LEONIA — A group of high school students from New Jersey were among the last to visit Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris before a massive fire broke out that destroyed the 850-year-old building.

A catastrophic fire engulfed the upper reaches of the soaring cathedral as it was undergoing renovations Monday, collapsing its spine and spreading to one of its landmark rectangular towers. The 12th-century cathedral is home to incalculable works of art and is one of the world's most famous tourist attractions, immortalized by Victor Hugo's 1831 novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Leonia Board of Education member Bryce Robins posted a message on his Twitter account that all the 26 students and five teachers were safe after leaving moments before the fire started.

"All students from Leonia High School's French trip are safe. Fortunately, they left before the fire started. Sending prayers to all affected by this event and the Firefighters hard at work to bring an end to this tragedy," Robins wrote.

Leonia school superintendent Edward Bertolini, who is on the trip, told NorthJersey.com the group spent an hour at the church.

They were having dinner with the sister of one the teachers on the trip, who was late because of the fire. Bertolini said the students were "rattled" when they learned about the fire.

Afterward, the group did what many Parisians did, and watched the fire from a bridge.

The group is on an 11-day trip and will travel to Nice and Monaco this week before returning home this weekend, according to the report .

The exact cause of the blaze was not known, but French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying the fire is "potentially linked" to a 6-million euro ($6.8 million) renovation project on the church's spire and its 250 tons of lead. The Paris prosecutors' office ruled out arson and possible terror-related motives, and said it was treating it as an accident.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ.

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