A group of students on a class trip from Sturgis Charter Public School was in Paris and scheduled to tour Notre-Dame de Paris the day it burned.
Sturgis senior Patrick Morahan of Sandwich said when they tried to reach the cathedral—yet unaware of the fire—they found the roads blocked by Parisian police.
So they put off their visit to the famous Gothic structure and decided to have dinner. It was at the restaurant that they first got word of a fire, he said. But still, they had no idea how serious the situation was.
Patrick said that during much of their meal, the head waiter had seemed in high spirits, joking with the students and making sure that their meal went smoothly. However, the waiter’s mood changed once he realized what was happening at the 856-year-old cathedral.
“Once he had run outside to see the smoke and watched the spire collapse on a phone, he sat with his head in his hands,” Patrick said.
The students tried to keep up with the news on their phones, but the city’s WiFi was cut during the fire to allow better communication for emergency responders. Instead, they tried to get the news using their wireless data. Patrick said that they gathered around one student’s phone as the images slowly loaded.
After dinner, the students tried to get a view of what was happening on nearby Pont Neuf—a bridge over the river Seine. While on the side streets of the city, everything was calm, but the main roads were chaotic, Patrick said.
“Mobs of people were running everywhere,” he said. “Traffic was actively being rerouted to make room for emergency vehicles.”
They saw the plume of smoke that was the result of the first part of the roof caving in before police told them to leave the area. Patrick said that any vantage point from which the cathedral could be seen, there were crowds of people watching in silence.
“Some [onlookers] were moved to the point of tears,” he said. “Chatter broke out again when other sections of the roof collapsed, sending more fire into the air.”
The students reconvened in Place Saint-Michel, where a man asked them to pray with him that Notre-Dame be saved from destruction.
“It was clear to us how much the French value and appreciate the culture behind Notre-Dame,” he said. “The general atmosphere felt more like being at the wake of a beloved friend than a city with a major fire.”
The next day, one of the students who speaks French spoke with a woman on the Metro. The woman told the student that she believed that the fire was set intentionally. Patrick said that though this does not seem to be the case, they did see several groups of French Special Forces soldiers in the city.
While in France, the group was also supposed to visit Versailles, but those plans were changed by the sudden influx of visitors wanting to see the cathedral.
Patrick said he and his fellow students are relieved that the fire was extinguished before the cathedral was lost.
“To find out that so much of it was intact was amazing,” he said. “We were also glad to hear the specific news that all artifacts had been evacuated from the building and that several stained glass paintings that are impossible to recreate with modern techniques were not harmed.”
He said the group was also buoyed by news about money pouring in from donors to help fund the restoration of the structure.
The students on the trip are from all grade levels and are visiting sites in London, Paris and Madrid to experience international culture. Patrick said that while there are world language teachers on the trip, it is not a trip based on languages and that they are visiting museums and landmarks in the European cities.