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Reporter toured Notre Dame just hours before destructive fire

PARIS — She looked exactly how I remembered her from the first time I saw her nine years ago — the Notre Dame Cathedral. Our Lady of Paris, seemingly all alone on her own island in the middle of the Seine.

There was a little bit of extra scaffolding this time and the crowds seemed perhaps a bit larger. But the same incredible stonework towered above me on Monday, and the stained glass rose windows still glowed as I paced the uneven floors inside.

I didn’t spend more than 45 minutes there as I continued to play the American tourist: I strolled along the Seine, stopped for coffee and pastries often, and lounged on the lawn in front of the Eiffel tower.

It was 7:30 p.m., and I was preparing to wash off the day’s grit when my boyfriend walked into the hallway of the apartment where we are spending the week.

“Hey, uh, we got really lucky today,” he said.

“Lucky? Why?”

“The Notre Dame is on fire right now.”

He continued to read the live updates as I slowly washed up. I didn’t think it could possibly be that bad. The building was made of stone, right?

Then he found a Twitter livestream from just below the cathedral on the banks of the Seine. I sat down on the bed and watched the screen as the flames seemed to take up the whole sky.

At first we didn’t think we could see any of the devastation from where we were staying in the southeast section of the city. But then I leaned farther over our balcony, and there it was — the orange flames and plume of smoke were unmistakable.

My heart sank and continued to sink with the setting sun. The flames seemed to grow brighter as the hours wore on.

When would it stop? Why did this happen today? How had I been one of the last people to experience the cathedral as it has existed for the past two centuries?

The sound of emergency sirens took over the pulse of the city as I stood on the balcony until dark. By the time I went to sleep, the heart of the city still glowed orange.

Former Review-Journal staff writer Madelyn Reese is in Paris and toured the Notre Dame Cathedral just hours before it caught fire Monday.

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