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By Christopher Brennan
PARIS – As Notre Dame Cathedral was being ravaged by fire Monday, some first responders were fighting back the flames, while others were racing to save the cache of priceless relics and works of art stored inside the historic church.
Some emergency workers were guided to “precious zones” to focus on saving the Christian treasures inside, including a tunic of St. Louis and the Crown of Thorns that is believed to have been worn by Jesus.
“They created a human chain to save the items,” Rodrigo Garcia, a member of Red Cross Paris who was deployed to the fire to help treat injuries, told NBC News on Thursday.
“We were at the foot of the cathedral and saw the firefighters get all that, a lot, a lot of things, out with incredible speed,” he said.
The leaders of Paris thanked French firefighters and other emergency workers at a ceremony Thursday at Paris City Hall for their heroic work saving the beloved Paris landmark from total destruction and for rescuing some of France and Christianity’s most prized relics.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo gave the first responders the title “citizens of honor” at the ceremony, citing their “courage” and “determination”.
“The night of April 15, we saw your courage without limit, your determination without fault. We saw the moment when you decided to take on all the risk to save Notre Dame, a work of humanity,” she said.
The ceremony included readings from the Victor Hugo novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and a Bach cello concert.
French President Emmanuel Macron held his own ceremony Thursday at the Elysée Palace prior to the City Hall ceremony. Macron told the firefighters that they will receive a medal of honor for their heroic work.
“The country and the entire whole world were watching us and you were exemplary,” Macron said, according to France 24.
“You were the perfect example of what we should be.”
Paris fire brigade chaplain Jean-Marc Fournier was among those honored Thursday. He told Le Parisien that he climbed atop altars to save some of the paintings and also said he was most proud to have “removed Jesus” from the Cathedral.
Garcia said he works closely with firefighters and sees their courage as they put their lives on the line daily.
“Today it is Notre Dame, but they put their lives in danger every day,” he said.
The Paris Fire Brigade worked for nine hours Monday into the early hours of Tuesday morning to extinguish the inferno, as crowds of people gathered outside and sang prayers in homage to the site.
Many were brought to tears as the fire collapsed the cathedral’s roof and took down its iconic spire, but firefighters were able to save the building’s main structure.
No one was killed in the fire but one firefighter was seriously injured. French authorities are still investigating the cause of the blaze.
Garcia has been moved by the outpouring of tributes that he and his colleagues have been receiving not only from his country, but also from the entire world.
He said he watched a video from the Fire Department of New York of probationary firefighters carrying French flags alongside American flags during a run Wednesday.
“It is enormously touching to see this video,” he said.
Some French officials, including Hidalgo, are hoping that the country receives international help in rebuilding the cathedral, which Macron has said he wants to do in five years, before the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
The White House said in a statement that President Donald Trump had offered American assistance in the reconstruction effort.