Notre Dame fire: New Jersey students among last to see cathedral before massive blaze

Meghan Grant and Katie Sobko

BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. - Students from Leonia High School in New Jersey were at the historic Notre Dame Cathedral just minutes before a massive fire broke out, destroying large parts of the structure but leaving its iconic towers intact.

They were among the last people to see the 850-year-old Gothic structure before it was ravaged by flames.

"They actually went to the cathedral today," said Board of Education President Bryce Robins on Monday. "They were there at about 6:15 p.m. [Paris time] and then news broke about 20 minutes later about the fire."

Robins spoke with Superintendent Edward Bertolini, who was with the students on the trip Monday evening as they had dinner near the cathedral. All students were accounted for. 

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Another board member, Michael Phelan, posted about the students on Facebook.

“The group of Leonia students visiting Paris this week are all safe and sound, and had left the Cathedral prior to the alarms," his post read. "They are safe and sound at dinner right now."

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The fire raged for several hours as shocked crowds gathered on streets, bridges and squares to watch one of the globe's most iconic buildings burn. 

The cathedral's spire was engulfed in flames before tumbling over. Video footage from the scene showed fire and smoke spewing from the landmark, one of the world's most popular tourist destinations and home to priceless works of art. The flames appeared to be shooting out of the roof behind the nave of the cathedral.

Salvage efforts were underway to recover precious artifacts, and city prosecutors announced they were opening an investigation into the fire, which preliminary accounts said appears to be accidental. 

"A special mission has been launched to try to save all works of art that can be saved," Emmanuel Grégoire, first deputy to the mayor of Paris, said on French TV.

A spokesman for Notre Dame, Andre Finot, told the Le Figaro newspaper that the "treasure" of the cathedral has not been touched so far. "We must see if the vault, which protects the cathedral, will be touched," he said. "The sacred objects are preserved in the sacristy; normally there is no risk of things being burned."

Tuesday morning, officials said the fire had been extinguished. 

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Contributing: Rebecca Rosman, Brian Hester and John Bacon, USA TODAY

Follow Meghan Grant and Katie Sobko on Twitter: @ReporterMeghanG and @katesobko

This article originally appeared on North Jersey Record: Notre Dame fire: New Jersey students among last to see cathedral before massive blaze