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 two children had landed from Chicago too late in the afternoon to take a tour, 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,” he 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.
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.
The cause has not been determined, but workers had been working on a restoration project.
No deaths have been reported so far, according to the Associated Press.