She burns like a building but Notre Dame means so much more to the world than gargoyles and flying buttresses.

For eight centuries the great Paris cathedral has somehow captured a special place in the hearts of locals and visitors alike.

She is Our Lady; she is a lady and she is all of ours.

This structure, this almost overengineered, preposterous structure, is the epicentre of the city of love.

Corny, maybe, but the great church by the Seine was the seemingly indestructible backdrop for so many proposals, so many holidays, so much life, so many happy days and for so much history.

So the response, from all the world, to pictures of it in flames was remarkable.

On social media, the most shared video was captioned with a single word: “horrible”.

Eyewitnesses and journalists at the scene reported or held their phones aloft to record the collapse of its spire.

Amid speculation that the blaze had started during restoration work, the deputy mayor of Paris, Emmanuel Gregoire, said the cathedral had suffered “colossal damage”.

He said emergency services were trying to salvage the art and other priceless pieces stored in the cathedral.

A cathedral spokesman said the entire wooden interior was burning and likely to be destroyed.

Paris prosecutors opened an investigation into the blaze as the fire was still burning out of control, and the authorities said no-one had been hurt.

Hundreds of people on bridges around Notre Dame in Paris watched in shock as fire engulfed the famous cathedral.

Photos and videos on social media show the roof of the 850-year-old Gothic building consumed by flame, issuing a plume of smoke above the city.

The Paris fire brigade can be seen in videos dousing the blaze with water.

A church spokesman said all of the cathedral’s frame was burning after the spire collapsed.

Labour MP Yvette Cooper, one of those watching, said: “Have just come away from the bank of the Seine after the spire fell as I can’t bear to watch any more.

“Fearful for anyone close to the flames, and aghast that centuries of history and beauty could disappear into smoke so fast.”

Ashley Huntington, 21, an American university student studying in Paris, said: “Our class ran what was supposed to be 30 minutes walking but we probably got here in 20 running.

“You could just get close and see the smoke.

“The smoke is everywhere in the sky. It seems like more pieces of the scaffolding are currently falling.”

She added: “It just looks like it’s out of control.

“I’ve never seen a fire in real life but the flames keep getting bigger and bigger. I don’t think it’s getting better at all.

“The police right now are definitely making sure the public is cleared away. We keep getting pushed further and further away.”

There was politics too as an iconic French building burned.

French President Emmanuel Macron postponed a televised speech to the nation.

He tweeted: “Emotion of a whole nation. Thought for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our countrymen, I’m sad tonight to see this part of us burn.”

US President Donald Trump suggested aeroplanes should drop water while British PM Theresa May tweeted a short statement in English.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent her message in French expressing her pain and her thoughts for “our French friends”, she said the cathedral was “symbol of France and a symbol of our European culture”.