The world watched in horror Monday as a fire engulfed one of its most beloved landmarks. As the blaze gutted Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, some Chicago-area residents in France witnessed the ruin.
They described a fire that not only damaged the physical structure but wounded the heart of the city and its people.
Eric Brandt and his wife, Joan Yost, of the South Side, arrived in Paris on Sunday and were eating dinner at La Petite Perigourdine a few blocks from the cathedral when they noticed smoke rising.
As the smoke intensified and the flames began to flicker, Yost stepped outside to take photos with her phone.
Patrons emptied the restaurant, Brandt said.
As the fire engulfed the cathedral and Brandt watched in disbelief, a waiter commented: “Paris is burning.”
“It was shocking,” Yost said. “Who would expect to show up in Paris and have a major monument burn down?”
Nancy Walsh, of the Dunning neighborhood, said her daughter and about 20 students in the international baccalaureate French class at Taft High School had just arrived in France for a weeklong trip.
Walsh said she first heard of the fire from her daughter, Caitlyn, who texted her Monday morning. Walsh’s daughter said her class had visited the cathedral several hours before the fire broke out and were back in their hotel. No one was hurt.
“If I had just seen it on the news and not heard from her I would have been incredibly panicked,” Walsh said. She added the trip is scheduled to go on and said parents of the students had been notified.
Sophia Foreno, a jewelry designer from Naperville, has been visiting Paris with her artist husband for the past week, seeking inspiration for their work.
But their trip took an abrupt turn Monday as they joined Parisians in mourning the near-destruction of the historic structure, construction of which started in 1163 and was completed in 1345.
“It was extremely jarring to see. You don’t expect to see the most iconic building in the city go up in flames,” Foreno said.
Just the day before, Palm Sunday, Foreno said she walked along the river Seine buying trinkets from vendors before venturing inside the cathedral.
“I lit a candle in Notre Dame yesterday. How weird is that?” Foreno said.
James Janega, a former Tribune reporter who lives on Chicago’s North Side, said he and his family arrived in Paris on Monday afternoon. Their first stop was the cathedral.
His family decided against standing in line to get a tour of the historic structure. Instead, they took selfies with the landmark in the background. They then circled the exterior, marveling at its architecture, the stained glass windows, and the gargoyles perched atop the cathedral.
After stopping at the playground on the east side of the cathedral, his family visited a nearby candy shop, Janega said.
As they exited the store, Janega said he saw a column of smoke.
“We went rushing back, and it was the worst thing you would ever want to see — flames climbing up the spires,” he said.
Janega noticed an “enormous” crowd begin to gather.
The crowd was silent, he said.
Shock and horror washed over their faces, Janega said. Motorists stopped and got out their vehicles, some with their mouths agape and hands over their heart, to witness the unimaginable, he said.
Janega, 46, felt helpless as the monstrous, billowing clouds mushroomed from the top of the cathedral.
“It was like we were watching something happening to a beloved friend as the flames were spreading across the roofline,” he said.
Naperville Sun’s Suzanne Baker contributed