Enjoying a beautiful spring evening on an Easter Week vacation in Paris with his wife and son Monday, Justin Chiotti was about a mile away from Notre Dame when he saw a large column of smoke as the historic Catholic Cathedral erupted in flames.
He was shock and said it was surreal.
The 850-year-old icon that had endured sieges, world wars, the most devastating moments in modern history, was now in flames.
"It was a bizarre thing to see something like that burning and crumbling to the ground in front of your eyes," he said.
But the veteran firefighter from San Diego also felt a sense of helplessness as he watched his French counterparts battling flames.
"There was this bizarre need to want to try to do something," he said. "Whether it was just to organize some fire hoses and make their access easier — but that wasn't a realistic thing because I knew they were doing everything they could."
He was in awe of their bravery for going into a building that old and saving artifacts.
"It is amazing to see what's still left. They definitely deserve high praise." Justin Chiotti, firefighter in San Diego, 16 year veteran.
Chiotti spoke to NBC4 in a FaceTime interview 24 hours after the fire destroyed the famous spires of the medieval church and as French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild.
"To walk past it today and see that it's going to be a reconstruction and not a recreation, is probably going to have the most lasting effect on me, that it endured another thing in history," he said.