A fire ravaged parts of the gothic cathedral of Nantes in western France Saturday, sparking an arson investigation and leaving Catholic officials lamenting the loss of priceless historical artefacts.
The cathedral's 17th century organ was destroyed and its platform was in danger of collapsing, regional fire chief Laurent Ferlay said, while adding that the damage was not comparable to last year's devastating blaze at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris.
Passers-by saw flames behind the rosette of the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul and alerted emergency services a little before 08:00 am (0600 GMT).
Roughly 100 firefighters rushed to the scene and managed to save the gothic structure, built between 15th and 19th centuries, Ferlay said.
Nantes prosecutor Pierre Sennes said the fire had started in three different places, so a judicial investigation for possible arson was opened, although no conclusions had yet been drawn.
"When we arrive at a place where a fire has taken place, when you see three separate fire outbreaks, it's a question of common sense, you open an investigation," Sennes told AFP.
The prosecutor said investigators had found no sign of a break-in.
'An unimaginable loss'
Catholic official Father François Renaud, who oversees the cathedral, surveyed the damage with firemen and told AFP the great organ had "completely disappeared", describing it as "an unimaginable loss".
"The console of the choir organ has gone up in smoke along with the adjoining wooden choir stalls. Original stained glass windows behind the great organ have all shattered," he said.
While the blaze was still raging, President Emmanuel Macron tweeted support for "our firefighters who are taking all kinds of risks to save this gothic jewel".
Prime Minister Jean Castex later inspected the damage along with the French ministers of the interior and culture, after greeting firefighters.
The building was last hit by fire in 1972 and its roof took more than 13 years to repair.
Cathedral rector Father Hubert Champenois said "everything was in order last night," and that "a very close inspection was made before it closed, like every other evening."
Ferlay played down any comparison with the 1972 blaze or with Notre-Dame, which caught fire during repair work in April last year.
Much of Notre-Dame's roof and wooden structure was destroyed, its steeple collapsed and fumes containing toxic molten lead billowed into the air. The structure will take years to repair.
Another religious building in Nantes — the Basilica of St Donatian and St Rogatian — was struck by a fire in 2015 that destroyed three-quarters of its roof.
"I would like to stress that following the 1972 fire, the roof was redone with concrete reinforcement," Ferlay said.
He said emergency crews had tried to make sure works of art inside the building had been protected.
Aside from the destroyed organ, officials said other items damaged included a painting by 19th century artist Hippolyte Flandrin and stained glass windows on the facade, some of which contained remnants of 16th century glass.
The cathedral's organ was first built in 1621 and had undergone five restorations since — the latest one in 1971.
During the 18th century revolutionary period the authorities had wanted to melt down its pipes for scrap, but the organist argued the instrument could instead be used for "revolutionary ceremonies", according to historian Paul Chopelin.