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Local visitors to Notre Dame are heartbroken by fire, but optimistic they’ll see rebirth

SALISBURY — As did much of Rowan County on Monday, Aaron Kepley watched the heartbreaking pictures of the fire that devastated one of the world’s great landmarks, the 850-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

“It’s like your worst nightmare,” said Kepley, executive director of Rowan Museum Inc.

In his position, Kepley is forever worried about lightning strikes, severe winds, accidental fires, flooding, freezing and burst pipes — in essence, what any natural or human-caused catastrophe could mean to the Rowan Museum’s historical properties, from the Old Stone House to China Grove Roller Mill to the Utzman-Chambers House and the 1854 courthouse where the organization is headquartered.

“Fire and water are your two enemies,” Kepley said Tuesday. “That kind of stuff keeps you awake at night.”

In Rowan County, people used words such as “beautiful,” “breathtaking,” “masterpiece,” “timeless,” “resilience,” “awesome,” iconic” and “detailed” to describe their impressions of Notre Dame from their personal visits in the past.

They spoke of its stained-glass windows, towers, gargoyles, steps, arches, altar and even author Victor Hugo’s (and Disney’s) hunchback, Quasimodo.

In seeing the fire rage Monday at the cathedral, the same people used words such as “devastating,” “heartbroken” and “speechless.”

Greg Edds, chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, said he and his wife and their three children spent a week in Paris in August 2014.

When Notre Dame was ablaze Monday, Edds sent his children some of the 2014 pictures of the cathedral that were still saved on his phone.

“As things were unfolding yesterday,” Edds said Monday, “our kids were contacting us and talking about being there.”

The Edds family toured Notre Dame in the day and went by the landmark at night. “We’ll just never forget it,” Edds said, noting how impressed he was with the religious relics in the cathedral.

All during that week in Paris, his son was wearing a Cheerwine hat, and Edds said he sent photos back to the Salisbury-based company showing that Cheerwine had made it to places such as Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.

Dr. Randy Lassiter, a retired dentist, said he and John Kesler and their wives stood outside Notre Dame looking up at its construction scaffolding exactly six months ago this week.

The cathedral was in the midst of a $170 million renovation.

“It’s just awesome,” Lassiter said, describing many of Notre Dame’s architectural details. “That thing has survived so many wars, then something like this.”

Lassiter thinks one of the blessings of Monday’s fire was that the cathedral is located on an island, which prevented its spread to other parts of Paris. The picture of people standing arm-in-arm and singing and praying outside Notre Dame during the fire will stay with him, Lassiter said.

The fact that it is Holy Week for Christians and its story of death and resurrection was not lost on Lassiter. He liked the idea that many people today who saw the fire’s destruction probably will live to see the magnificent structure rebuilt.

More than $339 million already had been pledged Tuesday toward restoration.

Kepley, the Rowan Museum official, said often historic landmarks are most in danger during something such as a renovation.

“When these kinds of things happen,” Kepley said, “a change is going on. The usual is not usual.”

Kepley said after he got over the initial shock Monday, he found comfort in knowing Notre Dame will be rebuilt. He predicted artisans and craftsmen will use the same kinds of tools in the restoration and agreed with Lassiter that many people living today will witness its rebirth.

Kepley has visited Dresden, Germany, a city devastated by bombing in World War II, and he said he could not tell the difference between the rebuilt Dresden and the parts that were spared.

“Everybody’s flipping out (about Notre Dame’s damage), but it’s going to be OK, and all the important artifacts have been saved,” Kepley said.

He also noted that while you can’t replace the original structure, Notre Dame has seen all kinds of changes through the centuries.

“This (will be) our contribution to it today,” he said.

The Dixon, Greene and Muth families of Salisbury took a trip to Paris for Thanksgiving in 2009 and, of course, one of the stops was Notre Dame.

“I just remarked yesterday that I was so grateful to take my children there and they were able to see it before the fire,” District Court Judge Beth Dixon said Tuesday.

One of her sons, Spencer, was 14 back then, and he said he was “a huge Disney person, and the only thing I cared about doing” was going into the bell tower, where hunchback Quasimoto did his ringing in the novel and films.

Spencer Dixon enjoyed getting up close to the Notre Dame bells and gargoyles and taking in the view of Paris from the tower. The family took a photograph of Spencer in the bell tower with a gargoyle.

“That’s what I remember the most,” he said.

On its Facebook page, the Salisbury Post asked people to share their memories or thoughts about the fire at Notre Dame. Here are some of the responses:

Rachel Karriker Johnson: “I was so fortunate to go on a European adventure in 2008 as a bright-eyed 21-year-old college student. I was immediately enamored with the intricate details of Notre Dame. The stained-glass windows were so beautiful! I never would have imagined that a structure so beautiful and so important, like Notre Dame, would fall victim to a fire in this day and age. I weep for the lost history and art, but I weep more for the citizens who loved the cathedral and worshipped there.”

Rosalyn D’Mello: “I was lucky enough to go to mass there and after walking around it, you can see the beauty, but you also realize that this church has seen Paris through some of its toughest times in history. You can feel the resilience. I’m glad that they were able to save part of it.”

Samantha Haspel: “It was such a testament to the wonders and beauty of what man can do, and it held a timeline of 10 centuries within its walls. Standing on the top of its tower, you could see all of Paris and feel history under your feet. It is heartbreaking. … How I would feel if, heaven forbid, the Bell Tower burned.”

Mary Knapp: “It was a beautiful building, inside and outside. Such a great loss!”

Steve Wanner: “I visited this beautiful cathedral when I was in high school. It took my breath away. My wife and myself are planning to visit Paris in the fall. I want my wife to see this masterpiece. My heart is broken.”

Raquel Oden:I went there while I was studying abroad in London for college in 2004. A group of us were walking the streets of Paris at night and happened upon Notre Dame. It was one of the most breathtaking sights I have ever seen. It stopped me and a group of rowdy college kids in our tracks and left us speechless. I am devastated at this news.”

Jordan Laiweneek:Heartbreaking — to see it in person and witness the beautiful gothic architecture is simply breathtaking. It’s so sad to lose such a monumental part of French history.”

Teresa Dezern McKinney:Have visited Notre Dame twice and going back to Paris in June. Heartbreaking to watch this devastating fire.”

Sue Day Whitley:It’s enough to make you weep. I attended Mass there on more than one occasion as a child. An incredibly beautiful piece of history lost.”

Mary Louise Sitton:I was there in 1999 with the Lenoir-Rhyne A Cappella Choir. We were taken all the way down to the basement as our robing room. We walked down marble steps that were worn by age and usage. Was incredible to see and experience what most visitors don’t see. As we sang around noon, we were well received by visitors from around the world. Incredibly saddened today.”

David Fletcher Hord III:I was there with the Lenoir-Rhyne A Cappella Choir and Brass Ensemble in 1974. We did not have a concert that day, but the choir did a piece impromptu. I met my wife on that trip 45 years ago.”

Evelyne Boulercie:It’s where my family lives and some of us immigrated here after the war but still have loved ones there. It’s a part of history that will be truly missed. Heartbroken here, crying all day!”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.

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