PARIS (WBTV/AP) - Charlotte native Donald Jonas planned an overseas trip for his family a year ago. On the itinerary were two stops: Paris and London.
Jonas, his wife, and three children, who are on spring break this week, arrived in Paris on Monday. The family unpacked at their hotel and decided to tour one of Paris’ most historic sites that afternoon.
Hundreds of people, including the Jonas family, waited in a winding line in the square outside the Notre Dame Cathedral - hoping to get inside the massive structure before it closed to tourists for the day.
“My wife and kids got to experience being in that really special place,” said Jonas, who believes his group was one of the last to tour the cathedral Monday afternoon.
After the tour, the family sat down at a restaurant a block away. It wasn’t long until the Jonas family realized something was out of the ordinary.
“I saw the manager or somebody who worked at the little restaurant we were at... out in the street, pointing up in the sky." said Jonas, who asked his 16-year-old son to find out what all the commotion was about.
“We saw smoke bellowing... that smoke was actually fire that was coming out of the back of Notre Dame," said Jonas.
The family started heading away from the cathedral. Eventually police pushed the crowds that were gathering in the streets, back across the Siene River.
“It was eerily quiet,” said Jonas. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were somber... watching it happen. There was no reaction there wasn’t a lot of chatter.”
Jonas watched with the growing crowd, taking videos of the massive fire and the reaction of onlookers every few minutes.
“When the spire fell, there was an audible gasp," he said. "It was just so painful to see that happen at such an extraordinarily beautiful place.”
Jonas said catching that moment on video was “surreal.”
The Charlotte native talked to WBTV’s Alex Giles from his Paris hotel room two days after fire destroyed most of the lead roof of the 950-year-old architectural treasure and caused its spire, which was added in the 19th century, to collapse.
The cathedral is still being monitored closely by firefighters and experts to determine how much damage the structure suffered and what needs to be dismantled to avoid collapse.
“The experts are scrutinizing the whole of the cathedral, part by part, to identify what is weakened, what will need to be dismantled or consolidated,” Paris Firefighters’ spokesman Lt.-Col. Gabriel Plus said.
Nearly $1 billion has pledged for the restoration, while a vow by French President Emmanuel Macron to finish it in five years has been challenged as being wildly off track.
Macron said the renovations would be completed in time for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
Jonas said he’s replayed the images of the cathedral smoking in his mind over and over again in the days since the fire.
“I always assumed it would always be there and I could always visit it again,” he said. “It unsettles you a little bit to think what it was is gone.”
The Paris prosecutor's office said investigators have still not been able to look inside the cathedral, because it remains dangerous.
About 30 people have already been questioned in the investigation. Among them are workers at the five construction companies who were involved in renovating the church spire and roof.