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Fire Engulfs Brazil's National Museum


When a building is destroyed by fire, there are certain losses that even the best insurance policy cannot possibly replace. And that is surely true at Brazil's National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. A fire destroyed much of the 200-year-old building and much of the artwork inside. NPR's Philip Reeves is in Rio. Hi, Phil.


INSKEEP: How did this fire start?

REEEVES: Well, it started around 7:30 last night local time. The museum was closed. The building's got a lot of wood and paper in it and stuff, and so this flame spread with astonishing speed and engulfed much of the building. And pretty soon, there were flames 30 foot high soaring up into the night sky. The fire department says it got the blaze under control at around 3 a.m. today. Aerial footage shows very considerable damage. Firefighters are actually still working through the building this morning, and we don't know what the cause was yet, Steve.

INSKEEP: Yeah. The images - you see fire, you see flame at virtually every window. There doesn't seem to be any roof left. There's flames and smoke coming out of the top of the building, maybe nothing left but the stone walls. What was in that museum?

REEEVES: Oh, it had a pretty impressive collection, items not just of importance to Latin America but globally, a huge range of things, you know, from the world of art, zoology, anthropology. There was a collection of Egyptian mummies. There were Greek and Roman treasures collected by emperors over the ages. There were insects gathered by jungle explorers and dinosaur bones and paintings and photographs. And there was Luzia. That's the nickname given to the skeleton - the remains of a woman who was found in a cave in Brazil in the 1970s. She's an estimated 11,500 years old, and that makes her one of the oldest human skeletons ever found in the Americas.

INSKEEP: Goodness. And I suppose if this fire broke out after closing, there wouldn't even have been staff available to maybe grab the most valuable things and run. Did anything survive?

REEEVES: Well, the fire department says that they were able to save some pieces. We don't know what and how much at this stage. And we also do know, Steve, that not all of the collection was kept within the areas of the building that were consumed by fire. So that's the good news. But, you know, everyone here is very, very worried that much has been lost. The president of Brazil, Michel Temer, has talked about an incalculable loss, as he puts it, that's - still quoting him - "destroyed 2,000 years of research and work and knowledge."

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking of what a tragedy it would be if one of the buildings of the Smithsonian here in Washington were to burn down or the Met in New York City. How are Brazilians responding?

REEEVES: Well, you know, the fire was still in its fairly early stages when the recriminations started. Over the specific circumstances, a spokesman for the fire department says that at first efforts to fight the blaze were slow because several fire hydrants near the museum didn't work, so they had to get water from the nearby lake. But there were also recriminations concerning the larger issues here. The building was in terrible repair, you know, and people are asking, why was it allowed to get that dilapidated? The museum staff had talked of being chronically underfunded. That's thanks partly to Brazil's financial crisis which the country's still struggling to recover from. So this is getting political. ALLnd of course there's a big election, a presidential election, next month. And so it's bound to become an issue there, too.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves is in Rio de Janeiro, where the National Museum burned. Philip, thanks very much.

REEEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.