke out and hundreds of onlookers remained on the scene as ashes fell onto surrounding streets. One fire fighter was seriously injured.

"It is eight centuries of history going up in smoke," said Marion Lacroix, a 54-year-old Parisian. "It's the heart of the country. I think that in our generation, people won't see Notre Dame built again. It's over."

The flames lapping the famous landmark is just the latest in a string of tragedies to strike the French capital. In 2015, Paris was the site of two of the worst terror attacks in the country's post-WWII history. Since last November, the city has also been under siege every Saturday as clashes between the so-called Yellow Vest protesters and police have turned violent.

Notre Dame is a major tourist destination, with the number of visitors swelling to as many as 50,000 a day, especially during periods like holy week in the Christian calendar leading up to Easter.

Some 400 firefighters were mobilized to the scene, according to the interior ministry. Extra help from outside the city was headed to the capital to try to contain the blaze and helicopters could be seen flying overhead, although weren't being used to drop water because of the risk the extra weight would lead to further structural collapse. Boats pumped water from the river to battle the blaze.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo wrote on Twitter she was at a loss for words "to express the pain I feel in the face of the ravaging flames. Tonight Parisians and the French mourn this symbol of our common history."

Macron went to an administrative building near the site after postponing a much-anticipated speech on planned policy measures following the Yellow Vest movement that has rocked the capital.

"Notre Dame is engulfed with flames," he said on Twitter. "Thoughts are with Catholics and all the French. Like all citizens, I am sad to see this part of us burn."

Even President Donald Trump was following the fire.

Flames and smoke rise from a fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday. The cathedral is 850 years old. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Martin Barzilai
Flames and smoke rise from a fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday. The cathedral is 850 years old. Bloomberg photo by Martin Barzilai
Flames and smoke rise from a fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday. The cathedral is 850 years old. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Martin Barzilai Flames and smoke rise from a fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday. The cathedral is 850 years old. Bloomberg photo by Martin Barzilai

Construction got underway in the 12th century, though the current structures are mostly the result of renovations carried out in the 19th century following damage during the French Revolution.

The cathedral was at one time in a state of total disrepair and close to the point of being demolished, but was later saved by Napoleon who himself was crowned Emperor in 1804 inside the cathedral.

The interior of the cathedral is 427 by 157 feet, with its 115-foot-high roof. Two massive early Gothic towers crown the western facade, which is divided into three stories and has its doors adorned with early Gothic carvings and surmounted by a row of figures of Old Testament kings.

"This is horrible," said Julien Ciprelli, a 19-year-old politics student living in Paris. "'I saw the smoke from the classroom. I had to come."

Bloomberg's Gaspard Sebag, Vidya Root and Gregory Viscusi contributed to this report.

This article was written by Geraldine Amiel, Helene Fouque, James Regan, Rudy Ruitenberg, reporters for The Washington Post.