The fire was brought under control within 2 1/2 hours. It had been largely contained in the gift shop area, outside the main sanctuary, fire officials said. Later Tuesday, heavy gray smoke hung in the upper reaches of the cathedral, creating eerie shadows against the light pouring in through stained glass windows. Firefighters sloshed through water up to 3 inches (8 centimeters) deep. The high altar area appeared to have escaped damage. The cause of the blaze was under investigation.
Up to 200 firefighters were called to the scene at about 7 a.m. (1200 GMT), an hour before the first Mass of the day, a week before Christmas. Smoke poured from the gift shop, and scores of onlookers stood by. "There were clouds of black smoke 40 feet (12 meters) high. The winds were blowing it all over the place," said Juan Cruz, a mechanic who saw the fire on his way to work at nearby Columbia University.
On the church grounds a block from the blaze, about a dozen members of the Cathedral School's basketball team were led to safety by staff, said Cindy Arlia, the school's business manager. Arriving parents were told to return home with their children. Among them was Margaret Hurwitz, who was with her 12-year-old son, Nicholas. "We were just crying all the way down here," she said. "You know, after the World Trade towers, you want something to be secure," Hurwitz said. "This is where we came that day."
The cathedral receives thousands of visitors a day, and a half million a year, cathedral spokesman Jere Farrah said. Two Masses are traditionally held on Christmas, each of which typically attracts as many as 5,000 people. It is home to many priceless artifacts, according to Farrah, including a collection known as the Barberini tapestries, which date to the 17th and 18th centuries. The tapestries, woven on the pope's official looms, depict the life of Christ. Six of the tapestries were on display in the church, and officials said two of them may have been seriously damaged.
The cathedral is on Manhattan's Upper West Side in the Morningside Heights neighborhood. The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia says the church is the world's largest Gothic cathedral. The first stone was laid in 1892, but construction has never been completed, and work had continued until World War II. When construction resumed in 1982 after a 41-year break, jobless local youths were trained in old-fashioned stonecutting methods.
Cathedral organist Dorothy Papadakos said the organ was the city's fourth largest and dates to 1910. "We were going to do `The Messiah' in two days," she said, "but I don't think it's going to happen."