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Covington family’s eye-witness account of the burning at Notre Dame

Smoke and flames rise from Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019 in Paris, France. A fire broke out on Monday afternoon and quickly spread across the building, collapsing the spire. The cause is yet unknown but officials said it was possibly linked to ongoing renovation work. (Photo by Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images)

When Theresa Kennedy’s family arrived in Paris this week, the first thing they did was see Notre Dame in the heart of the city.

“I got up at 7:30 in the morning, booked our tickets to go climb the tower, so we would be able to do that during the day,” Kennedy told KIRO Radio. “We were there for hours.”

Mom, dad, a toddler, and a baby all traveled to Paris from Washington where they live in Covington. Notre Dame was the “first thing on our itinerary” Monday, Kennedy said.

Four hours after the Kennedys were at the site, flames emerged from the top of the cathedral. The family was still in the area when they heard about the fire.

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“I feel guilty saying this, because my very first reaction was ‘This is a big deal. This is going to make history. I want to go see it,'” she said.

The family left a cafe they were sitting at. They immediately could see smoke as they walked a couple blocks to the scene.

“When we saw it, that’s when it hit me — how sad and devastating it is,” Kennedy said. “It wasn’t like a little fire, it was like ‘Notre Dame is burning down’ … there were people already on their knees starting to pray. That’s when it hit me in a different way — seeing all these Parisians, just with their mouths agape, just shocked.”

The family watched for a short while, but with a baby and a toddler, they eventually opted to head back to their hotel and catch the rest of the story on the news. To some, it was another day, and another tragedy for the history books on Paris. Kennedy recalls passing cafes where people were watching soccer games as smoke lingered outside. But it was an event that was affected Parisians, even if they don’t manifest it the way Americans do, Kennedy said.

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Theresa Kennedy of Covington, Washington watches as smoke and flames emerge from Notre Dame April 15, 2019. (Courtesy of Theresa Kennedy)

“(Today), it’s less down and low than I would have expected (in Paris),” she said. “We’ve had people tell us this numerous times today: ‘It’s sad, but it will be OK; it’s sad but we will fix it.’ And Paris has been hit by a lot of tragedy, so it’s ‘this is hard, but we move on. We are a strong city and we are a strong nation. We are going to rebuild.'”

“And I think that Catholics … are like ‘Our church is struggling right now,'” she added. “And in a way, this really feels like we are almost seeing this hardship the Catholic church is going through. And it needs to be rebuilt on some levels. It felt so symbolic to see it, and when I saw the flames, and when I saw the smoke, I just thought ‘this is what I have been feeling about the pain that those of us who love our church feel — with all the sex abuse that’s been happening, the horrible misuse of power that has been happening, and it feels like our church has been burning down and we have to rebuild it. We just have to.”

The fire was eventually knocked down by fire crews. The cathedral still stands, though it is facing significant repairs following the fire. The spire fell during the blaze. French President Emmanuel Macron said he aims to have Notre Dame rebuilt within five years. Many are pitching in for the effort, including Notre Dame University in Indiana, which has already given $100,000 for the rebuild.

It will be worth the money and the effort, according to the Kennedy family who were able to experience the cathedral shortly before the tragedy.

“It’s beautiful,” Kennedy said. “Maybe Saint Peter’s [Basilica in Vatican City] rivals it, but there’s nothing like it in the world. Mass was in French, but it was still so worth while. It felt beautiful. Even then at mass, having no idea what was to come, I just felt the weight, but in a good way. So many people have gone to mass here before me. Millions over 900 years have visited this church and worshiped here. It was a really good experience.”

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The Kennedy family of Covington, Washington at Notre Dame shortly before it burned April 15, 2019. (Courtesy of Theresa Kennedy)

“I feel really, really fortunate,” she said. “We didn’t plan on going to mass that day. We walked up and heard the bells ringing … and we ran in three minutes late and sat in the pews and attended. To think that if we would have walked up one minute late, we wouldn’t have been there … it feels surreal.”

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