'A lot of people crying in the street': Chicago-area visitors see Notre Dame fire, bystanders' reactions

  • People pray as Notre Dame cathedral burns in Paris, Monday.

    People pray as Notre Dame cathedral burns in Paris, Monday. Associated Press

  • Sophia Forero of Naperville had visited the Notre Dame cathedral just one day before it caught fire.

    Sophia Forero of Naperville had visited the Notre Dame cathedral just one day before it caught fire. Courtesy of Sophia Forero via ABC 7 Chicago

 
 

The Notre Dame Cathedral was among the first stops for tourist James Janega and his family after they arrived Monday afternoon in Paris.

The Chicago residents took their requisite selfies out front and walked around the outside of the historic building, noticing scaffolding along the back and sides that indicated some restoration efforts were in progress. They made their way to a nearby park, where they could admire the cathedral's flying buttresses, an iconic feature of its French Gothic architecture.

Janega then walked into a candy shop across the street with his wife, Sara, and children Quill and Lily. When they stepped back outside, smoke was billowing and they soon realized Notre Dame's spire was engulfed in flames.

What happened next unfolded like scenes from a movie.

Cars were stopping on bridges. Crowds were forming along the Seine River. Passers-by were halting in their tracks, staring in shock as flames spread across the roof of one of the city's most iconic landmarks.

An eerie silence fell over the streets.

"Everybody clearly understood the momentous history and subtext of something as cherished as the Notre Dame," Janega said. "There were a lot of people crying in the street, myself included."

Chicago resident James Janega, left, takes a selfie Monday with his wife, Sarah, and their kids, Quill and Lily, in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral minutes before the historic structure caught fire.
Chicago resident James Janega, left, takes a selfie Monday with his wife, Sarah, and their kids, Quill and Lily, in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral minutes before the historic structure caught fire. - Courtesy of James Janega
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Having been inside the cathedral during a 2004 trip, Janega and his wife got to experience the intricate, ornate details that make up the structure, which took roughly 100 years to build. When they first noticed the building was on fire, Janega said, they hoped it would be extinguished quickly, or that perhaps the blaze would be too superficial to cause significant damage.

"Then you realize, no, it's not. It's fully engulfed in flames," he said. "You know what that means."

His biggest concern now is the extent of the structure's irreparable loss -- and whether anybody will have the patience to fully restore it.

"It was tragic," Janega said. "It was tragic to look at that."

Naperville jewelry designer Sophia Forero said she and her husband were walking along the Seine River when they turned a corner and saw the fire.

"I was speechless," Forero told ABC 7. "I know it's such an important symbol for the French people. I was moved to tears."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

She captured cellphone video of the moments after the Notre Dame cathedral started burning.

Forero said a tourist had attempted to take a selfie with the burning church in the back, but a Parisian girl stopped her to say, "Do you realize this is a symbol for the French people? Please don't take a selfie."

Forero and her husband, an artist, were in Paris for inspiration for their work and had visited the church the day before. She said she had noticed the construction but noted that many old churches in Europe are usually under construction.

"That spot where Notre Dame is, is where the Romans put the first temple," Forero said. "That's where France started. For them, it's an icon that is going down right in front of their eyes. In moments. Moments. This whole thing happened within 20 minutes.

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