Arson inquiry launched as French firefighters battle blaze in Nantes cathedral

An arson inquiry has been launched after a fire broke out in the famed Gothic cathedral of St Peter and St Paul in the western French city of Nantes.

The blaze destroyed the organ, shattered stained glass windows and sent black smoke spewing from between the cathedral towers.

Residents and tourists watched aghast, and emergency workers cordoned off the area around the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral, in the old centre of the city on the Loire River.

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Fire at Nantes cathedral
Fire fighters brigade work to extinguish the blaze at the Gothic St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral, in Nantes, western France, Saturday, July 18, 2020. The fire broke, shattering stained glass windows and sending black smoke spewing from between its two towers of the 15th century, which also suffered a serious fire in 1972. The fire is bringing back memories of the devastating blaze in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last year that destroyed its roof and collapsed its spire and threatened to topple the medieval monument. (AP Photo/Laetitia Notarianni)
Fire fighters brigade work to extinguish the blaze at the Gothic St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral, in Nantes, western France, Saturday, July 18, 2020. The fire broke, shattering stained glass windows and sending black smoke spewing from between its two towers of the 15th century, which also suffered a serious fire in 1972. The fire is bringing back memories of the devastating blaze in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last year that destroyed its roof and collapsed its spire and threatened to topple the medieval monument. (AP Photo/Romain Boulanger)
Nantes Mayor Johanna Rolland, center, speak to reporters as fire fighters work to extinguish the blaze at the Gothic St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral, in Nantes, western France, Saturday, July 18, 2020. The fire broke, shattering stained glass windows and sending black smoke spewing from between its two towers of the 15th century, which also suffered a serious fire in 1972. The fire is bringing back memories of the devastating blaze in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last year that destroyed its roof and collapsed its spire and threatened to topple the medieval monument. (AP Photo/Romain Boulanger)
Fire fighters brigade work to extinguish the blaze at the Gothic St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral, in Nantes, western France, Saturday, July 18, 2020. The fire broke, shattering stained glass windows and sending black smoke spewing from between its two towers of the 15th century, which also suffered a serious fire in 1972. The fire is bringing back memories of the devastating blaze in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last year that destroyed its roof and collapsed its spire and threatened to topple the medieval monument. (AP Photo/Romain Boulanger)
Fire fighters brigade work to extinguish the blaze at the Gothic St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral, in Nantes, western France, Saturday, July 18, 2020. The fire broke, shattering stained glass windows and sending black smoke spewing from between its two towers of the 15th century, which also suffered a serious fire in 1972. The fire is bringing back memories of the devastating blaze in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last year that destroyed its roof and collapsed its spire and threatened to topple the medieval monument. (AP Photo/Romain Boulanger)
Fire fighters brigade work to extinguish the blaze at the Gothic St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral, in Nantes, western France, Saturday, July 18, 2020. The fire broke, shattering stained glass windows and sending black smoke spewing from between its two towers of the 15th century, which also suffered a serious fire in 1972. The fire is bringing back memories of the devastating blaze in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last year that destroyed its roof and collapsed its spire and threatened to topple the medieval monument. (AP Photo/Laetitia Notarianni)
Fire fighters brigade work to extinguish the blaze at the Gothic St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral, in Nantes, western France, Saturday, July 18, 2020. The fire broke, shattering stained glass windows and sending black smoke spewing from between its two towers of the 15th century, which also suffered a serious fire in 1972. The fire is bringing back memories of the devastating blaze in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last year that destroyed its roof and collapsed its spire and threatened to topple the medieval monument. (AP Photo/Laetitia Notarianni)
French police officers look at the blaze at the Gothic St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral, in Nantes, western France, Saturday, July 18, 2020. The fire broke, shattering stained glass windows and sending black smoke spewing from between its two towers of the 15th century, which also suffered a serious fire in 1972. The fire is bringing back memories of the devastating blaze in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last year that destroyed its roof and collapsed its spire and threatened to topple the medieval monument. (AP Photo/Laetitia Notarianni)
A view of debris caused by a fire inside the Cathedral of Saint Pierre and Saint Paul in Nantes, France, July 18, 2020. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
A view of debris caused by a fire inside the Cathedral of Saint Pierre and Saint Paul in Nantes, France, July 18, 2020. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
Onlookers gather at the scene of a fire at the Cathedral of Saint Pierre and Saint Paul in Nantes, France, July 18, 2020. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
People watch as firefighters try to put out a fire at the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral in Nantes, western France, on July 18, 2020. - A blaze that broke inside the gothic cathedral of Nantes on July 18 has been contained, emergency officials said, adding that the damage was not comparable to last year's fire at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. "The damage is concentrated on the organ, which seems to be completely destroyed. Its platform is very unstable and could collapse," regional fire chief General Laurent Ferlay told a press briefing in front of the cathedral. (Photo by Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP) (Photo by SEBASTIEN SALOM-GOMIS/AFP via Getty Images)
People look at firefighters trying to put out a fire at the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral in Nantes, western France, on July 18, 2020. - A blaze that broke inside the gothic cathedral of Nantes on July 18 has been contained, emergency officials said, adding that the damage was not comparable to last year's fire at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. "The damage is concentrated on the organ, which seems to be completely destroyed. Its platform is very unstable and could collapse," regional fire chief General Laurent Ferlay told a press briefing in front of the cathedral. (Photo by Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP) (Photo by SEBASTIEN SALOM-GOMIS/AFP via Getty Images)
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A City Hall official said the fire broke out Saturday morning inside the cathedral, and the cause is unclear.

Firefighters said the roof is not affected by the fire and was "under control".

They brushed aside comparisons with Notre Dame cathedral in Paris whose lead roof and spire burned down in April 2019.

The Nantes fire for many will bring back memories of that devastating blaze that threatened to topple the medieval building.

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Firefighters said the roof is not affected by the fire (Romain Boulanger/AP)

"After Notre-Dame, the Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul cathedral, in the heart of Nantes, is in flames. Support for our firefighters who take all risks to save this Gothic jewel of the city," French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter.

Saturday's fire broke the main stained glass windows between the two towers of the 15th century cathedral and destroyed the organ, which dated from the 17th century and was called the "soul of the cathedral" by worshippers.

"The damage is concentrated on the great organ which appears to be be completely destroyed.

"The platform on which it is located is very unstable and risks collapsing," said Laurent Ferlay, head of the firefighters in the Loire Atlantique area, during a press briefing in front of the cathedral.

The cathedral had been built over five centuries and completed in 1891. The main organ had previously survived a serious fire in 1972, which annihilated much of its wooden structures.

"It is a part of our history, a part of our heritage" Nantes mayor Johanna Rolland told reporters.

"We all have these images in mind, this story in our hearts, but at this stage the situation does not seem to be comparable to that of 1972."

French prime minister Jean Castex and French interior minister Gerald Darmanin will be among officials travelling to Nantes on Saturday in reaction to the blaze.

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