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France pays day-long tribute to Notre-Dame firefighters

Lionel BONAVENTURE, AFP | Firefighters arrive at the Élysée palace before a meeting with French president on April 18, 2019 in Paris.

France paid tribute Thursday to the firefighters who helped save Notre-Dame from collapse and rescued its treasures from the encroaching flames with ceremonies at the Élysée Palace and Paris City Hall.

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French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed firefighters and government ministers for a special gathering to share "words of thanks" at the Élysée presidential palace.

The response of the firefighters was "exemplary" as the whole world watched, Macron said.

Around 600 firefighters took part in the nine-hour battle to save the 12th-century cathedral on Monday evening. Its spire collapsed and roof was destroyed, but its iconic towers, rose windows, famed organ and many precious artworks were saved.

Remarkably, no one was killed in the fire after firefighters and church officials speedily evacuated those inside.

Sixty firefighters are still keeping a vigil at Notre-Dame to ensure no further fire erupts while France's culture minister warned that two gables and figurines perched high up in the building were still at risk of collapse inside.

"The country and the entire world were watching us and you were exemplary," Macron told around 250 of the firefighters at the Elysée palace. "You were the perfect example of what we should be," he added.

He said the firefighters would be awarded France's golden medal of honour in recognition of their "courage and devotion".

'Boundless courage’

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo also paid tribute to the firefighters and others who helped rescue the 850-year-old gothic masterpiece, in a public ceremony later Thursday outside Paris city hall.

"You saved part of ourselves," she said, hailing the "boundless courage" of the firefighters who were loudly cheered by the assembled public as they took to the stage.

"It was 9:30 pm. The wind was blowing... There were flames around the northern bell tower with a temperature of 800 degrees," Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said in his tribute.

"Waiting even seconds more could have meant the tower and the facade fell. But they continued... risking their lives to save Notre-Dame. Only their mission counted," he said.

Bell towers at risk

Culture Minister Franck Riester said on Thursday that even three days after the fire there remained concerns that parts of the building could collapse.

He said one gable in the north transept and another between the two great bell towers were at risk.

He also said that figures in the southern bell tower still risked falling and, if they did, this would damage the organs below. An operation will be undertaken to remove them.

But he added that "thanks to the exceptional work of the fire brigade, their courage, the strategy for attacking the fire adopted by the two officers in charge, we can say that the worst was avoided".

‘It was spreading very quickly’

Among the firefighters honoured was Paris fire brigade chaplain Jean-Marc Fournier, who helped salvage the famous “Crown of Thorns” believed to have been worn by Jesus at his crucifixion.

Another was Myriam Chudzinski, among the first firefighters to reach the roof as the blaze raged. Loaded with gear, they climbed hundreds of steps up the narrow spiral staircase to the top of one of the two towers.

"We knew that the roof was burning, but we didn't really know the intensity," she told reporters. "It was from upstairs that you understood that it was really dramatic. It was very hot and we had to retreat, retreat. It was spreading quickly."

She heard a roar, but her focus was on saving the tower. She learned later that it was the sound of the spire collapsing.

Investigators believe the fire was accidental, and are questioning both cathedral staff and workers who were carrying out renovations to the cathedral before the fire broke out.

>> Restoring Notre-Dame: Tough decisions ahead

Some 40 people have been questioned so far and others were being questioned again Thursday, according to the Paris prosecutor's office.

An initial fire alert was sounded at 6:20pm as a Mass was under way in the cathedral, but no fire was found. A second alarm went off at 6:43pm, when the blaze was discovered on the roof.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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