Eastern Panhandle native recalls watching Notre Dame Cathedral fire two blocks away

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — An Eastern Panhandle native on a trip to Paris witnessed the devastating Notre Dame Cathedral blaze from two blocks away.

Michael Knepper is a music educator in Berkeley County. His visit to Paris Monday started as a normal day before a suspicious sight caught his eye.

Knepper spoke on MetroNews affiliate WEPM’s ‘Panhandle Live’ Wednesday.


“There were thousands of tourists just enjoying a beautiful evening. The sun was out and we were walking down by the river actually talking about Notre Dame. At 6:42, we turned the corner and we saw Notre Dame in the distance but we didn’t see any fire. Then just three minutes later you saw this yellow smoke.”

Where Knepper was standing, he said it was hard for him and tourists around him to comprehend that a structure as iconic as Notre Dame could become engulfed in flames so quickly.

“It didn’t hit everybody immediately. We could see (the smoke) up in the clouds but people still didn’t know where it was from. Once they were able to get the view of Notre Dame, where I was, you could actually just see a lot of people just crying. To see the appreciation that the French people have for art and Notre Dame is a monolith of that history.”

Recent reports¬†indicate investigators have learned the cathedral’s fire alarm system went off for the first time at 6:20 Monday evening. A technical glitch showed the fire’s location in the wrong section of the building leaving any potential hazards undiscovered.

At 6:43 pm, the fire alarms sounded for the second time. This time, the fire quickly spread through the roof and engulfed the cathedral’s massive spire within 13 minutes.

“What was heartbreaking was that we were walking towards it and I was like ‘I cannot wait to see this cathedral’,” Knepper said. “I just had been waiting to see that ever since I was a kid. From watching the Disney movies and just being Catholic myself you hear about that and it was something I wanted to be part of in Paris.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, over $1 billion had been raised to reconstruct the Notre Dame Cathedral. French President Emmanuel Macron announced he intends to get the landmark rebuilt within five years.

“It’s a very united city, especially with their culture,” Knepper added. “I really admire that.”

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