CHICAGO (CBS) — James Janega and his family had just arrived in Paris on Monday. One of their first stops was the Notre Dame Cathedral, moments before it burst into flames.
Janega, his wife, and their two children had landed from Chicago too late in the afternoon to take a tour of Notre Dame, so they spent time walking in the courtyard outside, grabbing family selfies with the iconic church has a backdrop.
A few minutes later, as they walked over the Seine River, they turned to see a horrifying scene: Notre Dame was on fire.
“We could see the historic spire engulfed in flames,” Janega said. “All of Paris was in shock.”
He said cars were stopped on the bridge. People got out and held their hands over their mouths and hearts, watching mostly in silence.
“It seemed all of central Paris was gathering … to watch this enormous column of yellow and white smoke,” Janega said.
Janega had toured Notre Dame with his wife before, and they were eager to show their children the 850-year-old church.
“It was tragic, and I have to say for anybody who has been to Paris who loves its landmarks, you’d want to show your children the Notre Dame cathedral,” he said. “It was shocking and heartbreaking.”
It is a landmark that has survived for centuries, including two world wars.
“I told my 13-year-old daughter that this church survived Hitler,” Janega said.
Reporter and native Chicagoan Deni Kemper, visiting Paris from Louisville, also saw the shock as flames engulfed Notre Dame.
“There were some people who just had their hands like this one their chest, like they couldn’t believe it, had their hand over their mouth. They could not grasp what was happening,” Kemper said.
The fire spread to the famous spire, which collapsed after it was turned to cinders.
“It was a big pit in my stomach,” Kemper said.
Chicagoan Erin Rydberg is in Paris for work.
“Very sickening because it’s such a big part of Paris but also history,” she said.
Construction on Notre Dame began in 1163, and was completed in 1345. The cathedral survived desecration during the French Revolution in the 1790s, and gunfire as the Allies liberated Paris from the Nazis in 1944.
Chicagoan Sophia Forero watched a Parisian woman ask a girl not to take a smiling selfie with the burning cathedral behind her, saying “That is my nation’s symbol. Please don’t take a selfie right now.”
“I reached out to her, and I was like, ‘You did the right thing, honey,'” Forero said. “And as soon as I said that, she burst into tears.”
The deputy mayor of Paris, Emmanuel Gregoire, said the cathedral had suffered “colossal damages,” and the emergency services were trying to salvage the art and other priceless pieces stored in the cathedral.
Late Monday, officials said the structure of the church was spared, including its two towers. The roof, along with the cathedral’s spire, was destroyed.
The nation’s president vowed Notre Dame will be rebuilt.
French officials say it appears the fire was an accident, possible linked to a renovation project at the cathedral. Before Monday’s fire Notre Dame renovations were expected to cost $185 million.
In a statement, Cardinal Blaise Cupich said, “In this moment of sorrow, we stand arm in arm with the French people.”
No deaths have been reported so far, according to the Associated Press.