A massive fire tore through a 200-year-old museum in Rio de Janeiro late Sunday, lighting up the night and sending plumes of smoke into the air as firefighters tried to save historical relics from the flames.
The esteemed National Museum in northern Rio, which houses artefacts from Egypt, Greco-Roman art and some of the first fossils found in Brazil, was closed to the public at the time of the fire and there were no reports of injuries, it said in a statement.
It wasn’t immediately clear how the fire began. The museum said the blaze began around 7:30 p.m.
President Michel Temer said it was “a sad day for all Brazilians.”
“Two hundred years of work, investigation and knowledge have been lost,” Temer said in a statement.
According to the museum’s website, it has more than 20,000 items related to the history of Brazil and other countries, and that many of its collections came from members of Brazil’s royal family.
Roberto Robadey, a spokesman for the fire department, said 80 firefighters were working to put out the blaze and that some pieces had been spared.
“We were able to remove a lot of things from inside with the help of workers of the museum,” he told Globo News.
Robadey said firefighters got off to a slow start because the two fire hydrants closest to the museum were not functioning. Instead, trucks had to be sent to get water from a nearby lake.
He said just before midnight local time that the blaze was “just about under control” and should be out within a few hours.
Connected to the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the museum has expositions that include anthropology, archaeology and paleontology, among others.
The vice director of the museum, Luiz Fernando Dias Duarte, told Globo news the museum suffered chronic underfunding.
“Everybody wants to be supportive now. We never had adequate support,” he said.
Latin America’s largest nation has struggled to emerge from its worst recession in decades. The state of Rio de Janeiro has been particularly hard hit in recent years thanks to a combination of falling world prices of oil, one of its major revenue sources, mismanagement and massive corruption.
Just over a month before national elections, even before the flames were put out, the fire was leading to recriminations about dilapidated infrastructure and budget deficits in the city that hosted the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“Unfortunately, given the financial straits of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and all the other public universities the last three years, this was a tragedy that could be seen coming,” Marina Silva, one of the leading presidential candidates, tweeted.
On Instagram, Rio Mayor Marcelo Crivella called on the country to rebuild.
“It’s a national obligation to reconstruct it from the ashes, recompose every eternal detail of the paintings and photos. Even if they are not original, they continue to be a reminder of the royal family that gave us independence, the (Portuguese) empire and the first constitution and national unity,” he said.
Associated Press video journalist Yesica Fisch contributed to this report from Rio. AP reporter Mauricio Savarese contributed from Recife, Brazil.
National Museum website: http://www.museunacional.ufrj.br/