BUCKHANNON – Two West Virginians touring Paris during a European vacation visited the historic Notre Dame Cathedral the same day a catastrophic fire nearly destroyed the 800-year-old church.
Peggy Donaldson Smith, the former representative of District 46 (Lewis and Upshur counties) in the West Virginia House of Delegates, and her granddaughter, Tori Riley, were seeing famous sites in Paris, including the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. They also took tour on the Seine River, but their last stop was Notre Dame.
“We spent a lot of time looking at each piece of beautiful art and statues and came all the way back around before we left, and we had been there for a while and I turned to Tori and said ‘I can’t believe I am in Notre Dame,”’ Smith told My Buckhannon via telephone Wednesday. “It was so emotional to be there. It was so beautiful.”
Smith and Riley said they took their time appreciating the art and history of the cathedral and took pictures inside and outside, and right as they were about to leave, a nun approached them.
“We were leaving when this little French nun started talking to me and I don’t know what to say because I don’t speak French and then I realized she wanted some money for some projects. We went back inside to give her some money and then we left for the station,” Smith said.
Moments later, the iconic house of worship would be engulfed in flames, although Smith and her granddaughter wouldn’t learn of fire until they had left the area.
After visiting the cathedral, Smith and Riley headed to the train station to go back to London when Riley received a text from her mom, who was home in Weston and told her Notre Dame was on fire.
Riley described the scene as people learned the landmark was on fire.
“She sent me a BBC article and I immediately started Googling it, and everyone else in the station was getting notifications, too,” Riley said. “It was the Eurostar train station, so it was packed and everyone went quiet at first and then people started crying.”
Smith and Riley said they were unsure if they should leave the train station, because they didn’t know what caused the fire. Eventually, their train was cleared to leave. As they sat on the train to London, passengers watched a livestream of Notre Dame as it burned.
“It was very surreal, it almost seemed impossible because we had just been there, and it was so beautiful and so perfect,” Smith said. “We kept saying ‘It’s gone.’ The flames were way up in the sky, and we didn’t think anything could be saved. It made me want to burst into tears.”
Riley said it was likely the fire had already started when they were in the building.
“If you saw the huge flames that shot up, that fire had to start small,” Riley said. “In order for it to get as big as it did, it had to have started while my grandmother and I were inside of it. There were no alarms, there was no smoke smell, it wasn’t hot, and we didn’t hear an explosion or anything.”
According to news reports, one fire alarm went off shortly after 6 p.m. and a second sounded just before 7 p.m., about the time Smith and Riley had left the cathedral. Although the damage was extensive, crews are working to secure parts of the iconic structure that were not destroyed.
Officials suspect an electrical short circuit was connected to the fire, but a cause has yet to be confirmed. Terrorism and arson are unlikely, according to the Associated Press.
Riley described watching the live stream of the cathedral as it burned as surreal.
“Surreal is the only word that can describe it,” Riley said. “Witnessing something so international and being from Weston and being blessed enough to get to see it one last time before the fire was just unbelievable.”