PARIS – Donations neared the $1 billion mark and recovery efforts ramped up at the charred Notre Dame Cathedral after priceless relics and historical treasures were reported saved from a fire that left Paris – and much of the world – in a state of shock.

French authorities said the cathedral was perhaps only minutes away from total destruction when Monday’s blaze swept through the medieval building. 

Engineers and historians are expected to put up a temporary roof to protect the cathedral from the elements, assess damage and salvage materials before beginning repairs that may take decades. 

Structural engineers, stained-glass experts and stone craftspeople from across the globe are expected to head to Paris to help with restorations in the next few weeks.

Photos from inside the building give a glimpse of the Herculean task ahead: They show piles of burned and blackened debris on the cathedral floor.  

Outside the landmark Wednesday there were fewer onlookers than in recent days but crowds of residents and tourists were still snapping selfies and taking pictures of what they could glimpse of the church’s exterior from outside a security zone. 

“It’s like something you see in the movies,” said Liam Mcilduff, a 15-year-old pupil of a nearby school who was marveling at all the activity.  

The cost to completely repair the iconic 850-year-old church will likely cost between 1 billion ($1.13 billion) and 2 billion euros, according to Stephane Bern, who heads heritage renovation programs across France.

Bern said about $995 million has been raised so far from French business leaders and ordinary worshippers in France and from abroad.  

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French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to “make the cathedral of Notre Dame even more beautiful,” calling for the thoroughly documented building to be rebuilt in five years. France, he said, would “convert this disaster into an opportunity.” 

“It’s such an exceptional monument. It’s precious, made by our ancestors,” said Aime Cougoureux, the owner of Ma Bourgogne, a popular restaurant near the Victor Hugo museum. Hugo, one of France’s most well-known and celebrated writers, played a large role in popularizing Notre Dame. His 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is about the cathedral’s deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo who falls in love Esmeralda. The book saw a spike in sales on Amazon in France this week. 

“Paris needs Notre Dame,” said Cougoureux. “The tourists love it, too, especially Americans. When there are no Americans in Paris, it’s an economic crisis.”

Emily Bessie, 43, a tourist from Maine who was taking photos Wednesday of Notre Dame from a vantage point that gives of a view of where firefighters doused water on the cathedral’s now-destroyed spire, said that all her friends back in the U.S. were sharing photos on social media of their own visits to the cathedral. 

“Even though the circumstances are clearly very different we in the U.S. know what it feels like to lose a symbol of your country,” she said, referring to the collapse of the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

Paris’ public prosecutor Remy Heitz said Tuesday the cause of the fire that tore through the cathedral, causing its wooden roof and spire to collapse, was not yet known, although investigators are “favoring the theory of an accident” possibly linked to extensive renovation works, he said. There were no signs of arson, said Heitz. 

France owns the cathedral, which has been at the center of a years-long conflict between the nation and the Paris archdiocese over who should finance badly needed restoration work to collapsed balustrades, crumbling gargoyles and cracked facades. 

Notre Dame’s heritage director, Laurent Prades, said the only piece of architecture damaged inside the building is the high altar, which was installed in 1989.

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“All the 18th-century steles, the pietas, frescoes, chapels and the big organ are fine,” he said. The cathedral’s famous three large stained-glass rose windows were damaged by the heat but not destroyed,” Prades said.  

The cathedral’s 18th-century organ suffered some burn damage but has not been completely lost, Olivier Latry, one of the church’s three organists, told USA TODAY. 

France’s Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said efforts to save the cathedral’s stone structure and two towers “came down to 10 to 15 minutes.” 

Nunez said fires that started in Notre Dame Cathedral were stopped before they had an opportunity to spread and that it was only this “small window” and the heroic efforts of firefighters who formed a human chain to save relics that staved off more damage.

The late American art historian Andrew Tallon used laser technology to completely digitally map Notre Dame in 2015, creating a replica that could help architects and engineers rebuild the Gothic cathedral after this week’s fire.

Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, used his weekly audience Wednesday at St. Peter’s Square in Rome to express his sadness over the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, the seat of the Paris archdiocese.

“I feel very close to all of you,” he said. 

Still, not everyone was thrilled with the idea of contributing money toward the cathedral’s reconstruction. “I already pay my taxes. Why should I give any more?” said a bookseller who runs a stall on a quay alongside Paris’ River Seine opposite Notre Dame and who would only be identified by his first name, Matthias. 

Contributing: Kristin Lam, USA TODAY

 

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