PARIS — 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, Illinoisans in France for vacation 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, from the South Side of Chicago, were eating dinner at La Petite Perigourdine a few blocks from the cathedral when they noticed smoke rising.

They arrived in Paris on Sunday.

As the smoke intensified and the flames began to flicker, Yost stepped outside to take a few 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 from Dunning said her daughter and about 20 students in the international baccalaureate French class at Taft High School had just arrived in France for a week long immersion trip.

Walsh said she first heard of the fire from her daughter, Caitlyn Walsh, who texted her Monday morning. Walsh's daughter said her had just 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.

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 then noticed an "enormous" crowd begin to gather.

The crowd was silent, he said.

Shock and horror washed over their faces, he 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.

Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield in statement said the fire was "heartbreaking."

"Notre Dame Cathedral is more than a church – it’s a world-wide iconic symbol of our Catholic faith. My thoughts and prayers are with Catholics around the world who love Notre Dame Cathedral and have lasting memories there, the people of France, and the first responders," he said. "While the church may be destroyed, I believe in the faith and perseverance of the people of Paris and the world who will rise up and help this community rebuild.”


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