ECU graduate working in Paris describes Notre Dame fire


9 On Your Side video chatted with an East Carolina alumnus this week who is working in Paris.

He said he witnessed the fire at the historic Notre Dame firsthand.

“I will probably never forget being on the metro to Notre Dame when I found out it was on fire,” ECU alumnus Gary Lavenia said. “The skies were so blue and the clouds were so white when I was getting on it. When I was leaving, the sky was black and filled with smoke.” 

Lavenia said he recalls debris hitting his face when he exited the metro Monday in Paris.

“It was burning, and it was just really hard to watch,” Lavenia said. “It was just indescribable almost, just this somberness.”

The New Jersey native recalls that feeling of disbelief only one other time in his life.

“Where I live in New Jersey, I could see 9/11 happening, the smoke, and everything,” Lavenia said. “It was so eerily similar to that, luckily without any casualties of course, but just that same feeling. You are just standing there helpless almost watching this terrible thing happen.”

Lavenia has been teaching English at a high school in Paris since he graduated from ECU last May, consoling students the same way teachers consoled him 18 years ago.

“I tried to have an open space to talk about how they felt,” Lavenia said. “It is especially impactful on their parents and grandparents. They pass it all the time, and it has been there their whole lives.”

“I think it is a loss of history for people as a whole,” ECU French Club secretary Jon Cockerham said. “It is insane to think about that this church is not going to be available to the public right before Easter during Holy Week. The church has so many artifacts, including what is said to be the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus. While Notre Dame is a church, it is more than that as well. It is historical not just to the French people, but also the human race in general.”

13 million people visit the 856-year-old church annually.

“It wasn’t just native French people there,” Lavenia said. “Everybody was just like all together watching, the fact that everybody was there together was comforting.” 

People, like Lavenia, are ready to see blue skies again above Notre Dame de Paris.

“I think I am truly happy that I have been able to see the church and be inside it multiple times and visit it,” Lavenia said. “I also realize not take things for granted, because it is not going to be the same anymore. It is just different.”

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