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Firsthand accounts from the blaze

PARIS – One had been playing music. Another rushed in as dangerous flames engulfed a medieval spire. A third scrambled to find keys to a safe that held priceless relics. 

Three days after a devastating fire destroyed large parts of the world-famous Notre Dame Cathedral in central Paris, investigators have yet to reveal the specific cause of the blaze that burned the cathedral’s ancient wooden beams. They don’t suspect foul play, and they think it was an accident. But the dramatic stories of those caught up in the fire at the 850-year-old site have started to emerge.

Johann Vexo, 40, an organist for the church’s choir, was playing his instrument as part of a 6 o’clock Mass service for about 200 people. He was among the first to be evacuated from Notre Dame.

About 10 to 15 minutes into the service, a smoke alarm went off.

“I am on duty every Monday. My first thought was: ‘This is a mistake. It’s a problem with the alarm system.’ It never occurred to me that it was a real fire,” Vexo told USA TODAY.

Vexo and the worshipers calmly filed out halfway through a reading of the Gospels.

He went home, not even sure if there had been a fire.

At around 6:20, a church security officer responded to the alarm and reported seeing no smoke or fire.

Less than 30 minutes later, as the church was about to let people back in, a second alert was received by the security team. This time, fire had been spotted. 

Myriam Chudzinksi, 27, a corporal in the Paris Fire Brigade, was among the first emergency service personnel to get to the cathedral. She arrived in less than 10 minutes, just before 7 p.m.

“I didn’t realize how intense the fire was going to be,” Chudzinksi told reporters Wednesday during a news conference from the floor of a fire station close to the cathedral.

Chudzinksi said she knew it was a serious situation when she saw large crowds of people gathered around the perimeter of the cathedral taking selfies and videoing what appeared to be an unfolding catastrophe.

“There was so much smoke I didn’t even see the spire fall. I only heard it. It was an extremely loud noise and I really didn’t understand what it meant,” she said. “The fire was so powerful and escalated so quickly it seemed like we were constantly having to retreat away from it.”

Notre Dame: Could America’s historic landmarks be devastated by a catastrophic fire?

By 7:30 p.m., more than 400 firefighters were on the scene. Assisting them were at least 30 firetrucks, vehicles and even fire boats that arrived next to the cathedral along the River Seine.

About $1 billion in donations have been pledged for reconstruction efforts and France will hold a competition among international architects to design a new spire for the Notre Dame Cathedral after the one atop the church collapsed in the fire.

The rector of Notre Dame Cathedral proposed Thursday building a small, temporary church on the plaza outside the monument so that the faithful have a place of worship while the 12th-century structure ravaged by fire is closed for restoration.

The normally busy neighborhood around Notre Dame Cathedral will be blocked to pedestrians and traffic until Monday.

Among the fire crew on Monday night was Jean-Marc Fournier, 53, the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. He has been hailed as a hero for his role in salvaging precious items during the fire. 

“The spire had already fallen. At any time the nave could have given way,” said Fournier, appearing at the same news conference with Chudzinksi.

“There were burning embers all over the floor, in front of the main altar and in the choral area. It actually felt like it was ‘raining fire’ from the ceiling inside the cathedral. Inside it was a very strange atmosphere, not a lot of smoke, and it was not excessively hot,” he said.

Fournier, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who also helped evacuate victims from an extremist attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in 2015, was immediately given two tasks that night: Find Notre Dame’s Blessed Sacrament, which is used during church services as the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and the Crown of Thorns, which Catholics believe was worn by Jesus Christ at the Crucifixion.

“As I rushed around, I could see someone had already broken open display cases with the fake crown (used in some services and for tourists to look at) probably thinking this was all that needed to be done.”

Starting again: France to hold competition for redesign of Notre Dame’s iconic spire

In fact, Fournier said, both items were held in a safe.

It took some time to find someone who knew where the key was kept.

“When we work together to do good, we get a real sense of pride,” said Fournier, referring to the human chain that was then formed to get the historical treasures to safety.

These items were then evacuated to Paris’ City Hall, a large Renaissance-style building that sits across the River Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral.

“It’s quite ironic that a building originally built to be anti-clerical became a temporary refuge for all these religious symbols,” Paris Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Gregoire told USA TODAY.

The Crown of Thorns spent Monday night in a room that usually houses weapons that belong to the mayor’s security team. The next day, it – along with countless other artifacts from gargoyles to irreplaceable paintings and French King Louis IX’s tunic – was taken to the Louvre Museum for safe-keeping.  

“It was really moving to see these things arrive at City Hall because at about the same time we had word that the cathedral’s structure was likely going to be saved. It was such a relief,” Gregoire said.

‘Paris needs Notre Dame’: Donations to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral near $1 billion

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