As firefighters sifted through the burned-out remains of Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum for hot embers Monday, Brazilians struggled with the loss of a vast collection of irreplaceable items from the country’s history.
The 200-year-old museum contained an extensive collection of paleontological, anthropological and biological specimens, such as a skeleton that was considered the oldest human remains ever found in the Americas and the largest meteorite ever found in Brazil, as well as historical memorabilia.
WATCH: Brazilians Mourn Loss of Most Important Museum
The feeling of loss quickly turned to one of anger among many in Rio de Janeiro, and several hundred people gathered outside the museum, demanding to see the damage. Some tried to push beyond a police line but were turned back by officers who used tear gas and batons.
“Our community is very mobilized, and very indignant,” said Roberto Leher, director of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, which runs the museum. “We all knew the building was vulnerable.”
Protester Laura Albuquerque, a 29-year-old dance teacher, said, “It’s a crime that the museum was allowed to get to this shape. What happened isn’t just regrettable, it’s devastating, and politicians are responsible for it.”
In recent years, Brazil has been rocked by a government corruption scandal and a recession. The museum, which has also suffered financial neglect, lacked a fire sprinkler system, officials said.
Marcio Martins, a museum spokesman, told the Associated Press the museum’s budget had fallen from around $130,000 in 2013 to around $84,000 in 2017.
President Michel Temer said in a statement Monday that the loss of the building — where the country’s royal family once lived — to fire late Sunday is an “incalculable loss for Brazil.”
About 10 percent of collection survived
The museum’s deputy director, Cristiana Serejo, told reporters that about 10 percent of its collection of more than 20 million items may have survived the flames. One thing officials say did survive the blaze was a large iron meteorite found in Brazil in 1784.
Museum curator Maria Elizabeth Zucolo was allowed to enter the burned-out building Monday to collect what remained of the meteorite exhibit.
“They let me enter because I could recognize the pieces. I knew where they were, and I could recover some of them from the ashes,” she said.
Education Minister Rossieli Soares told reporters the federal government said it has plans to restore the structure and rebuild its collection. He said officials were already speaking with UNESCO, and would likely seek international help in rebuilding.
The cause of the fire is still unknown, but the protesters, journalists and museum directors themselves said years of government neglect had left the museum underfunded.
Culture Minister Sergio Leitao told the Estado de S.Paulo newspaper an electrical short-circuit or a homemade paper hot-air balloon that may have landed on the roof were seen as the likely causes for the blaze. It is a tradition in the country to launch such balloons, but they have often caused blazes, officials said.
Roberto Robadey, commander of Rio de Janeiro’s military fire department, said experts will be brought in as soon as possible to salvage what they can from the ashes.
“We’re going to have the participation of museum employees. It will be a slow process so that we can, who knows, recover fragments — something that could still have historic value,” he said.
Civil authorities, however, warned the internal walls of the building, which lacked most of its roof after the fire, were likely to collapse further.
Robadey told reporters that hydrants outside the building were dry when firefighters arrived. Crews were forced to send tanker trucks to a nearby lake for water.
Sunday “was one of the saddest days of my career,” he added.
No casualties and no serious injuries have been reported because of the blaze, which started after the museum closed.