By John Lauritsen

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Pieces of history dating back to the Middle Ages are in ruin Monday night after a fire tore through Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

But a remarkable picture from inside the chapel offers some hope – the cross above the altar and much of the main structure of the church are safe.

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It all began in the early evening when flames rapidly burst through the roof. Soon, the fire engulfed the spire, which quickly toppled, followed by the entire roof.

Despite extensive damage, firefighters managed to save the shell of the stone structure and its two main bell towers.

“It took me a few moments and I realized that’s what was burning,” Tom Northenscold said.

Northenscold and his wife always wanted to visit Paris, to see the city and its culture. The Plymouth, Minnesota, man never expected to be a witness to the tragic side of history.

“And then as I watched it, the fire started climbing up that one spire and of course over the next hour and a half it started to spread all along the roofline,” Northenscold said.

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As Northenscold took picture after picture, crowds gathered to watch more than 800 years of history burn before their eyes. Smoke could be seen across the city, and people gasped when the flames toppled the iconic spire.

“The only real gasp you heard was when the single spire collapsed on itself,” Northenscold said. “It was very hushed and very solemn. As I was watching, I realized this is history unfolding and this is awful.”

About 400 firefighters battled flames and strong winds, using every tactic possible. They stopped short of dropping water from an aircraft for fear it might cause the entire structure to collapse. They were able to save the towers, and crews also recovered priceless art and holy objects.

At one point, onlookers began to sing hymns. Northenscold said he saw people of all ages crying for one of history’s greatest symbols.

“It was a very somber, very solemn thing. This clearly means a tremendous amount to the French people,” Northenscold said.

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About 13,000 people visit the Notre Dame Cathedral per day.

John Lauritsen