There was little time to waste. The wood-and-lead roof was a crackling inferno overhead. The flames were now snaking down though the majestic woodwork inside the Notre Dame cathedral.
Very soon - just minutes maybe - the fire would begin threatening the artwork, liturgical items and priceless religious relics tucked throughout the warrens and alcoves of the cathedral.
Firefighters rushed in, looking for whatever they could grab and carry to safety. The fire department chaplain - his glasses reflecting the orange flames - demanded to join them.
Then a human chain took shape. It included Parisian officials, church caretakers, and the Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade who, just hours earlier, had been preparing events for Easter week.
"We made a human chain, with our friends from the church . . . to get, as quick as possible, to get all the relics," Paris's deputy mayor for tourism and sports, Jean-Francois Martins, told CBS This Morning.
Crown of thorns
Among the items they salvaged, said French Culture Minister Franck Riester, was the crown of thorns followers believe was worn by Jesus before his crucifixion.
Also saved a tunic once donned by Saint Louis in the 13th century - while Notre Dame was being built.
After the flames were put under control, a cross was still standing alone - but intact - in the chancel surrounded by charred walls.
Twin Medieval bell towers were spared. The extent of any damage to the bells and their support structure is unclear.
The cathedral's famous 18th century organ that boasts more than 8000 pipes also survived.
About a dozen large paintings of religious scenes, called "Mays" and dating from between 1630 and 1708, hung in Notre Dame. French Culture Minister Franck Riester says: "We assume they have not been damaged by the fire but there may be damage from the smoke." Some of the works were being transferred to the Louvre, where they will be dehumidified, protected and eventually restored.
The 3m-tall copper statues that looked over Paris from Notre Dame's 96m peak already had been removed from the roof days ago as part of a renovation on the spire. Last week, the 16 statues were taken away for cleaning. They represent the 12 apostles and four evangelists.
Laurent Prades, heritage director for Notre Dame."We have been able to salvage all the rest. All the 18th century steles, the pietas, frescoes, chapels ... are fine."
LOST OR DAMAGED
The cathedral's roof was built using a lattice of giant beams cut from trees in primeval forests in the 12th and 13th centuries. Experts say France no longer has trees big enough to replace the ancient wooden beams that burned in the Notre Dame fire.
Remains of saints and the spire
These include fragments of the remains of Saint Genevieve and Saint Denis, portions of which were installed in 1935 in architect Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc's 19th-century spire, which collapsed.
The only major work damaged inside was the cathedral's high altar, installed in 1989 under Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. It was hit when the spire collapsed.
Images showed that the three massive, multicoloured rose windows originally installed in the 13th century technically remained intact, but the condition of the materials was far from certain. They might have been damaged by the heat and will be assessed by an expert.
- additional reporting AP