CBSN

"Cultural tragedy": Massive inferno engulfs 200-year-old museum in Brazil

Last Updated Sep 2, 2018 11:46 PM EDT

RIO DE JANEIRO -- A massive fire tore through a 200-year-old museum in Rio de Janeiro late Sunday, lighting up the night and sending large plumes of smoke into the air. Firefighters worked to put out the blaze at the esteemed National Museum in northern Rio, which houses artifacts from Egypt, Greco-Roman art and some of the first fossils found in Brazil.

In a statement, the museum said the blaze began around 7:30 p.m. There were no reported injuries and the fire began after it had closed to the public. It wasn't immediately clear how the fire began.

In a statement, President Michel Temer said it was "a sad day for all Brazilians."

"Two hundred years of work, investigation and knowledge have been lost," said Temer. "The value of our history cannot be measured by the damage to the building."

BBC News reports that the museum, which once served as the residence for the Portuguese royal family, celebrated its 200-year anniversary earlier this year. BBC says the museum contains more than 20 million items in its collection.

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.

National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro

A woman reacts during a fire at the National Museum of Brazil.

Reuters

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. He called it a "cultural tragedy."

Brazil 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 oil prices, mismanagement and massive corruption.

Sgt. Moises Torres from the state's firefighting headquarters said firefighters were working to put out the blaze.

National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro

People rescue items during a fire at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Sun., Sept. 2, 2018.

Reuters