Several Mainers vacationing in Paris this week were witnesses to the destruction of one of the city’s most iconic buildings when the Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire Monday, a loss that left them stunned.

Among them were Amy and Andrew Page of North Yarmouth, as well as 22 students and chaperones from Portland’s Waynflete School.

The Pages had gone to a restaurant Monday near the Seine River, about 100 yards from the cathedral, for what they thought would be a quiet evening out in Paris. Instead, they had what amounted to front-row seats to the spectacular fire that swept through the 850-year-old Catholic church.

Built in the 13th century, the medieval structure is one of Paris’ most popular attractions, with about 13 million visitors a year.

Amy Page said she and her husband, their 2-year-old daughter and her mother had just sat down at the Comme Chez Toi and were about to order dinner when they noticed wisps of smoke and eventually flames leaping from the historic structure.

“When we went outside we could feel the heat from the flames,” Amy Page said in a telephone interview.

“At first we thought the fire would be quickly contained, but that is not what happened,” said Page, who attended a Palm Sunday service a day earlier at the cathedral with her mother, Fran Barrett of Connecticut. Mother and daughter both love history and art. “We are all still pretty overwhelmed and shocked by what happened,” she said.

The Pages, who work at Idexx in Westbrook, have visited Paris twice in the past eight months. They arrived in Paris last week so that Andrew could run in the Paris Marathon on Sunday. Nearly 50,000 people ran in the marathon.

“We feel a connection to the city,” Amy Page said. “And now we feel like we have suffered a personal loss. It’s a loss for the Catholic faith, for people who love history and for all of Paris and France.”

The teenagers from Portland’s Waynflete School had been in Paris for only a few hours and were mostly exhausted from their flight when they approached the at-the-time undamaged Notre Dame Cathedral early Monday afternoon, but were in awe when they first saw the church.

The 22 students and chaperones tromped around outside as a tour guide explained its history and that of the island where it stands, and how for centuries the church and its massive Rose window have stood largely unmarred through wars and revolutions, surviving as an icon to all of France.

“We tend to joke about how teenagers never take anything seriously,” said Lindsay Kaplan, 42, a French language teacher at Waynflete and one of the chaperones for the week-long trip. “But they were in awe of it. They never see anything like that. You can see it in a picture but you can’t imagine how grand and intricate it really is. I heard someone saying, ‘How did they do that back then? How did they get so high up in the air?’ And they just marveled at it.”

A few of the kids made plans to tour the inside of the cathedral when they had free time later in the week. But when the group arrived at their hotel on the city’s outskirts a few hours later, it was already too late.

Television showed what the horrified world was watching in real time: Flames leaped toward the peak of the cathedral’s central spire and raced across the pitched slate roof, curling through a lattice of scaffolding that had been erected to renovate parts of the gray stone facade. The column of smoke that rose into the evening was visible across the city.

“They thought it was a joke,” Kaplan said. “Then they started getting text messages from their parents, asking if they are safe. No one’s saying terrorism, but it’s always in your mind. Them being here, that coincidence, which has nothing to do with us, will have a lifelong impression on these kids. I think it’s going to become part of their narrative in some ways. ‘I was there that day. I was there right before it burned down.’ ”

Kaplan, who has a Ph.D. in French literature and history from New York University, said the French will be in mourning for the death of one of their central monuments.

“The French consider themselves to sort of have a unifying identity, since long before the contemporary idea of nation states existed. France was the seat of the pope for a long time,” she said. “It’s devastating. I’m watching them interview Parisians, who are like, gutted, weeping openly. And there’s a huge crowd of people at the barricades just watching it burn. It’s wild.”

She likened the disaster to when the Afghan government under the direction of the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamyan, some of the largest and oldest statue carvings of the deity, as the world watched helplessly.

“That’s what the French people are feeling right now,” she said.

Kaplan said the experience will surely color their trip, and their experience with the French people, who will be in mourning.

She said she planned to take the group to the Champs-Élysées to show them damage caused by protesters with the Yellow Vest Movement, who demonstrated against rising costs of living and fuel prices at a time when France, like other nations, is experiencing unprecedented wealth disparities.

“I think we’ll try to show them where the yellow vests have destroyed and talk about that, witnessing history,” Kaplan said. “And here we have been served up another moment in history.”

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:
[email protected]

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:
[email protected]

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