LEONIA, N.J. (CBSNewYork) – A group of students from New Jersey had just visited the Notre Dame Cathedral moments before Monday’s devastating fire.

CBS2 spoke with the superintendent of Leonia public schools Tuesday.

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“It was a surreal moment, because we just saw the beauty of the church, and then a few minutes later, it was gone,” Edward Bertolini told CBS2’s Jenna DeAngelis by phone from Paris.

Students and staff from Leonia High School in New Jersey were visiting Notre Dame Cathedral when it burst into flames Monday in Paris. (Credit: Marina Labonville)

The superintendent was with 26 high school students and four other chaperones on an 11-day French immersion trip.

“We’ve been to a lot of different churches, museums,” he said. “This was by far the nicest.”

The group wrapped up their cathedral tour and went to dinner, where they learned about the fire through text messages from friends back home and then witnessed the destruction from a nearby bridge.

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“I ran out of the restaurant with my phone in my hand to record, and as soon as I turned away from the fire, I just got very emotional and started to cry,” senior Jenna Khansa said.

“It was very chaotic. Emotions were high,” said junior Lauren Oh.

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Their French teacher, who grew up in Paris, said the fire really hit home.

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“It was devastating, devastating. It was so sad,” Madame King said.

Some students struggled to cope but found comfort in each other and relief in hearing no one lost their lives.

“I feel like we’re part of history. I actually lit a candle there and I still have the candle top, so I will definitely keep that forever. That is something I’ll never forget,” senior Loryn Williams said.

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While inside the church, one of the teachers thought they smelled smoke, but didn’t think anything of it, the students said.

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The group plans to continue the trip through France, but said it will never forget this experience.